September 28, 2020

Has N.T. Wright Ruined Christmas?

Today’s post is by guest blogger Chaplain Mike.

Please keep praying for our Internet Monk, Michael, as he rests in the hospital and continues to undergo tests and wait for results. For updates from Michael and his family, please refer to his page on Facebook.

Today, let’s talk about Christmas carols. I love ’em. In fact, from the first Sunday of Advent until the end of Christmastide, I only listen to Advent and Christmas music. There are no other playlists on my iPod. This is one of those rare times of year when it seems like everything in life, including the music that is being played even in the world’s public spaces, works together so that my whole world and all my attention can be focused on one theme: the Incarnation. Even the secular holiday songs, though obviously deficient in theological content, can fit in to form part of the “frame” for my days during Advent and Christmas and help create a sense of expectation in my heart.

However, it is always a good spiritual habit to examine our practices and traditions from time to time. I found a provocative and helpful article over at Credenda Agenda, in which Peter J. Leithart reflects on N.T. Wright’s insights about Jesus and expresses the realization that most of our “Christmas carols” have gotten it wrong.

First, go read the article, then come back for discussion.

Is Leithart right? Are we missing critical and Biblical themes in our Christmas celebrations?

Compare the Christmas carols you love with Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55):

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Note some of the ways this song differs from ours:

  • While most of our carols focus directly on the story of Jesus’ birth, Mary’s song puts this in the context of the complete story of God’s redemption.
  • While our songs point to characters such as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and magi, Mary’s song speaks of Abraham and the ancestors to whom God spoke his promises.
  • While our songs may evoke hopes of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” Mary’s song sets forth specific images of justice being enacted: the proud and powerful dethroned and the lowly raised, and so on.

Leithart says Mary’s song and the other songs in Scripture sound more like our better Advent hymns, which speak of Israel, the patriarchs, and God’s promises not in terms of some sentimentalized “heaven” but rather with human, earthly, and political realities in mind. He calls most of our carols “de-contextualized and apolitical,” and suggests:

I suggest a moratorium on new Christmas hymns, until we all learn the Magnificat and the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis so much by heart that they seep out our fingers at the keyboard, until we instinctively sing of Jesus’ birth like Mary, like Zecharias, like Simeon.

What do you think?

  • Are we missing the fullness of the Gospel in our Christmas hymnody?
  • If so, what are our Christmas songs doing to us theologically and spiritually? How are they forming us? our churches?
  • What Christmas songs do a good job, in your opinion, in presenting a fuller Biblical and theological picture of Jesus and what he came to do?


  1. Listen to “Joy to the World” and its trumpeting of God’s blessing spreading “far as the curse is found” and tell me it doesn’t capture the weightiness of the incarnation.

  2. Agreed. It certainly does reflect the theological themes and prophetic images of the new creation well.

    Though we sing it today exclusively at Christmas, most would call “Joy to the World” a hymn about the second coming, not the nativity, but the Bible often conflates the two in portraying Christ’s mission. Isaac Watts wrote it as a Christianizing paraphrase of Psalm 98.

  3. The problem with many Christmas songs is they are sung hypocritically.

    Sure, the words in many are great and do infact speak much of Jesus. [More than many of these “contemporary” worship bands that frequent many modern churches] However, to see an immoral unbeliever on TV singing about my Lord kind of bugs me.

    • As opposed to an immoral believer? Does that bother you, too? Because, if so, then no one should sing Christmas carols – ever.

    • Not a direction this discussion needs to go. Please stay on topic.

    • How about if you saw “a moral believer” doing the same? Or do you consider the terms “immoral” and “unbeliever” to be synonymous (and hence your appellation is redundant, or duplicative for emphasis), similar to how Paul considers that “Gentiles” = “sinners” (Galatians 2:15b – εξ εθνων αμαρτωλοι)?

  4. Re: the article …

    I think Advent songs are more political because the historic pre-Christian jewish messianic theology was overtly political, and then Christian theology (re-)interprets a lot of the messianic prophecy into the covert political teachings and life of Jesus? I mean, Jesus himself was not overtly political – not in the way Martin Luther King or Gandhi were, for examples. Since the Advent season recalls, and is heavily inspired by, the historical and Old Testament jewish messianic theology – of course it will seem more political.

    But are Christmas hymns missing or losing something by ignoring or down-playing those themes? I don’t know for sure, but I can’t help but think there’s a reason for it. The Christmas season celebrates that most stark and overwhelming distinctions between the Jewish and Christian theologies. The Incarnation of God is such a singularly profound event that it changes everything – theology, context, meaning, spiritual formation, ourselves. Are we “losing” some of the full picture by ignoring the political emphasis of Advent? It seems less like we’re “losing” the picture than that Christmas changes the picture itself and we’re using a broader lens than the political lens alone.

    • FollowerOfHim says

      I strongly agree with Luke’s emphasis on the Jewish-Christian dichotomy concerning the meaning of the Messiahship of Jesus. As reflected in the Advent carols and texts, the Jews were expecting an actual, earthly Kingdom, of course. We Christians, however, in a very real sense, have “moved the goalposts” by positing something far beyond “mere” Messiahship: the Incarnation itself. That Christmas and its music concentrate more on that than on traditional Messianic views is to be expected.

      That said, such carols as link the traditional Jewish hope to the future earthly Kingdom in the arc of hope that Christianity affirms help prevent the dichotomy from being a complete cleavage, and afford us a much richer understanding of Christmas.

    • Jonathan Hunnicutt says

      Jesus was political.

      He started his ministry proclaiming a Kingdom, and was executed as a political revolutionary with a political title over his head.

      You could say that Jesus was misunderstood, but by framing his ministry in political language: “The Kingdom of God,” Jesus is responsible for the way in which he was misunderstood.

      Either Jesus was political or he was stupid for describing his ministry in such political terms. It really is that simple. The logical end of “Jesus himself was not overtly political” is that Jesus was foolish.

      This does not mean that Jesus was violent. It’s sad that we’ve equated violent with political.

      By the way, the Civil Rights movement wasn’t entirely political either. Some historians have compared it to the Second Great Awakening.

      Also, God in the OT always longed to become incarnate and to know our sufferings. Read Exodus 3:7-8.

  5. Elsewhere I complained about well wishing and such. That said, I still find ‘O Holy Night’ to be one of the better songs we sing at Christmas time each year.

    Songs about mangers and ‘o christmas tree’ sort of bug me.

    I agree with JTTW. Profoundly deep and meaningful. On the other hand, while I think the traditional songs are, well, traditional, I think it would be a grand thing if some new songs were written that incorporated a great deal more of Abraham, and Mary, and Zechariah, and Anna, and Simeon and the host of angels gathered to sing to shepherds.

