Jesus versus Santa

Jesus vs Santa, true meaning of Xmas

I’ve hesitated to write about the topic of Jesus vs Santa because it can be a surprisingly divisive topic in church and family cultures. However, the holiday season is upon us and I think it’s interesting and even helpful to hear differing perspectives on how parents handle the issue. I would love to hear your perspective as well.

Here’s mine.

The church cultures in which Mollie and I raised our kids have been theologically conservative, highly biblically literate, and conducive to sincere devotion in following Jesus. I got the impression over the years that our family held the minority position in those churches in that we openly practiced the Santa tradition. (Either that or there were a lot of parents doing Santa Claus and keeping quiet about it!)

For some no-Santa Christians, the idea of Christians practicing the Santa tradition can seem incomprehensible. I don’t care to sway anyone to my position, but for what it’s worth I thought I would share my reasons why my wife and I chose to follow this secular holiday tradition. Our reasons may surprise you, because they ultimately have to do with Jesus.

Following are my responses to the most common reasons I’ve heard for not observing the Santa tradition:

1) We want Jesus to be the focus of Christmas in our family
Indeed. Of course we wanted this for our family as well. However, it’s not an either/or issue. I know this because I was raised in a Christian home that kept the Santa tradition, yet I and all of my sibs love Jesus today, and none of us believes in Santa Claus anymore. I can remember as a kid that, even though my imagination excited me about Saint Nick, my parents also taught us that the real reason for Christmas was the birth of Jesus. I believed them, and it made perfect sense to me.

I definitely got the idea that Jesus and Santa Claus were somehow on the same team.

Later, as a young parent, I had what I saw as a strategic reason for keeping the Santa tradition. From the time my children were small, of course they learned about the story of Jesus and His birth. However, I knew they could only understand so much, and I certainly couldn’t expect them to sit around and stare at their navels pondering Jesus all Christmas season. So we enlisted Santa Claus to help make the season of Jesus’s birth more exciting for them. We knew they would eventually drop the Santa belief as they left childhood, but I believed there would remain with them very positive feelings and fun memories that they would carry with them into adulthood. The reason behind it all would always be Jesus.

I believe this has proved to be true.

2) I’m not comfortable lying to my kids
I completely agree with this one. Our kids assumed Santa was real mostly because of songs and stories and the input of extended family members. Christmas mornings pretty much convinced them. However, as they got older and directly questioned us, we made it a point to never to lie to them.

However, I used it as a way to encourage critical thinking. I told them that I wanted them to figure it out on their own. I told them that all of their lives people would tell them things that were not true and that they needed to learn how to discover what is true. This wasn’t a very satisfying answer to them, but then it became sort of a game. They would begin to give me arguments and I would try to argue the other side. If their argument was a good one, I would say “that’s a good argument!”

More importantly, for each child I also used this moment to underscore the truth, saying something like: “I will tell you this – the story of Jesus and everything in the Bible is definitely true, and Mom and I believe it.” I wanted them to be rock solid about that.

I think there is something very healthy about a child learning to critically engage in figuring out the truth, even when it is against his or her interest to do so.

3) Christmas is a pagan holiday. Christmas trees and Santa Claus have pagan origins.
I have always thought this was a lame argument for several reasons. Primarily, regardless of what December 25 meant many hundreds of years ago, today, in America, it is not a pagan holiday. For followers of Jesus it is a time of remembrance and celebration of the birth of Jesus.

True, no one knows the date of Jesus’s birth. This is also irrelevant. So the church randomly picked a day to celebrate the birth of God’s Messiah. Or maybe the date is not so random, and the church picked a popular pagan holiday and redeemed it to become a holiday celebrating the true Creator. I just don’t see how that’s a bad thing. Even today many Christians attempt to do the same thing with Halloween.

Christmas is arguably not a biblically condoned holiday, but that does not make it a harmful practice. Behind this objection there seems to be a concern that the whole of Christendom is somehow accidentally participating is false worship because of the holiday’s origins. But worship is intentional and conscious. I have yet to see biblical support for the idea of someone accidentally worshiping Satan. I’m willing to be proven wrong on this.

