Christmas has become a dual symbol. It retains its traditional role as the celebration of Christ's birth, the miracle of the incarnation, and God's redemption. But in recent years Christmas has taken on another, very different, function: demonstrating how for many people Christianity is essentially Christless, a harmless holiday stripped of any religious substance like sin, repentance, and salvation.
Regrettably, this theological vacuum has occurred within the church itself. In his devastating The Empty Church, historian Thomas Reeves chronicles the veritable disintegration of the traditional "mainline" denominations in America. Mr. Reeves traces the process by which "these once prominent and affluent denominations were declining and in disarray." He calls for a return to orthodoxy, evangelism, and morality, in short, a Christ-centered Christianity.
The role of Christians in politics remains as unsettled as ever. William Martin's With God on Our Side, a companion volume to the PBS series, provides a historical account, based in part on interviews with key players like Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer, of the rise of the so-called religious right. Mr. Martin strives to be fair in his account and closes his book by endorsing a form of political pluralism, which allows Christians to be active, but insists they be tolerant of other positions.
Of course, the controversy over Christian political activism is not new. John West's fine new book chronicles the early American experience. Observes Mr. West: "From the election of 1800 to the beginning of the Civil War, evangelical Christians converged on the political arena en masse, producing a political movement that in many ways paralleled the New Christian Right that arose during the 1980s."
Indeed, over the years a variety of ministers have not been reluctant to use their pulpits to preach about politics. Some of these messages have been assembled in Election Day Sermons by David Hall, a Presbyterian minister who himself has written and spoken thoughtfully about political issues.
What should Christians want government to do? The Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center has collected several viewpoints (including from yours truly) in Caesar's Coin Revisited. The book includes not only papers and responses, but a transcript of the probing conference discussion that followed each session.
Christmas is about so much more than politics. A useful reminder comes from A Gallery of Reflections. Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, includes a variety of images of the nativity, ranging from icons to sculptures to paintings. It shows how the Christian faith transcends art form, culture, denomination, and time.