    Thanks for the post. Wright is, in my opinion, brilliant. (Which I know is beside the point of the post. I just needed to get that in somehow.)

  6. Don in Phoenix says

    I think our Advent hymns mirror Israel’s yearning for their Messiah, and like Israel, miss the big surprise God pulled on the world – the surprise Christmas present that changed everything, and brought the Good News not only to Israel but the whole world. God in a manger, loving the world, reconciling us to Himself. Our better Christmas hymns, rather than focusing on imagery from the Hebrew prophets, tend to focus on New Testament themes. The two best, in my opinion, are “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (“Who would not love thee, loving us so dearly?”) and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.

    • In regards to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”, it is not necessarily correct either.

      Mark Roberts recently wrote about how Charles Wesley was upset at some of the changes (some by George Whitfield) to the song he orginally penned:

      “Whitefield went on to publish his version of the hymn, which, apparently, distressed his friend Charles Wesley, who resented, among other things, the unbiblical picture of angels singing. In Luke 2, the angels are “saying, “ not singing, “Glory to God in the highest . . . .”

      • To confirm that, the song originally started,

        “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”

        where “welkin” refers to heaven, the celestial sphere. Whitefield originated the opening phrase we know today, but he wasn’t the only one to alter the words over the course of time.

        In addition to many Christmas carols being overly concerned with paraphernalia and outward circumstances, one thing that bothers me about both Christmas carols and other hymns is the way every hymnal editor seems to feel called to mess with the words in some fashion. I attend an international Baptist church here in Vienna, Austria, and we have a Southern Baptist Hymnal and the “Celebration Hymnal.” Thus, at least two versions of many, many hymns. Then, I consult Cyberhymnal and several other online and printed sources when I create the database for screen projection — several more versions. Our worship leaders have their own sources, often influenced by where they come from (Austria, Philippines, Nigeria, Korea, US, Canada), thus, yet a few more versions.

        And most of these changes don’t add value to the song; some seem to be motivated by a desire to be politically correct or remove some potentially embarrassing ambiguity (such as when “Ox and ass” become “man and beast”), while most seem to be attempts to get rid of all archaic or old-fashioned language.

        Anyway, I can quite understand Charles Wesley’s distress at such changes.

    • The ‘disconnect’ between the OT and the NT on the part of some Protestants is not shared by main-stream Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox.

      • Christiane, though in some ways I agree with you, in another respect this has been a problem since the earliest days of the church. For example, where are the patriarchs and the story of Israel in the ecumenical creeds?

        • Chaplain Mike,
          Where are the Patriarchs and the story of Israel in “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one!” or in any of the other Biblical creeds? We confess faith in the Triune God in the Ecumenical Creeds, not in the patriarchs but in their God. Therefore the Creeds deal with who God is, and what God has done, and does, and so they don’t concern themselves with the Patriarchs or the story of Israel, except that that story is retold in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of which the story of Israel was not much more than a type. And though I don’t know what Christiane means by mainstream protestant, I am glad to be counted in the group that doesn’t see this disconnect, and blame that perhaps for my failure to even understand the premise of this post.

          • Of course the focus of the creeds is on the Triune God, but they still reflect our belief in the Triune God AS HE HAS ACTED IN HISTORY to fulfill his Divine plan. Even if the early church were to have added a simple phrase in the section about Christ like, “And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, WHO WAS PROMISED THROUGH THE PROPHETS OF ISRAEL, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…etc.” the Apostles’ Creed would give a much fuller Biblical picture of the faith we hold.

            I think the same is true with many Christmas carols and other expressions of our faith. In many cases, one additional verse or line in a refrain would remind us that our faith did not begin at Bethlehem.

          • Hieronymus Illinensis says

            @Chaplain Mike, the Nicene Creed states that the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the Prophets.”

        • Hi Chaplain Mike,
          I love your posts and am praying for Michael. It is kind of you to help him now.

          As to my comment, if we widen the lens, we see something not often noticed:

          In His infinite loving-kindness towards His banished children, Adam and Eve who suffered shame in their nakedness, God mercifully clothes them.
          It is His first action after they are barred from Eden: to care for them in their need.
          This caring never, ever was abandoned. through-out the OT, we see the heart of Christ being revealed through every action of the infinitely merciful loving-kindness of God towards His people:

          The liturgy of the more ancient Church is filled with the fore-tellings of Christ in the OT
          justaposed with the corresponding verses in the NT. It is said that the liturgy of the Church is more ancient than the NT’s canon formation, and may have guided the choices of the canon.

          The Early Church Fathers understood the connection of the OT and NT.
          Augustine wrote
          ” The New Testament lies hidden in the Old;
          and the OT is ‘unveiled’ in the New’

          Chaplain Mike, there are some Christian people who do not see the connections perhaps more out of lack of emphasis than denial.

          It saddens me, because the richness of the meaning of Christ in the whole of Scripture belongs to all Christian people. Christ is there: in the clothing of Adam and Eve and all through the OT and the NT in every act of formation and preparation for the time when He clothes Himself in human flesh and comes to be ‘God with us.’

          • Chaplain Mike,
            You write “Even if the early church were to have added a simple phrase in the section about Christ like, “And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, WHO WAS PROMISED THROUGH THE PROPHETS OF ISRAEL, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…etc.””
            Well they did, at least in the Nicene Creed, but in a different place. “And on the third day he rose again according to the scriptures…” the scriptures spoken of their are not the N.T. But the O.T.

          • Christiane…sometimes when I read the Old Testament, I have to ask about the descriptions of what God is doing and saying, “Is THIS the Father Jesus told us about? Is that Abba?” I was reading Ezekiel yesterday (chapter 5) and because God is angry at the way the citizens of Israel are behaving, he says he will cause parents and children to cannibalize one another. (God says he is intentionally doing this.) He says he will have no pity. He says he will let loose deadly arrows to destroy them. He will use famine, pestilence, animals, swords and more to execute judgments on them in anger and fury. In chapter 9 Ezekiel hears God tell someone he sees in a vision to cut down old men, women, young children. I know that people will tell me that God is trying to make Israel see how serious their sins are and how holy their God is. But still. It bothers me. This is not how Jesus portrayed the Father as caring about every hair on our heads.

          • Joanie D,
            I would reread what Jesus has to say in total. He can have a lot of harsh things to say concerning the end times, hell, and the people who will inhabit it. And Jesus himself never questioned anything of the O.T. but rather endorsed it all. So I would say that yes this is the same Father. The Same God who warns us that he is a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing mercy to a thousand generations of those who love me.

