Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Holiday Slogans & Memorial Crosses: Christian Symbolism & Vestiges of Dying Christendom

You don't have to watch the news very long to see stories of debate in communities around the U.S. concerning whether it is appropriate for stores (and their television commercials) to use the tag line "Merry Christmas," or whether it's more appropriate to say "Happy Holidays." I've seen a number of stories critical of stores that do not mention Christmas, and I've heard a number of evangelicals complaining about its increasing secularization.

A seemingly unrelated story involves events here in Utah. An atheist group wants the Utah Highway Patrol and the Department of Transportation to remove crosses put up honoring officers killed in the line of duty. Last night's local news featured an interview with two atheists involved in the dispute, and a man who is fighting them on the issue. Presumably he is an evangelical since LDS culture does not embrace the cross as part of its religious symbolism. This story has captured the attention of the state of Utah, and the country, and has even been picked up internationally.

While these stories may not seem related, I believe they are symptomatic of shifts in American culture. As institutional Christianity has moved to the margins of cultural influence in America and the West, the symbolism of Christmas and crosses no longer carry positive messages. Indeed, for growing numbers of Americans, the cross is a symbol of an oppressive institution that is no longer viable in the contemporary world. And as religious pluralism continues to develop in this country, Christmas loses its religious moorings, and is increasingly celebrated along more neutral holiday lines.

Of course, conservative Christians find this alarming, and the idea of substituting "Happy holidays!" for a cheery "Merry Christmas!" is especially difficult to swallow. Some are even calling for boycotts of stores that do not use the traditional Christmas slogan in its advertising and in greetings to shoppers as they enter retail stores to spend their holiday dollars. But perhaps both the traditional Christmas greeting and memorial crosses are merely vestiges of a dying Christendom, sympomatic of the new Christian marginalization in culture. Something significant happened and the church didn't notice until the symbols were challenged.

I find the Christmas hoopla especially ironic. Christmas as Christians conceive of it is a celebration of the incarnation of God in the world. God pitched his tent among us in order to redeem Israel and the nations through Jesus Christ. While the incarnation is pivotal to a Christian understanding of Christmas, might it be that American culture is moving away from this specific understanding because of the failures of the church to incarnate the gospel and to live missionally among the cultures of the country? It seems strange to complain and wring our hands when the world does not celebrate God's incarnation perhaps precisely because we have not reflected that incarnation in our lives. Who's fault is it?

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