The best of times, the worst of times


Ross Douthat had an interesting column in The New York Times last week titled "A Tough Season for Believers." He begins, "Christmas is hard for everyone. But it's particularly hard for people who actually believe in it." As a believer, he's struck by the paradox of a statistical majority who feel marginalized and embattled: "Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith."

A certain ambiguousness is probably inherent in Christianity; unlike other religions, it's not from around here. It also thrives on paradox. Christians are called to be in the world but not of it; to deny themselves while calling the Creator of the universe "Daddy"; to base real-world decisions on the hope of a world yet to come; to rejoice in suffering. Our leader is all-man and all-God, who descended to rise and defeated death by dying. Christmas itself is paradoxical: a joyful holiday when many feel the most depressed, a celebration of life when suicide rates reportedly go up.

Most of us want a vague reassurance that life is not pointless and that its ordinary elements, such as family, celebration, and the passage of time, are somehow transcendent. That's why Christmas is popular even among non-Christians. "Peace on earth, good will toward men" expresses the wish of average folks who can't seem to achieve peace and good will all the other days of the year. And that's where we find the central paradox: in each individual heart.

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Christianity will always be counter-cultural, even in a "Christian" culture. I once heard a pastor express solidarity with a friend who was seeking psychiatric help, because Christ calls us to a life so fundamentally opposed to our own inclinations-not to mention the world's way-that anyone who tries to live it seriously may experience serious conflicts. Whether they need a psychiatrist is another question, but all of us need a radical makeover, not just to live the life but also simply to want it. And once we do, basic Christian requirements like ceasing from worry and fear and counting others as better than ourselves become the challenge of a lifetime.

That's why there are advantages to claiming Christ in a post-Christian age. For one, our faith is revealed for what it is: radical and missional. It's not what everybody's doing, or what nice people believe; it's a calling. For another, it puts us on the path of our Lord, who "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:23). For another, it helps us recognize each other, for God always uses times of social upheaval to shake out the church. And finally, it makes life an adventure, for the greatest adventure is overcoming fear in a worthy cause. A cause, we can say by faith, that is certain to triumph.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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