Santa or Christ? In the world but not of it
For His most true prophet says: ‘But it is good for me to draw near to God.’ Among the philosophers, the question is asked, What is the final good, to the achievement of which all our duties are to be referred? The psalmist did not say, It is good for me to have plenty of money, or to wear imperial purple and bear a sceptre and diadem. Nor did he say, as not a few philosophers have said without shame, It is good for me to have bodily pleasure; or, as worthier philosophers have been seen to say, It is good for me to have virtue of the soul. Rather, he said: ‘It is good for me to draw near to God.’
City of God, 10.18, Augustine
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
1 John 2:16-17
We’re not so bad at distinguishing between real Christmas and Santa Christmas. Some Christians might be ok with mentioning Santa to their children or incorporating it into our traditions while still clarifying what Christmas is about. Perhaps you’ve watched the movie Elf to celebrate the holiday. I am convinced however, that we are ever always losing our discernment between the things of the City of God and of the City of Man. We can’t tell the difference of importance between Caeser and Christ. When I first read The City of God back in 2005, I thought the same thing. I think that this syncretism has taken a deeper and more bitter root in the church than we could have imagined today.
Let me give a few examples. When I was growing up, we would sometimes sing patriotic songs in church. Now I don’t have anything against patriotic songs, but when the church gathering is a service of worship to our Lord, and we’re singing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another, a song sung to our country is a little off. Why? Because it isn’t the place for that kind of song, not so different than if I were to sing a love song to my wife in church. Other churches (not my own) will have political figures speak in the place of the sermon. I already have a hard time if we allow a missionary presentation in place of the sermon let alone a political sermon. It seems to me that if such a political figure were both qualified to teach the Bible and laid down the arms of his political office publicly, there might be a place for it. But I am certain this isn’t always the case. Robert Jefress and First Baptist Church Dallas is perhaps the most famous example quite recently of blurring the lines between worship of God and worship of state. But unfortunately many others too are tempted to mix the two to the point where they were undiscernible There was a ‘Christian’ rally called the Jericho March last December which should cause grief to any Christian who confesses Christ. Perhaps the people who participated in the thing regret it, I don’t know. I’m only pointing out that this is closer to many of us than we realize. I’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s book, ‘Live not by lies.’ In it he details what he thinks should be a Christian response to totalitarian governmental overreach. I don’t exactly disagree with his observations. I am concerned however that he proposes a Christian response without bringing us to the Word of truth. There are only veiled references to Scripture that fit within his broader narrative in his manual for how a Christian should live. His principles are simply based on the experience of people who suffered under communism. Again, there is this mixture of the world and the faith without discernment, and I hear his answers (not those of the scriptures’) often in innocuous conversations as though the answer for how to live with totalitarianism is found in the experience of Russian and Czech dissidents. What is truth? Conservatives are basing truth almost exclusively on experience alongside the liberals! There is no room for an authority outside of myself, not even the scriptures.
I heard a pastor mention today in a podcast, ‘Each of us has to look for our own syncretism.’ Syncretism is where we add to and mix our Christian faith with something else. Some of us mix our faith with the sermons of, ‘Eat, enjoy the comfort of your own home, don’t bother seeking to make disciples.’ Others mixed their faith with the worldly doctrine of fear or laziness, neglecting the gathering because Covid hit, and it isn’t as important as the extra sleep I get, the bother of getting put together to go out, or as avoiding that risky situation. Others mix our faith with our desire for God’s kingdom to come in our land. Still others seem to treat (I think unconsciously) the Bill of Rights as though it were the capstone of biblical interpretation. We say to ourselves, ‘Freedom of religion is the most important right we have,’ as though rights play that kind of role in the Christian faith (they don’t, unless you are concerned to lay down your rights for the sake of the gospel). Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, Bear Arms, etc., is treated as more beloved than God’s word. Don’t get me wrong, they are meaningful, and I super think they’ve been great, but here we must consider a Christian response. For example, although some claim religious exemptions to various things for worthy reasons (think of a deeply Christian concern about the use of Fetal Cell Lines in medical technology), I don’t believe claiming a religious exemption because you are autonomous lines up with scripture.
What are we to do? The first thing we must do is pray. Pray that we do not make the things we love (whether our rights or our couches) essential to our faith. Pray that we would have eyes clear to see the difference between prudential government and the more lasting city of God. In other words: keep Santa and Christ in their lanes. The second thing we should do is consider repenting of our syncretism. Consider what it is that you value and you shouldn’t. Do you treat your personal autonomy as sacrosanct? Perhaps you should revisit the word of Christ and follow the example of Paul who makes himself all things to all people to win som. Third, we should remember that our view of the world is not the whole world. Or as Augustine reminds us from the psalms, ‘What is our highest good?’ Answer, ‘Not to have plenty of money, not to be a status symbol, not to have all my rights all the time, not to forever preserve religious liberty. No, it is that you and I draw near to God.’ I am haunted often by our missionary’s words in Taiwan, ‘Freedom has made their hearts hard.’ If at the end of the day, we are most concerned that God is glorified and that we are faithful to make disciples of all nations, who’s to say how God does this? At the end of the day the American experiment was beneficial for the church, for a time. What if in God’s providence, he chooses to use a Gengis Khan again to bring the gospel to the nations like he did so long ago? What if he chooses again to use another imperial Rome with its Caligulas and Neros to make the gospel sweet to people’s ears. Although I am happy to hear of people fighting for religious freedom, I also must hold these things lightly because I am concerned that God is the one who is at work through the big and little things in the world. In fact, I wonder if there might be a higher ratio of Christians in communist China than in the Republic of China (Taiwan). At the end of the day, we must be more concerned and make more effort in making disciples than in preserving our lifestyle. Only one of these will endure.