As Christians in America we may sometimes find it difficult to fully engage with the monolithic seasonal tradition that our nation calls “Christmas,” especially when the secular elements found within the holiday seem diametrically opposed to our biblical understanding of Christ’s birth. Clearly some of these blatantly unholy traditions are easily rejected or denounced, but others might provide an opening for us to promote the Gospel. How, then, do we do so without damaging our witness and bringing dishonor to our Lord Jesus Christ?
Although our American Christmas in general is slowly morphing into a more religion-neutral holiday, there is little argument that the British Victorians, inspired by the literary imagery of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, have set the basic groundwork for the symbols and traditions that still frame our country’s romantic vision of Christmas. The problem with this, of course, is that we inherited a somewhat broken system where secular traditions and Christianity continue to collide. Clearly the Victorian Brits often struggled with finding the proper focus for the celebration of Christmas with their confusing cultural mix of pagan symbolism, Romish tradition, and Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Indeed, the most famous preacher of the Victorian era, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, reflected this uncertainty in regards to England’s mongrelized Christmas, a hesitancy found especially among Protestants. In studying his sermons on the subject of Christmas, we find that Mr. Spurgeon was very reluctant to endorse the holiday throughout his ministry but certainly took advantage of the opportunity to expound on the doctrine of the Incarnation during that time of national focus. The tension always came, however, when he tried to strike the perfect balance between acknowledging the holiday’s doctrinal significance and warning against its inherent spiritual dangers from an ecclesiastical and cultural standpoint. As Jordan Standridge explains:
“Spurgeon was no Buddy-the-Elf when it came to Christmas. In fact, he resembled the Grinch more, but no one can deny that he loved the opportunity Christmas created to exalt and point people to Jesus Christ.”
The Curious Case Of The Victorian Christmas Postcard
Perhaps it is easy to understand Mr. Spurgeon’s love-hate relationship with Christmas when you look at how the Victorians often greeted each other during Christmas with their popular use of postcards to express their sentiments with festive, full-color illustrations and pithy messages. It is notable that many of these greeting cards paid homage to the religious or familial significance of Christmas, but a significant number of these postcards were anything but reverential in tone. In fact, some were eccentric, morbid, or somewhat creepy, with a wink to sin and a complete disregard for the season’s more loving and devotional themes.
The strange, anthropomorphic depictions of frogs, insects, or cats displaying cruel or bizarre behavior in various winter scenes brought a confusion that was only compounded by its pairing with the cheery salutations printed below the illustrations that often read, “Happy Christmas!” or “Wishing you the blessings of the season!” Amazingly, this untamed display of wacky, irreverent British humor preceded Monty Python’s Flying Circus by almost a century.
Here are a few striking examples pictured below:
America Follows The Victorian Example
Of course, America today is not to be outdone by these religious deflections and cultural distractions first invented by the Victorians. We, too, have found time to take the sacred observance of Christ’s birth and turn it into mere fodder for irreligious silliness and merriment. Most of us are all too familiar with the tragic ballad of someone’s grandmother being run over by a large antlered creature from the arctic region. Or how about the famous “Singing Dogs” canine choir with their pitch-perfect vocal rendition of “Jingle Bells.” And last but not least, we can never forget the plethora of Christmas romance movies from Hallmark that some might say are the most outrageous and subversive jokes of the season.
I bring up these contemporary examples in lighthearted jest, but my momentary diversion should not cause us to miss the serious point of the matter. For all the innocent but impulsive amusements we might enjoy during this time of year, there is a tragic consequence when we as a nation focus too much on such empty pursuits. The result? Namely this: an increasing disregard for the religious underpinnings of Christmas in order to break free from any obligation to God, especially in our seasonal pursuits of revelry and materialism.
The question for today’s thinking Christians, therefore, is whether or not to completely ignore such obvious attempts to downgrade the spiritual significance of the holiday, or rather to be on the lookout for those more-serious secular elements that provide us with an opening to share our faith and return the focus to Jesus. In looking back at the curious phenomenon of Christmas postcards produced in Victorian England, there was a notable example of just such an opportunity that might have been available to Christians who lived at the time, and could provide a template for our future use.
