Christmas and the Redemption of Stuff

My column in theYork Sunday News hasn’t been posted at their website yet, so I thought I would impose upon your good graces and have you read the whole thing here.  It was longer, and this is the cut-down edition that appeared in the paper.  With a word limit, one cuts some of the colorful turns of phrases, then the adjectives, and deletes the cumbersome qualifications that create nuance.  So here ya go, my blunt celebration of materialism.

I doubt if many BookNotes readers will find the implications I draw from a theology of incarnation too disagreeable, but if you want to explore this affirmation of creation, which serves as a foundation for the celebration of (rather than the negation of) creaturely life and cultural renewal, check out our often recommended Creation Regained by Al Wolters, say, or one of the best books on the New Earth, a brief but potent reflection from Isaiah, When the Kings Go Marching In by Richard Mouw, or even Ron Sider’s excellent Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger where, in a book on economic justice, global poverty and simple lifestyles, he makes a ringing endorsement of this world as God’s good creation.  No strains of gnosticism there, or other-worldy piety, thanks be to God. A lovely, lovely new set of reflections are found in Shauna Niequist’s Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life.  These books each insist on just living and care for the social fabric, but also are joyful about the created realities of the world, human endeavors, culture, beauty and such. 

And so, think this stuff through these next weeks.  For instance, in that great Isaac Watts hymn, does the line go “born to raise the sons of Earth” or “born to raise us from the Earth”?  Hear, hear for the former, despite the masculine language.  Thumbs down for the later, no matter how well-intentioned some revisionist hymnals.  “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”?  Hold your nose and cough loudly and tell your children that sometimes even our most lovely church traditions are, well, dead-wrong.  Be sure to ponder the implications of lines like the one about the redemptive blessings extending “Far as the curse is found…”  Joy to the world, indeed!

Anyway, here is my call to celebrate the materiality of Christmas, even as we resist crass Xmas commercialization.  Was I tacky or self-indulgent to invite people, as they ponder the ethical implications of shopping justly, to support indie stores and artisans?  Are we being somehow righteous in the call to the small-mart revolution, or just self-righteous?  Small stores can be complicit in sweatshops, and large stores surely do large charitable donations,  so I realize it isn’t simple.  Small may be beautiful, as Schumacher wrote so many years ago, but it ain’t easy.  And so, I write this as much to continue a conversation with myself.

Simply Enough.gifBe sure to see the details after the column: We’ve got the new DVD by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo that will surely add some spice to this conversation.  Simply Enough is billed as “Straight Talk from Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne on Simple, Just Living.”  Serious stuff presented with great and zany passion.

So, from The York Sunday News, December 9, 2007


As sure as autumn arrives, the chorus starts, one I’ve joined for years, lamenting the early appearance of Christmas merchandise at the mall.  Decades ago, griping about the commercialization of Christmas felt subversive; we pitted the peasant Jesus who disdained materialism against the merchants of cool and their environmentally-damaging, soul-deadening  junk..

Our culture continues its dive into greed and overspending, driven by relentless media images of the good life—defined as wealth, sex appeal, success.  Remember when our President solemnly advised, after the 9-11 attacks,  “Go shopping”?  The critique of Xmas commerce may be commonplace, but it is urgent.

Nevertheless, it’s time to speak in favor of materialism.  Not the sort trumpeted by Trump, but a wholesome version based on theological affirmations of, well, stuff.  This world, the Christmas story assures us, is good.  It was into this world that God came, in Jesus.  We remember the stuff of the story—manger, stars, camels, kings, and, supremely, the baby, who made the stuff, after all.  By entering this world, Christ honors it.  Growing up here, He died for the world he so loves, rising to reign over, to be precise, the stuff.  The Christmas story reminds us that there is a Savior with dirty feet, who rescues the Earth upon which he trod.

In a new Advent book, God With Us, Presbyterian writer Eugene Peterson explores how the particularity of incarnation should inform our “everydayness.”  Some eccentric stories circulate that imply that Jesus wasn’t fully human, that it is better to be spiritual than physical, that disdain the everyday stuff of life.  Some faiths believe this, but not Biblical folk.  Peterson insists “Christmas forces us to deal with all the mess of our humanity in the context of God who has already entered that mess in the glorious birth of Jesus.” 

So, let’s hear it for a little bit of shopping and revelry.  Let’s not be scrooges about the materiality of our seasonal customs.  The Bethlehem baby grew up, you’ll recall, and earned a reputation for being a party-er.

