With Christmas just around the corner, we at the Acton Institute would like to pause and share with all of you our warmest wishes for a blessed Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year to all of our friends and supporters. Acton Institute President Rev. Robert A. Sirico recorded this personal Christmas greeting, and we’re pleased to share it with you now.
Christmas is the most widely observed cultural holiday in the world. Here are five factsyou should know about the annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus:
1. No one knows what day or month Jesus was born (though some scholars speculate that it was in September). The earliest evidence for the observance of December 25 as the birthday of Christ appears in the Philocalian Calendar, composed in Rome in 336.
2. Despite the impression given by many nativity plays and Christmas carols, the Bible doesn’t specify: that Mary rode a donkey; that an innkeeper turned away Mary and Joseph (only that there was no room at the inn); that Mary gave birth to Jesus the day she arrived in Bethlehem (only that it happened “while they were there”); that angels sang (only that the “heavenly host” spoke and praised God); that there were three wise men (no number is specified); or that the Magi arrived the day/night of Jesus’ birth. Rather than being born in a stable, Jesus was likely born in a cave or a shelter built into a hillside. As Sarah E. Dahl explains, the hills around Bethlehem were dotted with small caves for feeding and boarding livestock. The exact site of Jesus’ birth is unknown, but by the third century, tradition had established a probable cavern. Constantine’s mother, Helena, erected the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem over the small space.
Over the last century, Christianity has declined in social influence across much of the Western world, leading many to believe it has little place or purpose in public life.
In response, Christian reactions have varied, with the more typical approaches being fortification (“hide!”), domination (“fight!”), or accommodation (“blend in!”). In each case, the response takes the shape of heavy-handed strategery or top-down mobilization, whether to or from the hills.
And yet the cultural witness of the church ought to flow (or overflow) a bit differently. For Greg Forster, it has less to do with “cultural lever-pulling,” and a whole lot more to do with joy.
“Christianity is losing its influence in contemporary America because people outside the church just don’t encounter the joy of God as much as they used to,” Forster writes in his latest book, Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. “…The joy of God can do what cultural lever-pulling can’t do.”
As we experience the joy of God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, our attitudes and activities are transformed. As Christians, our primary task is not to take that transformation and funnel it toward end-game tactics, but to faithfully embody it across culture: blessing our neighbors and cultivating civilization, whether in the family, our work and the economy, or citizenship and community (Forster’s three main categories). (more…)
OK, this is going to be a tough call. But Acton Research Fellow Jordan Ballor has bravely stepped up with his nominee for the “Worst Christmas Song Ever” in a piece for Patheos. His pick? Band Aid’s syrupy “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” Ballor reminds us that the song …
… was released in 1984 as part of Band Aid, an effort organized by Bob Geldof in response to a famine that struck the east African nation of Ethiopia. The song certainly captures the spirit of the season, as its charitable aims are noble enough. The problem, however, is in how these good intentions are translated into word and deed. The song describes Africa largely as a barren wasteland, “Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.” It continues in this vein. Africa, the onetime breadbasket of the Roman Empire and home of the Nile River is a land “where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow.” The title question likewise plays into the supposed desperation of the continent. The only “Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.” The response to this call is supposed to be charity from the affluent West, to “feed the world” and thereby “let them know it’s Christmastime again.”
In this depiction of Africa, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” perfectly encapsulated the patronizing approach to international development that dominated the twentieth century and is still largely with us today. On this account, rich people in Europe and North America have a duty to help those who cannot help themselves in Africa, a place destitute not only of material resources but also spiritual and intellectual assets as well. As development economist William Easterly has argued, this attitude evinces a kind of tyrannical neo-colonialism, where the power, knowledge, and wealth lies entirely with the “First World” and those in the developing world are reduced to a kind of vassalage.
Agree with Ballor? Give us your pick for the worst Christmas song ever in the comment boxes below.
As Christians living in a secular age, there’s a temptation to use Christmas as a wedge to wage epic new battles to restore Christendom.
But despite the flurry of hackneyed “War on Christmas” tropes, there is, alas, something rather amiss. Though the battlefront may not be a petty replacement of “Merry Christmas” with “happy holidays,” society is obviously devoid of a true understanding of the season, diluting a celebration about the invasion of heaven to a shallow idolatry of tradition for tradition’s sake.
Yet, as Andrew Ferguson reminds us, despite its best efforts, culture cannot, and indeed, doesn’t want to escape the “true meaning of Christmas” after all. In many ways, Ferguson writes, alluding to G.K. Chesterton’s famous words, it’s impossible to live in a post-Christian age.
Some things can’t be undone, and chief among them is the Light that was lit the first Christmas morning, while choirs of angels sang above,” Ferguson writes. “It can be ridiculed and parodied, satirized and scoffed at, obscured and sentimentalized, but it won’t be extinguished. So even a secular age continues to go through the motions, singing the same songs, sometimes the old songs, without quite knowing why.
And those songs — they bring such revelation and power, wherever they find a welcome set of lungs. (Yes, wherever.)
