The American Society of Church History is Coming to Town!

ASCH

It’s Always Christmas New York, Broadway, New York, NY near the ASCH conference. Photo by Martin Spence

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy!  –JF

It may be January 3, but it’s always Christmas in New York. And if any historians possessed the knowledge about how to keep Christmas well, it was the five who led one of the first panels at the ASCH Winter meeting at the Parker Hotel, New York.

The papers were culled from the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Christmas, an inter-disciplinary study of the theology, history, sociology, liturgy and culture of Christmas which editor Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College) assured us will be published just in time for….Easter.

The panelists, Katrina Jennie-Lou Wheeler (City University of New York),David Thomas Orique (Providence College), Daniel Vaca (Brown University), and Timothy Larsen, all emphasized how Christmas has been a site of cultural contest since the early modern era. Larsen’s revelation that nonconformist Evangelicals who did much to popularize Santa Claus in late Victorian Anglo-America was particularly intriguing, especially as a counterpoise to the common belief that a secular Santa has shoved Jesus out of the manger.  Meanwhile David Thomas Orique showed how the celebration of Christmas was both a point of friction and a zone of assimilation for European, Native and African cultures in post-Columbian America. Daniel Vaca touched on the multivariate narratives of Christmas and their role in mediating idealized visions of domesticity, pleasure, and social harmony. Katrina Jennie-Lou Wheeler took us back to the original “war on Christmas” in Tudor and Stuart England.

Lo! Two blocks East of the conference venue shines the great light of Trump Tower, and inevitably the forty-fifth President made a (virtual) appearance at the panel when panel commentator and chair Margaret Bendroth (Congregational Archives and Library) raised Trump’s  recent “Miracle of Christmas” rally at Battle Creek, MI. Bendroth asked whether it is actually the “powers that be,”—posing as the faux champions of Christmas to serve political-cultural ends—who may be the real Grinches.

Why Did Trump Attend a Southern Baptist Church on Christmas Eve?

Family Church

On Christmas Eve, Donald and Melania Trump attended an evangelical Southern Baptist Church in West Palm Beach.  The Family Church, which is surrounded by the campus of evangelical Palm Beach Atlantic University, appears to be a mainstream evangelical megachurch.  Its pastor, Jimmy Scroggins, appears to be a Southern Baptist of the Al Mohler variety  He holds a Ph.D from Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and worked as the Dean of Boyce College, Southern Seminary’s undergraduate wing.

In the past, the Trumps have attended Christmas Eve services at The Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea (Episcopal) in Palm Beach.  According to USA Today: “Bethesda-by-the-Sea, a towering Gothic revival style church surrounded by a courtyard and lavish gardens, has long championed liberal and social justice causes. The church was among the first to conduct gay marriages and has condemned the administration’s decision to reduce the number of refugees and allow states and local governments to reject refugees.”

It is also worth noting that Donald and Melania were married at The Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea.  Barron Trump was baptized at the church.

I can’t say with any degree of certainty why the Trumps decided to attend services at The Family Church on Christmas Eve.  Maybe they prefer a more contemporary worship style over a traditional Episcopalian service.  Maybe they prefer conservative evangelical theology over the liberal theology of the Protestant mainline.  Maybe they just wanted to try something different this year.

But it is hard not to be skeptical about the Trumps’ choice of church.  It is hard not to see his attendance at The Family Church as a way to strengthen his support among evangelical voters in the wake of the recent Christianity Today editorial calling for his removal.   I imagine that Donald Trump didn’t even know that The Family Church existed before he became president.  Call me a cynic, but Trump attended this church for political reasons.  His evangelical base took a huge hit last week. He needs to do everything possible to keep it strong as we approach November 2020.

And what about The Family Church?  I don’t know if Pastor Scroggins is a Trump supporter.  Pastor Scroggins does not seem like the kind of guy who wants to inject political controversy into his church on Christmas Eve.  I am not sure why his congregation applauded when Trump entered the service and sat in the third row.  After all, Christmas Eve is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, not the President of the United States.

There was probably nothing Pastor Scroggins could do about Trump’s arrival.  Evangelical churches are open to all people–even an impeached President.  I pray that Trump heard something in this service that touched his heart and prompted him to be a better person.  Indeed, the message of Christmas is a message to sinners in need of redemption.

