|How N.T. Wright Stole Christmas|
|Written by Peter J. Leithart|
|Saturday, 26 December 2009 16:48|
Several years ago, when The Passion of the Christ was making headlines, I realized that N. T. Wright has spoiled every Jesus film. Once you’ve read Wright, you realize that none of the movies get Jesus right. Pharisees and scribes are reduced stock villains with caricatured Jewish features. Pilate has to make an appearance, and Herod, but we are given no sense that first-century
No film ever gives us what Wright says we should be looking for: a “crucifiable” Jesus, a Jesus who does something so provocative to make the Jews murderously hostile. In the movies, Jesus is a hippy peace-child, a delicate flower of a man, a dew-eyed first-century Jewish Gandhi. Why would anyone want to hurt Him? Maybe because He’s so annoyingly precious; but that’s not the story of the gospels.
Just this year, I had another realization. N. T. Wright has spoiled Christmas too.
He made me see the fairly radical difference in tone and content between Advent and Christmas hymns. Advent hymns, as you’d expect, are full of longing, and the language of the prophets. Advent hymns are about
“How lovely shines the Morning Star; the nations see and hail afar, the light in
“Wake, awake, for night is flying; the watchmen on the heights are crying; awake
Advent hymns are about
When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out. How many Christmas hymns mention
Christmas hymns focus a great deal of attention on the details of the Christmas story, as is fitting. There are shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph and the baby in a manger, magi from the east. Sometimes the details are inaccurate (we don’t know there were three kings), Jesus did cry when He was a baby. And Christmas seems to elicit some of the worst and most sentimental poetry ever written.
When the Old Testament is mentioned at all, Christmas hymns tend to reach back to Adam. Jesus is the “Second Adam from above” who has come to “efface Adam’s likeness.” Jesus is David’s Son, but how many Christmas hymns mention Abraham? It’s as if the whole history of
They announce the fulfillment of longing for heaven. What has Jesus come to do? To listen to Advent hymns, you’d think He comes to restore
Christmas hymns do have their political themes. We sing of the angels marking the birth of the “newborn King,” Joy to the world is full of the language of rule and re-creation: Let earth receive her king; the Savior reigns; He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love. But they have been largely de-politicized, and their politics is detached from the specific historical circumstances of
Biblical Christmas hymns are very, very different. They are explicitly rooted in the history of Abraham, Moses, David, exile, and the longing for return. They are overtly, even uncomfortably, political.
What does Mary sing about? Not about oping heavenly doors. She sings about the Lord’s mercy to those who fear Him, His generosity to the poor and hungry, His hostility to the proud and rich, the help He gives to
Zacharias? The Lord comes to accomplish redemption for His people, to raise up a horn of salvation in the house of David – a King, and a king from David’s line, a king who is going to deliver us from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. The coming of Jesus is a sign that the Lord has “remembered His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our Father.” Day has dawned, and light has shone in the darkness – but the darkness is specifically
What does Simeon sing about? When he takes the infant Jesus into his arms, he blessed God: “Let your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation.” And what is that? Access to heaven? Forgiveness of sins? No: “the light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people
The angelic hymn to the shepherds should be understood in that context. Peace on earth is not some lefty pipe dream. It’s the promise of peace for
Now, those sound like our Advent hymns, not our Christmas hymns. And they sound like the kind of Christmas hymns that N. T. Wright might have written. As it turns out, Wright is no Grinch. He didn’t steal Christmas. What he stole was a false Christmas, a de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas. But we shouldn’t have bought that Christmas in the first place, and should have been embarrassed to display it so proudly on the mantle. Good riddance, and Bah humbug.
I suggest a moratorium on new Christmas hymns, until we all learn the Magnificat and the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis so much by heart that they seep out our fingers at the keyboard, until we instinctively sing of Jesus’ birth like Mary, like Zecharias, like Simeon.