          • Bror, yes, I am aware that Jesus has some harsh words to say, but notice he is often saying them to the “religious authorities.” And when his disciples ask if someone is disabled because of the sins of their ancestors, Jesus answers something to the effect that the person has the disability so that the glory of God can be seen and he then heals the person. And yes, Jesus does talk about hell and I do believe hell exists. I may not believe exactly as you do about hell, but that topic is for another place and time.

            I do believe Jesus focuses more of the loving forgiveness of the Father than he does on the anger of God. God was in Jesus reconciling the world to Himself. That sounds like a God in love with his creation. God asked the Father to forgive those who were killing him.

            So, I, too, will focus on the love of God and yet not overlook the fact that people can do horrendous things and bring great torment to themselves in one way or another.

          • What is love without jealousy?
            The point is it is the same God, he loves his creation and creations, loves them enough to be angry with them. loves them enough to forgive them in Christ. Don’t draw a dichotomy there, you don’t get to choose a loving God or an Angry God, He is one and the same, Jesus doesn’t change that.

        • Well, every time Eucharistic Prayer I is used at Mass, we (or rather, the celebrant says):

          “Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.”

          But probably not what you were looking for? 🙂

  7. arpritchett says

    I know Michael has mentioned it before on his blog, but Andrew Peterson’s “Behold the Lamb of God” album is phenomenal when it comes to songs of Israel’s longing for the Messiah.

  8. I might suggest a moratorium on N.T. Wright….
    O.K. I have never actually read the guy. Perhaps I’ll order one of his books this afternoon. I don’t get my bias against him from his naysayers though, near as much as I do from reading his supporters. It does seem to me though that the Credenda Agenda might do a better job of interpreting Advent and Christmas hymns, and then I might listen to them when they interpret the New Testament.

    • If you haven’t read him, I suggest you do. Start with a big one: “New Testament and the People of God”. It will change your life. No exaggeration.

      • William,
        I ordered two of his books this afternoon, but I am hardly thinking it is going to change much in my perspective. I suppose we will see. But the insights his supporters have been touting have hardly qualified as such for me. I have not been much impressed by anything anyone has written about the man, either pro or con. I’m not sure why that is.
        i imagine though that it has a lot to do with the particular tradition of Christianity I grew up in. Sometimes when I look in on an evangelical discussion it is like listening in on a conversation to which I have no reference. It may as well be in Farsi. I don’t get the spiritual angst, and there seem to be dichotomies there that I have never seen, dichotomies that seem very contrived. This is often what I see with the proponents of N.T. Wright. They are coming from a tradition that is foreign to me, and I am left with a quizzical look on my face concerning the earth shattering “insights” they rave about. on the other hand, I read some of his naysayers, and sympathize with some of the misgivings they have. But perhaps this year I will just read him for myself and come to my own conclusions.
        I however spent my gift cards, and have not ordered the book you recommended.

        • Good approach. Read him for yourself. I like NT Wright much more than I do most of his followers. Seriously though. Read New Testament and the People of God. Your library probably has it.

  9. Matthew Johnston,
    Hypocrisy is a very funny thing in that it is a charge most often thrown about by those most guilty of it.
    But going with Pat K’s post the other day, it tickles my ear to see the unbeliever, no more immoral than me, singing the praises of my Lord. If pagan priests could be the first to recognize our Lord with gifts, then I think I can maybe even rejoice at the unbeliever singing a Christmas hymn especially when they have been blessed with a beautiful voice that may not be praising him in heaven.

  10. I could wish that Leithart had included a short bibliography. He whets my appetite for Wright, then doesn’t offer a menu. Which writings were the basis for Leithart’s assertions?

    • “The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is” contains these themes. It was my first foray into N.T. Wright, and I couldn’t put it down. My understanding is that it is a shorter, less technical version of “Jesus and the Victory of God.”

      • I thought the “Challenge of Jesus” was ok but there are two books that it is based on that are waaay more important. 1) New Testament and the People of God 2) Jesus and the Victory of God. Read these two books and you will never read the New Testament the same way again.

  11. I can’t tell if Leithart is a Zionist or not. If he is up for singing Christmas songs with the Israel-theology that is similar to Wright’s, then I see he is not a Zionist. But I just wasn’t sure if there was over-the-top Zionism there.

    But yes, let’s sing more about Israel’s restoration and bringing light to the nations. But we must educate our people to understand what that means in full new covenant biblical revelation. (Maybe I am just a little bit wary of over-the-top Zionism.)

    • I don’t see any connection to Zionism. I also don’t think we should overplay the Jewish element in general, except that what Wright is saying is that we must understand Jesus in the context of the world in which he lived, and that he was put to death in a highly charged social context involving the hopes of Israel that we almost always overlook.

      My main interest in what Leithart says is that Wright has not only transformed our view of Jesus and his social context but also our understanding of Biblical eschatology. We are looking for a new heavens and new earth that God has put right–a new creation, or total transformation of the very world in which we live, not some vague “spiritual” heaven that bears no relation to our earthly scene.

      Many Christmas carols and many of our expressions of faith could be much more robust in this area.

      • NT Wright is explicitly anti Zionist. He makes the case that at one point in time the physical region of Israel was the inheritance of God’s people and now the entire world is the inheritance for God’s people. He would argue that Zionism is too limited. God gave his people the world not a corner of it.

        • Ephesians 2
          “14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. “

        • He makes the case that at one point in time the physical region of Israel was the inheritance of God’s people and now the entire world is the inheritance for God’s people.

          This I readily agree with. And I supposed Wright believes this from my little reading of his stuff, but I was not sure where Leithart was coming from exactly. But if he is quoting Wright, I would think he would agree with Wright’s thoughts.

          • I don’t think that Leithart is disagreeing with Wright here. You may want to reread the article. What Leithart is saying is that Wright correctly argues that The New Testament can not be separated from first century Judaism and that the work of Christ was specifically intended to take place within that context. Of course it has a purpose for the whole world but Christ didn’t come in some abstract timeless way but instead came at a certain moment in a certain area with a message that fulfilled the hopes and dreams of the people of Israel. The New Testament doesn’t make sense if you put Christ in a different culture at a different time.

      • “My main interest in what Leithart says is that Wright has not only transformed our view of Jesus and his social context but also our understanding of Biblical eschatology. We are looking for a new heavens and new earth that God has put right–a new creation, or total transformation of the very world in which we live, not some vague “spiritual” heaven that bears no relation to our earthly scene.”
        This is an example of one of those things that everyone touts as some great insight and I fail to see it. The church has always confessed the resurrection of the body, and understood that this heaven we speak of is a “new heaven and a new earth” a recreation. I grew up singing Sunday after Sunday the “Gloria Patri” concluding as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end” and remember being taught what all that entailed in numerous Sunday School lessons.

