By: Jose Sánchez-Perry
Editor’s Note: Jose Sánchez-Perry graduated from Northwestern College in Iowa (2011) with a major in Religion. Currently, he is finalizing a Master of Divinity at Southern Methodist University, and is hoping to pursue a doctorate in World Christianity, thereafter. Jose works as an assistant editor for Apuntes: theological reflections from the Latino- Hispanic perspective, published through SMU. He and his wife, Alli (2011), live in Dallas TX, with their three- legged dog, Maya.
In other words, Jose is much smarter than the rest of us.
This season, Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the remembrance of God becoming flesh. The celebration represents the intimacy of the God of Israel, and this God’s passion to come close to humanity. At the climax of the narrative that may be said to begin with the calling of Abraham, the Son of God was sent in order to bring good news and goodwill to all.
While visiting my family in the cold winter of the Iowan farmlands, my wife and I decided to visit a mega church in the city of Des Moines. More like a shopping center, this mall-church served Starbucks coffee in their bookstore, had a large basketball court in their basement, and an orchestra before you walked into the movie theater—excuse me, sanctuary. Notwithstanding, it appears to be the case that this has become the mainstream church ambience in many Christian circles of the United States. Even if it is in small towns, certain churches seem to be more preoccupied with attractions, rock concerts, and creating that evocative, happy feeling, than with preaching the good news, especially around the Christmas season.
The attempt to lure people into worship places by assimilating to culture can, at times, be dangerous; particularly if it is done with inappropriate intentions. The general term for this process has been coined Christianization. In other words, Christianity can appropriate culture (symbols, lore, music, etc.) which initially did not belong to the actual religious narrative. But by procuring it, Christians can make it part of their story.
Not surprisingly, this was the case with this mall-church in Des Moines. The sermon consisted of the preacher’s experience in his recent tourist expedition to Israel, indirectly exhorting his congregation on how Jesus wanted large financial blessings for everyone. But I suppose that we all have heard and critiqued the prosperity gospel in the past. By the end of his message, the preacher pointed towards the center stage, where a lighted manger was located. Mary and Joseph appeared in the back of the amphitheater (sanctuary!), walking near the front. And then Joseph, with his raspy voice, began to sing: “Settle down, it’ll all be clear . . .” Before my eyes, there was the carpenter, singing a song that I currently hear in the secular radio station.
I had to think for a moment. The band Mumford & Sons was now associated with God-become-flesh.
But what does God-become-flesh have to do with Mumford & Sons? Or, as one ancient theologian in the third century posited, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian’s question suggested that platonic and philosophical interpretations on the scriptures were not compatible with the Jewish, Jesus movement. In other words, he wanted to maintain a clear distinction between what was allegedly labeled Christian, and what was not. And I wonder how many of us, who supposedly stick to the Bible alone, wouldn’t agree.
As I have pointed out above, this mega church had now Christianized this popular, mainstream song. To some degree, I suppose that I was disgusted. I felt cheated. The meaning of Christmas was now in the hands of a band that had no intentions of professing the birth of God in the flesh. The theological work of our ancestors, who propagated the importance of this historical account, was annexed for the sake of parody. The salvific importance of God assuming our flesh was placed aside for the sake of entertainment.
If you haven’t guessed already, I am suggesting that the answer to this pressing question is: nothing! What does God-become-flesh have to do with Mumford & Sons? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Or what does Jesus have to do with capitalism, individualism, and financial wealth?
On the other hand, as I understand it, it is impossible to separate culture and religion. In its most intrinsic state, these two giants will always influence each other, as long as it is up to humans to maintain their demarcation. However, there are ways in order to be responsible church leaders and theologians. In Galatians chapter 3, St. Paul pressed their congregation, by saying, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Having started with the spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” I am proposing here, just like St. Paul, that our faith, heritage, and religious narrative, is something sacred. And for this reason, Christmas should not be cheapened with cultural secularization, simply because we think that others may want to join our church.
As it is, Christmas is already a syncretistic season of spending and wasting for Jesus.
Having started with the spirit are we now ending with the flesh? Are we ending the fleshly birth of our God with a band that gives vague allusions to universal, new age spirituality?
May it never be.