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Jesus and 'Jingle Bell Rock'

Ive learned that theres no dividing line between American Christmas and Christian Christmas.

William wakes up from his nap and says, “Mom, I want to talk.”

He is in his crib, surrounded by his “sleep stuff,” which includes two pacifiers, a stuffed giraffe, and a blue and green patchwork blanket. His hair sticks up at odd angles, and his eyes are a bit puffy. But the expression on his face tells me he has an agenda.

I settle myself in the chair across the room, resting my hands on my rapidly expanding midsection, and say, “What do you want to talk about?”

“Santa.”

I shouldn’t be surprised, even though we haven’t made it to Thanksgiving yet. Talking about Santa has become a ritual. Every afternoon I lumber upstairs to find my son contentedly awake after two hours of deep sleep. When I come in, he doesn’t want to get out of his crib. Rather, he’s ready to chat. Often his questions head toward Santa, presents, elves, reindeer, and the North Pole. Then he returns to Santa and presents.

Today, as usual, I try to reframe the narrative. “You know, William, at Christmas, it’s Jesus’ birthday. We give presents to celebrate because Jesus was born, and Jesus loves us.”

“Oh.” He sucks on his pacifier for a moment, as if I have just offered new information, and then asks, “Does Santa love me?”

I put my hand to my mouth to cover my smile, but he is pondering the answer and doesn’t notice. As much as I enjoy indulging William’s imagination, I am also starting to sympathize with the Reformation sects that refused to celebrate Christmas. Apparently, even in the sixteenth century, this holiday seemed disconnected enough from its spiritual underpinnings for some Christians to abandon it altogether. ...

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What Forgotten Christmas Tradition Should Churches Revive?

Rooting our celebration of Christs birth more deeply in our lives.

Relight the Way

Patricia Raybon

Such a small thing: Turn on Christmas lights. Even if it’s a small church. Even if it’s a black church. Even if it’s the cold, gray winter of a Jim Crow life. Still you plug in the bulbs and light the night sky with electrified elation.

Look at our church. Look at our Christ. Look at our happy, bright season. And never mind the critics and their gripes about lights: Too expensive. Too bright. Too much. In the gloomy winters of my conflicted childhood, my family’s brightly lit church on a poor Denver street was joy and light, sanctuary and salvation rolled into one. Nothing was better.

“Hand me that strand.”

My daddy and other church trustees gathered every year—on a Saturday after Thanksgiving—to hang the holiday lights. These “Negro men,” insulted on jobs that held them back all week, showed up to untangle the snarl of electric wires and bulbs from boxes, attach the wires to hooks, string lights over doorways, twist them around the two bare catalpa trees in the small churchyard. Then, in the fellowship hall, they flung lights over the stage, above a kitchen pass-through window, through the branches of a determined pine Christmas tree purchased on sale for the season. Finally, upstairs in the modest sanctuary, near the fine shiny cross, they draped electric strands to a fare-thee-well, adorning fragrant pine wreaths and garlands.

And then?

My daddy turned on the lights. And I was in heaven. With a flick of a switch, my dark and scary world was transformed. I credit the lights. With the lights, I forgot that four little black girls were killed that September when a timed bomb exploded under the church stairs next to ...

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St. Nick, Patron of Pawn Shops

The little-known history of Christianitys icon of generosity.

Father Pawn Shop.

It doesn’t quite have the same ring as Father Christmas, but it’s an equal descriptor of St. Nicholas. We associate ol’ St. Nick with tinsel and chimneys, not money-lending and neon signs. We imagine him giving gold coins to hungry families, rather than purchasing gold at a fraction of its worth.

Yet St. Nicholas holds an unlikely affiliation with montes pietatis, the 14th century precursor to the modern-day pawn shop industry. At these early pawn shops, people in poverty met caring friars, there to help the poor get back on their feet. The shops were an outlet for Christian charity and Christmas generosity—hardly the kind of seedy business we think of today.

