The Reason for the Season: Charlie Brown Wants to Know

Regardless of religious affiliation, everyone must deal with Christmas. In offices, classrooms, malls and homes, people are drinking peppermint mochas, hanging lights and playing really old music. Slightly less popular than McDonalds’s golden arches, Santa is among the world’s most recognized icons. The season begins in late October and lasts a shameless two months. On December 25th, some families carve a turkey while others go out for Chinese. Some give elaborate gifts; some donate their time and money to charitable causes. We get vacations from school and work, send cards and attend (on average) five holiday parties. Churches hold candlelight services and stroll through neighborhoods singing on doorsteps. Some people are intensely happy and others are significantly depressed. With such an odd gathering of so many traditions and emotions, it begs the question: what is this season really all about?

Every year, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” airs on ABC and to date is the most popular Christmas special of all time (airing in 1965 on CBS through the year 2000). At the climax of the story, Linus answers Charlie Brown’s stunning question after going rounds with Lucy and the gang about aluminum trees and Christmas plays: “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”  Linus quotes a passage from Luke 2, outlining Jesus’ birth and its purpose. Today, many if not most (no matter what they believe) will tell you that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. This is the one time during the year when secular media bows to a humble, beloved story about a boy and his dog, allowing this truth to be proclaimed during prime time. We Christians love this. We pat ourselves on the back, sigh contentedly and say, “See…even the world can’t deny that Jesus is the reason for the season.” We turn off the TV and return to our expensive presents, Santa pictures and candy making. Linus believes He’s the reason…do we?

Articulating the meaning of Christmas for evangelicals is like dribbling for ball players…if you don’t know how, you don’t even get to come to tryouts. Yet somehow, each December, we find ourselves preaching to friends, family and others a familiar message: “This is nice, but it’s not what Christmas is really all about.” We might believe this intellectually, but look at our houses and our schedules. They look no different than anyone else’s this time of year, save one Christmas cantata and one lonely manger scene on the coffee table. If He is the understood meaning, why do we have to repeat it over and over again?

America has taken history’s greatest event and turned it into a multibillion dollar industry that celebrates us, not Jesus, in the most non-offensive way possible.  Many public schools have taken strong stands against traditional Christmas decorations, programs and even phrases; “Happy Holidays” now replaces “Merry Christmas.” Snowmen are allowed in school but Jesus is not.  “O Holy Night” playing over speakers in shopping malls can now be considered an invasion of rights and is replaced with “Jingle Bells”. Christians thrive on these atrocities. Moms everywhere, peeling out of the parking lot in a nice big SUV with a fish stuck on the back, are decrying, “I just can’t believe they put ‘X-Mas’ on their marquee!” But as we evaluate our own ways of celebrating Christmas, how central is Christ in our shopping, decorating and worshiping? Everything we do is okay, as long as the pagans don’t leave Him out and Christians throw Him in, right?

Enjoying the Christmas season as it has been instituted by America is a fine thing. Celebrating Jesus’ birth and worshiping Him should be cleanly separated from the glitzy parade that is the Christmas season. If Christians want to see this commercialized holiday  represent what we claim it does, our lives must profess it all year. A lost world might believe the true meaning when Christians have more joy in Jesus than in family get- togethers, gift cards and that Nintendo Wii we are crossing our fingers for. As the angel prophesied in Matthew 1:21, “She will bear a son and you will call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” God entered human history as a baby to live perfectly and die a criminal’s death, to rise again, conquering sin and the grave so we could have life in eternity glorifying Him. I haven’t even played a Wii, but that has to be better. That is worth celebrating…I think Charlie Brown might agree.

May the birth of Christ be the source of your joy, this season and always.


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Don’t Talk About My Mama Like That: Why the Virgin Birth Still Matters

It’s Christmas again! That time of the year when your neighbor can decorate his yard with a plastic baby Jesus, a fat man in a red suit, tacky multi-colored lights, and an inflated snowman named “Frosty” and no one calls the homeowner’s association to complain. It’s also the time when some normally crazy ideas seem possible; Santa Claus traveling the whole earth in one night delivering millions of presents, standing under mistletoe entitling one to a free kiss, and hanging socks over the fireplace not being an interior decorating  faux pas. One idea becoming increasingly crazy to Americans and to Christians is that this holiday is built largely around a baby who was born without need of a father. The virgin birth has long been a cornerstone of the Christmas celebration and Christian theology. But this is one cornerstone many are now insisting we don’t need. So who is crazier? Those who cling to the virgin birth of Christ like Arnold Schwarzenegger to a Turboman doll in “Jingle All the Way” or those abandoning it faster than the E.L.F.s got Tim Allen out of prison in “The Santa Claus”?