      • Yes, I agree and that is why the book that everyone should be talking about here that will ‘change’ their lives and puts to rest the issues about the roles of heaven and earth is the one titled “The Surprise of Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” which deals very handily(as his theological forebear Oscar Cullman once did) on these issues of how badly the theology has been in hymns and carols through the years especially concerning heaven and the resurrection.

  12. @KC

    Leithart would most likely point you to NTW’s _Jesus and the Victory of God_. That’s the book most relevant to his article.


  13. I don’t think it’s so much that Christmas hymnody is inadequate, but that churches use those hymns and carols inadequately. There’s plenty of doctrine and references to all the things mentioned in the article, but unfortunately, many churches only tend to utilize in congregational singing or in choral (or band) music a tiny fraction of what’s available. Further, of those hymns which are used, often only the one or two “familiar” verses are sung. To me, it’s not a particular problem with Christmas per se, but rather a general abandonment of our hymn (and carol) heritage.

    • as a former “worship pastor,” i heartily agree with this.

    • “Further, of those hyms which are used, often only the one or two “familiar” verses are sung.”

      You hit the nail on the head. Ironically, in juxtaposition to this trend, at Mass this Sat evening, we sang the fourth verse to “We Three Kings.”

      Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
      Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
      Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
      Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

      I can’t say I recall ever having sung that verse, which one must admit most folks in the Western world would find eerie during the Christmas season, but is a strong reminder of why Christ came into the world.

      The last verse finishes the Christology.

      Glorious now behold Him arise,
      King and God and Sacrifice.
      Alleluia, Alleluia
      Sounds through the earth and skies.

  14. Mary, Did You Know, brings out the Deity of Christ, and makes personal the experience of the Blessed Virgin.
    If you can not relate to the Darkness that is spoken of here, “To give light to them that sit in darkness and [in] the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” you just haven’t been lost.

  15. Interesting topic.

    I tend to see a heavenly / earthly dichotomy when Jesus is discussed. On one hand, we tend to celebrate Jesus as a person whose purpose was to bring an end to all personal conflicts, cultural differences and political identities, a heavenly type of Utopian expectation. On the other hand, there are songs like Mary’s reflecting a definite cultural and political expectations that center not on all people, but only on those who have God’s favor, which I see as very human.

    The classic rendering in Luke 2:14 sounds wonderful and heavenly (“… on earth peace, good will toward men” KJV), but newer translations I believe better reflect the climate of the times (“… on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” NIV).

  16. While I’m all for accuracy and such in our presentations of the gospel, it seems that now Christmas is falling into the same problem as other “doctrines.” We are trying to fit the whole into a slice. We take our ‘mature’ attitudes and think that these old things no longer fit us. Scripture hints at this when it talks about becoming as little children. Think about your first memorable Christmas. The wonder, the amazement its almost magical quality. The lights, the decorations, all the activity, people hurrying around etc. All this to remember one person born so long ago.

    All the songs written about Christmas are simply little slices of the whole pie, each person has a view of that event. Some we agree with, some we don’t. But its not about each individual slice, it is about the whole. Without the familiar we have no basis, without the new we cease to analyze.(criticize, but not analyze) As we mature we find comfort in the old, annoyance with some of the new. My parents hated John Lennon’s “So This is Christmas” but when prejudice was put aside, found the message. Who cares if they are “accurate” are you uplifted? put in a better mood? think more about what the meaning of Christmas is? if so then the songs have done their job. If you had no knowledge of Christ, would you want to know more upon hearing these songs?, if so they have done their job. Lighten up, it’s Christmas.

    • You make a point. That’s why I said in my intro that even the silliest secular carols perform a function for me during this season. There’s a lot to be said for simple enjoyment.

      That being said, each year there is also a part of me that longs for an even more profound understanding of Advent and Christmas. I know I’m not alone. In order for that to happen, we need rich materials for contemplation–carols and sermons and poems and aesthetics that illuminate the mystery of the Incarnation from different perspectives and probe its depths.

    • This is why Jude 1:19 reminds us that those who will bring division are the ones who are sensual in their nature, more concerned with worldly things, the flesh, and not concerning themselves with the spirit. When we worry about live and let live where the world is concerned, to accomplish a better relationship with the world, so as to not rock the boat or to gain some small satisfaction in the pale representation of a genuine new birth in Christ. By getting someone to be ‘uplifted’ or ‘inspired’ by something that is false, do not believe that this act of uplifting will bring glory to God. It will bring glory only to the evil one, for it is not based on the rock that is Christ as its foundation, but rather it is based on the sinking sands of everything else that is not Christ. This is the reality in the one who sings, and worships with and for falsehoods, just because it makes them feel good, even when they don’t know it’s a falsehood, it renders them a sensual being, one who is concerned only with the flesh, and worldly things, for that ‘warm feeling in your bosom’ is not joy or adoration, it is lust and idolatry.

  17. I agree very much with Leithart. As N.T. Wright and others helped me understand a distinctly Jewish Jesus with a very earthly mission, I’ve become less enthusiastic about much of our hymnody as well as contemporary music being written for the Church.

    I wrote about the bad theology of Christmas music here:

  18. It is amazing how many of the things we do are far off from the truth. Sadly we so often do these things because we have been taught to do them, but we never give complete thought to their meaning. Such as singing Christmas carols that have a off message. We don’t think about the words, we just sing them because we have been singing them since we were children. This is sad, and it should certainly change. We need to give more thought to what we do.

  19. KR Wordgazer says


    I for one am happy that the Christmas carols are not focused on the political Israel. I’m a Gentile. When the Jerusalem Council decided what Jewish practices the new Gentile converts should practice, they focused only on the rejection of the idol worshiping practices of the pagans around them: “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from meat that has been strangled and from blood.” Acts 15:20. I am not required to obey the law of Moses (Acts 15:5), and I am not required to become an adopted Israelite. I don’t need to take their history as though it was my own.

    Jesus said His Kingdom was not of this world. I agree that He deliberately called it a Kingdom, which was inflammatory– but He was actually trying to get Himself crucified, was He not? Nevertheless He said His Kingdom was not of this world.

    I love Christmas carols like “Away in a Manger” and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” They are, first and foremost, poetry– not doctrinal statements. When I want doctrines, I go to the Epistles and the Creeds. When I want imagery and metaphors that reflect the human condition and lift my heart and mind towards the eternal, I go to the Psalms– and the hymns and carols. “Rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing” is an invitation to raise your mind to the things unseen that are eternal. It’s a metaphor that is meant to encapsulate the Christmas story as a whole. If it is read as if it placed undue emphasis on the angels’ song over Christ, that reading (in my opinion) misses the point. Similarly, the picture of the Baby in the manger is an image of Christmas evoked in a poem. Let it be what it is, and enjoy it for what it is rather than blaming it for not being what it was never meant to be.

