It’s a Terrible Life

The approach of Christmas and then New Year’s Eve prompts us to reflection—when we’re not hurrying through last-minute shopping, decorating, baking, wrapping, hosting, volunteering, and the like. And that reflection is often helped by…movies.

George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge come readily to mind as secular saints of the holiday. Neither It’s a Wonderful Lifenor A Christmas Carol make more than the slightest reference to the Christian elements of Christmas. But they both pose a fundamental challenge worth us all considering once more: What’s really going on?

George Bailey thinks he knows what’s gone on in his life: a vanishing hope for adventure; a horizon that has steadily shrunk from a world of travel and excitement down to a small town, a precarious business, a dilapidated house, and the constrictions of domesticity. Frustrated by the latest disappointing failure of the people he has sacrificed his dreams to save, he attempts one last gesture of desperate service—and an angel rescues him.

Clarence rescues him from suicidal drowning—a fitting image for how George feels about what his life has come to. And Clarence does so by showing him, through a dark fantasy, how broad and bright and bold and beautiful his life really has been.

Ebenezer Scrooge is equally confident that he knows what’s gone on in his life: a mounting personal fortune, a flourishing set of investments, and a position of grudging respect among his peers.

It takes not one, but four, spirits, to show Scrooge how wrong he is. Invitations to participate charitably in the lives of others he previously has waved away angrily as parasitical threats to his well-deserved riches. Opportunities to “interfere for good,” as his old (really old) friend Jacob Marley puts it, have been scrupulously avoided in the name of “minding my own [wait for it] business.”

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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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