But it is also important to realize that The Family Church was used by the Trump administration for political purposes.  The public story coming out of The Family Church on Christmas Eve was not the Incarnation, it was the arrival of a man who too many evangelicals have embraced as a political savior.

Fleming Rutledge on Advent Hope

Rainbow

“The concept of justice is indeed central to the biblical portrait of the God who has revealed himself in his written Word and in the incarnate Word who is his Son.  However, the current use of ‘justice’ as a rallying cry for the church is reductive, because it is limited to particular political and economic issues without reference to the righteousness of God .  A key to the biblical meaning of justice is found in the fact that the word translated ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ is the same word in Hebrew and in Greek.  The root of the word becomes, in both Testaments, both a noun and a verb, so that ‘justice’ or ‘judgment’ is the same thing as ‘righteousness’ or ‘rectification’ (making right).  The Christian hope is founded in the promise of God that all things will be made new according to his righteousness.  All the references to judgment in the Bible should be understood in the context of God’s righteousness–not just his being righteous (noun) but his ‘making right’ (verb) all that has been wrong.  Clearly, human justice is a very limited enterprise compared to the ultimate making-right of God in the promised day of judgment.

Promise is a key concept of understanding Advent.  We are all familiar with broken promises; indeed, it sometimes seems that broken promises are the only promises there are.  This is a sign of the old age.  The gospel announces the promise of God, which has an entirely different character from human promises because it is anchored in the very nature of the righteous God with whom ‘all things are possible’ (Matt. 19:26).  Therefore, the principal defining characteristic of the Christian community, along with faith and love, is hope (I Cor. 13:13).

Fleming RutledgeAdvent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, 21-22.

Advent vs. Steven Pinker

SONY DSC

Here is Fleming Rutledge, an author and Episcopal priest:

Across the Charles River from the Church of the Advent sits mighty Harvard. There, the famous psychology professor Steven Pinker thinks the world is getting better. In a recent interview, he makes the statement that, thanks to the Enlightenment and especially to science, life on earth is improving. He acknowledges that human beings “tend to backslide into irrationality,” but all in all, he thinks the data show that we’re making headway. Pinker is not ignorant about human evil, but he genuinely believes that human progress is unstoppable and that science and technology can solve our problems if we can only be rational, high-minded people—presumably, people like himself.

The Bible pushes back against the naive optimism of Pinker and many others like him. It is a story, not a scientific document or a collection of spiritual principles. It tells us how we came to be who we are in this world, how we fractured the image of God in ourselves by our rebellion, and how our creator came in his own person to transfigure us into the likeness of the son, who became incarnate in our human flesh. It tells us of the powers of sin and death and their hold on us.

The biblical story is rigorously unsentimental. It doesn’t offer optimism. It doesn’t offer “positive thinking.” It looks deeply into human misery, human folly, human pain, and plain old human disappointment. I like what the writer Lance Morrow said about the 20th century era of world wars and genocide: “Instead of a growing Enlightenment, it seems more like an Endarkenment.”

The Advent season, properly understood, is designed to help us understand this “Endarkenment.” It strengthens us for life in the real world, where there are malignant forces actively working against human well-being and the divine purposes of God. This is a world in which no one seems to know what to do about the catastrophic famine in Yemen. This is a world in which the promise of freedom and democracy in Poland and Hungary is shifting before the eyes of the world into oppression and autocracy. This is a world in which our very best intentions turn against us.

Read the rest at Christianity TodayI also recommend Rutledge’s book Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

The Christmas Story Teaches Us About the True Nature of Power

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016 (1)

The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondoe (1304-1306, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua) via Wikipedia

Michael Gerson nails it again.  Here is a taste of his recent column at The Washington Post:

Whatever you think about the historicity of the biblical accounts, they provide a powerful story about the true nature of power.

The whole narrative is framed by governmental attempts to assert and maintain control. The site of the birth is determined by a government census. The wise men must frustrate Herod’s attempt to locate a competing king. The slaughter of the innocent is state-sponsored mass murder. The holy family must flee to Egypt as refugees. The Roman Empire and its client ruler are attempting to snuff out potential sedition in its cradle. And that intention is fulfilled some three decades later — to all outward appearances — in a public trial and crucifixion.

“From beginning to end,” says Christian author Philip Yancey, “the conflict between Rome and Jesus appeared to be entirely one-sided. The execution of Jesus would put an apparent end to any threat, or so it was assumed at the time. Tyranny would win again. It occurred to no one that his stubborn followers might just outlast the Roman empire.”