The Symbolism Of The Christmas Robin
One of the most prevalent symbols presented on the Christmas postcards of the Victorian era was the celebrated bird of the United Kingdom: the European robin, or more commonly known as the “robin redbreast.” Whether perched on a wintry twig, wearing a silk top hat, or holding a Christmas message in his beak, the robin was the character who most often greeted friends and family through the mail during the holiday season.
Why was the robin such a standard feature on British Christmas postcards back then? Two of the most popular answers seem reasonable enough. First, according to the 1678 writings of the English naturalist John Ray, the robin was synonymous with Christmas because the bird, normally hidden in the woodlands during the summer, would become bold, sociable and “familiar with man” as they sought out alternative food sources from cultivated shrubs and gardens in the winter-time. Over time, the robin became “a special part of [British] heritage which has evolved hand-in-hand with our distinctive traditional landscape” of a snow-covered Christmas in Britain.
Secondly, as reported by David Chapman, the English “robin redbreast” gave its name to the first Royal Mail postmen who wore red jackets as part of their uniform and soon became affectionately known as “robins.” At Christmas, people eagerly awaited the arrival of cards and letters from loved ones far and wide – delivered by their own local “robins.” It was only a matter of time, therefore, that artists began using robins in their postcard illustrations as the logical symbol of the Christmas greeting by mail.
The Legend Of The Christmas Robin
Neither of these historical backstories, however, explain how the robin became connected to the spiritual significance of Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. To find a direct link to Christianity, we must look farther back to the ancient British lore of the robin. These quaint legends speak to man’s heartfelt desire to find religious meaning in the world around them, and Christians were certainly no exception. As such, the European peoples of old were understandably drawn to the distinctive red breast of the robin and began to creatively speculate on how it may have gotten there. Two fables emerged over time from Europe’s growing Christian sentimentality and eventually took root in Britain.
According to The Sun newspaper: “One legend has it that when Mary was giving birth in the stable, the fire was dying and the robin used its wings to fan the flames. As the robin flew close to the fire, an ember flew up and made his breast glow red. Upon seeing this, Mary declared that the red breast was a sign of the bird’s kind heart and that the bird and all its descendants would wear a red breast proudly from that moment on.”
The other ancient tale, according to David Chapman, suggests that on the day of Christ’s crucifixion “a robin pulled a thorn from the crown of Christ whilst he was on the cross.” Hence, it was Christ’s blood that fell upon the bird’s breast and forever stained it red.
Of course, both of these sweet fables are nothing more than wisps of poetic homage to our Lord and Savior, but there is a spiritual reality in the legendary tale of the robin to which Victorian Christians might have related. Surely true disciples, like robins, must also display the unique “colors” that identify them as witnesses of the gospel truth of Jesus Christ. Is this not a thought supported by God’s word and worthy of our contemplation? John 13:35 comes to mind, among many others: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
The Spiritual Application Of The Christmas Robin
In studying the history of the Christmas robin in Victorian postcards, however, I was struck by another particular aspect of this British tradition that speaks to the grace and mercy that is found in Christ alone. One of the common themes in these vintage postcards is the depiction of a hungry, destitute, or dying robin shivering in a cold, snowy landscape. Perhaps this image seems strange as a token of good cheer and Christmas blessing, but to me it holds forth the most compelling biblical imagery in which to direct our hopes, thoughts, and activities as Christians this time of year.
Certainly the poor robin of winter, though a beloved mascot for the British people, speaks to Christians everywhere as we contemplate the spiritual state of lost men and women. It is a call to empathy for those less fortunate, not just temporally speaking, but also for those who are spiritually hungry and in desperate need of the bread of life.
