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A few days before the summer solstice—Stephen Hawthorne's first Christmas in Bolivia—he saw women selling moss in the street, and he bought some for a manger scene. He and his wife arranged their Nativity figures on the moss, put some lights around it, and thought it looked lovely. Soon, members of the evangelical church they attended dropped by. "They were absolutely horrified when they saw what we'd done," says Hawthorne. "We said, 'What's the matter?' They said, 'This is idolatry.'"

Oddly enough, Hawthorne says, when he and his family visited one of the churches that condemned manger scenes, "We in our turn were horrified to see this huge blow-up figure of Santa Claus on top of the church. It was a lesson to us about how people give meaning to symbols."

Hawthorne, who has lived in the country 19 years as a medical missionary with Serving in Mission (SIM), says it's not difficult to understand why Bolivian evangelicals tend toward iconoclasm: "Everybody who's not a Christian would have a little box somewhere in their house, and there will be a little figure of a saint that they'll pray to. They'll look to a figure—and it's not just a nice reminder."

In fact Dave Hoffman, a vice president at John Stott Ministries, says Bolivian pastors told him they had to quit putting Nativity scenes outside their churches because "people that were just walking by the church would actually stop and worship the figure of the baby Jesus in the manger."

But evangelicals in Latin America aren't just fighting for obedience to the second commandment. Increasingly, Hoffman says, they are declining to celebrate Christmas at all, let alone decorate. Their reasons have to do with distancing themselves from what they see as pagan worship ...

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December 2008

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