Major media across the country have given a great deal of attention to a recent research report that comes from the Pew Research Center. The headline from the Pew website is this,
“Americans Say Religious Aspects of Christmas Are Declining in Public Life: Shrinking majority believe biblical account of birth of Jesus depicts actual events.”
Well, let’s just look at that for a moment. Those two separate parts of the headline really aren’t speaking to the same reality at all. Which is the bigger story? Well, the New York Times declares what it sees as important when it ran an article by Liam Stack with the headline, “Most Decline to Choose Sides in ‘War on Christmas.’”
Stack reported, “Combatants in the annual ‘War on Christmas’ have some new data to chew on, thanks to a survey released this week by the Pew Research Center. While many doubt that Christmas is embattled, as some conservative pundits contend.” He concluded: “The new study does suggest American attitudes are changing.”
Both sides in our cultural conflict have made too much at times and at other times too little of the war on Christmas. There really has been a secularist attempt to try to sideline, redefine, and marginalize Christmas. But there’ve also been some amongst conservative Christians who’ve tried to make too much of the war on Christmas, replacing matters of mere etiquette for what should be a serious discussion of theology. As The New York Times sees the news, the big story from this report from Pew has to do with the fact that there is a decline in social conflict over Christmas — or at least how most Americans seem to perceive such a “war,” but it also tells us that a fewer number of Americans are actually celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday. Now that sounds like a more interesting part of the report, and indeed it is. It tells us that over the course of the last several years Americans have decreasingly defined Christmas in terms of their own personal and family celebrations as a religious event, and that may be one reason why those on the secular side believe there’s less reason for a controversy over Christmas. If Christmas is secularized, secular people are certainly less threatened or offended by it.
To be sure, there are still arguments over whether or not nativity scenes should be allowed on public property, and there are at least some skirmishes over the kinds of holiday greetings that may be used by clerks in stores or even by corporations and advertising. But the bigger story here, from a Christian perspective, is certainly what was in the subhead of the headline from the Pew Research Center. It was this: “Shrinking majority believe biblical account of birth of Jesus depicts actual events.”
In the words of the Pew report,
“Among the topics probed by the new survey, one of the most striking changes in recent years involves the share of Americans who say they believe the birth of Jesus occurred as depicted in the Bible. Today, 66 percent say they believe Jesus was born to a virgin, down from 73 percent in 2014. Likewise, 68 percent of U.S. adults now say they believe that the wise men were guided by a star and brought gifts for baby Jesus, down from 75 percent. And, there are similar declines in the shares of Americans who believe that Jesus’ birth was heralded by an angel of the Lord and that Jesus was laid in a manger as an infant.”
The final statistic,
“Overall, 57 percent of Americans now believe in all four of these elements of the Christmas story, down from 65 percent in 2014.”
Interestingly, from several decades ago I remember what would be called a parlor game at Christmas parties, prominent among evangelical Christians, in which there were a series of true or false questions about the Christmas story. What was often revealed in the game is that many Christians knew things that simply aren’t in the Bible and didn’t know truths that are. For example, the Bible doesn’t tell us how many of the magi (the wise men) came from the east to find Jesus, but the New Testament certainly tells us that they did. Biblical Christians will certainly be interested in this report, and in that number that was given that 57 percent of Americans now believe in all four of the elements of the Christmas story that were asked about the research. By the way all four of them clearly revealed in Scripture, let me just remind you, (1.) that Jesus was born of a virgin; (2.) that the angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds; (3.) that the wise men, or the Magi, brought Jesus gifts; and (4.) that Jesus, once born, was laid in a manger. Now as any Christian would understand, those are four very familiar truth claims in terms of the Christmas story.
A further look at the data from Pew means that this study is actually even more interesting. For example, the slippage when it comes to decreasing belief in the historicity or the facticity of these events from the life of Jesus revealed in Scripture, is found primarily in just one religious cohort. Who would that be? Well to no surprise, mainline liberal Protestants.
How does that line up? Well in 2014, 83 percent of those identified as mainline liberal Protestants said that they believed in at least all four of those crucial aspects of the birth of Christ, but in 2017, remember that just three years, only 71 percent. That’s a fall off of 12 percent in just three years in terms of the number of mainline Protestant saying that they believed in the truthfulness of all four of those aspects of the birth of Jesus revealed in the Gospels. Among evangelical Protestants, the figure in 2014 was 96, and 2017 95; that’s a 1 percent shift that isn’t statistically important, but what is important is that 12 percent loss amongst mainline liberal Protestants. But there’s also another divide revealed in this story, and it turns out that it is a partisan divide. Pew asked respondents to the survey if they identified as Republican or Democrat, huge change there. In 2017, 81 percent of Republicans said they affirmed all four of those truth claims concerning the birth of Christ but only 58 percent of Democrats said the same; that’s a huge difference between 81 percent and 58 percent. But from a Christian perspective, given our concerns about Christmas and our responsibility to tell the Christmas story right, what does this survey tell us? Well it tells us that a significant number of Americans, including some who clearly identify as Christians, don’t have an adequate belief in and confidence in some of the most basic truths and facts about the birth of Christ. Now, why would that be the case? Well, in this case it’s probably not excusable by ignorance. If you’re talking about other biblical truths it just might be that there are some Christians who have never adequately understood them, but when it comes to these core truth claims it’s hard to make that argument. The Christmas story is told over and over and over again, so this represents an explicit denial of very clear biblical truths. Here, Christians have to remember that the Christian faith stands or falls on space and time in history. The claim, very clearly presented in Scripture, that the events that are recorded there and revealed concerning Jesus, not only his birth but the entirety of all the truth claims made about Christ in the New Testament and furthermore the entirety of all the truth claims made in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, all of these are essential to the Christian faith, and when it comes to the facts concerning the birth of Christ not one of them is expendable, every one of them is essential.
Writing back in the year 1930, the great Protestant theologian J. Gresham Machen reminded us that even then there were those who were arguing that you could believe in Jesus without the facts concerning his birth and his life. Machen argued in his great book, The Virgin Birth of Christ, that there were those who claim to be Christians and yet argue that the historical truths concerning the birth of Christ are expendable. One can gain inspiration from the moral example of Jesus and claim to be Christian, they argue, while jettisoning the biblical truths concerning the birth of Christ. Machen responded by saying that whatever the religion left after such denials may be, it isn’t Christianity. Whatever it is, it doesn’t save sinners from their sin. So make what you will of that partisan divide, the most important revelation in this story is a theological divide, and that theological divide is mislabeled by Pew. We can understand why Pew would use the language they use, but if you’re talking about people who deny the basic truths concerning Jesus, you’re not talking about people who are rightly described as Christians. Theologically, whatever they are, they are adherents of a different religion.
But as Christians celebrate Christmas, and as we watch others doing the same, we must remind ourselves that we are only saved because the Word indeed became flesh and dwelt among us, and because we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. And if Jesus was not born of a virgin, then his birth has to be explained in some other way, and whatever way that is, it’s going to be in direct contradiction to the Scripture. Christians celebrate the glory of Christmas because we understand the glory of Christ. If you deny anything revealed of Christ in the New Testament, you are robbing him of his glory, and you are creating a new religion that will eventually preach a different gospel.
So, celebrate a Christian Christmas, filled with the glory–and the truth–of the incarnation. Merry Christmas.
This is an edited transcript from the Friday, December 15, 2017 edition of The Briefing.
Pew Research Center: “Americans Say Religious Aspects of Christmas Are Declining in Public Life,” December 12, 2017.
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Publication date: December 29, 2017