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In Defense of Christian Materialism

Admittedly, the title is a bit of a hook.  Definitions mean everything and my definition of Christian Materialism, for the sake of this post, is not so much the inordinate love of material things as much as simple pleasure in them as they are: gifts given to us for the glory of God.  In that regard then, I hereby set out to defend Christian Materialism for this Christmas season.
It has become fashionable, not only amongst evangelical Christians but also amongst their more pagan neighbors, to decry the “commercialism” or “materialism” of the holidays.  Many abuses are laid at the feet of this complaint, among them the early unrolling of Christmas music in stores and on the radio, the flurry of shopping, the hysteria of ostentatious decorations, the neglect of sacred themes in favor of their secular substitutes (eg. Santa Claus instead of Jesus, etc.) and perhaps the greatest culprit of all – the mountains of presents under the Christmas tree.  Certainly, it is hard to argue with those who want to rescue Christmas from the more egregious of these abuses, but let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the soiled manger hay.
There is a positive good that comes from the gift-giving of Christmas.  The tradition of giving gifts as a celebration of Christmas is shrouded in legend, but most trace its origin to the gifts of the magi in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  Just as the wise men brought gifts to the Christ-child, it is suggested, so we give gifts to one another.  This may well be the biblical origin for gift-giving, or at least its somewhat tenuous justification, but I would suggest that there is another, stronger reason to continue this tradition.  The receiving of Christmas gifts, if engaged in with the right spirit, can lead us into the worship of God.
That’s an audacious claim as it is, but allow me to insure that it is understood in all of its blinding audacity.  I am not only claiming that the giving of gifts at Christmas is a good thing (that is, after all, easily demonstrable on the basis of our Lord’s assertion, quoted in Acts 20:35 that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”).  I am contending that it is the receiving of gifts that can lead us into the worship of God.  This is true for two reasons.  First, the act of receiving gifts reminds us that we are the recipients of the greatest gift of all – the gift of peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Away then with this notion that it is selfish to enjoy receiving presents!  If we fail to enjoy the shadow of generosity in this world how can we hope to rejoice in its substance in the next?  The receiving of Christmas gifts then becomes a lesson in Receiving itself…a lesson upon which we will all be examined at the end.
Second, in receiving gifts we experience pleasure and that pleasure itself is an arrow pointing heavenward.  The pleasure which accompanies the gifts of Christmas surpasses the quality of the present itself.  Every macaroni-necklace bedecked mother can attest to this truth.  For myself, my Christmas wish-lists have shrunk in variety with each successive year and the suspiciously book-shaped packages lovingly shrouded in Santa Clauses, holly sprigs and jingle bells hold little surprise for me.  Nevertheless, my pleasure in opening these gifts is not decreased by the lack of surprise.  Nor is my pleasure in receiving them dampened by the knowledge that I could as easily have logged on to and ordered them for myself.  I still retain a child-like pleasure in the receiving of the gift itself.  Most people, I think, experience this pleasure if they are honest, though most also bury it under the conviction that such pleasure is selfish, greedy and sinful.  Only it isn’t.  Jealousy over the gifts of others, the desire for more gifts or better, the compulsion to hoard our gifts all to ourselves, these are the demons of Christmas, not pleasure in the gifts themselves.  That pleasure is a gift from God and is sacramental in nature.  Here’s what I mean: When we experience pleasure in the receipt of a gift, we have the opportunity to re-direct that pleasure to God.  As I open a Christmas present (delightedly tearing off the ribbon and gleefully ripping through the paper) and as I feel that first thrill of excitement and joy as I behold its contents, I have, for just a moment, the ability to remind myself that just as this gift is but the symbol of one greater, so my pleasure in it is but the foreshadowing of an emotion which no living man has felt or will feel until he stands face to face with Messiah.  And in that moment, just then, my pleasure in the earthly gift takes on a shade of the eternal.  And small wonder, really.  It is no more than we are allowed to experience on other occasions…Baptism and the Eucharist come to mind.  This joy, when directed to our Savior, is worship.
CWIt is this principle that the regrettably obscure British poet Charles Williams used to refer to as the Way of the Affirmation of Images.  We can deliberately choose to see this life as symbolic of the next and appreciate it as such.  The opposing view he called the Way of the Negation of Images, in which we realize that nothing in this life can even remotely approximate the next.  Both ways are valid; both are presented in Scripture in various ways.  But the best road is found in the balance of the two: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.”  So, in the final analysis I suppose I must not cast too great an aspersion on those who reject the “materialism” of Christmas, but neither will I allow them to steal my pleasure in it.
  1. Andrew, thank you for this post. I so appreciate your perspective on Christian materialism. I’m walking more along the Way of Affirmation these days, rejoicing in the sweet taste of heaven I experience in the simplest of earthly gifts.

    • Beth, I find myself rambling down the Way of Affirmation myself, more often than not…holler at me next time you see me there….

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