Pawn Shop History

In the Middle Ages, montes pietatius were charities similar to urban food banks. They provided low-interest loans to poor families, ensuring there was enough food on the table. Started by the Franciscans, who opened more than 150 of them, montes pietatius became widespread throughout Europe. In 1514, even Pope Julius II gave an edict endorsing these institutions, which had become the lifeblood of poor European peasants.

According to folklore, St. Nicholas generously provided a man in need dowries for his three daughters, gold coins in three purses. The symbol of gold coins in three purses became the symbol of pawn shops and fit with his title of patron saint. We celebrate St. Nick because he is a generous giver, and now, it seems incongruous the very symbol of his generosity remains the icon of modern-day pawn shops.

Dotting rundown strip malls, often in rough sections of town, pawn shops symbolize desperation rather than generosity. These are places of last resort for people fraught for cash. Unlike ...

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Gods Defense Attorney

Millionaire lawyer Mark Lanier moonlights as a Sunday school teacher.

Around Christmas, Mark Lanier becomes like the teetotaling Baptist brother of infamous party host Jay Gatsby. Every year since 1994, Lanier’s 35-acre estate in northwest Houston is opened to thousands of colleagues, political connections, family, and friends. Visitors survey the landmarks: a replica of a 6th-century Byzantine chapel, a theological library modeled after seven Oxford libraries, and a Noahide menagerie that includes lemurs and kangaroos alongside their more pedestrian counterparts like sheep and goats. Guests ride a model train among other carnival rides brought in for the event, where Sting, Bon Jovi, Rascal Flatts, and prescandal Miley Cyrus have all performed for as many as 10,000 people.

And like Gatsby, Lanier is shrouded in mystery. I first meet him at a dinner in his home, part of a weekend of events culminating in a lecture by Lanier himself. He welcomes 100 of us one by one, flashing a boyish grin and tossing his hair back into place. Virtually everyone at dinner knows only pieces and rumors. I meet college friends of Lanier’s who are visiting his estate for the first time. Dining across from me is an elderly couple who met Lanier when they accidentally pulled onto his property thinking it was a park. We are jovial, dazzled by the opulence and enjoying an unusually cool Texas evening beneath the colonnade. Everyone has heard about Lanier’s Christmas party to end all Christmas parties. But what is the meaning of all this, few can say.

Lanier, 53, is ostensibly one of the nation’s most successful trial lawyers, known for convincing judges and juries to award his clients astronomical sums. The Lanier Law Firm was behind a landmark case against pharmaceutical giant Merck ...

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Why Torture Is a Complete Failure

Former war crimes prosecutor: Legally, morally, and practically, enhanced interrogation does not work.

The United States had not held war crimes cases since the end of World War II. During that time, Sherwood F. Moran—a missionary to Japan and a US Marine during the war—was the most effective interrogator of Japanese POWs. His secret? Treat them humanely, or as he put it, “human being to human being.”

A legend among military interpreters, Major Moran knew Japanese culture intimately and spoke fluent Japanese, but decent treatment was his best contribution to America’s war effort against a fanatical and implacable foe. This humanity resulted from his Christian faith. Major Moran knew that all were created in God’s image.

America desperately needs more Sherwood Morans conducting effective interrogations in our war against terror. The U.S. Senate’s report on torture, released last week, brought disheartening details from recent cases to public attention, including the abuse of Abu Zubaydah by rookie contract interrogators.

These contractors failed to get actionable intelligence, and their techniques prevented the U.S. from moving forward with prosecution. They showed that abusive interrogations do not work and do not thwart future plots. (The tragedy of the Zubaydah case is compounded by the fact that the original FBI interrogators treated him humanely and were getting actionable intelligence—including the huge tip that “Muktar” was a code name for alleged 9/11 planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed.)

