At Christmas everyone gets religious. The beautiful story of Bethlehem captures the imagination, and even our hard-bitten generation thinks nostalgically of church services as well as of Christmas stockings. It tries hard to conjure up some “good will towards men” and hopes to experience an inner glow. But it has a hard time coming to grips with what Christmas is all about, because Christmas nowadays is overlaid with many a myth.
“Myth” is one of the “in” words for Bible critics. Ever since Rudolph Bultmann astonished the theological world with his demand that the New Testament be “demythologized,” those in the theological fashion have been busy finding myth in all sorts of unexpected places. The New Testament has a new look. So has the early Church; for the new generation of scholars it has become the “myth-making community.”
Whatever the suitability of this description for the first Christians, it fits us pretty well. Myth-making is a flourishing industry in any twentieth-century community. It is fashionable in the entertainment industry, where every would-be star tries to build up a legend. It is good publicity; everyone recognizes this and allows for it.
What we do not allow for is our penchant for making myths in other walks of life. We are all in it. A favorite modern myth is summed up in the expression, “the new morality.” For some real thinkers this represents a serious approach to important problems, but it easily becomes an excuse for the easy-going. We draw a contrast between the prudish condemnation passed by a former generation on those whose sin was found out and our own wide tolerance and warm-hearted charity. With this myth firmly in mind, we go on to abandon the moral sanctions that have guarded society.
Or we do it theologically. We read Tillich and speak of “the Ground of our being” instead of God. The fact that no one outside our own circle has any idea of what we mean by this (and even we are not sure) does not interfere with the beautiful myth that we have removed an obstacle from the preaching of the Gospel and that now men will believe when they will not listen to Billy Graham.
Most of the time we go along with the myths. They relieve us of the conscience-pricking morality on which we were brought up. They absolve us from the relentless search after truth. They acquit us of the accusation of being conservative in contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. They enable us to see ourselves as adventurous thinkers, boldly striking out in new lines appropriate to the twentieth century. But just now and then we are caught up in something bigger than the myths, and even this generation for a moment catches a glimpse of something better.
Christmas is apt to be such a time. Of course, even here our penchant for myth-making makes itself felt. We persist in linking Christmas with decorated trees and tinsel, with sentimental carols by candlelight, with office parties and good-will calls on neighbors. We cultivate the myth that Christmas is a time of “peace, good will towards men” and justify anything that makes for “good will,” however spurious.
But the message of Christmas is so deep and so clear that it breaks through our most careful attempts to shield ourselves from it. Even the tinsel points to a desire for joy, and the sentimental carols speak of God’s message through the angels: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”
Perhaps the part of our Christmas-feeling where it is hardest for the message of the Bible to break through is the bit about “good will towards men.” Vague recollections of the King James Version, imbibed in our infancy, incline us to think that this is what the angels sang and it must be right. So we persuade ourselves that we are keeping Christmas if we show rather less than our normal selfishness at this time of year and work up a cheery heartiness to all we meet.
And yet the Babe of Bethlehem confronts us. We cannot escape him. Tolstoi could refer to “the terrible meek,” and there is something of that here. Nothing could be less frightening or inspiring than a little baby. But the Babe of Bethlehem has been the most powerful influence on the world throughout all its subsequent history. The most significant things are not necessarily those that force themselves on the world’s notice. A publicity-hungry world at this time of the year sometimes lifts its disillusioned head and takes note of this.
The Babe was the gift of God to the world. Alongside that gift our gifts seem small and tawdry. And the conclusion strikes home, however unwillingly, that perhaps the significant thing is not any program of our own but God’s program for man.
For Bethlehem leads right on to Calvary. The one is meaningless without the other. Together they speak of life for the world, life that God has given in his Son.
Through the centuries men and women have been receiving that life. They have been coming to see that their own efforts achieve little in the ultimate. And whenever men have trusted the Babe, they have entered into new life.
Beside this reality of history, our myths look poor things. There is no dynamic in them. They amuse us for an hour or a day, but they do not see us through eternity. Christmas points us beyond human values to the divine.