But that is what happened. And the Christmas narrative indicates why. Whatever else this story may be, it is an inversion of our view of power — as though we had lived our whole lives upside down and were finally set aright. In God’s perspective on events, the culmination of history takes place among common people. Shepherds are the audience for angels. The stable is more influential than the royal court. Refugees are more important than rulers. The hopes of humankind are met, against all expectation, in a helpless infant. Power is found in the renunciation of power; strength is perfected in weakness.

It is not always obvious how this great inversion applies in our lives or our politics. But it forbids us from believing that cruelty can bring authority, or that peace can be achieved through murder, or that justice can arrive through lawlessness. It calls us to humility and decency over arrogance and ruthlessness. And it provides the Christmas hope that love will have the final word.

Read the entire piece here.

A Glimpse of Hope

Last night some of my history students showed up at my house singing Christmas carols.  For close to a decade, Messiah College history majors have been caroling at the homes of their professors.  It is a department tradition. We invite them in, give them some food (brownies and cookies this year), and have some conversation.

If you are in search of hope in these dark times, spend time with some really engaged Christian college students.  Our conversation only last about 30 minutes, but we had a great discussion about their experiences in evangelical churches and their attempts to balance critical thinking with membership in their religious communities.

I needed this tonight!

 

What to the Slave Was Christmas?

Slaves on Plantation

Robert May, a historian of Purdue University, has an interesting piece about Christmas tours of Southern plantation that do not acknowledge how the slaves on those plantations experienced Christmas.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation: “Slave life’s harsh realities are erased in Christmas tours of Southern plantations”:

I read many documents to find out how slaves actually spent their Christmases. The truth is deeply disturbing.

On the one hand, the majority of enslaved people did get some them time off from work during Christmas, as well as feasts and presents. Some got to travel or to get married, privileges that they didn’t get at other times of the year. But these privileges could be withdrawn for any reason at all and many slaves never got them at all.

Slavery was a brutal system of forced labor to enrich those same owners. Even over the holiday, masters kept the power to punish slaves. A photo taken during the Civil War shows a man who was whipped at Christmas. His back was covered with scars, showing that when masters punished the people they held in bondage, they often did so brutally.

There were other cruel forms of punishment. On one South Carolina plantation, a master angry at an enslaved woman he suspected of miscarrying her pregnancy on purpose locked her up for the Christmas holiday.

Masters sometimes forced enslaved workers to get drunk even if they did not want to drink, or wrestle with each other on Christmas simply for the amusement of the master’s family.

Likewise, I learned in my research, slaveholders bought and sold plenty of people over the holiday, keeping slave traders busy during Christmas week.

Read the entire piece here.

Out of the Zoo: Holidays Make Us Historians

candy cane lane

The beginning of the Christmas season in my hometown (Kalamazoo) is marked by the appearance of “Candy Cane Lane” in Bronson Park.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about the upcoming Christmas season. –JF

It seems as if the Christmas Season is in full swing. While I (shamelessly) started listening to Christmas music and watching Hallmark movies on November first, on the day after Thanksgiving the entire world seems to turn shades of red and green. Michael Bublé comes out of hiding and sings out on radio broadcasts, coffee shops and supermarkets alike play festive tunes for their customers. Netted fir trees strapped atop SUVs become a regular appearance on highways, supplemented by the occasional Amazon or UPS truck packed to the brim with black Friday orders. Every year after Thanksgiving my family ventures into our dusty attic to retrieve our Christmas decorations; we pull out our snowy Disney Princess village, our singing Christmas clock, and our many, many farm-themed ornaments for the tree. 

I traveled back to Messiah on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and was welcomed by a campus decked out for the Christmas season. After a long nine hour drive from Michigan I was greeted by house-mates Chloe and Amy, hard at work assembling a faux Christmas tree in our living room and stringing lights outside. I’m sure first-year dorms are busy at work decorating for Messiah’s annual “Deck the Halls” competition.

The Christmas season is pretty special on a Christian college campus. Once December hits Messiah’s worship teams dust off the Christmas songs in their repertoire and play them at chapel and other services on campus. Murray Library hosts a Christmas tea and crafting event for students each year, serving homemade scones and striped candy canes. Students flock to Lottie-Nelson Dining Hall for Christmas dinner the week before exams to stuff themselves with comfort food and seasonal desserts. Teachers tell students about their Christmas plans and share their favorite holiday traditions.