One highlight from my 30 years in the US Navy JAG Corps was working as a war crimes prosecutor with the Office of Military Commissions in Washington DC and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Our historic mission was to bring justice to detainees who violated the laws of war and were ...

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Christianity Today's 2015 Book Awards

Our picks for the books most likely to shape evangelical life, thought, and culture.

Some of the finest books pull us deeper into familiar subjects—biographies of great statesmen, say, or fresh takes on the essentials of Christian doctrine and discipleship. Others introduce us to people, places, and ideas about which we know very little, if anything. Last year, I finally discovered Laura Hillenbrand’s epic World War II survival story, Unbroken. Going in, I’d never heard of her protagonist, the indomitable prisoner of war Louis Zamperini. Now, I won’t soon forget him.

It’s like that with our current crop of book awards, which pursue paths both old and new. One of the victory nods goes to a new study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You’ve perhaps heard a thing or two about him. And like always, we honor plenty of volumes touching on the Bible, the church, and perennial matters of faith. But hopefully, we’ll also inspire at least some readers to acquaint themselves with abolitionists Hannah More and Sarah Grimke, or the philosopher Charles Taylor (and his penetrating look at our “secular age”).

Whether you’re browsing for something old or something new (or perhaps just eager to learn CT's choice for Book of the Year), we hope you’ll find your curiosity awakened. —Matt Reynolds, associate editor for books

Apologetics/Evangelism

The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing

Jonathan K. Dodson (Zondervan)

“Dodson rescues evangelism from the formulaic and trite recitation of biblical facts, re-centers it within the grand narrative of Scripture, and refocuses our attention on the particular needs of the person who needs good news. This is a biblically faithful and contextually sensitive approach to evangelism that systematically ...

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Why Personal Devotions Arent Enough

The Bible was made to be read in church first.

Each day began the same way: I would get out of bed, take a shower, and sit down at my desk. I’d place my New American Standard Bible in front of me and open it to where the bright green M’Cheyne’s Bible reading calendar kept my place. I would close my eyes and ask God to illumine the texts I was about to ponder. And then I would begin to read—usually two chapters from the Old Testament and two chapters from the New.

For years this ritual was the high point of my spiritual life. Of course there were missed days. And take it from me: It’s hard to catch up when you’ve missed a day or two of 19th-century Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s calendar. (Knowing this firsthand, a friend of mine created her own irreverent alternative, “A Bible Reading Plan for Slackers and Shirkers,” which you can find online.) There were days when none of the readings seemed particularly edifying or inspiring. Still, this is where I believed I encountered God most fully and immediately. This was the best way to remember God’s love and demonstrate love for him in return.

I also believed God was fully present when I would open the Bible on Sunday mornings. As a growing young Christian, I attended churches whose pastors preached for 40 minutes or more, explaining the biblical texts with radiant joy and scrupulous attention, the way my science teachers had breathlessly described what I was seeing through the telescope pointed at the night sky. At the time, I would have told you that Sunday mornings were extensions of my daily meditations on Scripture. My personal Bible reading was the center of my spiritual life. Following along as my pastor preached was like a rippling ...

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How to Make a Comedy and Assassinate Your Political Enemies

Here's how it's done.

A major Hollywood studio plans a comedy film mocking a prominent world leader and featuring a pair of comedians involved in an assassination plot. A foreign nation, outraged over the director’s artistic sensibilities, uses his image in its own propaganda, citing him and his work as the epitome of a culture that must be annihilated. A high-profile critic in the most prestigious newspaper in the country pans the film as tasteless and unfunny. Even some of the film’s production staff begins to second guess their director, wondering if by making light of a real evil, they are making it easier for Americans to not take it seriously.

The year was 1942; the film was To Be or Not to Be.

When Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy began filming, America was still on the sidelines of World War II. By the time the film opened, the nation had been attacked on its own soil by one foreign power and had committed itself to opposing the spread of fascism.