4) I don’t want to encourage materialism and selfishness in my kids.
Another great reason. We didn’t want to encourage those things either. I probably don’t need to say much here though. I think we all recognize that Christmas has become very commercialized and money driven. Many people go deeper into credit card debt during the Christmas season. Not good.

I’ve heard a lot of great strategies that families use to get around this. Some don’t do gift giving at all. Some do, but make a point to give to a needy family each year as well. Some work at a shelter as a family as part of their Christmas season, serving those less fortunate than they are. Some do gift giving but limit the dollar amount that can be spent. Please feel free to share your ideas or traditions in the comment section!

But as for the topic at hand, it certainly hasn’t been my experience that observing the Santa tradition will necessarily encourage materialism and selfishness. My opinion is that the example of the parents over the long haul is foremost in encouraging or discouraging a materialistic lifestyle. In fact, ironically, Santa only exists because of the generosity of parents toward their children. When children figure out that it was mom and dad all along, this arguably encourages gratitude and models selfless giving to them.

On the positive side, there are a couple of other reasons that proved to be quite important to Mollie and me when we were determining what our family culture would be around Christmastime:

Extended family
I was raised by devoted Christian parents. Had Mollie and I refused to practice the Santa tradition on “spiritual grounds” I think it would have created an unnecessary offense against my parents and siblings. There were other things more important to us that my parents didn’t understand, like breastfeeding, homeschooling, and eating a whole food/organic diet. Creating a rift over something as fun and harmless as Santa Claus would have been just been super-annoying to my family.

To see it from my mom’s perspective: she and her 6 siblings grew up in St. Louis with an alcoholic father. As a result she grew up impoverished, and quit school after the 8th grade to start working. She told us that when they were young, she and her siblings would sometimes each receive an orange for Christmas.

So when she married my dad, I think she tried to make holidays with her own children everything that she missed as a child. I have wonderful holiday memories from childhood, and I still love the Christmas season. I think my mom would’ve been hurt had I implied that I saw her efforts as harmful.

Xmas 1960's childhood, reason for the season

Christmas morning with my siblings, 1962.

Joyful, Joyful
In our family, Mollie and I wanted to tip the scales in favor of making the Christian holidays transcendent and irresistible; something that our kids would look forward to all year long. Santa Claus is unnecessary. If you don’t include Santa in your repertoire of holiday traditions, I fully respect your decision. However, I would encourage you to figure out ways to make the holiday season an exciting and transcendent time for your kids, so that they will grow up loving the season of Jesus’s birth.

Ultimately, we all hope to see our kids continue to love the person of Jesus Himself.

For me the bottom line on Santa is this: he’s a harmless, if shallow, part of American culture. If we can figure out ways to use harmless cultural traditions to our advantage, I think that’s a good thing.

Merry Christmas from our family to yours!

My illustrated kids’ storybook, The True Story of Christmas, tells the story of Jesus in fidelity to the Bible, beginning with creation and the fall. Orders should be received by Dec 5 to ensure delivery by Christmas (or, please email me directly me with late orders at scottnmollie@yahoo.com.)

I Have a Movie Recommendation for You

Movie review-The Case for ChristI was pleasantly surprised when I recently went to see The Case for Christ. Grab your spouse or a friend and see it while it’s still in theaters.

As an artist who is also a follower of Jesus, I guess I’m supposed to be a movie snob, especially when it comes to “Christian movies.” I think I’m not supposed to publicly admit that I loved this movie. But I did.

The movie tells the story of atheist Lee Strobel coming to faith in Jesus. (Whoopsie. I guess I just gave away the ending.) That’s part of why I didn’t have high hopes for the movie. Christian films have a reputation for being predictable.

But you know what? I knew how my dinnertime was going to end last night but I’m still really glad I sat down at the table.

