Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Celebration, Culture, and Christians.

After our Good Friday service, a friend of mine raised the familiar question of paganism regarding our church Easter egg hunt. Not ours particularly-- we aren't giving away miniature fertility goddess statues with each egg-- but the entire concept of egg hunts. Her sincere concern to do the right thing on this issue turned my mind back to the ongoing holiday debate. It's the same issue some Christians raise for most major holidays, from Easter to Halloween to Christmas. (Though it is interesting how most of them don't suggest renaming the days of the week to strip them of their pagan origins.).

I'm not here to trace the origins of each holiday from their inception through centuries of cultural evolution to their present form. Fascinating as it would be, I have two kids. I'm simply here to offer what I see as the most biblical and logical approach to the matter.

What we have here is a question of "guilty by association". Is it ungodly to do something that was at one time (or still is) associated with pagan or secular culture?

Paul address this conflict in 1 Corinthians 8:4-13 when he discusses eating meat offered to idols. This common cultural practice offended some Christians who had only recently come out of idol worship and protested the pagan association. Paul points out that "an idol is nothing at all in the world." He encourages Christians to eat or abstain based on their individual strength of conscience, and he admonishes the more mature Christians to be considerate of the weak. If you celebrate a holiday and your brother or sister in Christ does not, don't try to convert them to your position. Respect them and then joyfully celebrate to the fullest liberty of your conscience.

Celebrating cultural traditions falls under this umbrella.
Christians do not live in a cultural vacuum. This was as true two thousand years ago as it is today. Religious celebrations were to ancient people what national holidays are to us. Rather than isolate believers completely from their cultural context, church leaders often chose to adopt a redemptive version of the original pagan tradition. Symbols and traditions were redefined within the new belief system and over the centuries, these new meanings became a cultural tradition in and of themselves with their own rich Christian history. When we celebrate Christmas or Easter we are participating in that redeemed history not the pagan counterpart.

Also, symbols are heavily dependent on cultural context and they evolve in meaning as the culture evolves. Chocolate bunnies and plastic eggs hold no religious resonance of any kind for modern American. The symbols have evolved to represent a generic celebration of spring and renewal, mostly secular in nature. You cannot judge a modern symbol by its ancient meaning. Look at several other symbolic associations-- pants on women, long hair on men, tattoos, ear piercings....all of which at one point had a definite negative and in some cases pagan significance but now are a normal part of culture.

If you are a Christian whose desire is to remove yourself as much as possible from any secular context, your desire is admirable but misguided. We are inescapably human.
Our cultures, whether two thousand years ago or in 2011, are woven through us in such a way that it will be impossible on earth to erase any possible association with secular practice or belief. Our job then is not to sever ourselves from the cultural tapestry but to change the thread with which we are weaving. We aren't ever going to make earth heavenly. But we can "dye the thread" so that in our interactions with human culture we show that we are truly citizens of an eternal culture.

Some day, the entire earth will be redeemed so that every symbol, every tradition, ever hope and dream and aspiration and celebration of man will revolve around our God. Until then, we best reflect His light to culture when we are participating with redemptive intent rather than isolating ourselves to a holy hermit cave. When we engage culture, when we celebrate with the pagans, so to speak, they ask us why our joy is different than their empty placation. We then have a chance to tell them the true meaning, to paint the tapestry in true colors, and open their eyes to the truth.

So if you want to celebrate Easter with eggs and bunnies, go ahead. If you want to abstain, do so without guilt. However you celebrate, do so with a heart tuned to the wonderful realities behind the celebration and your joy will be full.

Have two cents to throw at my direction? Please comment. Dialogue. Rant, even. All thoughts are welcome.

1 comment:

Ed of Chesapeake said...

I like your approach, Karen. I've always felt that to have an issue with Easter eggs and the Easter bunny didn't make much sense unless you also avoided Christmas. Jesus did indicate that we were to remember his death and resurrection but nowhere did He indicate that we should celebrate His birthday (which, more than likely, was in April, I believe)!