Yet To Be or Not to Be was not a typical wartime propaganda film. Its characters were not, for the most part, soldiers engaged in formal combat against the Nazis. Members of the acting troupe at the center of the film were Polish, and as the film opens they are rehearsing their own political satire: Gestapo. That play, complete with a Hitler look-alike who prompts audience guffaws by entering a room and solemnly barking “Heil Myself!” never does get to open. The German army overruns Warsaw and shows an unsurprising lack of humor about being mocked in the public square.

Through a set of comedic circumstances, the “great, great Polish actor, Joseph Tura” (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) and his wife, Maria, find out that Professor Siletsky is collaborating ...

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Commentary: 'Annie' and the Big Issues

Movies can do so much more than advertise products and give us a jolt of personal-fulfillment feel-goods. But not this one.

In the corner of my home office, tucked safely away in her original box, is my American Girl doll, Molly. She's the World War 2 era American girl, the one who bravely faces down rations of food and fuel that interfere with Christmas celebration, marches door to door to collect scrap metal, and shares her birthday with a little girl whose refuge from war-torn London is Molly's American home. Like the other original American Girls, including Samantha and Addy, Molly manages to be a believable, lovable child while still participating meaningfully in the Big Issues facing her society in her day.

The same could be said of the plucky, cheerful Annie as she's portrayed in the stage musical, later adapted into the beloved 1982 film starring Aileen Quinn in the title role. Annie's an appealing blend of tough and tender: the kind of girl who's unafraid to raise her fists to a gang of boys abusing a dog (or, for that matter, a bratty older girl who bullies the younger children in the orphanage) and also the first person you'd call when you woke up from an awful nightmare. She sings her earnestly optimistic song to FDR and convinces her emphatically Republican benefactor, Daddy Warbucks, to help Roosevelt out by bringing his organizational savvy to the New Deal.

Daddy Warbucks is reimagined in the new Annie remake as William Stacks (Jamie Foxx) as a cell-phone mogul. He doesn't hold conferences with President; rather, Bloomberg-like, he himself aspires to political office as New York City mayor, locked in a tight race with a candidate who bears a slight resemblance to the late Ed Koch and who has taught in New York City public schools. That is where we first meet the new Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) as ...

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News: O Subtle Star of Bethlehem

Theory suggests wise men saw something big in something little.

For 400 years, astronomers have tried to explain the celestial phenomenon that attracted the Magi to the birth of Jesus. Johannes Kepler, the pioneer of modern astronomy, was the first to analyze it in 1614. Now, scholars increasingly agree that Michael Molnar, a former Rutgers University astronomer with a coin-collecting hobby, may have figured it out.

Molnar’s research was debated by scientists, theologians, and historians during a colloquium on the Star of Bethlehem at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen this October. The conference marked 400 years since Kepler published his famous treatise on the star.

Initially, Molnar did not have a particular interest in the topic, though he would describe the various theories to inquisitive students at Christmastime. But one day, an ancient coin he purchased for his collection gave him a new clue.

The coin, minted in Antioch in the early 1st century, depicted a ram looking at a star. As Molnar investigated the symbolism, he found evidence that Aries the Ram—not Pisces the Fish, as is commonly assumed—was the zodiac symbol for Judea.

"What I had in my hands was evidence that modern researchers really had to rethink their explanation about the star," said Molnar.

Combing ancient astrological documents, he found not a bright object but a rare conjunction that would have gotten the attention of the Magi.

Astrologists associated the planet Jupiter with royalty. So if the moon passed in front of Jupiter (called an "occultation") while in Aries the Ram, it would have royal significance. Molnar found two dates in 6 B.C. when such occultations happened. Then, reading the text of Matthew 2, he realized the Greek word for “in ...