Not surprisingly, Charles Spurgeon saw the same symbolic significance in his day and used it on at least two occasions during his sermons. In 1896, he described the “poor in spirit” as a robin outside his window who fed on his food, then flew away to tell the other birds of his bounty:
“In the depth of winter, at a time when I had a balcony to my study, I put some crumbs out upon it, and there came a robin redbreast, first, and he pecked, and ate all he could. I do not know his language, but I fancy I can tell what he said, for he went away and came back with ever so many sparrows and other birds! He had said to them, ‘There are crumbs up here, come and get them.’ And they all came, and they came in greater numbers every day—and I do not know how it was except that they told one another…
Oh, there are some of you, dear robin redbreasts, that have been here ever so long, and have been eating my Master’s crumbs! You have brought some sparrows to the feast—now try to entice a blackbird, and if there is one blackbird bigger and bleaker than another, go and fetch him, and bring him, for Jesus says that He will cast out none that come to Him by faith—and you may be sure that it is true, for He is ‘a friend of publicans and sinners.'”
Later in his sermon titled, “Solace For Sad Hearts” from 1912, the Prince of Preachers once again saw the mournful seeker drawn to Zion as a timid robin:
“They are like the robin redbreast in the winter time—they venture near the house and tap upon the window pane—and yet are half afraid to come in. When the cold is very severe and they are very hungry, they are daring and pick up a crumb or two. Still, for the most part, they stand at the temple door and mourn. They are in Zion and they sigh and cry because they feel unworthy so much as to lift their eyes towards heaven! Ah, well, the Lord appoints great blessings for you—He is good to those who seek Him.”
Clearly we see that Mr. Spurgeon was inspired by the simple beauty found in his country’s affection for the winter robin and used it with great effect to provoke us to greater purpose for the glory of God. Likewise, we must take every advantage possible during this Christmas season to scatter the crumbs of the Gospel to the poor birds outside the doors of our homes and our churches.
With that goal in mind, I leave you with these various quotes from Mr. Spurgeon (compiled by the Spurgeon Center) that speak to our sacred mission during Christmas to disengage from the distractions of our frivolous culture and proclaim the Gospel with all diligence. Challenging us, Mr. Spurgeon said:
“I wish everybody that keeps Christmas this year, would keep it as the angels kept it. . . . Set an example to others how to behave on that day, and especially since the angels gave glory to God: let us do the same.”
“You must then keep this Christmas by telling to your fellow-men what God’s own holy Spirit has seen fit to reveal to you.”
“When you are at home on Christmas Day, let no one see your face till God has seen it. Be up in the morning, wrestle with God; and if your friends are not converted, wrestle with God for them.”
“Find something wherewith to clothe the naked, and feed the hungry, and make glad the mourner. Remember, it is good will towards men. Try, if you can, to show them goodwill at this special season; and if you will do that, the poor will say with me, that indeed they wish there were six Christmases in the year.”
Bottom line, we don’t need dancing frogs and insects to bring joy to the season (or even robins, for that matter). We need Jesus Christ, for he will save his people from their sins. May God bless you in your efforts to share His good news, not only at Christmas, but throughout the whole year.
Perhaps this very day, as you and I are going to a place named Christmas, miles from the town of Bethlehem, we might talk to each other about all these things that have happened along the way. While we talk and discuss together, we see the world’s distorted image of Jesus put before us and our eyes do not recognize him there. And we suddenly stand still, looking sad.
Have the shortened winter days merely triggered our seasonal affective disorder? Or do we suffer the common holiday malaise brought on by our unmet expectations of a romantic Hallmark Christmas?
More likely, as sincere believers, we are discouraged by the hype and idolatry that corrupts the very real and profound incarnation of our Lord and Savior and turns that joyous, historic event into the consumer-driven focus of tinseled pine, a jolly old elf, and a red-nosed reindeer. No wonder we sometimes speak to each other of spiritual weariness, melancholy, or confusion in the midst of this pretense. What happened to our Lord in all this?
It is here that I find great comfort in the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, who were confused and saddened by what had transpired in Jerusalem with the unexpected death of Jesus. How marvelous it would be if likewise the Lord would see us traveling along in a similar spiritual daze this time of year and graciously draw near to us to ask, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?”
Then I, like Cleopas, would answer him, “Do you not see what is happening in these days?” And he would say to us, “What things?” And I would say to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, who has been relegated to the icon of a plastic doll in a fictional nativity scene, surrounded by three kings of the orient, a drummer boy, and a talking ox; and how priests still deliver him up to crucify him again and again to no avail in their blasphemous ritual. How can we still see the Christ when the world has brought forth a Jesus of vain tradition?”
