Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Atheists, the New York Times, Christmas and Hope

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
December 31, 2006

Raymond J. KeatingMuch of the world doesn't get Christmas. That apparently includes some of those writing in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. But there is hope.

Naturally, since it's after December 25, some people might be wondering: Why write about this now? They believe Christmas is over. But of course, the actual twelve days of Christmas run from Christmas Day through the Vigil of Epiphany on January 5. This is the real Christmas season (at least in the Western Church), not the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas, as the secular world assumes.

There long has been pulling and tugging between the Christian and the secular at Christmas time in this country. But not too long ago, I think it is safe to say that most Christians rarely felt truly threatened by letters to Santa Claus or singing "White Christmas." But then, in more recent times, the overt attacks began on Christmas being, well, Christian.

Christians have not been paranoid in feeling that Christmas has come under assault. A clear effort has been under way to remove the Christian reality from Christmas in the public square - court cases and laws regarding manger scenes on public land, for example, and "Happy Holidays" replacing "Merry Christmas" in stores.

But are we now seeing some backtracking, or just a new phase in the battle? For example, Wal-Mart brought back "Merry Christmas" this year.

Judging by a couple of recent pieces in the New York Times, however, perhaps Christians shouldn't get too comfortable. A deconstruction of Christmas is now going on, so that "Christmas" can mean anything to anyone.

In the December 17 Times, Randy Kennedy wrote a piece titled "An Atheist Can Believe in Christmas." Kennedy pointed out that this year's holiday season could be called "the war-on-Christ Christmas." He noted that best-selling atheist author Sam Harris has a Christmas tree in his living room, and would be exchanging presents and having a big family party.

Harris was quoted: "It seems to me obvious that everything we value in Christmas - giving gifts, celebrating the holiday with our families, enjoying all of the kitsch that comes along with it - all of that has been entirely appropriated by the secular world."

Richard Dawkins, an atheist scientist, declared: "So divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as happy holiday season ... I am a post-Christian atheist."

Unfortunately, most of us probably know people like this.

Several days later, on December 23, Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor (what else?), proclaimed in the New York Times that Christmas really was just a hodgepodge of the pagan, the Christian and the secular. He wrote: "It is the perfect example of America's mainstream process, a national rite that dissolves the boundaries between sacred and secular, pagan and civilized, insiders and outsiders." Later, he added: "It should be possible to enjoy Christmas while recognizing its muted Christian element, even though one is neither religious nor Christian, in much the same way one might enjoy the glories of a Botticelli or Fra Angelico in spite of the unrelenting Christian presence in their art."

But in reality, the non-Christian can never fully appreciate art or music rooted in Christianity - no matter how keen one's eye or ear might be - because they miss the fundamental point. You can't fully know Bach, for example, without being a Christian. Atheists cannot comprehend the soul, purpose and impetus to Christian acts of creation. That is, no matter how much the atheist might contort and twist, they miss the meaning. Since they miss the meaning, they must contrive their own meaning. It is both pathetic and quite sad.

Atheists can deconstruct and try to alter Christmas to fit their own beliefs - or lack thereof - but it is a lie. The notion that Sam Harris knows "everything we value in Christmas" is absurd.

Deep down in, these prominent atheists must understand this absence, which then speaks to an empty existence making it necessary to partake in Christmas on some level. It's inherent in human nature to seek out, and in some way touch or be touched by the Almighty. What better opportunity than at Christmas, when God became man?

So, while always on guard to make clear that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, overall I am more hopeful than angry (though I confess to anger sometimes) when non-Christians participate in the celebration of Christmas. Why? Well, I certainly would advise a non-Christian to read the Bible in the hope that he would see the Light. Similarly, one can hope and pray that at some point, the non-Christian will stop during a Christmas celebration - perhaps while decorating a tree, exchanging a gift or listening to a Christmas tune - and think about and seek out the true meaning of the season.

I am reminded of Professor Wutheridge (portrayed by Monty Wooley) in one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies - "The Bishop's Wife." The professor starts off as an atheist who nonetheless puts up a small Christmas tree each season. He says, "I like to have a Christmas tree because it reminds of my childhood." And at another point, he explains that the tree "gives me the illusion of peace on earth, goodwill towards men."

However, by the end of the film, after a messenger from God touches his life, Professor Wutheridge removes his hat as he heads into church for Christmas Eve service. And he hears the bishop (Henry Brougham played by David Niven) pointing out that a stocking has not been hung up "for the child born in a manger." He continues: "It's his birthday we're celebrating. Don't let us ever forget that."

Indeed, there's simply no getting around it.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report."

This column is from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report," which also includes "Evangelicals, Global Warming and Science," "South Korea and the Power of TV," "Christians, Jews and a New York Agenda," and "The City of David." To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Posted: 31-Dec-06

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