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When God Doesn't Answer My Son's Prayers

For the past 8 weeks or so, I've been running a guest series by adults reflecting on the way the children in their lives have prompted their own reflection and growth. Next week I will run a post that includes links and summaries of all these "Small Talk" posts. Today, Rob Moll joins us to reflect upon the intersection of prayer, faith, and two little boys drifting to sleep:

Every night, after reading stories to my two sons, I tuck them into their bunk bed. If I quietly leave after singing a song, inevitably their after-hours whispers turn into rambunctious play. But if I sit in the room, in the dark, they remain quiet and fall asleep. I used to spend those fifteen minutes reading email or playing games on my phone, but when a schedule change interrupted my usual prayer time, I began using these quiet moments to connect with God.

As parents, we train our children for adulthood without much assurance of whether our efforts will work. We have no idea, really, if the piano lessons will matter, if the homework assignment is vital, or if insisting on making an apology will actually shape a child's character. And though we pour our hearts and prayers into the spiritual training of our children, in the end, the decision to pursue God is theirs alone.

In those nighttime minutes, one of the things I pray for is that my boys would discover for themselves an inner life of prayer. They know that I am praying as I sit on the floor in the quiet. Sometimes I ask if they have anything I can pray for. Sometimes I whisper loud enough that they can hear. As their breathing slows into a steady sleepy pattern, I quietly enjoy the presence of God and the resting little bodies at my side.

One night I got up to leave ...

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A Church that Hears Us

When women cry for peace, we can at least be the ones to listen.

Around Christmas, when we welcome the Prince of Peace and sing for “peace on earth and mercy mild,” I can no longer imagine some abstract notion of what that means. Instead, our seasonal proclamation of peace reminds me of our real-life lack of it, of those in our world today who are desperate for peace year-round.

I work at the nexus of religious conflict issues, particularly their impact on women. Each day, I am immersed in the stories of women experiencing heartwrenching loss, unbelievable pain, and the violence at its root. Lately, though, these cries have morphed from the professional drone of the news to the loud vibration of personal stories.

This is not the kind of work you leave at the office. I cannot mute their calls for peace nor close the door on their suffering. Even at night the experiences of these women stay with me in my thoughts and dreams.

Today, many of our world’s women are suffering unspeakably at the hands of others. They work to protect their families from extremism and religiously labeled violence, with few answers as to when the persecution and violence will end and who will stop it.

Knowing my faith, some of these women will ask about the role of the church in preventing the kinds of violence they’ve experienced firsthand. They regularly ask about my church and the congregations I have connections with, and whether there is an opportunity to share their stories.

Just last month, at a conference of global peacemakers and conflict experts, I was introduced to a member of a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization made up of citizens who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Out of their loss, they work tirelessly for reconciliation and peace. Like her fellow members, ...

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The Top 20 Most-Read Gleanings of 2014

Did you catch all the religion news that CT readers found most interesting this year?

What do Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Meriam Ibrahim, and the KJV have in common? All were subjects of the most-read Gleanings posts of 2014.

Here are the top 20 stories that kept readers clicking:

20) How 727 Megachurches Spend Their Money
Leadership Network and Vanderbloemen find what determines pastor salaries (and who might be most underpaid).

19) Houston Mayor Drops Pastor Subpoenas
National debate over religious freedom prompts withdrawal.

18) C. J. Mahaney, Joshua Harris Resign from Gospel Coalition after SGM Abuse Conviction
Trial of former youth leader revives debate over alleged abuse coverup at Sovereign Grace Ministries.

17) James MacDonald Asks Forgiveness for Unbiblical Discipline of Harvest Bible Chapel Elders
Megachurch pastor confesses board slandered three elders as 'false messengers' last year.

16) Wheaton Students Protest 'Train Wreck Conversion' Speaker's Ex-Gay Testimony
Chapel message becomes latest debate over how evangelical colleges approach sexual identity.

15) Bill Gothard Breaks Silence on Harassment Claims by 30 Women
Popular seminar speaker: 'I have failed to live out some of the very things that I have taught.'