    I, for one, have no problem with the idea that the Infant was awakened by the lowing of the cattle, but the cattle’s lowing didn’t make him cry. Babies do wake from sleep without crying sometimes. This is a poetic picture, not a doctrine or a teaching that Jesus never cried.

    Please, don’t ruin the carols. Even if you don’t like them yourself, they mean a lot to me.

    • KR Wordgazer,
      You have a friend here. But actually much of the poetry in these hymns contain more doctrinal truths in their metaphors, even if they might not be historically accurate renditions then much of what passes for a doctrinal text these days. I say if you don’t understand those truths then you have no right to try do away with them. Jettisoning our Christmas hymnody because someone wrote a book two thousand years later that challenges what we think of Christmas seems silly. I’m more inclined to question the basis of the man’s writings, and probe his biases.
      Seriously I tend to think these hymns have more insights should they be examined then anything this guy’s books contain. But then that is my conservative nature. I’ll keep Christmas

    • It was once said that “One person will hear the sermons of John Wesley for every thousand persons who hear and sing the songs of Charles Wesley”. This is why it is important to have our songs and worship elements be doctrinally correct for they will, unfortunately(perhaps), teach more people ‘biblical truths’ than the bible, day in and day out.

      • You’re right. And to make the statement that our songs can be poetry without being doctrinal (in the sense of teaching truth) is not only a false dichotomy, but it’s also contra Col 3:16-17.

        Our music and our teaching must align.

        • KR Wordgazer says

          “doctrinal (in the sense of teaching truth)”

          Will, if that is all you mean by “doctrinal,” then I agree.

          When I say “doctrinal,” I am referring to an intellectual/philosophical focus on the events depicted in the Scriptures. But there are other truths to be known than those apprehended through the intellect alone. Our differing definitions may be causing misunderstandings.

          • Augustine wrote that doctrine was faith seeking understanding.
            Maybe ‘doctrines’ are steps along the way to understanding.

  20. Of the Christmas songs we find in Luke, Simeon’s is the only one that seems to “get” or be concerned about what we would call Gentile salvation. Even while we rejoice that Christ has made us one new man, the themes in Zechariah’s and Mary’s songs are a valid part of Israel’s eschatological hope. Otherwise they would not even be connected to Christ’s first Advent.

  21. Ron Newberry says

    If the truth be told, Wright not only saved Christmas, he saved Jesus for the Christian faith

  22. Okay, let the nit-picking begin.

    First, this sounds more like Leithart’s view of what Wright might think, rather than what Wright does – have we anything by Wright on Christmas?

    Secondly, the reason the Christmas hymns/carols are not like the Advent hymns are (1) the carols were secular, not churchly, in origin – songs sung as rounds for dancing (2) it *is* the enlightenment to the Gentiles that is emphasised after all because *we* are the Gentiles.

    Thirdly, “my kingdom is not of this world”. Israel may have expected a political Messiah who would restore the earthly kingdom of David and drive out the Romans, but that turned out not to be the point of the Incarnation after all.

    I do agree that the salvation history regarding Israel should not be forgotten or ignored, and that in the context of the Crucifixion we forget how outrageous the claims made by Christ were – to be God? a mortal man saying this? worse than any of the perversions of the pagans!

    And of course Christmas songs are dripping with sentimentality. Humans are very good at that, softening down the edges of the uncomfortable message and turning it into ‘a heart-warming tale of triumph over adversity’ instead.

    But today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Since we are commemorating the politically-motivated killing of potential rivals to the throne of Israel by a shrewd and determined man who had brought a form of peace, unity and stability to the region, not to mention improvement in the infrastructure and the blessings of civilisation, by making deals with the world’s leading superpower – let’s play “The Coventry Carol” and remember that a secular kingdom of Israel is not, after all, the outcome that God is aiming for.

  23. If we quote “my kingdom is not of this world” I think we’re missing Leithart’s point and Wright’s. Jesus’ kingdom is definitely not of this world in the sense that it takes and wields power like earthly kingdoms do. Hence why he did not come in a palace and his mission was not to go give the Roman oppressors a military thumping. And of course, Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, since he brings grace, mercy, and peace from heaven.

    But Jesus’ kingdom is unequivocally for this world. The whole point of what Wright is talking about is that Israel’s God had a plan for the world to redeem it from its fall and restore it in right relationship to himself through the work of the Messiah. The hope of Israel is that Messiah would come, to establish God’s rule on the earth at last. In Jesus, God’s rule has come to the world, and on the last day when Jesus returns in glory the establishment of his rule over the world will be complete, and he will not only resurrect us but also redeem this world itself.

    So we are not looking for a secular kingdom of Israel, but we are similarly not looking for a hope away from a restored heaven and earth, away in some Platonic place we’d like to call “heaven.” We are looking for the reestablishment of God’s kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven,” just as the Hebrew prophets spoke of.

    • Well, whatever Wright’s opinion might be, this article strikes me as Leithart’s reflections on how Wright has had an impact on his thinking, and Leithart does throw in lines like ” Peace on earth is not some lefty pipe dream. It’s the promise of peace for Israel, and therefore peace for the nations” and “a false Christmas, a de-contextualized and apolitical Christmas”.

      Granted, this does not make him a Zionist or an agitator for a particular political settlement, but myself, I find it difficult to disentangle just what exactly he is getting at.

      If I understand him correctly (and any errors are mine), then he is saying that Wright awoke in him the realisation that the response of Israel to Jesus was rooted in a particular cultural and religious expectation of who the Messiah would be and what he would do, and that it’s not as simple as ‘bad Sanhedrin condemns Son of God out of deliberate choosing evil”.

      That’s true, and that’s useful, but it’s not the end of it. I dunno – is Wright (and Leithart after him) trying to tackle some renascent form of Gnosticism in our day, when reminding us that after the Last Judgement that there will be a new earth as well as a new heaven, that we will exist in our self-same (if glorified) bodies, and that our faith involves more than a yearning for a ‘spiritual’ disembodied existence in eternity? That we must look to this world and its purposes as well as gazing to the heavens?

      Then what is the dragging in of politics to do with this? If he is dragging in politics – as I say, I find it hard to disentangle what he (usefully) reminds us of salvation history and the role of Israel, with whatever he may be attempting to say about modern attitudes to Christmas.

    • Hieronymus Illinensis says

      The reestablishment of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven must mean, for me, first and foremost the reestablishment of God’s kingship over me and my behaviors.