I love the Christmas season. I adore the lights, the food, all the time with family and friends; but one of my favorite things about Christmas is that it has deep roots in history. The task of the historian is to remember the past and to recreate it in the present; when we celebrate Christmas that’s exactly what we’re doing. As a Christian I believe that Christ’s miraculous birth was a real event that happened about two thousand years ago, a real event from the past that should be brought to life in the present for the world to see. When we sing Christmas songs, set up our nativities or light our advent candles, we do just that; we resurrect Christ’s story and remember that our God is not just the God of heaven, but He’s also God on earth, God with us, Emmanuel.

Christmas isn’t the only holiday with deep roots in history. All holidays have historical beginnings–even if they’re often entangled with myth, distorted by exaggerations, or littered with omissions along the way. Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Easter, for example are all meant, in one way or another, to remember and celebrate an event that happened in the past and shape the meaning it retains in the present. When the holiday season comes around, we are all historians, in a sense. We remember, resurrect, and make meaning out of things that happened. Then, as historians, it is up to us to sort fact from fiction, reality from myth. We examine the events and the meanings that they hold all wrapped up in bows and lights and “Christmas magic.” Instead of getting caught up in all the glamour, we seek out what really happened.

My 2013 Piece on Christmas at the *Pacific Standard*

Another magazine has bit the dust.  Read Lloyd Grove’s piece at The Daily Beast on the end of the Pacific Standard.

I wrote a piece for the Standard website back in December 2013.  I don’t know if it will disappear or not, so I am re-posting it here.  Here is “Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?“:

The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”

Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.” At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.

According to Palin and her fellow soldiers in the fight, if stores start replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” if schools will not let children sing Christmas carols with strong Christian themes, or if city hall is not permitted to display a manger scene, then America’s Christian civilization is eroding. Those who complain about the “War on Christmas” want us to return to a golden age when Christmas was a more important part of American culture.

Did such a golden age of Christmas ever exist in America? Yes. But if the Christmas culture warriors took an honest look at the history of this holiday in America they may not like what they find.

From the perspective of Christian theology, Christmas is about the Incarnation. It is the story of God revealing himself to humankind in the form of a baby. As the Gospel of John describes it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But in America, the sacred meaning of Christmas has always existed in tension with the profane.

For those who carried English holiday traditions to North America, Christmas was an important day on the church calendar, but the celebration of the birth of the Christ child always took a backseat to week-long festivities characterized by feasting, shooting guns, playing rough music, drinking to excess, disorderly public activity, and all kinds of raucous behavior. Indeed, this was the golden age of Christmas in early America.

And what did the Puritans, those godly Christians who arrived to New England in the early 17th century to establish what their first governor John Winthrop described as a “city upon a hill,” think about Christmas? Certainly in towns like Boston and Plymouth, the places where defenders of American exceptionalism turn today to find the roots of a “Christian America,” Christmas was revered and respected as a sacred day, a fundamental part of the Christian civilization that these settlers were trying to build?

Not really.

The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.

In the mid-17th century the governors of Massachusetts would have probably banned Palin from the colony because she insisted on defending Christmas. After being banned, there is a possibility that Palin would end up in Rhode Island, a colony that had complete religious freedom and where it would have been anathema to consider making any December religious celebration an official or unofficial holiday.

There is an important history lesson in all of this. When we try to use history to score political points in the present we end up picking the things in the past that suit our needs and ignoring the rest. This is bad history.

The history of Puritan New England works just fine for us if we want to show that parts of early America were founded by Christians with Christian motivations for settlement. Ronald Reagan loved to compare America to a “city upon a hill.” Christian nationalists turn to the Pilgrims to teach their children about the nation’s “Godly heritage.” But the history of Puritan New England does not help us at all if we want to win the “War on Christmas.”

Of course, we are free to think anything we want about how our culture should or should not acknowledge Christmas. But let’s be careful when we use history to make our points.

What Happened to “Silent Night?”

Here is what you can expect this Christmas at Robert Jeffress‘s First Baptist Church in Dallas:

Looks like the Little Drummer Boy’s Par-rum-pa-pum-pum has transformed into a “spectacular percussion performance.”  Muscular Christianity at its best (worst?).

