It’s that time of year again. You know, that cheerful time when the guerillas of political correctness launch their counter insurgency against Christmas. What’s a Christian to do? On the one hand, defending the Christmas tree isn’t something that the apostle Paul bothered with, so Christians don’t want to either. Yet, it’s apparent that that the real reason for the season of suppression is a desire to oust Christianity from its cultural stronghold.
Christmas, we are told, is a pagan holiday after all, co-opted by the church in its quest for domination of the European continent. That tree? Scandinavian paganism. Misteltoe? Solstice worshipping druids. Gift-giving? Roman saturnalia. What?! How can a Christian defend these practices?
Herein lies one of the glories of Christianity. It can be wrapped up in many different types of paper, but the gift inside remains essentially the same. Its embrace of cultural pluralism stands in stark contrast to the cultural imperialism of other religious faiths (including, by the way, secularism, which is really struggling with the presence of Christian influence in our society).
That Christianity was birthed in a Jewish tribe but quickly leapt out of this provincial setting onto the world stage culminates in the council of Jerusalem, found in Acts 15, making this one of the most important passages in the Bible. No longer must you be a Jew to be a Christian. No longer is Jesus a prophet in a tribal religion.
Christmas always reminds me of the Jewishness that pervades Jesus’ ministry. Matthew, for example, gives a decidedly Jewish account with strong allusions to Moses:
• Miraculous events saved them both from death as babies.
• They both came from Egypt to lead people out of bondage.
• They both went into the Jordan and then the Promised Land (Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, within view of Jericho where Moses first led the Jews into Israel).
• Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness and Moses fasted 40 days on the mountain before receiving the law.
• Both Moses and Jesus rejected royal kingships (Moses left the royal family in Egypt and Jesus rejected Satan’s offer to rule over all he showed him).
• They both went “up the mountain” in order to deliver the Law to the people (Moses in Sinai and Jesus gives the “new law” in the Sermon on the Mount).
• Both Jesus and Moses interceded to God on behalf of the people.
I could go on, but the point is that Jewish readers would be saying, “Ah, This Jesus is the second coming of Moses!” He fulfills the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me (Moses) from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear.”
At the same time, “Moses talk” meant nothing to Greeks. So, in contrast, John’s gospel speaks of all things mystical and spiritual. It is filled with metaphors that appeal to the ethereal:
• Jesus is the Living Water.
• Repeated images of Jesus as the light of the world.
• Jesus is the Logos (the Word of God).
• Jesus speaks of spiritual rebirth.
John writes with a metaphoric, dynamic, and abstract form that is quite different than the concrete Jewish worldview’s emphasis on the Torah. It is an appeal to the gnostic thinkers of the first century. I can almost hear a first century Gnostic Roman saying something like, “Dude, that Living Water meme is really awesome.”
This cultural elasticity, embedded in the New Testament, is what makes the message of Jesus the Gospel for all nations.
I am mostly Danish. My ancestors were ruthless, Christian-killing marauders, rapists, and murderers. The Vikings of course! But they also had their own culture with many wonderfully creative and beautiful aspects. As the Danes came into contact with the Gospel (probably initially through their slaves) the truth of Christianity bathed the Danish worldview. In the process something unique emerged which was fully Danish and yet Christian at the same time. Like the Jews, their religion was no longer bound in provincial tribalism.
Contrast this with Islam. To read the Quran requires that you know Arabic – it is not considered valid in a translated form. You must pray to an Arab city. You must make pilgrimage to Arab lands. You must dress in Arab garb. You must, in essence, embrace Arab culture.
No so with Jesus’ Kingdom. It is a permeating, yeast-like ooze that fills our cultural forms, at times opposing them, and at times embracing them, at all times seeking to redeem them. We shouldn’t feel sheepish that our traditions have cultural roots from before the expansion of the Gospel in that culture. They might have. But they have been washed in what Lamin Sanneh calls “the translation principle;” the Gospel’s ability to transcend culture, avoid syncretism, and maintain the truthfulness of its message.
We should also recognize these traditions for what they are: European culture. Does that mean we allow the trampling of these traditions? No, as American citizens we have every right to them and the secularist position that “no religion is good religion” is both legally and culturally un-America. But, to challenge these traditions is not the same thing as challenging the truth of the Gospel.
So this year, when you stand under the mistletoe, remember that the blessing of Christmas traditions stem from something amazing about the Christian faith. Jesus transcends culture and redeems it for the glory of God.
It’s the Good News for all nations, peoples, tribes, and tongues.