And Jesus might say to us, “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?”
And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounds to us in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. And again he says to us, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.”
And this is what he patiently and lovingly reminds us from the Scriptures:
Christ would be born of a woman: Genesis 3:15; Matthew 1:20; Galatians 4:4
Christ would be born in Bethlehem: Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-6
Christ would be born of a virgin: Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22-23; Luke 1:26-31
Christ would come from the line of Abraham: Genesis 12:3; Genesis 22:18; Matthew 1:1; Romans 9:5
Christ would be a descendant of Isaac: Genesis 17:19; Genesis 21:12; Luke 3:34
Christ would be a descendant of Jacob: Numbers 24:17; Matthew 1:2
Christ would come from the tribe of Judah: Genesis 49:10; Luke 3:33; Hebrews 7:14
Christ would be heir to King David’s throne: 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 9:7; Luke 1:32-33; Romans 1:3
Christ’s throne will be anointed and eternal: Psalm 45:6-7; Daniel 2:44; Luke 1:33; Hebrews 1:8-12
Christ would be called Immanuel: Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
Christ would spend a season in Egypt: Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:14-15
A massacre of children would happen at Christ’s birthplace: Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:16-18
A messenger would prepare the way for Christ: Isaiah 40:3-5; Luke 3:3-6
Christ would be rejected by his own people: Psalm 69:8; Isaiah 53:3; John 1:11; John 7:5
Christ would be a prophet: Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:20-22
Christ would be preceded by Elijah: Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 11:13-14
Christ would be declared the Son of God: Psalm 2:7; Matthew 3:16-17
Christ would be called a Nazarene: Isaiah 11:1; Matthew 2:23
Christ would bring light to Galilee: Isaiah 9:1-2; Matthew 4:13-16
Christ would speak in parables: Psalm 78:2-4; Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:10-15, Matt. 13:34-35
Christ would be sent to heal the brokenhearted: Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19
Christ would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek: Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:5-6
Christ would be called King: Psalm 2:6; Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 27:37; Mark 11:7-11
Christ would be praised by little children: Psalm 8:2; Matthew 21:16
Christ would be betrayed: Psalm 41:9; Zechariah 11:12-13; Luke 22:47-48; Matthew 26:14-16
Christ’s price money would be used to buy a potter’s field: Zechariah 11:12-13; Matthew 27:9-10
Christ would be falsely accused: Psalm 35:11; Mark 14:57-58
Christ would be silent before his accusers: Isaiah 53:7; Mark 15:4-5
Christ would be spat upon and struck: Isaiah 50:6; Matthew 26:67
Christ would be hated without cause: Psalm 35:19; Psalm 69:4; John 15:24-25
Christ would be crucified with criminals: Isaiah 53:12; Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27-28
Christ would be given vinegar to drink: Psalm 69:21; Matthew 27:34; John 19:28-30
Christ’s hands and feet would be pierced: Psalm 22:16; Zechariah 12:10; John 20:25-27
Christ would be mocked and ridiculed: Psalm 22:7-8; Luke 23:35
Soldiers would gamble for Christ’s garments: Psalm 22:18; Luke 23:34; Matthew 27:35-36
Christ’s bones would not be broken: Exodus 12:46; Psalm 34:20; John 19:33-36
Christ would be forsaken by God: Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46
Christ would pray for his enemies: Psalm 109:4; Luke 23:34
Soldiers would pierce Christ’s side: Zechariah 12:10; John 19:34
Christ would be buried with the rich: Isaiah 53:9; Matthew 27:57-60
Christ would resurrect from the dead: Psalm 16:10; Psalm 49:15; Matthew 28:2-7; Acts 2:22-32
Christ would ascend to heaven: Psalm 24:7-10; Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51
Christ would be seated at God’s right hand: Psalm 68:18; Psalm 110:1; Mark 16:19; Matthew 22:44
Christ would be a sacrifice for sin: Isaiah 53:5-12; Romans 5:6-8
Thus, Jesus opens our minds to understand the Scriptures, and says to us, “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things, for I am the Christ.”
