New York Times columnist Ross Douthat posits it is hard to be a Christian in the run up to December 25th-whilst advising that "in a sense there's no better time to be a Christian". This dollar each way suits, of course, the liberal ethos as exemplified by 'The New York Times'.
According to Douthat the problems for the pious are threefold. Firstly, they are surrounded by commercialism and can see many once a year Christians who "regard religion as just another from of mid-winter entertainment".
The deeper, more philosophical anxieties are canvassed with reference to two books 'American Grace’ which advises that organized Christianity may be being abandoned altogether. The second book 'To Change The World' sets out that Christian churches are mainly influential nowadays in what the author describes as "peripheral areas of life".
There is nothing new in any of these concepts as anyone who grew up in the deeply conservative and Christian cultured America of the 1950's would know. The decline of organized Christianity as a centrepiece of American life from that vantage point is obvious.
Rather than the church proselytizing to bring people to it, the new Christian ethos is one of people coming to the church. The numbers so arriving may be smaller, but those who arrive through deep thought, via their own personal quest and life path may, in the long run, be a spiritually healthier flock. If one can use the term quality versus quantity, without being misunderstood it adds a validity to the concept.
In truth, what makes the Christmas season tough for believers is not some existential angst regarding the decline of the church in American life. Nor is it the crass tide of commercialism besetting it-when has it not been the case in living memory? Rather, it is that the gospel story is exposed to the wider public view, the details of which are then under scrutiny and attack as "myths and legends".
For a non-fundamentalist Christian the nativity story, as told by Luke and Matthew is a challenge. Aspects such as "the slaughter of the innocents", which it might be expected to have been recorded elsewhere, are set out by the biblical scholar Elaine Pagels in 'The Origin of Satan' (The Penguin Press 1995) as parallels to the Old Testament.
Pagel sets out that much of the Gospel story can be viewed as documents of a nascent sect challenging the majority they split off from. They do this in part, by creating a new theology by running the Gospel story as a mirror image-thus Christ is the new Adam, the Passover story is the slaughter of the innocents, the flight of Moses out of Egypt is reverse mirrored with the Holy Families flight into Egypt and other mirrored events.
That even devout Christians can move beyond these textural problems and accept the beauty of myth and fable is charmingly set out, for example in this delightful"Nativity Tale Never Fails To Touch the Heart". Certainly the writers faith is not challenged in the least, rather it is enhanced. This is the result of the individual coming to the faith rather than the other way around as I suggested.
If one has experienced the physical presence of the living Christ through baptism in the Spirit then such things as the absolute reality, or not, of e.g. Jonah's sojourn in the whale, and talking mules, are of no concern. If they are real to one person, and allegory to another, and both are Baptised in the Spirit then so be it-the facts of the matter will be settled finally "when we meet face to face".
That the truth of the resurrection, which is the absolute touchstone of Christianity, (Pagel;
" According to Paul "the gospel" consisted of what he preached, which he summarized as follows: "that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures; that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day") can be physically experienced gives many freedoms. Not least of these is to be able to enjoy the Christmas season free of liberal angst.
As the aptly named Noelle McCarthy put it;
" For believers, the miracle of Christmas is the humanity of Christ, the Word made Flesh through a human birth. You don't have to believe in that to love the story though. It's beautiful enough to love it for itself. A lady with a baby, in a manger.
A simple, humble allegory of love."