The movie highlighted the Strobel family’s journey to faith, and the relational tension that ensued during the process. That story was believable, well-written, and well-acted. It felt like a love story to me, full of characters that I was moved to care about.

Some Things I Liked
Maybe it was just me, but the movie touched on several things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve been dialoguing with some atheists for several months, and the portrayal of the atheists in the film felt familiar to me.

I liked that the atheist Strobel wasn’t made out to be an evil character. He deeply loved his wife and was a great dad. He had a strong moral compass and sense of justice.

I’ve been doing some reading about brain science and social psychology. I’m fascinated with how and why people change their opinions when confronted with information that challenges their worldview. (Or how they don’t, as is usually the case.) It was fascinating to watch one person’s process, knowing that it was a true story.

A big surprise was a direct reference to the “father wound” issue. I’ve been a bit obsessed with this issue for several months, and I’ve come to think that it’s widespread and profoundly important. (See my previous post if that topic interests you.)

Also, an important truism for me is that biblical faith is evidential. This idea directly contradicts what “New Atheism” preaches – that faith is “belief despite the evidence.” The “New Atheists” are demonstrably wrong about what the Bible says about faith. It was nice to see a right perspective on the screen.

Finally, on an incidental note, The Case for Christ is not a white Christian film. The story takes place in Chicago and several black characters figure prominently in the journey. We see blacks and whites working, attending church, and doing life together. This isn’t talked about; it’s just assumed, as it should be.

I don’t recall anything inappropriate for kids, but very small children might be bored with it just because it’s an adult conversation. At any rate, I say “two thumbs up”!

Update:  I’m starting artwork for my next kids’ book, The Friendly City. I’ll keep you posted!

How and Why to Not Be Postmodern

metaphor for postmodernism

Recently I had coffee with one of my adult sons. I wanted to hear his insights about his spiritual development growing up. One unexpected comment came to light as he compared our family’s culture to that of a close friend’s. He observed that Mollie and I had modeled a faith that permeated all of life, and that our values reflected this. By contrast, for some people, faith is something added on, like an extra-curricular activity.

He said, “For you guys, a biblical worldview was like a pair of glasses through which you viewed everything. For my friend’s family it was more like a pair of binoculars that they would pick up now and then.”

This got me to thinking about postmodernism – the cultural state of society that distrusts the very idea of objective truth.

What is Postmodernity?
Philosopher and author Paul Copan describes postmodernity this way:

“French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard said that, simplifying to the extreme, postmodernism is suspension toward a metanarrative, which is a ‘world story’ that’s taken to be true for all people in all cultures and ends up oppressing people…”

So, postmodernity is a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Because there are many horrific examples in history of people oppressing others over strongly held beliefs – both religious and secular – postmodernity seeks to solve the problem by getting rid of the notion of truth altogether. It’s like John Lennon’s song, Imagine. Copan continues:

“…When people are so certain that they’ve got the truth and believe their system explains everything, then people who disagree with them are on the outside. They end up in Auschwitz or the Soviet gulags. So instead of metanarratives, postmodernism emphasizes mini-narratives. In other words, each person has his or her own viewpoint or story.”

Postmodernity attempts to address a very real problem in the world. It’s true that there are many metanarratives, ideologies, worldviews, and religions in the world that are coercive. But in making all truth relative, postmodernity does the world the ultimate disservice if there is, in fact, an objective, loving Authority who has communicated a true story that includes all of us. Followers of Jesus should confidently and joyfully ignore postmodernism and instead, prove the life giving nature of the story and message of Jesus in our own lives and families.

“All Truth Claims are Wrong!”
Copan points out that the relativism that stems from a postmodern worldview is self-refuting. It simply doesn’t work as a worldview.

“…the relativist believes that relativism is true not just for him but for every person. He believes that relativism applies to the nonrelativist (‘true for you’), not just to himself (‘true for me’). The relativist finds himself in a bind if we ask him, ‘Is relativism absolutely true for everyone?’…There’s no reason to take seriously the claim that every belief is as good as every other belief, since this belief itself would be no better than any other.”