Sleep in heavenly peace….

What Does the Trump Administration Mean by “Religious Freedom?”

jeff-sessions

At the State Department’s recent “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that there is a “dangerous movement, undetected by many” that is “challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.”  This “dangerous movement,” Sessions added, “must be confronted and defeated.”

I am part of the camp that believes people with deeply-held religious beliefs on social issues should be free to uphold those beliefs in a pluralistic society.  In other words, there are times when liberty of conscience in matters of religion should be protected despite the fact that others might see these beliefs as discriminatory.  When it comes to living together with such deeply-held convictions, I hope for what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as “confident pluralism.”

Having said that, I am not a fan of the way the Trump administration uses “religious liberty” to invoke fear.  I wrote about this kind of fear-mongering in my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Sessions’s use of words like “dangerous” and “undetected by many” and “confronted and defeated” wreaks of political scare tactics and culture-war rhetoric.  I am surprised he did not roll out the phrase “deep state.”

Sessions claims that “ministers are fearful to affirm, as they understand it, holy writ from the pulpit.”  First, I don’t know of any contemporary cases, if any, in which government has threatened ministers from preaching from the Bible.  Fear is often based on false information.  Second, I suspect Sessions is conflating the preaching of “holy writ” from the pulpit with the endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit.  This is how many pro-Trump evangelicals understand “religious liberty.” This is why Sessions and Trump get so bent out of shape by the “Johnson Amendment.”  (Frankly, I think Trump could care less about the Johnson Amendment, but if he can promise its repeal he can gain political points with the evangelicals in his base).

Sessions goes on.  He talks about the ways the Pilgrims in Plymouth, the Catholics in Maryland, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Scots-Presbyterians in the middle colonies (Sessions apparently does not realize that Pennsylvania is a middle colony and most Scots-Irish came to Penn’s colony), and Roger Williams in Rhode Island championed religious freedom.  He adds: “Each one of these groups and others knew what it was like to be hated, persecuted, outnumbered, and discriminated against.”  What Sessions fails to note is that the Pilgrims (and Puritans in Massachusetts Bay) did not provide this precious religious freedom to people who did not have the same religious beliefs as they did.  He fails to note that Roger Williams founded Rhode Island because he was kicked out of Massachusetts Bay for failing to conform to Puritan orthodoxy (among other things).  He fails to note that Puritans executed Quakers in Boston Commons.

I could go on, but I don’t have the time or inclination right now to exegete Sessions’s entire speech.  It is worth noting, however, that all of Sessions’s examples of religious liberty are Christian examples.  There is no mention of religious liberty for Muslims, Jews, or other people of faith.  Parts of Sessions’s address read like a Trump stump speech.  He lauds Trump for making it safe to say “Merry Christmas” again.  Really?  Is this what the Trump administration means when they say they are going to champion religious liberty?  This sounds more like the kind of Christian civilization those “liberty-loving” Puritans and Pilgrims wanted to create back in 17th New England.  (Ironically, these early American Calvinists did not celebrate Christmas because they thought it was a pagan holiday).

OK, I am rambling.  But if you want some context on the way Trump and his minions think about religious liberty, I encourage you to check out Jason Lupfer’s recent piece at Religion & Politics.  It is worth your time.

N.T. Wright on Christmas

WrightThis Advent season, on the recommendation of several The Way of Improvement Leads Home readers, I am reading Biblical scholar N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

I don’t know Wright’s body of work very well, but I am sure that somewhere he has written about the incarnation.  But in Surprise by Hopethe focus is on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even to the point of taking a few shots at the church for spending far too much time commemorating Christmas and not enough time celebrating Easter.

A taste:

Christmas itself has now far outstripped Easter in popular culture as the real celebratory center of the Christian year–a move that completely reverses the New Testament emphasis.  We sometimes try, in hymns, prayers, and sermons, to build a whole theology on Christmas, but it can’t in fact sustain such a thing.  We then keep Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday so thoroughly that we have hardly any energy left for Easter except for the first night and day.  Easter, however, should be the center.  Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left. (p.23).

And this:

…we should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts, anything that comes to mind.  This is our greatest festival.  Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else.  Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins.

I think Wright may have overstated his case here about “taking Christmas away” because it is only referenced in two chapters in two Gospels.  But I get his point.