Taking Christ out of Christmas: an exercise in humanism
Can you remember what you were doing on Friday 9th December 2016? No, nor can I, but I do know one thing: I must have got a train or a tube in London, because I picked up that day's copy of the free newspaper, the Evening Standard, in which was an article on faith and music (more particularly, Christmas carols) - but it made me sad.
The article, "Carols evoke the spirit of Christmas like nothing else", was written by the pianist (and Royal Academy of Music Visiting Professor) Stephen A.G. Hough. If you don't know who Hough is, have a look on Youtube or Spotify or whatever your preferred platform for listening to music is, because he's a maestro. And whilst I would heartily recommend his artistry, the same, sadly, cannot be said of his theology.
If you wish to read the original article, you can do, as it's found online here, and before I say what I found sad about the article, let me tell you what I liked about it:
- Hough highlighted the capacity of Christmas and Christmas carols to "recall us to an utter simplicity of lifestyle: a poor, homeless family taking shelter in a stable." True. They can do.
- He highlighted (whilst being self-aware of his own cultural context) the unique atmosphere that carols bring to the winter season and how the "magical spell" they cast can temporarily captivate "very different backgrounds and faiths.... Silent Night in a dark church lit only by flickering candles can be a moment of repose and wonder for any harassed human being." Undoubtedly true.
- He highlighted the psychophysiological (if I've used that word correctly) benefits of corporate singing: "Singing carols is the one time of the year, outside of the shower or the football stadium, when people are free to let rip. The uninhibited exercising of vocal chords brings oxygen to more than the lungs." As a singer myself, I say a hearty "Amen!"
- He highlighted the theme of giving that is central to Christmas. True.
- He highlighted how all this can give perspective to our lives. "We all begin our lives...helpless in a crib. ...so our own rather ludicrous ambitions can be seen more clearly for what they are. Our crowns turn out to be made of tinsel..." Hopefully, if we are able to escape our "rampantly materialistic impulses" for a moment or two, this may indeed occur. And it would certainly be a good thing if it did.
So why did the article, on the whole, make me sad. Well, in short, the subtitle of the article really gave the game away:
"The simple messages of humanity in these well-known hymns are an indispensible part of the festive season."
"What's not to like?" I hear you ask. Well, because any carol worth its salt doesn't convey a "simple message of humanity", but rather a "profound message of Christ." And no, I'm not just being pious - this really matters! Up and down the country, Christian Unions and churches are hosting carol services over the next few weeks - why? Because it's a jolly nice thing to do and makes humans feel better about themselves? No! Because Christmas is about Christ (as the name all-too-blatantly demonstrates), and this is one of the few times when those not professing any kind of Christian faith actually engage, in some sense, with words speaking of Him! And so Christians, longing that others might know Him who is the Bringer of life, of light and of healing, take the opportunity to bring Him front and centre.
Which is why Hough's article made me so sad. Because he seems intent on doing the exact opposite, i.e. giving the glory that is due to Christ alone to a false god instead - either the god "Music", or humanity. And yet it's not necessarily obvious. The article sounds so nice and reasonable. It sounds generous and inclusive. It sounds attractive. And so this article is meant to be a warning to us all, looking at a few signs of this idolatry:
#1 - saying something technically not idolatrous, but close to it
Hough writes "I...believe that making music is an amplified experience, an act of ecstasy, literally lifting us out of ourselves, allowing us to tap into a sense of gratitude for existence itself." Now some of us can testify to something like what Hough describes - music does have a visceral experiential power that few, if any, other sensory experiences can match. It's one of the main reasons we've pursued music to such a high level. Because the feelings it gives are incredible. (Although whether it can "literally" lift us out of ourselves...!) The point is this: if you hear yourself or your Christian friends saying this, just be careful. Yes, music is powerful. But it was wanting something more tangible that led the Israelites who had only just experienced the Exodus to fashion the golden calf! So be careful. Only Christ can truly satisfy. Only Christ can save.
#2 - not explicitly denying Christ, but elevating something else to His level
Hough writes: "“Life and light to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings” — Charles Wesley’s words might originally have been referring to the Son of God but they can also refer to the very tune that gives them voice every season. Music is a bringer of life, of light, of healing. It can seem to give wings to our spirits." To be as generous as possible to Hough, music can lift a person's mood, and so can bring renewed vigour and temporary healing. But this sort of "life" does not even compare to the fulsome eternal life and total healing from our great spiritual disease of sin brought only by Christ! So this made me sad. Because music was receiving glory for something far smaller and far more temporary than that for which Christ truly receives the glory that He is due. Again, the point here is that it may seem innocent, because there is no explicit denial of Christ; and yet that is the end-result, as Christ is denied the glory of which He alone is worthy.