Hallelujah! What great joy immediately returns to us as we meditate on the glory of Jesus Christ found in God’s word! For our eyes are now opened, and we recognize him for who he truly is, and we see and worship the true Christ regardless of the world’s holiday distractions. Do we not say to each other, “Did our hearts not burn within us while he talked to us on this road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we walk down the road to Christmas, may we as happy, happy disciples draw alongside the true Jesus, our risen Lord and Savior, and learn from him as he tarries with us along the way. Yes, sometimes it is hard to see him with us, but as Peter so aptly and lovingly reminds us:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. – 1 Peter 1:6-9
But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. – 1 Peter 5:10-11
May peace be with you all during this joyous season of hope in celebration of Jesus Christ come in the flesh, the true Light shining among mankind in this present world. Amen.
The following testimony from a real, but unnamed Christian parent is presented for the edification of those professing believers embarking on the remarkable journey of parenthood, knowing they are solemnly charged by God to bring their children up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
“Tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wondrous works that He has done.” – Psalm 78:4
I am so very sad. Over the past two years, my married daughter, now 30, has slowly drifted away from Christianity and recently confessed an interest in neo-paganism, and specifically animism, which is the belief that all living things in the world have a soul, including plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena. My first thought was, how could this be? She was raised in a Christian home, received a biblical education early on, and for most of her childhood, she attended a strong, Bible-believing church. When she was a teenager, her ability to articulate and defend the Gospel in her own words was a great comfort to me as evidence of her true faith.
Because of these past indications of her spiritual quickening, I haven’t completely abandoned the idea that my daughter is presently going through a temporary period of metaphysical confusion and uncertainty. I am obviously not happy about her current state and at times I am quite fearful, but it is my fervent prayer that her early and persistent exposure to God’s word will one day be used by God to draw her closer to Himself before it’s too late. Certainly Proverbs 22:6 speaks to this parental hope.
Yet what haunts me the most as I look back on her childhood is the fact that I also allowed her in the midst of her Christian upbringing to freely enjoy all the Disney entertainment she could possibly want. I knew, of course, that many of the storylines in these animated and live-action films were not specifically Christian in content, but I rested in the belief that they were family-friendly and morally sound in general. But was I correct in this assumption?
In a recent Steven Crowder YouTube video, Alexa, the interactive virtual assistant built into Amazon’s Echo, was asked the question, “Who is the Lord Jesus Christ?” Her answer was short and to the point: “Jesus Christ is a fictional character.”*
We may gasp at that shocking response, but the answer really shouldn’t surprise us. We live in a day and age where biblical truth is marginalized and the once-distinct line between reality and fantasy is blurred. Nowadays, a fetus isn’t a person, there are more than two genders, and Lucifer is a semi-fallen angel with a heart of gold on a successful Fox TV series.
No wonder Alexa can answer the question as she does. The existence of the biblical Jesus is up for debate in these wishy-washy times, so why mince words just to appease a fading orthodoxy in Christianity? Besides, any post-Christian church can still flourish these days without objective truth or a historical basis in fact. Today’s “spiritual-but-not-religious” people are more informed by their emotions than by an external revelation from the one true God. Jesus is now whomever they want Him to be, as long as it “feels right.”
Mark Steyn, in fact, gave the scathing opinion that many mainline Protestant churches, especially in Europe, have turned Jesus into nothing more than a soft-left political cliché. According to their sentimentality, Steyn writes:
“…if Jesus were alive today he’d most likely be a gay Anglican bishop in a committed relationship driving around in an environmentally friendly car with an “Arms are for Hugging” sticker on the way to an interfaith dialogue with a Wiccan and a couple of Wahhabi imams.” ― America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.
So how did Jesus Christ, whose incarnation divided the world’s measurement of history, begin to be relegated to fictional status? The Bible has shown us that the attacks against Jesus have always been about tearing down His legitimacy in one way or another, and this is no exception. The current approach, however, is to lump the historical Jesus together with every “Christ figure” that mankind can conjure up in its imaginations. In fact, Jesus warns us of this sort of thing: “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (Matthew 24:23–24).