But having noted the self-contradictory nature of postmodernity, what about the problem of metanarratives being necessarily oppressive? Specifically, does the big picture presented in the Judeo-Christian scriptures necessarily marginalize those “on the outside”?

Self Righteous and Holier-Than-Thou?
I don’t buy that. The Bible specifically teaches that self-righteousness is not even possible (Ps 14; Ro 3:10-18.) Salvation is a gift from God and something none of us can claim to have earned (Ro 3:23,24; 6:23; Gal 2:15,16; 3:2-5; Eph 2:8,9; 3:7-9.)

From a biblical worldview Jesus is the only human being who could rightfully claim to be without sin, claim to be righteous in-and-of-Himself, and claim to be unerring in His knowledge of truth. Yet He was the perfect picture of love and inclusivity. His life was characterized by loving, healing , and reaching out to the marginalized: those on the fringe of respectable Jewish culture, women, lepers, the sexually unchaste, traitors, servants, children, Romans and other non-Jews, and so on. He typically did this even though it was inconvenient for Him and often got Him into trouble with His critics.

Not only His actions but also His teachings explicitly taught that following Him must mean reaching out to and welcoming the marginalized in a broken world. Several parables come to mind:
The parable of the Samaritan
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector
The parable of the prodigal son
The parable of the wedding feast and the uninvited guests
The parable of the widow’s offering
The story of the rich man and Lazarus

Rather than oppressing the marginalized, a biblical worldview acknowledges our common humanity. It roots human worth in the idea that all people bear the image of God, and yet it humbles human standing in the idea that all people “fall short of the glory of God’s ideal.” It is notable that two of the most combative personalities in the New Testament repeat the quote, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5.) Humility invalidates oppression and marginalization. A quote attributed to D T Niles rings true to me:

“A Christian witness is not like a rich man who has a lot of bread which he hands out to the poor beggars who have nothing. He is rather like one beggar who tells another beggar where he has found bread.”

A Bedtime Story
Accordingly, this all affects what we say to our children. As a young father it was my job and privilege to tuck my children in at bedtime. I would sing and pray with them each night. I remember a period of time when one of my boys was very troubled. He would tearfully express that he was a “bad boy.” Those are the words he used. He was probably 7 or 8 years old at the time. I was a bit taken aback by this because Mollie and I made a point of never telling our children that they were “bad,” even when correcting them.

He didn’t seem to be trying to confess a specific hidden offense that was troubling his conscience. Instead, he seemed to be expressing a recognition that there was something generally wrong within himself. I remember thinking carefully and prayerfully before answering him, because he expected an answer. Should I assure him that he wasn’t all that bad? Should I point out how he favorably compared to serial killers and drug dealers? This was my first impulse – to minimize his feelings and build up his self-esteem by pointing out all the things on the “good” side of his scale.

But a biblical worldview compelled me to say something different. Instead, I essentially agreed with him. And, holding him close in the dark, I sympathetically let him know that I was also “bad,” and so was every one else in the world; that what he was feeling was accurate. I explained that this is why God sent Jesus to us, because we all need a Savior. My son’s recognition of his brokenness was simply the first step toward the spiritual rebirth that Jesus offers to us all. Jesus promised to give us His Spirit to live inside of us, and after that we help each other to live a new life in that Spirit.

I’m certainly not recommending that we as parents teach our children that they are pure evil. The truth is more nuanced than that. I think the Bible’s description of the fallen human heart as “inclined” toward evil is helpful (Gen 8:21.) When I think of an incline, I notice it’s possible to roll a ball up an incline, but it takes deliberate effort. A ball naturally will roll down an incline. So it is with our hearts.

Speaking the Truth in Love
I assume there are those who would say it is appalling to say such things to a child. I imagine that a time may come when a secularist government will see fit to intervene in cases where parents teach such things. But truth is that which corresponds to the way things really are. What if a child is taught that he or she is naturally good and perfect? Where does that leave the child when he or she sees within himself or herself a tendency to lie, cheat, and hurt others? I contend that it leaves the child in a truly hopeless position.

