A Santa Claus God for a Santa Claus Culture
Did the September 11 terrorist attacks change Christmas? Miroslav Volf thinks they should.

"Maybe life should not go on as usual, at least not in the way we celebrate Christmas," Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, wrote in Saturday's The Dallas Morning News. "The fires that melted the Twin Towers exposed powerfully the fragility of our lives. Faced with death, we glimpsed what otherwise tends to remain hidden from sight: the ultimate meaninglessness of a consumerist culture."

In a culture where Christ's birth has become an occasion for getting, Volf wrote, God is reduced to a Santa-figure who is "all ears to hear every one of our wishes with an infinite bag full of gifts."

But, Volf argues, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of an infant who showed God's love in a mission that ended in cruel death.

"What baffles us is that someone would give his life for a cause," he wrote. "That does not fit our Santa Claus culture with its Santa Claus god. Our key values are freedom and possession—my freedom and my possession. Most of us don't live for anything larger than ourselves. We cannot fathom dying for anything, except maybe to protect our freedoms and possessions. "

Life is only meaningful when we turn from ourselves and live for God and neighbor, Volf argues. Maybe after September 11, Christmas is a reminder of that.

But the first Christmas after the terrorist attacks may have been changed in other ways, too. Newsday reported that the holiday was also a reminder of pain this year. Grief, sadness, and guilt overshadowed Christmas joy.

"Going out and celebrating, spending money, it seems you're ignoring all those people who have died, who are suffering," Arun Jain, a professor at the University at Buffalo, told Newsday. "[The attacks] had a psychological impact on the American household that's been very deep and very significant."

In response, many Americans have been pulled to Christian messages. Christian music and literature continue on high streaks, while The Washington Post reports Bible sales are way up this holiday season. Though they spiked after the terrorist attacks, sales continue to be strong. Many attribute the continuing numbers to wartime fears, the faltering economy, and layoffs.

"Hard times make people turn to spirituality," said Phil Bujnowski, owner of the Mustard Seed Christian Bookstore across from Loyola University in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, in The Washington Post.

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While in the malls picking up Bibles and other gifts, Christmas shoppers may have been looking for peace of mind as much for bargains. In fact, the Associated Press reported that "storefront mall ministries feel they have a more important role than ever, after the enormous loss of life in the terrorist attacks left people feeling newly vulnerable and reflective."

While this Christmas saw changes, some things returned to normal. "Churches were decorated with poinsettias and wreaths, not American flags, and Christmas carols replaced the patriotic anthems that had become familiar elements of worship," The Boston Globe reports in today's wrap-up of area services.

"In this year of national unrest and international strife, it can be very hard to speak the words of peace and goodwill," The Rev. Earl K. Holt III, the minister of King's Chapel in downtown Boston, told The Globe. "But that is all the more reason to speak them."

Bush to sit in for Pat Robertson
Washington Post writer Dana Milbank reports that Pat Robertson's resignation as the head of the Christian Coalition is just part of a larger picture: President George W. Bush has become the de facto leader of the Religious Right; former Religious Right leaders are becoming less politically active; and the President is taking his message directly to religiously conservative voters without having to seek the blessing of Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and others.

Two assertions of Milbank's article need to be challenged:

First, he asserts that James Dobson has "retreated from political involvement." It all depends on what the meaning of "political" is. Milbank can't mean electoral politics, since there's been little of that since the 2000 election. But if he means culture-shaping conservative activism, Dobson has been very active of late—for example, mobilizing the public pressure that caused the Salvation Army to turn back from a decision to offer domestic partner benefits for homosexual employees.

Second, the article quotes a senior aide as saying, "[Bush] does not believe he was chosen for this moment." Au contraire! In November, Christianity Today's Tony Carnes gathered evidence that the President does indeed believe that after the atrocities of September 11, his sense of divine calling for public service at a crucial time was once again confirmed.

Does the President think of himself as the leader of religious conservatives? No. Does he believe God has called him to lead the nation in a defining moment? Very likely.

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Launched in 1999, Christianity Today’s Weblog was not just one of the first religion-oriented weblogs, but one of the first published by a media organization. (Hence its rather bland title.) Mostly compiled by then-online editor Ted Olsen, Weblog rounded up religion news and opinion pieces from publications around the world. As Christianity Today’s website grew, it launched other blogs. Olsen took on management responsibilities, and the Weblog feature as such was mothballed. But CT’s efforts to round up important news and opinion from around the web continues, especially on our Gleanings feature.
Ted Olsen
Ted Olsen is Christianity Today's executive editor. He wrote the magazine's Weblog—a collection of news and opinion articles from mainstream news sources around the world—from 1999 to 2006. In 2004, the magazine launched Weblog in Print, which looks for unexpected connections and trends in articles appearing in the mainstream press. The column was later renamed "Tidings" and ran until 2007.
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