Current signs indicate that we are allowing the real Jesus to lose His distinction among the mythological “Christs” of the present world. Therefore, who’s to say which Christ is hard fact and which Christ is idealized fiction? To be sure, Western society’s current obsession with mythology and other popular products of the imagination, both new and ancient, have brought us to a point where the biblical Son of God is no more significant than any other literary or cinematic character imbued with religious symbolism. Jesus, it seems, has become just another “archetype” among many in which to inform our postmodern spirituality.
The concept of archetypes, first theorized by Carl Jung, put forth the idea that universal mythic characters, or archetypes, reside within the collective unconscious of all humanity and have emerged through our art over the centuries. Not surprisingly, this Gnosis-based theory has so infiltrated the religious sentiments of the current population that a savior like Jesus Christ doesn’t have to exist in reality; it is only the internalized “idea” of what He symbolizes that brings one closer to enlightenment and divinity. Who needs the Son of God slain on the cross when we can find comfort in an imaginary archetype of sacrificial love and acceptance that allows each person to rise to the higher Self by their own power?
Sadly, the dependable eyewitness accounts of the New Testament now have to compete with the fantastical tales of the Marvel/DC universe, Hogwarts, Middle Earth, or even Narnia. In the end, the Gospel record is far too mundane for a world mesmerized by glowing screens filled with CGI candy. Jesus and the apostles, much to the chagrin of some, never wore superhero costumes, flew Firebolt brooms, or slew mythical creatures with swords or light sabers. Is it any wonder, then, that the mythic archetypes of our popular culture are considered more compelling than the real men of God who toiled in a ministry that often brought ostracism, suffering, and ignominious death?
The Confusion Of The Younger Generation
My immediate concern, of course, is for the younger generation growing up in this current crusade of make-believe and religious skepticism. It’s one thing for grown-ups to deal with these assaults upon truth, but young children are not intellectually developed enough to make a distinction between what is real and what is imaginary. Some people who are involved in early education, even in the most progressive schools, have found this to be true in their experience:
“A child who spends too much time in a world of fantasy may find it difficult to relate to others, to interact in a group, to be in the here and now. It can also be scary for a child… When a child under 5 or 6 hears a fairy tale with a wicked witch, they then also imagine this witch to be real as a child of this age has a very concrete understanding of the world. They visualize it as if it is real as they are not yet able to clearly separate fantasy from reality.” – Montessori And Pretend Play: A Complicated Question
This childhood interaction between fact and fiction can be even more complicated when you, as a Christian parent, begin to introduce your child to the real person of Jesus Christ. This should be an exciting and joyful truth to share with your little one as you begin the process of rearing your child under the instruction of God’s word, but it can oftentimes be a difficult education if Jesus has to compete with Santa Claus, Superman, or Harry Potter as the object of your child’s fledgling hero-worship.
Recent research has proven this confusion among children to be a real issue. Case in point, a 2014 research study at Boston University where it was discovered that young children with a religious background were less able to distinguish between fantasy and reality compared with their secular counterparts:
In two studies, 66 kindergarten-age children were presented with three types of stories: realistic, religious and fantastical. The researchers then queried the children on whether they thought the main character in the story was real or fictional.
While nearly all children found the figures in the realistic narratives to be real, secular and religious children were split on religious stories. Children with a religious upbringing tended to view the protagonists in religious stories as real, whereas children from non-religious households saw them as fictional.
Although this might be unsurprising, secular and religious children also differed in their interpretation of fantasy narratives where there was a supernatural or magical storyline.
“Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional,” wrote the researchers. “The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.”
– BBC News, Study: Religious Children Are Less Able To Distinguish Fantasy From Reality
The researchers concluded (as most college researchers are prone to do) that exposure to a religious education is probably the main culprit in a child’s difficulty in identifying fact from fiction. This conclusion, however, seems to indicate an anti-biblical bias that completely ignores the alternative possibility. Why is religion the problem? Isn’t it just as plausible that fictional stories involving magic are the real cause of confusion, especially when these fanciful tales, like Pharoah’s magicians, are the ones mimicking God’s miracles in the Bible?
