Flipping through magazines on an airplane the other day, I found myself sighing with irritation. An advertisement for Budweiser was tagged with the headline, “Silent Nights are Overrated.” A few minutes later, in a second magazine, I came across an ad for a high-end outdoor grill, which read: “Who says it’s better to give than to receive?”
My first reaction was one that I’ve critiqued in others, to take some sort of personal, or at least tribal, offense: “Would they advertise in Turkey during Ramadan with the line, ‘Fasting is Overrated?’ or by asking in India, ‘Who says everything is one with the universe?’”
I was missing the point—and that matters.
Every year about this time, there’s a lot of hubbub about a so-called “war on Christmas.” In some instances, there are legitimate questions of religious liberty involved and complicated church/state questions that we ought to be concerned about. More commonly, though, the outrage is directed toward the commercial marketplace, for replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” and so on.
As Christians, we ought to recognize that a militant pull toward what Richard John Neuhaus called a “naked public square” is bad for people of any and all religious traditions. But there’s a difference between, for instance, standing against a school system penalizing a child for writing “Merry Christmas” on her “holiday card” and the kind of huffing and puffing we do when commercial marketers don’t “get” our Christian commitments.
I should have thought about the fact that the advertising agencies behind this beer company and this grill corporation are trying to sell products, not to offend constituencies. Taking shots at any group’s religious beliefs isn’t good economics, and that’s just the point. I’m willing to bet whoever dreamed up these ad campaigns didn’t “get” at all that they might be making fun of Jesus Christ.
Madison Avenue probably didn’t trace through that the song “Silent Night” is about the holy awe of the dawning Incarnation in Bethlehem. It’s just a Christmas song, part of the background music in our culture this time of year. Saying it’s overrated probably didn’t feel any more “insensitive” to these copywriters than making a joke about, say, decking the halls or reindeer games or Heat Miser and Cold Miser.
And they probably never thought about the fact that the statement “It is better to give than to receive” is a quotation from Jesus (Acts 20:35). It probably just seems like a Benjamin Franklin-style aphorism. It’s the same kind of thing that happens when someone says “scarlet letter” without recognizing Hawthorne or “to be or not to be” while not knowing the difference between Hamlet and Shrek.
We ought not to get outraged by all that, as though we were some protected class of victims. We ought to instead see the ways that our culture is less and less connected with the roots of basic knowledge about Christianity. Many, especially in the culture-making wing of American life, see Christmas in the same way they see Hanukkah. They know about Menorahs and dreidels, but not about the Maccabean fight.
That ought not make us angry. It ought to instead give us an opportunity to understand how we look to our neighbors. They see us more in terms of our trivialities than in terms of the depths of meaning of Incarnation and blood atonement and the kingdom of Christ. They know something about “Silent Night,” just as they know something about “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” What they don’t recognize is the cosmos-shifting mystery of Immanuel as God with Us.
All that means is that we need to spend more time lovingly engaging our neighbors with the sort of news that shocks angels and redirects stargazers and knocks sheep-herders to the ground. That it seems increasingly strange is all the better—because it is strange. A gospel safe enough to sell beer and barbecue grills is a gospel too safe to make blessings flow, far as the curse is found.
Christmas, then, isn’t about a fight for our right to party. It’s a reminder that we, like every generation before us, live in a “land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2). The darkness isn’t overcome by sarcasm or personal offense or retaliatory insults. The light of Bethlehem shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, cannot, will not overcome it.
And that’s enough.