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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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Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton on Reading the Bible, Making a Modern 'Exodus'

The actors talked with CT about the new epic film.

Most audiences—especially religious audiences—will have a complicated relationship with Ridley Scott's new epic film Exodus: Gods and Kings, out tomorrow (here is Brett McCracken's review). It's an old story that's been retold many times on screen (read Peter Chattaway's exploration of the history of Moses movies here). It's a beloved story that's vital to the identity and story of three major world religions.

And there is the complicated problem of casting white actors in the film's major roles—a question that has implications that go far beyond the film and that deserves to be treated carefully and in more depth, particularly given the story of the Exodus.

But no matter what, it's a film that many people will see and discuss. On Monday, I participated in a roundtable discussion with a number of journalists, during which director Ridley Scott, Christian Bale (who plays Moses), and Joel Edgerton (who pretty much steals the show as the Pharaoh, Ramses) talked about about Exodus: Gods and Kings.

After the roundtable, I got to sit down alone with Bale and Edgerton, who were funny and gracious. I asked them about how they prepared for their roles, what makes this film different from its predecessors, and why the story of the Exodus continues to be made into movies.

I'm really intrigued by the family dynamic of the story. The whole movie was set up as being about choosing your family, or being rejected by family. There's a really big emphasis on the question: “Are these your people, or not?” There's the death of the firstborn sons, and of course there's the brotherly relationship. This all feels really close to what the story of Exodus ...

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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.

Directed 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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Review: Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation

Witnessing a magnificent work in progress.

mpaa rating:Not RatedGenre:DocumentaryDirected By: Stefan Haupt Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes Cast: Jordi Bonet i Armengol, Etsuro Sotoo, Anna Huber, Jean-Luc Bideau Theatre Release:December 20, 2012 by First Run Features

When does a work of art become a work of art? At what point in the creative process does it move from mere potential to the thing itself? Is one singular note, one stroke of the brush, or a single chip of the chisel enough? Probably not.

How about two notes/strokes/chips off the old block? Ten? Fifty? A hundred?

No one would dispute that Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the famous “Unfinished Symphony,” is a work of art. Or Chaucer’s never completed Canterbury Tales. Or any number of other famous unfinished works.

Let’s take the notion a step further: Is a thing a work of art when it’s still merely an idea? Were the melodies in Mozart’s mind works of art before he ever wrote it down or played a single chord? Was the Pietà a masterpiece while only a figment of Michelangelo’s imagination?

And still a step further: Were they all works of art in the mind of God, even before they were in the minds of men?

All questions to contemplate while watching Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation, a new documentary about Antoni Gaudi’s stunning—and unfinished—cathedral in Barcelona, Spain. For 125 years, including almost a century since Gaudi’s death, La Sagrada Familia has been, and remains, a work in progress.

The film’s subtitle alone—The Mystery of Creation—is worth pondering in light of the questions above. But the concept becomes more than mere theoretical meandering when reflecting on Gaudi’s magnum opus, and the brilliant architectural mind—or Mind—behind this glorious creation. Is it Gaudi’s work? Or is it God’s?

Gaudi, a Catholic, was a man of deep faith and constant prayer. He loved both God and ...

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Korea's Christmas 'Psychological Warfare' Canceled After All

South Korean Christians reverse plan to light the North Korean border with holiday cheer.

Military tensions have caused a leading group of South Korean Christians to drop plans to construct a tower on the North Korean border and light it up with Christmas cheer.

"The establishment of our Christmas tree [tower] was to be a religious event aimed at promoting peace," Hong Jae-Chul, a Christian Council of Korea (CCK) senior official, told the media. "However, our pure intention caused undesirable misunderstanding that it would aggravate inter-Korean friction."

The CCK had requested permission to replace an old tower, which had been lit up for many Christmases as part of a propaganda war between North and South Korea, The New York Times reported. The old tower was so rusty, it was dismantled for good in October, according to the NYT. The new, 30-foot tower was to be temporary and to light up from December 23 to January 6.

The Christmas-tree-shaped tower faced strong resistance from the residents of Gimpo, the border town where it was located, the Associated Press reported.

While the Seoul Ministry of Defense promised to protect Christians who would gather to light the tower, which would be visible to North Koreans within about six miles of the border, the residents didn’t want to provoke Pyongyang, which sees the lit tower as a sign of "psychological warfare."

The original 59-foot tower, topped with a cross and draped in lights around Christmas, has an off-again, on-again history that reflected the tensions between the two countries.