The attack on the virgin birth began in the 19th century with radical scholarship and their “Quest for the Historical Jesus” which denied Christ any supernatural quality. Taking their lead, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his famous sermon – “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” at First Presbyterian Church in New York in which he took aim at the virgin birth. He said:

…there are within the evangelical churches large groups of people whose opinion about our Lord’s coming would run as follows: those first disciples adored Jesus—as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God—as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God’s special influence and intention in his birth—as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.

He argued a virgin birth is merely a way the ancients described those with superior qualities and should be dismissed as a relic by modern Christians.

Closer to the present, Bishop Joseph Sprague of the United Methodist Church has claimed the “myth” of the virgin birth was not intended as historical fact, but was employed by Matthew and Luke to appoint poetically  the truth about Jesus. Cecil Sherman, founder of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has said this about those who teach in Baptist colleges and seminaries: “A teacher who might also be led by the Scripture not to believe in the virgin birth should not be fired.” While naturalism and the Enlightenment might lead a teacher not to believe in the virgin birth, it is hard to imagine any arguments against Jesus’ birth narrative being found in the pages of the Bible.

What do we make of this? Sure, some Christians who think more of science and culture than the Bible will deny the virgin birth and some who trust the Scriptures will hold to it. But does it really matter? The answer of one wildly popular author is no. Rob Bell in his book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith writes:

… if Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and DNA samples and prove that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in we would essentially not lose any significant part of our faith because it is more about how we live.

So we don’t need the virgin birth, right? Jesus, Son of David, Son of Larry will work just as well for our faith? If your faith is only “Jesus was a good, maybe even God-like, guy who did good things and I should be like him and do good things to” then no, to quote Bell “we would essentially not lose any significant part of our faith because it is more about how we live.” But if your faith is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who incarnated himself into our world, lived a sinless life, died on the cross paying the price for our sins, was buried and rose from the dead on the third day, and is one day returning in glory then yes, we’ve lost something significant if Jesus was not born of a virgin.

First, we lose the Bible. The virgin birth is the introduction to two of the Gospels. If it is a fabrication, then those Gospels are lies. Second, we lose Mary. If the Holy Spirit did not conceive Jesus then historical deduction would suggest a man other than Joseph did. Mary is either a fornicator, adulterer, or rape victim. Third, we lose Jesus practically and theologically. Practically, he becomes the illegitimate son of a liar who makes fantastic claims about himself. While God loves to use illegitimate sons, it’s one thing to be used by God and quite another to be God. Theologically, we are left without an answer as to how Jesus came to be divine. This can easily shrink Jesus into just a man specially empowered by the Spirit who can encourage us but not command us.

This Christmas season, don’t buy into the hype – the virgin birth is not disproven. Any modern Christian that can accept the resurrection of a dead man after three days can grasp a virgin birth. Furthermore, it matters. If all you’re looking for out of Christ is a motivation for doing good things then it doesn’t matter if Jesus was fathered by Larry. But if you are looking to surrender your life to the Man who claimed to be God and proved it by conquering sin, death, and hell then it does. A Jesus not born of a virgin has no Bible with which to speak to us, no divinity with which to command us, and no story with which to inspire us. Call me crazy, but this is one belief I won’t be abandoning this Christmas.


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Atheists Go Public at Christmas…Again

It seems every few weeks a new ad campaign is launched to convince the public atheism is more reasonable and beneficial than theism. The latest move of placing an anti-Christmas billboard outside of the Lincoln tunnel in New York has garnered a great deal of media attention. The billboard depicts the nativity, the Star of Bethlehem, and the three wise men with the words: “You know it’s a myth, this season celebrate reason.” Ironically, any biblically literate Christian would agree the scene depicted is inaccurate. The wise men (we are never told if there are three or thirty) never visited the baby in the manger, meeting Jesus up to two years afterwards in a house. But why post this message at this time? According to the American Atheist’s website the purpose seems to be to put a dent in the loneliness atheists feel during the Christmas season. They believe that, due to the obvious superiority of their position, there must be more atheists out there. If they would make themselves known they could break the hold Christianity has on the winter holiday. Unfortunately for atheists, it seems like this latest billboard is accomplishing what the previous atheist ads did: a few news segments and little else.

