If we all tell the real guts-and-glory story, bored Americans may stop watching videos this Christmas and heed the "Greatest story ever told."
Several years ago my wife and I were driving to visit family on Christmas morning. We stopped for gas at a convenience store far off the beaten path, a quiet Southern crossroads surrounded by churches. After filling up the tank, I went inside to pay and was surprised to find a long line at the cashier. From the back of the line I watched in amazement as each person stepped up and selected videos to rent from behind the counter. It was 11 A.M. on the most wonderful day of year," and the boredom of Christmas had already driven these folks out in search of something more entertaining.
I know what you're saying: "Another year, another diatribe on the (yawn) commercialization of Christmas." Ironically, a completely different problem has sprouted in the rubble of U.S. consumerism: Christmas in America is boring.
New stuff for Christmas isn't as exciting as it used to be. Many of us already have everything we need and most of what we want. People hope that there's more to life than mundane materialism.
And so we go to the movies.
This Christmas, millions of Americans will go to the movies. In fact, the holiday season is Hollywood's highest grossing period each year; daily revenue for blockbuster movies averages two million dollars more than during summer months.
It should be no surprise that we watch movies during the holidays. After all, the cinema is one of our favorite national pastimes. We love stories. What's surprising is that on the day we celebrate the first chapter of the "greatest story ever told," so many of us are looking to see what else we can stick into our DVD player.
We believers must become better storytellers. In this sense, perhaps we can learn some lessons from the movies.
For instance, how often does a movie flop because it fails to do justice to the book on which it is based? Yet isn't this the problem with so many of our evangelistic efforts today? We water down the Bible's pivotal message.
We're short on time, and our audience knows very little about the ancient world. Consequently, we do what movie script writers do - we edit the gospel story into a list of bullets outlining basic eternal principles concerning God and salvation. We gut original context. People are fed timeless truths like a medicine but without the challenge to follow the amazing Jesus of the Gospels - the real live person! - whose pathway leads to life.
In sharing the Jesus story, we do well to follow the model of the biblical authors. In other words, we should stick to the Book. The apostles never watered down the Jesus story and neither should we. Two versions today exist of the Christmas message: a made- for-TV special, and a lesser-told epic saga.
In the edited version, Mary and Joseph are beautiful people, the setting is sterile, and the shepherds are clean-shaven. Of course, there's not much of the real story to this version, which explains why it yields more of a mood than a message. Christmas has become, in the words of Charles Dickens, "a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time." No wonder America is so bored with Christmas.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with good cheer, especially amid the recent dark times brought forth by the attack on America and the ensuing war. But fa-la-las by themselves don't bring any lasting answers to our complex and chaotic world. We need something much more substantial to fill the vacuum inside our hearts. Fairytales don't hold up amid such pain. We need the real story.
Let's go back to the real version. An unmarried teenager from the sticks
turns up pregnant and claims to be carrying God's Son. Her nice-guy boyfriend
believes her, and all the people in town shake their heads, saying, "What
a shame." After a long journey together, she gives birth to a son
in squalor and cradles him in a slop trough. It is hard to imagine a more
ignoble birth, but the ensuing events reveal that the boy is indeed the
greatest King of all time. Outer space contorts in order to pay him homage.
Shepherds, foreign dignitaries, and angelic armies bow before the infant
King. Genocide follows, perpetrated by a neurotic despot, but the baby
King makes a dramatic escape, thus paving the way for the Faster sequel.
And that is just the synopsis - what staggering subplots remain to tell!
This real story does more than leave a warm glow; it is a substantial narrative with life-changing consequences and an eternal trajectory.
One of the marvelous strengths of the Christian message is that it's true - all of it, including the good and the bad. We don't do anyone any favors by obscuring the unpalatable parts of the gospel story. Heresy is ultimately a consequence of not getting the story straight. God gave us all of the Scriptures with his good purposes in mind. Like the apostle John, we tell our story-all of it-so that others may believe in Jesus and live forever.
Sadly, the real Jesus remains largely unknown-the Jesus who can make sense of the World Trade Center rubble and who was beside a Christian brother as he boldly helped foil the hijackers of a plane. The real Jesus story starts and ends with staggering proportions - birth against all odds followed by death against an ugly tree followed by something modern geneticists cannot comprehend: regeneration!
Many people will go to the movies this Christmas, hoping to satisfy the longing for meaning and transcendence that comes around each year at this time. As Christians, we know that only the incarnate, risen Lord Jesus will satisfy this universal longing. Christmas is a wonderful time to tell our story - the full version that is never boring. If Americans knew it, imagine what a blockbuster Christmas this would be!
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 4