      But even if the whole physical universe we live in is brought under God’s rule, even should the Maryknollers bring social justice to the remotest galaxies or the Franciscans demonstrate God’s love convincingly to the tiniest virus particle, it will die. That is physical fact. The second law of thermodynamics teaches us that everything we accomplish is bought by an even greater loss of energy from somewhere else, until all is cold and dark. The new heaven and new earth we hope for cannot be bound by that law, yet the very processes that make life possible in this world depend on it.

  24. Jesus preaching of the Kingdom of God was not political in the modern sense of the term. He made it clear to Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world i.e. not a political kingdom. Consequently both the Magnificant and the Nunc Dimittis should not be interpreted as political documents. There were many political messiahs in Jesus day. They organized violent rebellions. Christ was no such a messiah. Nor were His Apostles leaders of violence. Jesus and His Apostes did not live in a democracy. They had no non-violent path to political power. They renounced the path of violence and political power. For moderns and post-moderns to interpret Jesus ministry as a justification for their political obsessions and passions is to distort the message and ministry of Jesus. It is we who are obsessed with political power and ideology not Jesus. N.T. Wright is simply wrong.

    • I agree with your view.

      On the other hand, you don’t understand N.T. Wright very well. What you propose is a thousand miles from what you assume he is teaching.

      JohnZ has it well summarized above.

    • Jonathan Hunnicutt says

      Actually the Greek is from not of. It’s the Greek word ek which means out of or from. Pilate is asking if Jesus’ kingdom arises out of this world ie if it is an uprising or rebellion. Jesus’ reply reveals that God’s kingdom isn’t a rebellion nor uprising. It’s an invasion.

  25. KR Wordgazer says

    That is undoubtedly true, John Z, but to me the fact of Christmas, and the truth of the Christmas songs, is this: that infant in the manger was the Christ, God Incarnate, the Word made flesh. *That* is the focus of Christmas, and the wonder of the Incarnation is enough, in and of itself, for some of the simpler carols we sing.

    Every song doesn’t need to be a full doctrinal statement of what Christ came to do. In fact, often times I find all that a distraction from focusing on the Incarnation as and for itself. All those verses in Joy to the World– they’re good and uplifting, but the Incarnation itself is something a child can appreciate. And at Christmas, I enjoy approaching it like a child. God in the flesh– how amazing, how holy, how incredible. Look at the Baby, coming so humbly to sleep in the hay.

    It’s the simple songs that do me the most good. And I don’t even care if I don’t see eye-to-eye with the carol’s words on every point. Even “I Saw Three Ships” with its mention of “Christ and His Lady” is something I can enjoy the imagery of, even if I I’m not a medieval Roman Catholic. Let the songs be what they are, is what I say. As long as we just let them be songs, they do us no theological or spiritual harm. They are part of our *Christian* heritage. And is that not of value too?

    • Yes, let them be simple, and yes let them be joyous, but why add things to them that do alter doctrine? As to whether they will do us spiritual or theological harm, I will reiterate what I said earlier about the Wesleys. It was said: “One person will hear the sermons of John Wesley for every thousand persons who hear and sing the songs of Charles Wesley”. So the ‘harm’ has a potential of a thousand-fold effect over and above a poorly written sermon.

    • First, yes, Christmas is about the Incarnation, about God become flesh. But sadly, most of our Christmas carols do not focus on that, but on the manger, the baby, the star, the shepherds, the angels, the wise men. They are (mostly) bad poetry dripping with excess sentimentality.

      Second, there’s no such thing as just letting a song be a song without its having any kind of theological or spiritual impact. That’s just simply not reality. Our music influences our theology often more than our preaching does.

      Third, what do you mean by saying that doctrine is a distraction from focusing on the Incarnation. That statement just doesn’t make sense to me. The Incarnation itself is very rich doctrine. That’s why I’m concerned that our music convey rich doctrinal truth, not error.

      • KR Wordgazer says

        First of all, the accounts of Christ’s birth, in fact, focus on the manger, the baby, the star, the shepherds, the angels and the wise men.

        By “doctrine” here I mean a focus on a philosophical/intellectual approach to what happened when “she brought forth her firstborn son.” Nothing wrong with the intellectual aspect– but there’s also nothing wrong with just telling the story, as the New Testament does, and letting the narrative be what it is.

        With regards to the carols, what you consider “bad” or “sentimental” poetry may not be the same as what I consider such. And then of course there’s the fact that some of these songs were written deliberately to appeal to children and to be understood by them. Jesus said I should approach the Kingdom like a child– so I see nothing wrong with taking childlike enjoyment in “Away in a Manger.”

        Of course our songs have theological and spiritual impact– and “I Saw Three Ships” has nothing like the impact on me that “O Holy Night” does. But I still enjoy “I Saw Three Ships,” even if I don’t believe Mary is Christ’s “Lady.” I enjoy the song for what it is. Some songs are richer in doctrinal significance than others. I say we need *both* kinds.

        I guess what I’m saying is, theology is the underpinning of the Christian experience, but there’s also the very real impact of the actual narrative events (the “story”). If story were not of value, the Bible wouldn’t be so filled with story. It would be a book of theology only. The Bible also contains poetry of various kinds. Not all of it has direct bearing on me theologically (such as “Blessed is he who dashes your [Babylon’s] infants against the rock!”). But I can still appreciate it for what it is and the feelings it conveys so much more expressively than prose can.

        Not everything is about the intellect. That’s what I’m trying to say.

        • I think we agree much more than we disagree, KR. Let me see if I can clarify a bit.

          I also believe in the value of the story, but the story (the narrative) does not exist for its own sake. The story is meant to communicate a message. (The story, in fact, IS the message in some ways…but that’s another discussion.) If the message of the Bible’s story and the message of the story of our Christmas songs is significantly different, then we may be telling the same story (in some ways) while communicating the wrong message.

          For example, the message of the Bible’s “Christmas” story is that the hope of Israel (and by extension the hope of the world) has come in Jesus the Messiah–redemption and reconciliation and recreation and renewal. The message of many of our Christmas songs on the other hand is that we can have warm, fuzzy feelings about baby Jesus this time every year. There is virtually nothing of redemption, reconciliation, recreation, renewal.

          Few, if any, of our Christmas carols deal with the shepherds, star, magi, manger, angels, etc. in a way that does justice to the reason behind their inclusion in the biblical narrative. What is Matthew’s purpose in including the star portion of the narrative? I would venture to guess that none of our Christmas carols treat the star narrative in a way that communicates Matthew’s message. “The First Noel” certainly doesn’t.

          What I’m looking for in Christmas music is a message that tells the story so that the message of the music is the same as the message of the biblical narrative, not contrary to it.

          Does that make any sense? It makes sense in my head, but I might not be stating it clearly enough.