In light of Scripture, this alternative conclusion is clearly confirmed. For starters, God is not a God of confusion. God’s word will not return void, but will accomplish what He pleases and will prosper in that thing for which He sent it. Over and over again, the Bible confirms that scriptural instruction from the word of God is essential to a child’s proper upbringing. It keeps them far from folly, equips them for good works, and makes them wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (Proverbs 22:15 / 2 Timothy 3:14-17).
The one thing that is likely to undermine this God-ordained training is when an unaware parent interjects inappropriate fantasy stories from movies and literature as a compatible resource for their child’s development. This misstep is compounded when the parent’s reason for doing this is not because Disney movies or similar entertainments have any legitimate educational value, but because they don’t want their children to miss out on what the popular culture has to offer, even if it contains unbiblical content. To be blunt, raising children with such an indiscriminate use of worldly influences is almost a cultural form of Moloch worship which the faithless Israelites succumbed to when they delivered their infant children over to paganism for the sake of their temporal prosperity (Psalm 106:34-39).
Think about the possible consequences. Should we really be surprised when little Suzy suddenly has trouble maintaining the reality of Jesus walking on water after watching Luke Skywalker use the Force to levitate himself? And what should Suzy’s parents do after this happens? Do they let Suzy try to figure it out for herself or do they attempt to adequately explain the unexplainable to a kindergartner? And does it really matter at this point?
Some may suggest (and rightly so) that we can’t always shield our children from the world’s influences and the confusion these things might engender. Surely this is part and parcel of the average childhood and will no longer be an issue once they grow older and gain the intellectual capacity and religious understanding to correctly divide fact from fiction or right from wrong.
This is a valid point, and yet not particularly the issue at hand. The concern is not so much in how such exposure might temporarily affect a child, but how it might impact the child later on and into adulthood. A childhood immersed in “make-believe” might well lead to a misguided adulthood that finds more “truth” in paganism or occultism than in the Bible. It might also lay the groundwork for the idea that God’s word is just another fairy tale of human invention. And eventually, these adults might find themselves falling into the ditch of full-blown skepticism or atheism.
This possibility, in fact, was recently explored in a research study titled, Make Believe Unmakes Belief?: Childhood Play Style and Adult Personality as Predictors of Religious Identity Change. Published in 2014, the study looked into the relationship between childhood imagination and religiosity, finding that people who intensely engaged in pretend play as children were more likely to change their religious identity later in life, with apostasy being the largest category. As reported by Merrill Miller:
“The study assessed the role of ‘pretend play’—creating and acting out imaginary scenarios in made-up worlds—in the childhoods of individuals… and found that individuals who did not change their religious or nonreligious identification were less likely to have engaged in pretend play. Converts and switchers, however, were more likely to have played pretend, and apostates were the most likely to have often engaged in pretend play.” – The Humanist, Are Nonbelievers More Imaginative? A New Study Suggests They Might Be
Why were children who actively pursued a fantasy world more likely to abandon their religious upbringing as adults?
“The study’s author, Christopher Burris speculated that the higher correlation for apostates is because of the shift from structure — common among religious institutions — to unstructured — that is found in pretend play. ‘The realm of the nonbeliever is much less structured than the realm of belief is,’ he explained. ‘People’s cognitive, intellectual and emotional needs are not met sufficiently by faith traditions, so they strike out on their own way.'” – Massarah Mikati, Deseret News
The Biblical Approach For Christian Parents
The Bible, of course, has already anticipated the possible spiritual fallout from cultivating a child’s wild imagination instead of grounding them in reality and the clear instruction of God’s revelation. The biblical remedy?
Train up a child in the way that he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6
This is not to say that Christian parents shouldn’t encourage their child’s emerging creativity. But it should be grounded and fostered in reality. To truly instill an active and abiding love for God and neighbor, a child’s imagination must be connected to this real-life task and to exposing the child to those faithful people in their lives who emulate Christian duty in their various talents and occupations.