#3 - making a concession to orthodoxy, then contradicting it without explanation
Hough writes: "The theology in many of the Christmas texts we sing can be pretty uncompromising... “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate deity” — no wiggle room there for the passing doubter or unbeliever. But actually I don’t think that matters." Hough gives no explanation for why he thinks it actually doesn't matter that in Christ humanity can see "all the fulness of the Deity...in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9), and that the only right response is to worship Him! Though this is rather more obvious than the previous two, the point nonetheless remains that due to a small view of Christ, He is denied worship rightfully due to Him.
#4 - proclaiming loose theology
Hough writes: "“Keep Christ in Christmas” demand some church billboards. As a Christian myself I disagree. Keeping doctrines and denominations loose at Christmas is to allow a deeper meaning to be discerned." This bit probably made me the most sad. Here Hough actually engages with the very accusation that will inevitably be thrown in the direction of his article, but in doing so, reveals his true colours. Without resorting (thankfully) to mud-slinging, he very politely disagrees with those who would "Keep Christ in Christmas", his reason being that he believes it better to "keep doctrines...loose". Why? "To allow a deeper meaning." This is the saddest statement in the whole article. For what could be deeper than Christ? What could be more profound than the eternal Word of God taking on flesh so as to live a perfect life and die a propitiatory death for undeserving rebellious creatures? But does Hough even believe the Christmas story at all? After all, his next sentence begins "Whether you take the Nativity literally or metaphorically..." The point here is that it can sound very generous and nice not to insist on the theology of Christmas being given attention, but at the end of the day, if you are loose with theology, you will be loose with Christ, and that's a perilous position to be in. As Isaiah said: "If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all." (Isa 7:9b)
#5 - proclaiming humanism
Hough writes: "The truly important message of Christmas and what makes it so perennially touching is its celebration of goodness and simplicity." Again, to be as generous as possible, Christmas is an act of immense goodness from God (although as it happens, I doubt there was much that Mary and Joseph found "simple" in the actual details of Jesus's birth), but it's quite clear from the rest of the article that it is not God's goodness that Hough thinks Christmas celebrates, but humanity's (hence the subtitle). This is clear from the following sentences: "The idea of giving is central to Christmas, most obviously in the presents we give to others." "Christmas has a message for everyone. It is a yearly invitation to welcome strangers and outsiders, to care for the weakest, to reawaken a spirit of generosity and warmth towards all." God is the one that welcomes strangers and outsiders, and proclaims compassion for the weakest. But according to Hough, Christmas isn't about God, but about us.
So how are we to respond to this? Well, in various ways.
- Behold the face of Christ. All of the signs listed above essentially come from having too small a view of Jesus. But our hearts are too worshipful for that, and so if they are not filled with a vision of Christ, they'll be filled with something else, normally a vision of ourselves. So this Christmas, reflect once again on the words of Scripture, and indeed on some of the carols you sing, and as you sing them, actually worship Christ with them, rather than simply going through the Christmasy motions.
- Make the most of every opportunity (Colossians 4:5). Invite your friends to carol services, and engage them in interesting and meaningful conversation about the words they are singing! Have a look at this article for ways you might do this effectively.
- Pray. Pray for those attending carol services this winter, that they will sing, hear and heed some amazing words that speak of and point to the Christ who we all need. And pray for yourself to be transfixed by Christ!
- Be on your guard. Idolatry is a really serious thing. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Revelation 21:8 make that abundantly clear, and as the Apostle Paul says in that former passage: "Do not be deceived." And this is because, Isaiah 42:8, the Lord says: "I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols."
And that is the sad thing about Hough's article. In the end, he really does end up equating humanity with Christ, i.e. idolising humanity. This is how he finishes: "At the end of December every city, every village, every home can become a “little town of Bethlehem”." No they can't! There is only one Saviour, only one Christ, only one who is worthy of honour. By all means listen to Hough's artistry on the piano, but please don't listen to his theology. Let all your worship this Christmas go solely to Him who alone is worthy, our wonderful Saviour Jesus.