14) Popular Pastor Resigns after 'Moral Failure,' But Followers Still Want His Sermons
Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale explains why it took down Bob Coy's teachings on marriage.

13) Bill Gothard Resigns Amid Sexual Harassment Investigation
Family-focused speaker whose Wheaton course became a seminar phenomenon faces allegations from more than 30 women.

12) Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Gives Birth in Sudan Prison as 1 Million Protest Christian Mother's Death PenaltyGovernment of Sudan: 'This case remains a legal issue and not a religious ...

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Review: Unbroken

A tale of triumph, but not the right one.

mpaa rating:PG-13 (For war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language.)Genre:BiopicDirected By: Angelina Jolie Run Time: 2 hours 17 minutes Cast: Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Jack O'Connell Theatre Release:December 25, 2014 by Universal Pictures

I need to start by acknowledging that Louie Zamperini—the man whose story is told in Laura Hillenbrand's runaway bestselling biography Unbroken and now in the film by the same name—is incredibly inspiring: first, for his sheer grit, the likes of which I could never hope to exhibit; and second, for his brave example of true belief and courage in forgiving his captors.

I mean that.

Also, if you're taking your family to the movies this Christmas, Unbroken is probably a solid choice. Pretty much everyone will like it (though not little kids—see the content warning below). It's the story of an immigrant kid who overcomes his misbehaving childhood to become an Olympic athlete, then a WWII bombardier. He survives being shot down over the Pacific and spending forty-seven days in a raft—forty-seven days in a raft—only to be picked up by the Japanese, imprisoned, tortured, made the special personal target of a sadistic commander in a Japanese concentration camp, and beaten senseless over and over.

This is basically the perfect storm of inspirational movie tropes, and the kicker is that it's all true. And if you've read the book (I haven't, but I consulted many who had before I wrote this review), you know that the most amazing part of Zamperini's story is he attended a Billy Graham crusade and became a Christian, which prompted him to personally forgive his captors.

But I have problems with Unbroken, the film. They are problems that I think are worth audiences considering—especially Christian audiences. So please keep all that in mind as you read on.

The first problem with Unbroken (to my mind, the lesser problem) is that it does fall curiously flat, considering ...

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150 Million Bible Readers Were Searching for Love Most in 2014

Bible Gateway finds patterns in how the world searched and read the Bible this past year.

John 3:16 was not among the Bible verses most widely shared or remembered in 2014, based on worldwide YouVersion users. But it still tops the list of verses the world seeks out, according to a report released by Bible Gateway based on 1.5 billion pageviews by 150 million unique visitors.

Here are the top 10 most popular Bible verses searched on Bible Gateway, the "world's most visited Christian website," in 2014:

  1. John 3:16
  2. Jeremiah 29:11
  3. Philippians 4:13
  4. Romans 8:28
  5. Psalm 23:4
  6. Philippians 4:6
  7. 1 Corinthians 13:4
  8. Proverbs 3:5
  9. 1 Corinthians 13:7
  10. Romans 12:2

Of these verses, only Philippians 4:6, Jeremiah 29:11, and Proverbs 3:5 also appeared on YouVersion’s list, suggesting a discrepancy in what Bible readers seek for themselves versus what they think others should read.

Bible Gateway's Year in Review report, which also covers top searches in Spanish and in four countries, confirms the New Testament is "read much more than" the Old Testament, even though the older testament is three times longer. It also concludes that "people really do read the Bible throughout the year," and "major world events do affect what people look for in the Bible."

"Our biggest takeaway is the dominance of people who read through the Bible in a year," said Rachel Barach, Bible Gateway's general manager. "Even though we know it’s common for people to commit to reading through the Bible starting on January 1 but stop reading it by February, clearly enough people continue through the year to impact our statistics."

The chart above matches “unusually popular” verses on a particular date with popular Bible reading plans. CT previously reported on falling ...

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