It is with Christmas music, Ferguson argues, that we see the Christian witness endure at its finest, not via an antagonism of tacky cultural kitsch, but through an elevation of the true and serious joy of Christ:
A good carol, said the great musicologist Percy Deamer, “was witness to the spirit of a more spontaneous and undoubting faith.” The effusions were organic, growing from the bottom up, and like the Gospels themselves, filled with metaphors taken from field and hearth…
…To take life”—and hence Christmas—”with real seriousness is to take it joyfully,” Deamer went on. “For seriousness is only sad when it is superficial: the carol is thus nearer to the truth because it is jolly.” The opposite isn’t necessarily true, by the way. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” [by Mariah Carey] might be described as jolly; no one would describe it as serious. “Joy to the World,” on the other hand, is both. A Christmas carol is meant to liberate us from phony seriousness and phony good cheer.
In the past that lesson has often been lost, at times even more thoroughly than in our own day—a reminder that should cheer us up, if you’ll forgive the expression. The serious joy, or the joyful seriousness, of Christmas is offensive to the grim Christian.
Carols offer a profound example of cultural engagement done right, shining a blinding light that, by virtue of its truth, goodness, and beauty, welcomes a lost world even as it wages war against hell.
Thus, as we worship and magnify Jesus this Christmas season, let us avoid petty battles against petty gods, whether of blind consumerism or nostalgic knick-knackery. Instead, let us exude and share the serious joy that comes from being a child of the living God. Let us simply sing, and sing of Jesus.
And let earth receive her King.
Friedrich Hayek once called intellectuals “professional secondhand dealers in ideas.” And the Preacher proclaimed, “There is nothing new under the sun.” So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising when ideas, memes, and other cultural phenomena pop up again and again.
There is, however, a notable correspondence between an Acton Commentary that I wrote earlier this month, “The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” and a piece that appeared weeks earlier at The Federalist. In “‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ Is The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” Leslie Loftis takes down this miserable tune in devastating fashion. Loftis points out that the song “has a little of everything to loathe. Condescension. Inane inaccuracies. Smugness. Mullets.”
Whether or not you have read my commentary, you should go check out her case against the song now.
I first noticed the song, which heretofore had been background Christmas muzak, when we screened the new documentary Poverty, Inc. earlier this year at the Acton Institute offices. That film includes a section discussing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Matthea Brandenburg helpfully points out some further commentary by Magatte Wade and others about the song over at the PovertyCure blog.
When Christmas rolled around, I had the idea to write something about the song, and connected it with William Easterly’s analysis of the differing perspectives on development offered by Gunnar Myrdal and Hayek. But I now think that even though I hadn’t read Loftis’ piece, I had seen the title before I wrote my piece. In fact, I checked Ben Domenech’s excellent email newsletter The Transom, to which you should subscribe, and there on December 3 is the following: ‘“Do They Know It’s Christmas” is the worst Christmas song ever. http://vlt.tc/1qf7‘
No doubt I saw the link, and got the idea for calling it the “worst ever” into my head. Then some days later I connected it to the Poverty, Inc. clip and wrote my piece. So the idea for calling this the worst Christmas song ever must be credited to Loftis and The Federalist. I’m sorry that I didn’t realize that Loftis’ piece had already appeared, or I would have pointed to it earlier, and given credit for the idea straight away. So in the interests of disclosure, I certainly haven’t been the only one to criticize this song or even to call it the “worst Christmas song ever.” I guess I’ve got egg(nog) on my face. The variety of voices that find the song problematic, however, should be a indication that there’s something rotten in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” It is, after all, a song that includes a toast like this: “Here’s to them underneath that burning sun.”
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is like a bad earworm that won’t go away. And now I really, really hate that song!
In last week’s Acton commentary, “The Worst Christmas Song Ever,” Jordan Ballor touched on the well-intentioned yet harmful message shared by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” the 1984 song produced by the music group, Band Aid, in response to the famine that struck Ethiopia.
Ballor describes the context and some of the song’s lyrics:
The song describes Africa largely as a barren wasteland, ‘Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.’ It continues in this vein. Africa, the onetime breadbasket of the Roman Empire and home of the Nile River is a land ‘where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow.’ The title question likewise plays into the supposed desperation of the continent. The only ‘Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.’ The response to this call is supposed to be charity from the affluent West, to ‘feed the world’ and thereby ‘let them know it’s Christmastime again.’
The song perpetuates an image of Africans as helpless and dependent on outside assistance to support their well-being. It is true that dire situations exist and increased awareness and emergency aid is needed to prevent loss of life, outbreak of disease, and other severe conditions. But overall, do negative depictions serve to accurately portray people in the “developing world,” and their capacity for producing innovation and change in the areas in which they live?
This is the question I pose in the PovertyCure blog article, “The Hopeless Results of Graphic Poverty Imagery,” which highlights the 1984 Christmas Song and similar versions that have been produced since.
I argue that depicting Africans as incapable and destitute ultimately neglects their true nature as human beings. Though it is true that poverty exists in some corners of Africa (and this should not be ignored), a vibrant, energized environment can be witnessed in many others. There are thousands of entrepreneurs like Senegalese entrepreneur, Magatte Wade, who are establishing creative solutions and finding new markets for business and trade.