Christmas Isn’t General: It’s Jewish

The commercializing of Christmas offends many—so many, in fact, that major corporations have sponsored endless movies and television shows bemoaning the…commercializing of Christmas. (One can see the trend at least as far back as Miracle on 34th Street, a movie released in 1947.)

“Christmas isn’t just about food and drink and gifts!” cry the actors in between advertisements for food and drink and gifts. “It’s about—” well, what?

Generic good things, usually: love, peace, family, light, quiet, and snow. But the true meaning of Christmas shouldn’t be buried under this nice, soft blanket of platitudes. Christmas isn’t about goodness-in-general. In fact, Christmas is very…Jewish.

Despite the beauty of Christina Rossetti’s poem, the first Christmas didn’t occur amid a bleak winter. The wise men, T. S. Eliot and Lancelot Andrewes notwithstanding, likely didn’t have a “cold coming” in the worst part of the year. And there weren’t Christmas trees alit with candles, and Yule logs, and holly and ivy—all artifacts of northern European folklore.

No, Christmas came very Jewishly, in the Middle East, as the Gospel according to Matthew shows us (in chapter two). It came to the particular Jewish town of Bethlehem, known as “the city of David.”

Now, that might not mean much to you, but it means everything in a Jewish context. David was the greatest king in Israel’s history—so great that his symbolic star adorns the flag of Israel today—and is the one on whom Jews have pinned their hopes for centuries. The Jewish God promised to restore the throne of David, and thus the fortunes of the Jews. So if a big story begins in Bethlehem, David’s hometown, it’s off to a good start.

The story also features angels—messengers of God—who bring a very Jewish message. “Unto you is born today in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” But that needs a little translating.

“To you is born today in the city of David a Saviour”—one who will save Israel from oppression and weakness—”which is Messiah.” “Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew word meshiah, “anointed one.” Anointed ones were major figures in Israel—mostly kings and priests—who were ordained to their offices in ceremonies that included being touched, or anointed, with holy oil, a sign of God’s Spirit resting on them. And this One is the Messiah, the One who will accomplish God’s will.

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Going (Much) Deeper on LGBTQ+

“Simplify as far as possible,” Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “but no farther.” In the vexed and vexing issues surrounding sex and gender politics in the church and in society at large, we should heed his advice.

Not everyone does—even Christian scholars skilled in reaching large audiences. N. T. Wright, soon to retire from St Andrews University in Scotland for a prestigious perch at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, is a paragon of both New Testament scholarship and orthodox apologetics. But even he sometimes cuts corners too sharply.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic’s Emma Green, Wright doesn’t satisify her as he considers those advocating the full acceptance of same-sex couples into the Church. 

“For 2,000 years, Christian, Jews, and Muslims—Muslims for less than 2,000 years, but you know what I mean—have just said, That’s not what we think a human life is all about. Suddenly, we have a cultural imperative [to embrace LGBT identity] coming in the last 30 years or so.”

Meanwhile, David Gushee, recently president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Christian Ethics and a distinguished professor at Mercer University in the USA, writes for Religion News Service a column equally breezy in its dismissal of Christian colleges and seminaries that hold the traditional Christian line regarding same-sex relations. These schools, Gushee insists, need to get with it. The culture is leaving them behind, including the culture of many of their own students: 

“Eventually we come to realize there is more right in change than in implacable attachment to the status quo. Universities are kidding themselves if they think they can lead Christian kids by trying to pull them back.” 

What the interested reader might expect from these two accomplished scholars is what is conspicuously lacking: an actual theological argument. Wright basically appeals to tradition while Gushee appeals to current trends. They thus nicely correspond to caricatures of the conservative and the liberal respectively. 

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Does a Leader’s Personal Religious Practice Hurt or Help with Voters? “It Depends”—but on What?

The reliable Angus Reid Institute (ARI) released a report on a recent poll, undertaken in concert with our friends at Cardus, that “suggests that it is not necessarily a leader’s faith that provokes negative or positive reactions, but how the leader approaches and handles the issue on the campaign trail.”

I’m not so sure.

The press release goes on to say that “the study shows that most Canadians were aware of (at equal levels) the faith and personal beliefs of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, a Catholic, and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, an orthodox Sikh. However, twice as many report Scheer’s religiosity having a negative impact on their views of him than say the same of Singh and his beliefs (51% versus 24%).”

Roughly 60% of Canadians polled say that religious freedom “makes Canada a better country overall” (note that that fraction isn’t even two-thirds of the country—which confirms how fragile religious freedom is nowadays) while a similar proportion says “it ultimately does not matter to them whether or not a political leader is a person of faith.”

Those stats seem high to me. Again, if we understand religious freedom to be the freedom to believe and practice in ways that discomfit and disquiet other Canadians—which is the only kind of religious freedom that matters, since no one scores points for tolerating what they affirm or don’t care about—almost every cultural indicator I can think of indicates a Zeitgeist blowing strongly in the opposite direction.

Professional colleges and societies curtail the religious freedom of physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and lawyers on a wide range of bioethical, sexual, and gender issues. Universities keep having visiting speakers shouted down or physically threatened. And even the courts mumble pieties about religious freedom in the Constitution before flicking it away in the interest of “Charter values” and other convenient constructions.

But let’s zero in today on this question of religion among political leaders. Why do polls indicate that Singh didn’t seem to pay much of a price for his clearly different religious views (outside, perhaps Quebec—I’d like to see the provincial numbers)? Why did Scheer?

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