Sunday 25 December 2011

Pushing back on 'Brand Christmas'

Christmas nativity knitted by my wife with pure Aussie wool!

As I pointed out in a recent post (here) our latest edition of Case Magazine has the theme 'Selling Christmas'. We attempted to unpack just some of the many possible sub-themes. One of these was to question who owns Christmas and how Christians might deal with the seizure of 'our' brand for largely commercial purposes. I've just watched the evening news with it's annual focus on Christmas sales, the customary shots from the North Pole as Santa leaves, and messages from our Anglican and Catholic Archbishops given permission by the station to have 15 seconds to bring some focus on Jesus as the 'real' reason for the season. All too obvious, that Christmas for most has little to do with Jesus.

In our lead article, Simon Angus reminds us that for most people Christmas means gifts. Commercially, ‘Christmas’ is a brand that no self-respecting business would want to ignore. And yet, as Angus points out, Christians think much less about the brand that they once owned, than the commercial entities do.

We debated the meaning of this photo last year - One family 'pushing back'?

How do we respond to the stealing of 'our' brand, for as Angus argues, this time of mass celebration is not sustained purely by religious observance or even tradition, but rather by ‘Brand Christmas’. We could adopt one of the extremes of either decrying the commercialisation of Christmas, or mindless assimilation. But instead, he suggests a third way for Christians at Christmas in our non-Christian communities, celebrating the Messiah's birth within the midst of all that passes as Christmas, proclaiming or 'gossiping the gospel'; what Peter Jensen calls a 'grassroots whispering campaign'.

One of my grandchildren playing with our woollen nativity
"Christians ought to push back on the notion that gifts are the sole reason for, or climax of, the traditional Christmas gathering. This would be as obviously ridiculous as if, at the first Christmas, the host of angels suddenly turned their attention and worship from baby Jesus in the manger to the precious, but ultimately inanimate and inconsequential gold, frankincense and myrrh of the wise men upon their arrival. They didn't, and nor should we."

This pushing back can take many forms.  My daughter Nicole Starling has much to say on her blog about the development of Christmas traditions in the Christian home (HERE); this is one example of what Simon Angus is getting at when he said:

"...where Brand Christmas goes assiduously after our children's material desires, there seems an important work for Christian parents to educate their young in the true meaning of Christmas from the outset. Attending family church services, singing carols and hymns , at home, reading the accounts of Jesus' birth, crafting nativity scenes, and spending time in family prayer..."

I pray that readers of this blog and supporters of CASE might have some success this year 'pushing back' on Brand Christmas, and that we might manage lots of gospel gossip with family, friends and neighbours.

If you are not a Case subscriber you can purchase a single issue online via our website HERE.

Monday 19 December 2011

Thomas Watson on Contentment

Thomas Watson (Wiki Commons)
Thomas Watson (1620-1686) is known as one of the great Puritan Preachers. He was educated at Emmanuel College in Cambridge and began his first pastorate in 1646 at St Stephen's Walbrook. Charles Spurgeon said of him: "Watson was one of the most concise, racy, illustrative, and suggestive of those eminent divines who made the Puritan age the Augustan period of evangelical literature".

In his book 'The Art of Divine Contentment: An Exposition of Philippians 4:11' Thomas Watson explores true contentment and how we understand the circumstances of this life in view of the next life. How do we measure the things of this earth, our temporary home, in light of our true and ultimate home?

Paul said to the Philippians in the context of his comments to a church with its share of internal problems, that we are to be content (Phil 4:1-23). Thomas Watson's book is based on Philippians 4:11 - "Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content"  (Philippians 4:11). I share this inspirational quote that offers an insight into the place of the conditions of life in the overall sweep of God's purposes for us.

God sees, in his infinite wisdom, the same condition is not convenient for all; that which is good for one, may be bad for another; one season of weather will not serve all men’s occasions, one needs sunshine, another rain; one condition of life will not fit every man, no more than one suit of apparel will fit every body; prosperity is not fit for all, nor yet adversity. If one man be brought low, perhaps he can bear it better; he hath a greater stock of grace, more faith and patience; he can “gather grapes of thorns”, pick some comfort out of the cross: every one cannot do this. Another man is seated in an eminent place of dignity; he is fitter for it; perhaps it is a place that requires more parts of judgment, which every one is not capable of; perhaps he can use his estate better, he hath a public heart as well as a public place. The wise God sees that condition to be bad for one, which is good for another; hence it is he placeth men in different orbs and spheres; some higher, some lower. One man desires health, God sees sickness is better for him; God will work health out of sickness, by bringing the body of death, into a consumption. Another man desires liberty, God sees restraint better for him; he will work his liberty by restraint; when his feet are bound, his heart shall be most enlarged. Did we believe this, it would give a check to the sinful disputes and cavils of our hearts: shall I be discontented at that which is enacted by a decree, and ordered by a providence? Is this to be a child or a rebel?