The tower lit up every year until 2004, when South Korean marines stopped lighting it after a 2000 summit where the Koreas agreed to stop slandering each other. In 2010, the country’s military let Christian groups light it up, and ...

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Ambition: Why It Isnt Just for Men (or Business)

An excerpt from The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home.

The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home won an award of merit in Christianity Today's 2015 Book Awards.

When my (Nora’s) husband, Travis, would sit up in bed late at night and talk to me about his ambitions, I would snuggle down in the bed and try to listen sincerely. For two years in Arizona, we had been trying to recover from unemployment; more so, we were trying to get off a track that seemed to lead us around in circles. When he would talk about angel investors or futures trading and pester me for startup Internet business ideas, I couldn’t understand how he could still aim so high. While Travis was ambitious, I felt very disappointed. I felt like I couldn’t be ambitious anymore because we had been disappointed over and over again. The biggest ambition I could muster was for a new piece of furniture.

On my way to work one morning, I called my grandmother. All my woes spilled out with a cascade of tears. She listened quietly, and then she told me one of her stories.

She got married at twenty-five—later in life than most in that post-WWII culture—to my grandfather, a man with mixed ambitions. He was a trained concert pianist, yet he was told to leave those dreams behind and pursue something more practical, so he became an economist instead. He was still ambitious, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and writing articles in his field; but in one area he wasn’t as ambitious: my grandmother’s career. When they married, my grandmother was in night school to become a doctor. He told her that she could continue her studies, if she wanted, but that she had to choose between being a mother or a doctor. Though my grandmother wanted ...

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Latina, Pentecostal, and College-Bound

How the church stands to benefit from rising educational attainment.

Educational gains among Latino youth pose an opportunity or a threat to the growing number of Latino Pentecostal churches in the U.S.

Latinos are graduating from high school and enrolling in college at record-high rates. At the same time, Latino Pentecostalism is on the rise. According to a Pew Research report released this year, two thirds of Hispanic Protestants self-identify as Pentecostal.

So when it comes to Latino evangelical churches and education, Pentecostals stand to benefit the most from improvements in the educational success of its Latino youth congregants—that is, if they can keep them.

Toxic rhetoric against higher education attainment preached from the pulpit and reinforced by members in Pentecostal churches can discourage aspiring young Latinos, especially young Latinas, from pursuing higher education altogether or from remaining in the churches that helped rear them.

As a Latina growing up in a large Latino Pentecostal church, I experienced firsthand a pushback on my educational attainment. Many leaders and members couldn't understand why I stepped back from church leadership positions during my undergraduate years to focus on my "secular studies." Fellow members seemed more concerned with praying for my future husband than for exams I had coming up.

In fact, not long after I announced I was leaving my home church to pursue a master’s degree, a well-intentioned but misinformed hermano approached me to say, “Estoy orando para que te realices...que Dios te de un esposo.” Loosely translated: I am praying for you to become self-actualized…through marriage.

Although I appreciated his well-meaning prayers for a future spouse, I would have also appreciated ...

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A Season of Small Talk

A series of reflections, guest posts, and interviews--all, I hope, helping us "prepare him room"

Christmas is a season where adult attention rightly turns toward children. Not only do we celebrate the birth of a child, but we do so in large part with the help of the children in our families and congregations. They remind us of wonder and delight and eager expectation. So I guess it makes sense that this season has prompted a number of reviews and reflections from others about my most recent book, Small Talk: Learning from my Children About What Matters Most, and that it has prompted me to write a number of posts elsewhere that relate the Christmas season to my kids.

I wrote about a new Advent practice within our family for Sara Hagerty's blog: Giving and Getting at Christmastime, and I have a new post, "Talking About the Holidays With My Kids", about Christmas and pluralism over at Rachel Held Evan's blog. (And this has nothing to do with Christmas, but I was also featured on ABC News, "When a Little Girl With Down Syndrome Showed What's 'Possible'.")

Meanwhile, if you're interested in what other people are saying about Small Talk, Jana Reiss at Religion News Service recently wrote:

Amy Julia Becker’s latest book, Small Talk: Learning from My Children About What Matters Most, would make a terrific holiday gift for parents and anyone who is interested in what children can teach us about God... It's a beautifully written combination of memoir and theology, both accessible and thought-provoking.

You can read more at 'Keeping Christ in Christmas': Let's all just relax.

And Rachel Marie Stone, a Patheos blogger and her.meneutics contributor, wrote,

Small Talk, a new book from my friend Amy Julia Becker, is the kind of book that takes the things ...

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