It's starting to feel a lot like Christmas, as the first salvos of the seasonal culture war are fired.
Look, I know that I've ranted about this before. But bear with me. It keeps happening, and earlier every year, so I keep ranting.
It's hard for people who want to be good Christians to raise their kids in a spiritual Christian spirit during the holidays. The overwhelming message kids receive in our society is not about the Christian Christmas, but about the enjoyable (mostly) trappings of the secular Christmas that coincides with the Christian holiday. Christians are supposed to be focused on the advent of Christ and what He means to humanity. The culture is largely concerned — and always will be — with ugly sweaters, eating until we heave, going into debt to buy stuff that may or may not amuse us for more than a week, and indulging in fun traditional winter rituals. It's brutally difficult to keep kids even a little focused on the advent/goodwill-towards-men/peace-on-earth thing and not on the deafening omnipresent roar of the cash registers. My son Evan has been writing and rewriting his Christmas list so obsessively that he's about half an hour away from making it a multimedia presentation. And I can't blame him. That's what the culture teaches him.
If people aren't Christian or religious, and want to enjoy the secular Christmas, or non-Christian religious practices, best wishes to them; may they enjoy their family's seasonal traditions. Those of us who would like our Christmas to be more about Christ have options. We can deliberately re-focus the season: fewer parties in the whirlwind, more modest decorations, less of a cornucopia of presents, more of an emphasis on family activities together and reading stories about Christmas. We've had some success with that: we're part of a happy group of adult relatives who've agreed that to only buy presents for each others' kids and not for adults. We can also work to teach our kids about why the religious meaning of Christmas is important to us, and (as part of a life-long lesson in being skeptical about advertising) help them spot how the culture wants them to buy, buy, buy without regard to whether it really makes them happy or satisfied.
Unfortunately, of the voices calling for a focus on Christ, the noisiest ones are not the ones trying to focus seasonal attention on talking about Jesus' advent in the home and the church. No, the noisiest voices are trying to make the secular, material, consumption-focused side more Jesus-focused.
I submit this is ridiculous.
Typical example: the American Family Association is calling for a boycott of Dick's Sporting Goods because Dick's doesn't feature the word "Christmas" prominently enough in its holiday advertising. The AFA's position is that by failing to say "Christmas" as often as possible in its advertisements, Dick's is being deliberately offensive:
We looked high and low for "Christmas" at Dick's, only to find they couldn't care less if they offend you and other Christians.
But look: Dick's is not in the business of spirituality. Dick's is in the business of selling sporting goods. Dick's will either sell enough sporting goods at a sufficient margin to stay afloat, or they won't — that's true whether they keep Christmas in their hearts or not. Dick's decision to say "Christmas" however many times it has to in order to keep the AFA off of its ass, or not, will depend not on the spirituality of some Dick's executive committee (or the poor cash-register jockey harassed by the angry AFAite), but on Dick's assessment of what advertising sells sporting goods best. And you know what? Christians are missing the point if they care. Because whether Dick's celebrates Christmas with cold, monochrome atheist banners or with Jesuses on pogo sticks handing out bible verses at the register, buying sporting goods is not about the religions, spiritual Christmas. It's about the secular Christmas. Far from putting the Christ back in Christmas, the AFA's queer obsession with merchants' advertising nomenclature is distancing Christians from the spiritual Christmas and promoting confusion between the spiritual and the secular.
The AFA's naughty or nice list of retailers is a further illustration of how the AFA, like other Culture Warriors for Christmas, utterly confuse the secular trappings of Christmas with the spiritual meaning of Christmas to Christians:
Criteria – AFA reviewed up to four areas to determine if a company was "Christmas-friendly" in their advertising: print media (newspaper inserts), broadcast media (radio/television), website and/or personal visits to the store. If a company's ad has references to items associated with Christmas (trees, wreaths, lights, etc.), it was considered as an attempt to reach "Christmas" shoppers.
If a company has items associated with Christmas, but did not use the word "Christmas," then the company is considered as censoring "Christmas."
Companies are not "censoring Christmas" because "censoring" does not mean "failing to utter the message I wanted you to utter." Moreover, the obsession with what our merchants say about Christmas — rather than focusing on what we say to our kids at home and at church about Christmas — misses the point of Christmas entirely. It's like saying that we don't focus enough on Easter representing the death and resurrection of Christ and His transcendent sacrifice, and we ought to remedy that by making more chocolate Jesuses and fewer chocolate rabbits. It's like saying that, instead of throwing the moneylenders and dove-sellers out of the temple, Jesus ought to have told them to hand out free copies of His Sermon on the Mount with each purchase. We're told repeatedly — and correctly, I think — that Christian education begins in the home and continues at church. It's counterproductive to dilute that message by telling kids, in effect, that they also ought to look for spirituality in the food court. The mall is always going to be about commerce, and commerce is not about Christ, and it's sheer lunacy to think otherwise.
Telling a retailer to say "Jesus" a lot or we won't shop there doesn't promote spirituality. It cheapens it. Teaching children that they ought to look for stores that say "Christmas" in their advertisements does not teach kids to be better Christians. It teaches them to be more gullible consumers of advertising. It teaches them to be more secular and less Christian.
I try not to think the worst of people. Okay, you've read me, you're not going to buy that. Let's say: I make an occasional gesture towards thinking about possibly not assuming the worst of people without evidence. But the efforts of the AFA, and of similar Culture Warriors, seem so foolishly, so forcefully, so self-evidently counter-productive to actual promotion of Christian values that I've become convinced that they are actually all about promoting cultural and social orthodoxy in the secular sphere. And I see nothing to respect about that. They, and their allies, trade in bogus urban legends: about hordes of ACLU lawyers going about suing stores that say "Merry Christmas", about stores bullied into taking down Christmas references because they are quaking in fear over offending those nasty Jews or atheists or Muslims, about stores secularizing their advertisements out of conscious secular hostility to religion. Bunk. Stores choose advertising based on what they think will separate customers from their money. They are doing so in a nation that remains overwhelmingly majority Christian (at least, in a cultural sense). The AFA is trading in unbecoming conspiracy theories and persecution complexes that I find, frankly, un-Christian. They are about political and cultural dominance, not about Christ.
Meanwhile, this year I'm going to try to spend less money on geegaws and more on charity, spend less time at parties and more with family, and find new age-appropriate ways to tell each of my three kids why Jesus being born is important to me.
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