Contentment is not to be found in the circumstances of life, but rather in the purposes for which our God uses them. For "...we know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose." (Rom 8: 28)

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. (Romans 8:18-19)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

You can find 'The Art of Divine Contentment: An Exposition of Philippians 4:11' in varied forms on the Web. These range from versions to be read online, copies to buy and a number of free versions. You can find some of them HERE.

Friday 9 December 2011

'Selling' Christmas

When we chose the theme of Christmas for the next issue of Case Magazine we knew that it could potentially have many different facets. Our choice of ‘Selling Christmas’ as the cover theme reflects the issues that our authors have explored. Christmas is historically one of the most sacred days in the Christian calendar. But it is known today more for its commercial contribution to the economy than its celebration of the birth of the Son of God. As Simon Angus reminds us, for most people Christmas means gifts. Commercially, ‘Christmas’ is a brand that no self-respecting business would want to ignore. And yet, as Simon points out, Christians think much less about the brand that they once owned, than the commercial entities do.

Brand Christmas

Simon Angus argues that this great time of mass celebration is not sustained purely by religious observance or even tradition, but rather by ‘Brand Christmas’. Rather than adopting the extremes of decrying the commercialisation of Christmas, or mindless assimilation, we need a better informed response. The answer suggested turns us away from finger-pointing to instead look closer to home, targeting the real powerbrokers in the economy.

‘Sold out’ Christmas

Rembrandt's 'The Adoration of the Magi' Wiki Commons
But our theme has a second dimension. Christians and non-Christians alike might well ask whether the church has ‘sold out’ in relation to the true significance of Christmas. Have we allowed others to capture our time of celebration of Christ’s birth for commercial and even political purposes? Several of our articles touch on this important theme, with a challenge for Christians to focus on what matters at Christmas time. Diane Speed, for example, guides us through centuries of accumulated tradition surrounding the Magi, recounting how the mysterious Magi have been used for purposes from religious fundraising to political propaganda, but she also shows how they may be seen ‘as our representatives in the text, worshipping the Christ Child’.

Selling the true meaning

There is a third motif in this issue: how might the Christian church ‘sell’ the true meaning of Christmas? Indeed, might it be able to enrich contemporary understanding of old traditions? John McClean argues that the age-old understanding of the incarnation, the very heart of the meaning of Christmas and Christianity, is not obsolete but defensible within contemporary scholarship. While the incarnation might be seen as a problem in that it is a hard truth to comprehend, and to sell, McClean points out that it is worth the effort, for it solves a greater problem than it creates.

But how might the church go about communicating its message clearly to a world committed to the trappings but not the truth of Christmas? Dan Anderson sees some hope in developing a distinctive Christian community calendar, which functions as ‘an education in the memories and expectations of the group’ and ‘allows an individual to become the bearer of a communal identity: to “act out” that identity and communicate it to others’. Christmas and Easter are reminders of a Christian liturgical calendar that once had greater significance, but has been abused and has lost much of its embedded meaning and witness. Yet this doesn’t mean we should reject the idea altogether. Like many of our authors in this issue, Anderson calls for biblically informed reflection on Christmas, and encourages us to ‘question the narrative identity enacted in both the communal calendars of our surrounding society and that which we have inherited from the Christian tradition’.

In an enjoyable foray into Australian poetry and songs Anna Blanch shows us how different poets have expressed their experiences of Christmas in ways that resonate with life down under, from the light-hearted fun of ‘Aussie Jingle Bells’, to Les Murray’s thought provoking ‘Barranong Angel Case’. Peter Stiles too, draws on Australian literature as he makes his case, encouraging Australians to let go of their dependence on the Northern Hemisphere traditions at Christmas. Yet both Blanch and Stiles lament the lack of serious poetry and song connecting the celebration of Christ’s nativity with the Australian context: a challenge for our literary readers.

Our issue ends with some recommendations for Christmas reading. If we are to enter into gift giving this year, what better gift can we give than books that strengthen our understanding of the central eternal narrative of Christmas? We have asked a variety of Case Magazine contributers to recommend books that they have found enjoyable or helpful. I’ve also included a short review of some children’s books (which I might post separately) that might lead to meaningful discussions with the younger members of your circle of family and friends as we contemplate God’s purpose for our lives.

If you're a Case subscriber you will receive this issue before Christmas. If not, you can purchase a single issue online via our website HERE.