          You also said, “With regards to the carols, what you consider “bad” or “sentimental” poetry may not be the same as what I consider such.” Does that mean that there are no objective ways to critique poetry? If the poetry of our Christmas music stirs up warm, fuzzy feelings (for lack of a more technical term!), but does not convey the incarnational message of Christmas, then I think I have objective reasons for discounting it as merely sentimental.

          Also, I’m not convinced that Jesus’ admonition to enter the Kingdom as a child means we should like lullabies. Not sure that’s the best exegesis of Jesus’ comment.

          • KR Wordgazer says

            But if I DO like lullabyes, and if these particular lullabyes turn my heart towards simple, childlike faith, then I would say it’s not your place to tell me I can’t or shouldn’t like lullabyes just because you don’t.

            Yes, there are standards by which to critique poetry. No, not all the Christmas carols are on the same poetic level according to those standards. Do I still like them? Sure. Can I tell the difference? I think so– but should I reject everything that doesn’t rise to a certain level? I don’t think so. I enjoy Shakespeare plays, and I also enjoy Shirley Temple movies. I enjoy them on different levels and for different reasons. It’s like wanting to have both nutritional meals, and the occasional piece of candy.

            I agree that the incarnational message of Christmas should be communicated– but is it necessary that EVERY song do so? I happen to llike warm fuzzy feelings and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. They shouldn’t be all there is– but there is a place for them.

            I guess that’s where we disagree. All I really am saying is, if you don’t like certain carols, don’t listen to them. But let me have my simple pleasures. It’s Christmas, after all. 🙂

          • KR, you said: “I agree that the incarnational message of Christmas should be communicated– but is it necessary that EVERY song do so?” and I agree that not every song should do it, as I think others are also agreeing on that point here.

            The focus should be though, that IF you are going to tell the message, Do It Right. Don’t add, embellish, invent, or syncretize things into the message that contradict, distort, or bring fantasy to it that may discredit or dishonor the integrity of said message, merely for the sake of poetry. Poetry can be a beautiful thing and is always determined to be so or not in the hearer of said poetry. One person can never convince another that they do not enjoy poetry, and the attempt only serves to distract from focusing on style instead of content. The issue, I say, is that the content is the matter for contention here and not style.

          • KR Wordgazer says

            Tom, I agree with everything you have said. The only thing, then, is to determine which songs were intended to convey the message of the Incarnation, and if so, how well/fully they do it– and which songs have purely “warm fuzzy” value and should not have more expected of them. 🙂

          • KR, I guess the litmus test would be, does it mention things that reference the incarnation or imply that’s what your singing about, then it’s a message song. If it only speaks of the simpler things in life i.e. – food, family, travel, love, weather, fantasies(Santa, Frosty) etc. than I would say it is a ‘warm fuzzy’ song that should be exempt from content scrutiny. 😀 (<—This was for you)

          • KR Wordgazer says

            I’m afraid I can’t go that far, Tom. If we’re going to throw out “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night” because though they talk about the Incarnation, they don’t give a full and complete doctrinal statement, then I think that’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

            Not every religious carol was written for the purpose of teaching the full theology of the Incarnation. But perhaps you’re not saying that– as long as the song has “integrity” in the way it presents the message, do you feel it’s ok if it’s a simple song, like a lullabye? I certainly do. I also like songs that simply tell the story, like “The First Noel” — though there have been objections here that it doesn’t tell the story in a way that brings out the full doctrines.

            Of course, we know that Christ’s birth didn’t actually occur “on a cold winter’s night that was so deep,” — but that doesn’t fundamentally alter the story or its meaning.

            What about “I Saw Three Ships?” Should we toss that as being too medieval? Placing too much emphasis on Mary?

            Or are you not talking about actually *rejecting* songs– but just “scrutinizing their content” and recognizing where they fall short, but still giving them a place in the holiday because they’re traditional? That’s where I stand. Different songs have different places in my heart and mind, but there isn’t a Christmas carol I know of that I would actually refuse to sing.

          • KR, I do not think that the immediate solution is rejecting them, though I do think the ultimate goal is that. It would have to be a generational thing, like the way that civil rights has progressed. It simply can’t be purged in this generation because of the deep sentimental feelings on the matter. A societal shift almost forced the abandonment of the ideas that fostered the old ways just because it stopped being the norm to speak of such things in public. In the same way with carols we could give a gift to the next generation by speaking less of the ones that fail the test, and speak more of the ones that do, without saying anything negative in an active way about them. In this way, just like the bigotry of previous generations in the case of civil rights, the people just forget about them and the reasons why we ever did things like that anyway. And as to the need to present the complete message if any part of it is to be put forth is unnecessary. My premise was that, simply stated, if we do anything, we do it right, and don’t add anything that would contradict the full message if it were all present in the song.

          • KR, I’m certainly not trying to dictate what you should or shouldn’t like. If you like “warm fuzzies,” great! But warm fuzzies are not the point of our music in the Church (again, Col. 3:16-17, for starters).

            And I seriously disagree–as lovingly as possible!–with Tom’s statement that the issue here is content versus style. Like it or not, style IS content. That’s why I dislike the lullaby genre for Christmas music. It has turned our attention to the sentimentality–that’s the fancy word for “warm fuzzies” 🙂 –of Christmas rather than the point of the Incarnation. Away in a Manger and Silent Night both have virtues and vices. But the very style of the lullaby is problematic in my opinion, because the Christmas story is not about a baby but about God become man. That’s what we lose with the lullaby.

            The lullaby is just an example of throwing out certain songs precisely because of the style (remembering that style IS content, and the two cannot be separated). There are reasons of content as well to deal with, such as songs that speak only of angels or wise men or the star, etc. without ever telling the part of the story that really matters: God become man.

            I guess I just find it frustrating that so much Christmas music focuses on what the Bible does not focus on. It’s like writing Easter music that’s all about the robe, the soldiers, the angel, the women, the disciples, but never actually singing about the resurrection itself.

            KR, again, I apologize if I gave the impression that I was trying to tell you what to like or not like. You’re more than welcome to enjoy that, but my concern is with whether that should be how we judge what music we’re going to use in the Church. I don’t think our music choices should be governed by mere sentimentality, and I think you and I probably agree on that. Correct me if I’m wrong.

            By the way, I completely understand your analogy of nutritional meal and candy. And I’m not opposed to throwing in candy at times. The problem is that at Christmas we gorge ourselves on candy and leave out the nutrition (both musically and literally!). 🙂

          • Hieronymus Illinensis says

            Will says, “the Christmas story is not about a baby but about God become man.”

            The Christmas story is about God become man — as a baby.

            The Visitation story is about God become man — as a first-trimester fetus.

            The Annunciation story is about God become man — as a zygote.