Even without the benefit of this biblical insight, Dr. Maria Montessori made the academic observation that reality was the key to a more profitable imagination:
“The true basis of the imagination is reality, and its perception is related to exactness of observation. It is necessary to prepare children to perceive the things in their environment exactly, in order to secure for them the material required by the imagination. Intelligence, reasoning, and distinguishing one thing from another prepares a cement for imaginative constructions… The fancy which exaggerates and invents coarsely does not put the child on the right road.” – Spontaneous Activity in Education p 254, Chapter IX
Don’t misunderstand this point. Pretend play is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is an activity meant to assist children in processing the real world around them. “For example, if they see an excavator at work in the street,” writes one teacher, “they may then be attracted to working with a model of an excavator, to reading books about construction vehicles and to play based on this. This is a child’s imagination at work.”
The fact is, even children themselves would much rather engage with real-life activities when possible. Many educators are well aware that a child is much more excited by helping Mom or Dad prepare a meal in the kitchen than pretend-cook with a toy stove. And Scripture finds great wisdom in this approach. Notice how God instructs His people to teach their children in the course of their daily activities:
You shall teach [the words of God] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. – Deuteronomy 6:7
Here we see no significant time set aside for daydreaming or chasing after empty phantasms. This is an all-encompassing lifestyle that weaves God’s truth into one’s daily labor from dawn to dusk, and from childhood to adulthood. It is the command from Genesis and throughout the Bible to bear fruit in every good work and increase in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10) “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. – 1 Corinthians 14:20
The Mature Approach For All Christians
Where is this maturity of which Paul speaks? Truly, one of the problems with American Christianity today is that too many professing believers have failed to see the importance of sobriety and maturity as a biblical imperative for discipleship. They twist the meaning of Luke 18:16-17 and simply refuse to grow up. They see their childlike fascination with games, fairy tales, and the playthings of their youth as a crowning virtue instead of a possible impediment to spiritual growth. In turn, these parents immerse their children in the same enthrallments and find great satisfaction in molding little ones into their own image, forgetting that the Bible instructs them otherwise.
On the contrary, God is the only object of wonder we need to focus on:
We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. – Psalm 78:4
I ask you: How could anyone fully submit to this sacred task if Jesus is only viewed as a mythological “archetype of Christ” or a good teacher who said wise things but never really existed except in our collective unconscious?
Any confusion about the reality of the Son of God is never going to serve this dark world, especially in an age where fantasy is actively usurping real life. As Christians, we have a holy calling to go into the world to make disciples, not to go into a fantasy-land to do so. God’s word and the Holy Spirit have shown us the only mind-altering vision we need to ignite our passion. We need to humbly submit to our Lord’s charge to deny self, follow Him, and stay true to our Gospel witness and testimony for the sake of the lost.
We know, of course, that shielding people, young or old, from the counterfeit fictions of this world won’t guarantee their eventual conversion. Ultimately, it is only by God’s grace and power that hearts are changed and the lost through faith are saved. Yet, we also know that if salvation does come to an individual, it won’t be because of fairy tales or myths, but despite them. Our job as Christians is to stay on point with the pure Gospel message, and not capitulate in any way to the world’s insatiable desire for an alternate reality. To give in to that desire does nothing more than bring confusion and cast doubt on the existence of the living Savior and the faith that brings eternal life.
The next time Alexa, or anyone else, dares to tell you that Jesus is a fictional character, ask them what the Bible says about Him. Why? Because the biblical answer to that question is the only response that truly holds the power of the Gospel to heal the brokenhearted, preach deliverance to the captives, recover the sight of the blind, and set at liberty them that are bruised (Luke 4:18).
“Whom do you say I am?” – Jesus Christ, Matthew 16:15
* The answer from Alexa was recorded unaltered and unedited on “Louder with Crowder,” and was verified by several Amazon product owners, who asked the same question and got the same answer. Since the airing of that controversial video, however, it appears Amazon has updated Alexa’s response to cite a Wikipedia entry on the historicity of Jesus Christ instead. For that, we are thankful.