There are two key mistakes American Christians tend to make when thinking about the intersection of religion and culture. The first is to have an attitude of a “majority” culture, a mindset that incorrectly conflates a civic morality with Christianity and seeks to build coalitions to “turn America back” to Christ. But there is another mistake too, and that is to have a fearful, hand-wringing siege mentality. While it’s true that religious liberty is genuinely imperiled, perhaps more than at any time since the revolutionary era, we will not be able to articulate our commitments in this arena if we don’t know how to differentiate between state persecution and cultural marginalization, between public oppression and personal offense.
Several years ago, I was flipping through magazines on an airplane when I came across a couple of pages that spiked my blood pressure. A beer advertisement was tagged with the headline, “Silent Nights Are Overrated.” A few minutes later, in a second publication, there was an advertisement for an outdoor grill which read: “Who Says It’s Better to Give Than to Receive?” My first reaction was a personal, if not tribal, offense. “Would they advertise in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan with the line ‘Fasting Is Overrated,’” I fumed, “or by asking in India, ‘Who Says Everything Is One With the Universe?” I was missing the point.
The truth is, these companies were trying to sell products, not offend constituencies. Taking shots at any group’s religious beliefs isn’t good economics. I’m willing to bet whoever dreamed up these ad campaigns didn’t “get” at all that they might be making fun of Jesus Christ. Madison Avenue probably didn’t trace through that the song “Silent Night” is about the holy awe of the dawning Incarnation in Bethlehem. To them, it probably seemed like just another Christmas song, part of the background music of the culture during this season. Saying it’s “overrated” probably didn’t feel any more “insensitive” to these copy-writers than making a joke about decking the halls or reindeer games. The writers probably never thought about that the statement “It is better to give than to receive” is a quotation from Jesus via the Apostle Paul (Acts 20:35). It probably just seemed to them like a Benjamin Franklin-type aphorism, along the lines of when someone says “scarlet letter” without recognizing Hawthorne or “to be or not to be” while not knowing the difference between Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn.