Star 2 critiques my defense of Christians singing and enjoying “pagan” songs like “White Christmas” by asking the following (presumably rhetorical) question: “What is biblical about singing pagan songs that do not reflect the reason for Christmas, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into the world to save sinners?”
There is so much wrong with this question that it is difficult to know where to begin. But begin we must.
I am reminded here of an evening about twenty five years ago when my parents called me in to watch a story on the evening news. The story was on a popular Christian glam metal band of the time named “Stryper” who happened to be playing in a nearby city. While I have since forgotten the entire story all these years later I do remember one comment from an enthusiastic fan to the reporter: “Dude, if you’re not singing for God then you’re singing for the devil!” For some reason that stuck in my mind. (Isn’t it interesting the trivial things that somehow get lodged in our long-term memory, especially contrasted with the many significant moments that do not?) At the time I thought the comment made good sense. Yes, of course. There are only two sides right? Only two sides to cheer for. So a song that doesn’t say “Yahoo Jesus!” is, by default, saying “Yippee devil!”
That stark view of culture expressed by that young man reflects the worst aspects of the “Christ against culture” model of culture (dis)engagement famously described by H. Richard Niehbuhr. And it has been a hallmark of North American fundamentalism for years, a segment of Christianity that views reality in sharply dualistic terms of sacred vs. secular (pr perhaps mana vs. tabu).
However, that simple dichotomy which I endorsed soon ran into very significant difficulties. It may be plausible to think that AC/DC’s song “Hell’s Bells” was on the devil’s play list. Same for Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time”. Perhaps even Tom Jones’ “What’s New, Pussycat?” But Jim Croce’s “Operator”? Isn’t that just a song about a guy crying into the pay phone over love lost? What’s so devilish about that? And what about James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend”? Is that a song for the devil? Seriously?
Eventually I grew out of that distinction because it simply didn’t fit the facts. There are not two categories, Yahoo Jesus! songs and Yippee devil! songs. The lyrical and musical quality of songs is all over the map. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, every time “You’ve Got a Friend” comes on the radio, nearby angels say “Shhhh, I want to hear this!”
Star 2 asks why a Christian would sing a song like “White Christmas” or “The Christmas Song” which fails to reflect the “true meaning” of Christmas. For two reasons. First, not reflecting the true meaning of Christmas doesn’t mean reflecting the false meaning of Christmas. Second, those are musically and lyrically great songs. That’s why they’ve entered the collective Christmas songbook.
The irony is that while Christians like Star 2 seem superficially to have an all-embracing grand vision of the gospel, in fact their understanding of Christ and his gospel is much too small. The Dutch Reformed Christian theologian (and statesman) Abraham Kuyper famously declared that “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'” This is surely true, for Christ is the light that gives light to every person (John 1:9) and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:17). His songbook is not simply the dusty hymnal stuck in the pew. It is all that is wonderful and beautiful in his entire creation.
“White Christmas” is just that, a meditative dreamlike reflection on the beauty of creation and the opportunity to spend treasured time with family. Christ hears it and assumes the right of the firstborn, “This is mine! This belongs in my songbook!” Next, Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” comes on the radio with its delightfully sentimental impressions of the holiday from roasting chestnuts to Santa’s sleigh and Jesus repeats “This too is mine!” Jesus’ songbook is much larger and grander than Star 2 can imagine.
But wait, “The Christmas Song” mentions Santa Claus. Isn’t he tabu? After all, Christmas is about Jesus, not Santa.
True, but the fact that Santa is popular with kids is not Santa’s fault, is it? And thus retaliatory action against old St.Nick is hardly justified. Think about it like this. The family sits down to a Christmas meal. But the children have lost sight of the turkey in their anticipation of the apple cobbler. That’s unfortunate. But surely the parents should not respond to it by throwing out the cobbler. It’s still a perfectly good dessert.
Fundamentalism is incredibly wasteful, for it fills the dumpster with wonderful things — songs, movies, clothing, spirits (the alcoholic kind), sweets — all because of its impoverished view of Christ’s lordship.
I’ll be honest. I don’t care for the picture above of Santa Claus kneeling at the manger. I find it overly sentimental and cloying. But even if I wouldn’t hang it on my wall, the theology behind it is spot-on. It is not just Jesus’ songbook which is much more vast than many people suppose. Jesus is Lord over all culture and he sovereignly claims the best of culture with the authority of the firstborn.
Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to go turn up the radio. They just started playing “What are you doing New Years Eve?”