Serious Jews, it seems, have less difficulty with this than some church people.  The Hebrew Scriptures are so earthy and Jewish faith practices are so often physical—keeping kosher, sitting shiva—that their faith is understood in bodily terms, down-to-Earth.  This is, Christmas teaching insists, a good thing. 

Jesus was, after all, Jewish, as were his mother and stepfather.  His own development included apprenticing at a working trade and learning to walk the ways of faithfulness, day by day.

We dare not pretend that Jesus was angelic, not a real baby, who grew up to be a real man.  He was not beyond the messiness of real life.  Christian disciples follow this Messiah into the marketplace and we ought not eschew the sensual stuff of real life.  Jesus is born into this messy stable, and it is our glad duty to figure out how to honor Him in all aspects of ordinary life.

So, this year, wrap your gifts with a little extra flourish—God loves the colors, and smiles on generosity.  Enjoy green wreathes and boughs; God gets the credit for thinking up something as cool as pine trees.  String lights all over, recalling that Jesus is called “the light of the world.”  If you get to kiss your sweetie under the mistletoe, recall that it was God who created those romantic possibilities; if you don’t have a sweetheart, take courage, since Jesus Himself grew up single.  Cheer for your football team with gusto, knowing that recreation and play, too, are part of God’s intent for the world.  Those who are grieving may find consolation in the great sadnesses that surround the Biblical story.

    Think about your shopping choices, too.  For God’s sake, avoid stuff that harms people or our community.  (Shame on those who commemorate the Prince of Peace by buying war toys or violent computer games.)  Join the small-mart revolution and spend some dough with independent shops and artisans who care about you
and your neighborhood.  God cares about our local economy and His heart breaks as we build commerce around big box establishments that may rely on sweatshops and global injustices.  Incarnational principles can inform the way we think about consumer culture, and the holiday rush is a perfect time to ponder the ethics of our marketplace choices.

It is easy to bemoan the commercialization of holidays.  It may take imagination, but Christmas theology equips us to explore practices that unite the so-called sacred and secular —“let heaven and nature sing!”  Let’s shop as if stuff really mattered—where it comes from, who sells it, for what purposes.  Let’s infuse our holiday habits with holiness.

Since Christmas teaches incarnation—God joining the material world— we can act in ways that show what difference it all means.  From spending wisely and sharing extravagantly, to shopping justly and cultivating hospitality, may this season be a time to celebrate God’s redemption of the stuff of our lives. 

Thanks for reading.  What do you think?  In a world of homelessness, poverty and so many good agencies that need our donations, is it right to talk about redemptive materialism?  Is shopping justly even a possibility in these next weeks? Can celebrating the glories of incarnation be an excuse for self-indulgence?  There are plenty of websites and resources to join you in your struggle for faithfulness these days, and we’d recommend a visit to the Advent Conspiracy (replace consumption with compassion) or the interesting blog Subversive Influence and his Advent blogging project on the Daily Offices. The Presbyterian Church has an Advent webpage called “Enough for Everyone” with oodles of great suggestions.  My friend Joel has a blog called Know Justice, Be Justice and he has a great video link, and some thoughtful conversations called “the stuff on stuff.”  And I can give one more push for the powerful Bible-based Advent devotional The Advent of Justice, which frames the concerns for new lifestyles of justice and shalom in the Biblical promises of redemption and restoration. Browse back a few entries for some further description of that important little study.

Please check out, and bookmark, the regularly updated site from our old friends at Alternatives for Simple Living, who produced the new Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne Simple Enough DVD.  It offers six sessions (Lifestyle, Food, Celebrations, Stuff, Money, Justice) each about 12 minutes or so with a great discussion/action guide.  There is also more than a half hour of extra bonus footage—from Papa Fest, the wonderful Shane story of gathering shoes at Willow Creek, some commercials, some conversation on “cultural goals” and footage of Tony getting arrested in civil disobedience.   It sells usually for $17 and we are offering it for $15.  Trying to make it simple for ya.


One thought on “Christmas and the Redemption of Stuff

  1. One more day, you have given all of us a gift. This is awfully good stuff, Byron, i.e. your reflections on the redemption of “stuff.” Walking through as you do the ordinariness of our lives, from kissing under misletoe to shopping in stores that are consonant with our deepest convictions about life and the world to football cheers and sadnesses of personal and global dimensions– all together this is our life. And as a good book taught a long time ago now, “all of life redeemed” is the Christmas vision. Or as my favorite carol puts it, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, He comes to make us blessings flow far as the curse is found.” So, in your pondering and writing, we all listen and learn. Thank you.

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