My article on the appalling theology of many Christmas carols appeared in the December issue of Reform, a Christian magazine published by the United Reformed Church. I’ve copied the article below. Please click here for more details of Reform magazine.
December is the only month of the year in which you can hear the same songs in supermarkets that you’re singing in church. It’s an odd feeling, as if God and Mammon have reached a temporary truce for the duration of the season.
There are plenty of secular songs playing in shops too. You’ve almost certainly heard the one about an omniscient tyrant who punishes people for crying (Santa Claus is Coming to Town). When I was very young, Santa Claus and God became slightly confused in my mind. Both seemed to be powerful beings handing out rewards and punishments.
Sadly, many people think that Christians really believe in this simplistic, abusive idea of God. Christmas, when people who rarely enter a church often pay their annual visit, could be a time to challenge this perception. Unfortunately, we seem to respond to their arrival by singing some of the most badly written, incomprehensible and theological dubious songs ever produced.
I am not saying all Christmas carols are bad. There are some good ones, but I would be happy to see most of them never sung in church again.
Some are so badly written that I’m amazed anyone wants to sing them. Presumably We Three Kings of Orient Are is supposed to mean “We are three kings of Orient”. I realise that grammatical flexibility is needed to make words rhyme, but this doesn’t justify moving the verb to the end of the sentence in a way that never happens in English unless you’re Yoda (I annoyed by this syntax am).
In the Bleak Midwinter imposes a north European landscape on Palestine, before saying a shepherd would respond to the nativity by choosing to “bring a lamb”. What would a newborn baby do with a lamb?. Even this isn’t as baffling as The Holly and the Ivy, which draws extremely tenuous connections between plants and the birth of Jesus.
I’m not condemning writers for their imperfections. I have at least as many as they do. But why are Christians so keen to sing such songs so often? What message are we giving out? Take the old favourite Once in Royal David’s City:
“And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms he lay..”
Would he? Mary may not have thought him very obedient after he hung around in the Temple debating theology while his parents frantically searched for him. But it gets worse:
“Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he”.
It seems the claims about Jesus’ childhood are only a prelude to telling children to conform.
There are much better carols that can be brought down by the context in which they’re sung. How can we sing enthusiastically about Bethlehem without recognising the oppression taking place there today? I’m happy to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem, but let’s acknowledge that we’re singing about a real place. Ironically, the lyrics say little about Bethlehem and it has much deeper theology than most carols, asking Christ to “be born in us today” and “cast out our sin”.
That leaves Away In A Manger, a song so full of bad theology that it’s difficult to know where to start. Christian theology proclaims a fully human, as well as fully divine, messiah. Yet this human baby apparently doesn’t cry. Even that isn’t as bad as “I love thee, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky”.
Jesus is not in the sky! Jesus is here, in our midst, wherever two or three are gathered in his name. He is calling us to him today, not waiting for us on a cloud. Yet, with more people in church than we’re likely to see for another year, we decide to reinforce the misconception that Christians worship a God “up there” and are unconcerned with people’s lives down here.
We have something exciting to proclaim at Christmas. Let’s sing of a baby born amidst scandal to an unknown girl in an obscure corner of a brutal empire. Let’s tell of how that baby frightened rulers, challenged the powerful and set out to change the world with a gang of confused fishermen and prostitutes. How he lived so freely and faithfully that he was killed by a vicious government with the collusion of religious leaders. And how he has risen from the dead to meet us, heal us, free us and save us.
A song by John Bell and Graham Maule reminds us that “A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools, has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools”.