The fact of human brokenness should never be used to shame or manipulate others. But neither does a biblical worldview indulge secularist, utopian, wishful thinking about the natural goodness of humanity. In fact, ironically this kind of thinking is actually dangerous when it comes to granting human beings governmental power over others.

I would like to hear about your experience as a child or a parent. How did you understand the state of the human heart? How was it communicated to you, and what effect did it have on you?

 

Katy Faust is My New Hero and Role Model

marriage equality debate

“If I have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” – 1 Corinthians 13:1

From the get go, I intended to steer clear of politics in this blog. But I want to share a video today that I hope will be inspiring to people of any political stripe. I think Katy Faust is a breath of fresh air, and her perspective has very much to do with families and, specifically, children. So I hope you feel my decision to share this is appropriate. Katy is certainly an inspiration to me.

Because life is all about love.

And speaking of love, that’s the theme of my soon-to-be-released book, Bear Island. I had hoped to release it in April, but I’ve simply had too much on my plate. It won’t be long though – I’m starting the very last watercolor illustration today.

Here is a rough shot of the illustration that I finished last night
bedtime storyBut back to Katy Faust.
This post is going out the day after oral arguments were made at the Supreme Court regarding same sex marriage. Anticipating this, several weeks ago, Katy submitted a letter to the court, entitled, Dear Justice Kennedy: An Open Letter from the Child of a Loving Gay Parent. I felt Katy’s contribution was brilliant, articulate, insightful, and compassionate.

Katy is uniquely positioned to speak to the subject as a person who was raised by her mother and her mother’s long-term female partner. She openly loves her mom and credits her with being an exceptional parent. Yet as Katy came of age and had children of her own, as she watched her own husband within their family dynamic, the complementary and irreplaceable role of both a mom and dad in child-rearing became increasingly clear to her. Looking back on her own childhood, despite the love and care that surrounded her, she couldn’t deny that she had a longing for her mom and dad to love each other, and her, under one roof as a family, as all children do.

Katy now contends that “children are the reason government has any stake in this discussion at all.” She disagrees with the “wrongful message that all children need is two stable loving adults, which is statistically not the case.” She states, “When a child is placed in a same-sex-headed household, she will miss out on at least one critical parental relationship and a vital dual-gender influence. The nature of the adults’ union guarantees this.” Katy continues:

Like most Americans, I am for adults having the freedom to live as they please. I unequivocally oppose criminalizing gay relationships. But defining marriage correctly criminalizes nothing. And the government’s interest in marriage is about the children that only male-female relationships can produce. Redefining marriage redefines parenthood. It moves us well beyond our “live and let live” philosophy into the land where our society promotes a family structure where children will always suffer loss.
(From Dear Justice Kennedy.)

What is especially inspiring about Katy is the love she has for the gay community, and her willingness to reach out to people who consider her an enemy. To me she embodies the biblical admonition to speak the truth in love. I’m not talking about loving merely with thoughts or words, but with her time and actions. You’ll have to listen to the video to see what I mean.

Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, Katy’s example will remain relevant to the church. The church as a whole hasn’t been very good at loving its gay neighbor, and yet, loving people is supposed to be the distinguishing mark of who we are and what we do. Whether or not the “marriage equality” movement actually believes their own accusations, what is most often said about opponents of the redefining of marriage is that they are hateful. Stated. Every. Single. Day. I don’t believe it’s true, but somehow they’re not feeling the love. We need to get better at this.

I stumbled across the following Youtube video of a TV show that I’d never heard of, interviewing Katy Faust. It’s 25 minutes long, but if you care about this issue, I think it’s definitely worth watching.

I hope you are enjoying the springtime. Hopefully, my next post will be announcing a new book release!

Confessions of a Revisionist Dad

lullabies and nursey rhymesRevisionism can cut both ways.

A few years ago my wife and I were in a public place with one of our teenaged daughters. She happened to hear the lyrics from the lullaby, Rock-a-bye Baby, and her mouth dropped open. She turned to us and exclaimed, “Did you hear what they said?”

“What?” I innocently asked.

“They said the bough breaks and the baby falls out of the tree!” she replied. “That’s terrible!”

My wife and I sheepishly looked at each other. “Umm…actually… those are the real lyrics,” I said, grinning.

“Are you serious?!…

I guess I forgot to tell my daughter that when she and our other children were small, I made a small change to the classic lullaby, and changed a few bedtime stories to boot.

The first time I started singing Rock-a-bye-Baby at bedtime with my first child, I stopped myself mid-lullaby. I thought it seemed almost like a taunt; sweetly singing to a child about the wind blowing and breaking the branch, and the baby then falling out of the tree. ‘Sweet dreams, kid! I imagined him lying in the dark after I kissed him goodnight, wide-eyed and staring at the ceiling, fitfully drifting off to sleep, having nightmares about falling. So I changed the lyrics to:

Rock-a-bye baby in the treetop,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bow breaks the cradle will fall,
And Daddy will catch you, cradle and all.

And that’s what our kids grew up hearing. After adding this to my repertoire of bedtime lullabies, and singing it to our five kids over a period of years, after a while I never thought about it anymore.

A lot of old nursery rhymes left me scratching my head. What were these people thinking? Did they hate children? Were they even parents? Who wrote Jack and Jill, and Little Miss Muffet? And that one about the blackbird pecking off the maid’s nose? (Apparently, a 1744 version published in London had “four and twenty naughty boys baked in a pye.” Which, I guess, grisly though it is, at least has a point.)

With contemporary books it’s sometimes easier to guess the author’s intentions. A couple of my kids liked a certain storybook that I had picked up, used, from a garage sale. I purchased it because the illustrations were very nice, and, as an illustrator, I enjoyed looking at them. Plus, I liked the idea of the story. It was narrated by a little girl, and the story was really just her talking about her family, her dog, and her grandparents, and their lives together. I no longer have the book, but I’m pretty sure it was called, Come to Our House, Meet Our Family. It made for a cheerful and pleasant bedtime story.

I would guess the book was published in the late 1960’s or 70’s, and it seemed clear to me that part of the author’s intent was to normalize the idea of both Dad and Mom working outside the home. (The mom was a dentist.) I was fine with that, but I also wanted to do a little normalizing of my own. Toward the end of the book, there was an illustration of the Mom and Dad, and the boy and girl, and Smudge, the dog, all laughing together on the parent’s big blue bed. It said something like:

“On Sunday mornings my brother and I jump into Mom and Dad’s bed and wake them up. After a while we all go downstairs and make breakfast together.”

I would always cheerfully add a simple line that wasn’t really there: “Then we go to church!”

I had been struck by how rarely church-going is mentioned as a normal part of life in books and movies. As though it’s an embarrassing habit that we should all be quiet about. As though no one attends church in this country! Since this was a simple, unremarkable story about a normal family, I thought it would be nice for my kids to grow up thinking that going to church was simply a normal part of life. In fact they did grow up thinking this, but no thanks to the storybooks we read. Except for maybe this one.

I suppose someone might argue that classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes are the pinnacle of children’s literature for young children, but I’m not that person. Some I like very much, but some of them are downright creepy. I think there is room in the world for some children’s stories that are intentional about reinforcing a biblical worldview, yet without being so pedagogical that all of the enjoyment is sucked out. My conversations with other parents and grandparents have led me to believe I’m not alone in thinking this.

I would love to hear suggestions and insights from other parents on the subject of children’s books and stories. What do you like? What do your kids love? What is missing?

children's storybooks-fables

Watercolor illustration from The Cocky Rooster – coming in July 2014

UPDATE: I’m happy to say that my first new book, The Cocky Rooster, is finished and I’m waiting to get proofs back from the print-on-demand company before I make it available to you. My next post will introduce you to the book specifically.

I’ll talk to you then! May God bless you as you seek to make Him known to the children in
your care,

— Scott Freeman