            The Finding in the Temple story (Lk 2:41–51) is about God become man — as a boy on the verge of adolescence.

          • Yes, Hieronymus, Jesus had different stages of life like a regular human being. But his stages of life are not the point of any of the stories you mentioned. That’s why I’m not thrilled with Church music that focuses on the non-story part of the story.

            There is a significance of all of those narratives that goes beyond that actual event itself. For example, the significance of the birth narrative is (in large part) that God has broken into creation and become man. I think our Christmas songs, then, ought to reflect that significance.

          • KR Wordgazer says


            No, we don’t sing “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night” as part of our worship services in my church. And no, I don’t think they would be the best choices for worship music. We sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

            To be frank, I hadn’t really thought about which songs we sing in church worship, and why– but I think you have articulated the reasons very well. I think all I would have said, before this conversation, was that “Hark the Herald Angels” was more of a worship song than “Away in a Manger.” You have helped me be more articulate about this issue, which I appreciate.

            We do sing “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” at Family Christmas Music night, which is a time of fellowship. I would be sad if we did away with that special event, or with the singing of these songs at home around the tree. I’m glad to know you are not opposed to this. “Away in a Manger” has an especially dear place in my heart, because my mother (who is now deceased) used to sing it to me as a child. My feelings about that song are tied up in my love for her and for the simple faith she showed me long ago– more than mere “sentimentality,” you see. But I recognize that there are better songs to sing in worship, yes.

            Anyway, to all of you who joined this conversation– thank you. And Happy New Year!

  26. KR Wordgazer says

    BTW, I also agree with DeVore. God’s Kingdom is for the earth, yes– but He will make a new heaven and a new earth. His Kingdom is certainly not about Christians gaining political power or some form of the Church holding political sway over worldly systems. Every time that’s been tried, the result has been terrible for Christianity and Christians.

    • His Kingdom is certainly not about Christians gaining political power or some form of the Church holding political sway over worldly systems. Every time that’s been tried, the result has been terrible for Christianity and Christians.

      I will reiterate what Chaplain Mike said: I agree with you completely, but if this is what you think N.T. Wright is saying you’ve misheard (maybe that’s not what you’re saying, however).

      I think part of the problem is that the use of the word “political” is difficult to dislodge from our contemporary situations, no matter what country we’re from, and when we hear another Christian use the word we simply assume they mean some version (right or left) of what it means in our context.

  27. KR Wordgazer says


    I didn’t mean I thought that was what Wright was saying. Merely that I agreed with what Greg DeVore was saying. 🙂

  28. The Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis have lost their proper place, not just in the observance of Advent, but in daily, common prayer. They are included in the Lutheran hymnal in the orders of service and vespers. They are in the Book of Common Prayer. They are there in the RC Liturgy of the Hours. They do seem conspicuously missing from evangelical worship. But also missing is the use of the Psalter in worship, which also connects us to the Old Testament. Back to balance. I certainly don’t think the answer is to throw out Issac Watts and Charles Wesley and go back to exclusively singing from a metrical psalter. Salvation is personal and for all nations at the same time. That’s actually one of the amazing things that strike me when I pray the liturgy of the hours, that while I pray personally, I am joining in the prayers of Christians around the world who are also making it their personal prayer.

    • It is interesting to note that many of the more political passages in the King James Bible were actually toned down quite a bit, compared to how they were translated in the Geneva Bible.

    • Nice comment, d.o. Fits very well with what I said earlier about contemplation. Worship, prayer, and contemplation—that’s where the rubber meets the road with regard to this discussion.

  29. Martha asked earlier this evening if we have anything by N.T. Wright on Christmas. If you go to and scroll about halfway down, I see there are 8 sermons that he gave either on a Christmas Eve or a Christmas morning. So what he says in those may give a clue to what he thinks.

    I have read some of his books and liked them very much. I also watched a couple talks online that he gave. He has a great sense of humor, a great understanding on what ancient Christianity was like and he is a wonderful writer and can be inspiriational.

  30. “What has Jesus come to do? To listen to Advent hymns, you’d think He comes to restore Israel, comfort Jerusalem, bring light to the nations, to do some global geo-political restructuring. To listen to Christmas hymns, you’d think He comes to do something quite different. ”

    See, this is where I think Leithart departs from Wright’s thoughts on the fulfilment of creation and starts getting bogged down in politics.

    To the “geo-political restructuring” part, I would have to quite vehemently insist “Darn right He comes to do something different!”

    And I do not see a contradiction between ” comfort(ing) Jerusalem, bring(ing) light to the nations” and “coming “to free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s power and might”.

    I know I’m not getting what he’s trying to say, but on the other hand, he is perhaps not expressing himself quite clearly? 😉

    Article–The Most Dangerous Baby, N.T. Wright

  32. Just change the words to fit the theology. Most of the art is in the music, not the poetry anyway. Nothing ruined for me.

  33. I’m with Martha–I don’t really get the point of the article. Of course Advent songs are about Israel waiting for their messiah, while Mary etc.’ s spontaneous outbursts at the time reflect their understanding of what is coming, and the later carols will reflect later understandings of Jesus’ role and goals. So yeah, it’s a both/and situation.

    Given the other articles that came out earlier in the season complaining about Christmas carols and their Victorian underpinnings, I’ve been paying more attention to the words of the carols the past few weeks, and I’m not seeing the problem. I think another poster made the point that the first verse of each carol is not the most theologically sound, but when you get through the less familiar verses it’s a better gig. How can anyone get through all of the verses about the gifts of the magi without being moved by the kingship/priestship/deity themes–though We Three Kings is probably the most mangled of carols?

  34. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    All I know is my roommate’s been inflicting Twisted Sister’s metal cover of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on me this year…

  35. Heaven brought the first-fruits of the Gentiles as a gift for You;
    a star summoned the Wise Men to the babe in the manger.
    They were amazed to see neither throne nor scepter, but
    only abject poverty.
    What is more humble than a cave? What is more lowly than
    swaddling clothes?
    Yet the riches of Your Divinity shone through all these.
    O Lord, glory to You!

    Tone 8 Kathisma Hymn

    Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad!
    The Lamb of God has been born on earth, granting redemption
    to the world.
    The Word, Who rests in the bosom of the Father, has come
    forth without seed from the Virgin.
    The Wise Men were struck with amazement, seeing Him born
    as an infant in Bethlehem.
    Let all creation glorify Him!

  36. All I can say is “huh”? I mean, are you people for real? Is this topic even for real? You people just plain think too hard. Obviously it has injured some of you. You actually think you’re deeply insightful, but you just make my head hurt. Does even Christianity have to be consumed by such “intellectual” blather. Leave my Christmas carols alone.

  37. Thank you for everything. Very useful