In September in Oklahoma City atheists erected a billboard that said: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.” Last Christmas Atheists purchased ads in Vegas that read, “Yes Virginia, there is no god.” In the U.K. last year, atheists took out bus ads stating: “There’s probably no god. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In 2008 outside of Philadelphia a billboard was put up that read: “Don’t believe in God?  You are not alone.” In the same year bus ads in Washington D.C. stirred controversy declaring: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” In February a billboard in Sacramento read: “Are you without God? Millions are.” Apparently some theist with a can of spray paint took some creative license and added the words “also lost”. Thus, the billboard read “Are you without God? Millions are also lost.”

Recently an ambitious effort was launched by the American Humanist Association featuring television spots on NBC encouraging Americans to “consider humanism”. Humanism is man-centered, non-theistic, and insists we must save ourselves. One ad quotes Proverbs 3:5 – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding” – and juxtaposes it with atheist Richard Dawkins encouraging people to abandon belief based on “revelation” and “tradition” and accept belief based on evidence and logic. Another ad quotes 1 Samuel 15:3 – “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant…” – and juxtaposes it with Carl Coon urging humanity to come together. The goal is to convince viewers humanism is intellectually and morally superior to theism.

So why have atheists turned to the highly intellectual mediums of billboards, bus, and television ads to make their case? I’m not one so I can’t say for sure, but I imagine it’s born out of a bit of frustration. While their views seem obviously superior to them, Americans don’t seem to agree. Surveys tell us the number of non-religious Americans has grown to between 12 and 15%, but only around 2% self-identify as atheists. During the last presidential election a USA Today/Gallup poll determined 53% of voters would disqualify a candidate if they were an atheist – more than any other category including if the candidate were gay. In light of this, these ads have the feel of a desperate Hail-Mary pass late in the fourth quarter in a losing game.

What has made influencing the public to embrace atheism a losing effort despite the disproportionate number of atheists in higher learning? I think there are two reasons:

One, atheism is not simply the rejection of a god; it is the embrace of a naturalistic worldview. Naturalism holds that everything that happens in the world is entirely explainable by natural causes that we can access with our senses. The supernatural including God, miracles, revelation, spirits, etc. is impossible. Random chance directed by purposeless, natural forces has given rise to life on earth. There is no human “spirit”; all courage, bravery, love, beauty, passion, joy, and sorrow is nothing more than genetic programming and chemical reactions in the brain. Life has no transcendent purpose and ends absolutely at death. Good and evil, right and wrong are merely cultural constructions. Now, if this is the way reality is we should accept it. But human experience argues strongly against this worldview. Until atheists find a compelling way to explain away all of human experience and convince the public there is nothing beyond their senses they will continue to be frustrated.

Two, atheists refuse to take seriously those who disagree with them. They can’t imagine anyone as intelligent as they are not holding to atheistic naturalism. So instead of dialoguing with theistic scientists, theologians and philosophers, they ignore them and continue to make straw-man arguments that fail to persuade the faithful. In his “Consider Humanism” ad, Dawkins encourages belief based on “evidence” and “logic” because he believes only those who think like him use evidence and logic to arrive at their beliefs. In his movie “Religulous”, Bill Maher skips respected theologians and philosophers and opts for a Trucker’s Chapel, an actor playing Jesus at the Holy Land Experience Theme Park, and Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda who thinks he is the second coming of Christ. While funny, neither Maher’s movie nor Dawkins’ commercial will convince anyone who has put even a little thought into their faith. Until atheists are willing to acknowledge people as smart as they are have compelling reasons for their faith and are willing to engage thoughtfully with them, they will continue to be frustrated.

The cultural impact of the latest round of atheist advertisements will likely be minimal. However, they should remind Christians to think well about and live consistently with their faith. We should be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). It will accomplish far more than a sign outside the Lincoln Tunnel.


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