I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi on opening day with a group of rowdy teenagers. It was the most entertaining movie experience I’ve had in a while, and I expect to watch it many more times. The movie was just about perfect in technical execution and never lost my attention even for a minute.
I also had some hesitation about how the overarching Star Wars narrative seemed to be mutating into something ‘un-star warsy.’ Much ink has been spilt on how this Star Wars subverts expectation, blazes a new path, is a bold new twist on an old classic etc. I imagine the series would become predictably bland if the new trilogy continued to mimic the beats of the old. If you’d like to hear a critical take on these changes, just google “Star Wars.” I imagine the first 50 hits are people very angered by the new direction. Why?
Well, all of the aesthetics of Star Wars are there—Stormtroopers, light sabers, space battles—but the core story elements and tone are different. The lines between good and evil are blurred, The Force™ has been ‘democratized’ more or less, old gatekeepers of the story (both actors and directors) are sent off and new figures with new motivations are introduced. To many a Star Wars fanboy who has invested quite a bit of time figuring out how the Star Wars universe works, this film doesn’t so much “subvert” expectations as outright rebel against the previous canon, written or unwritten. It sure did seem like Star Wars, but something was off, something went afoul. But good luck convincing the teeming masses of people who saw and loved The Last Jedi.
Now, here is where I lose you if I haven’t already. This, to me, seems like an great analogy for the quote/unquote War on Christmas.
Still there? Ok.
Some Christians who are familiar with the Christmas story found in Matthew and Luke, yearly find themselves in something of a battle against the rising tide of a cultural Christmas that seems very un-Christmasy. The anxiety behind the “War on Christmas” is the growing concern that Christmas is being replaced with something else. All the aesthetics are there—carols, gifts, and even nativity scenes—but the core story elements and tone are different. This cultural Christmas isn’t about how we were so helpless and sinful that we needed God to write himself into the story. Nope, now it’s about hope and gratitude— the Christmas Spirit! Hope in our own ability and gratitude so that we don’t seem so arrogant, and an impersonal force made up of good vibes/deeds and egg nog. And hey, if “Christmas Spirit” doesn’t ring your bell, how about “Holiday Cheer!” Too much like “Holy Day”? Ok, um, “Season’s Greetings”? Unless you live somewhere without seasons of course.
What was the apex—or nadir—of this cultural confusion about Christmas? This year’s Dancing with the Stars “Little Drummer Boy” number. Bonus points if you guessed that. Go ahead and click on the link, listen and watch—if you can. It’s a Magic Mike-esque male striptease set to Justin Bieber’s version of Little Drummer Boy. Bieber, who converted to Christianity a few years after he recorded this rendition, intones,
Playing for the King, playing for the title I’m surprised you didn’t hear this in the Bible I’m so tight I might go psycho Christmas time so here’s a recital I’m so bad like Michael I know I’m still young but I go I go Stupid, stupid, love like cupid I’ma drummer boy so do, do
If you can make sense of that, let me know. In either case, a half-dozen, grinding guys with waxed chests is not the first thing I think of when I hear “our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King.” But it fits in perfectly with cultural Christmas. This kind of Christmas can be celebrated by anyone and you can include all the accoutrements like carols, gifts and even nativity scenes. As long as people have the feelings of hope and gratitude, who cares what the overarching narrative is? Ironically, the very popularity of Christmas, which made it a cultural “thing”, is the same popularity that has led to this eerie permutation. ABC isn’t trying to do a new spin on Chanukah. They are not parodying Kwanzaa.
The “War on Christmas” will probably continue like this for a while, until the USA looks more like the UK, where 53% of the population self-describes as not religious yet 75% of the population likes Christmas. There’s still a deep familiarity with the Christmas story there, and even a good turn out at church around Christmas, and if that’s all Christians in the USA are after, then squelching micro-aggressions like “Happy Holidays” and abstract Starbucks cups will do the trick. Nativity scenes will not disappear, but they’ll evoke a sense of nostalgia, instead of deep need. Gifts will remind us of our childhood, not Jesus’s. Carols will stir up emotions, but no thoughts.
If we want for people to know the core, the ‘why’ of Christmas, it will take more than the aesthetics. It will take more than preserving all the Christmas-things that people already like and agree with. People like Baby Jesus— they’re less amused with “take up your cross and follow me” Jesus. The self-denial at the center of Christianity is not marketable, and, if anything, completely undoes the industry built up around Christmas.
What does Christmas look like when Christians take up their cross throughout? I’m not quite sure. I imagine it would be such a bold new twist on a cultural tradition, that many would complain, but many more would be overjoyed with the great depth and expanse of what Christmas really is.