And it is a reminder that if God has given so much, there is an obligation resting on us. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” It is a question that has never been answered.
Dr. Blake’S Mistaken Emphasis
The recently concluded World Congress on Evangelism has triggered renewed interest in evangelism in many parts of the Christian Church in past weeks. We were particularly gratified that Eugene Carson Blake dealt with evangelism, which he called “the central activity of the Church,” in his recent address to the 157th annual meeting of the United Church of Christ Board for World Ministries. In answering “conservative critics of the ecumenical movement who charge it with being interested in everything but evangelism—that is, the winning of men to Jesus Christ,” the general secretary-elect of the World Council of Churches said that the movement takes seriously its call to worldwide witness to Jesus Christ. He stressed the Gospel is God’s disclosure of himself in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ but that unless the Church combats current problems of poverty and affluence, it cannot carry out its mission, “for no really hungry man can listen to any gospel.”
We commend Dr. Blake both for focusing on evangelism and for stating again his well-known concern for people whose day-to-day lives are hard-hit by poverty or whose values are distorted by affluence. Certainly the Christian Church must never relinquish evangelism nor become callous to human need.
We are troubled, however, that Blake at no point clearly affirmed that gospel proclamation must take precedence over economic considerations. Instead, he tended to make the changing of economic structures crucial in the current mission of the Church. “God can use even us to win men to Jesus Christ,” he said, if we “change the economic rules, by which we are accustomed to live, under which the rich are becoming richer and the poor, poorer both within and among the nations.” He warned that “unless American churches hear the voices of those angry young men who spoke at Geneva [Church and Society Conference of the World Council of Churches in July, 1966], there is nothing that conservative evangelicals among us, even including Billy Graham and Carl Henry, can do to make the Gospel heard.”
The Church indeed must always remember the poor as it carries out its task of world evangelization (see Gal. 2:10). But this hardly means that Christians should follow the path marked out by the Geneva spokesmen, who showed a myopic preference for socialistic economic structures, advised Christians to build “a new society on a new revolutionary basis,” and recommended that believers oppose the presence of American forces in Viet Nam. Even if such courses of action were appropriate—and we do not believe they are—it is unwarrantable as well as unbiblical for any world church leader to summon the church to support social and economic proposals in the name of biblical evangelism. Every man must decide for himself how best to remedy economic problems in society and reduce human deprivation. But all Christians, if they are to remain biblical in thought and action, must give priority to proclaiming the Gospel of Christ before, during, and after any war on economic problems. If we delay in confronting men with the claims of the Gospel and fail to press for decisions until economic problems are solved, we not only will fail to reach a dying world with the living word but also will deter development of good and lasting solutions to social and economic problems. Social betterment advances most vigorously in an environment where hearts have been touched by God’s truth.
We were further disenchanted by Blake’s peremptory dismissal of an important method of evangelism. He said he was “terribly worried” when he used the word “evangelism” lest people get a picture of an altar call, a tent meeting, a need to move forward to register a decision. “This was,” he emphasized, “a kind of evangelism.” Yet Blake cannot dismiss the ministries of Billy Graham and other evangelists in our day whose methods he would apparently discard but whom God has chosen to bring multitudes of men to Christ. One might well ask the general secretary-elect how many thousands of men have been brought to Jesus Christ and regenerated by economic pronouncements or policies.
As Dr. Blake assumes his new WCC post, he will have great opportunities to advance or to hinder the cause of world evangelization. We will pray that he will promote evangelism as “the central activity of the Church.” But we urge him to give prime emphasis to proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ instead of to efforts to bring about an economic transformation of society. While the elimination of poverty is extremely important, only the preaching of the Gospel to every man is absolutely essential. The good is often the enemy of the best. The Church should not expend itself primarily for the good of economic improvement when it has been called to witness to what is best for mankind: eternal salvation in Jesus Christ.
The statement on “One Race, One Gospel, One Task” (see November 25 issue, page 24) crystallized the basic thinking of participants in the World Congress on Evangelism. In addition, areas of special conviction and concern were cited. Editor Carl F. H. Henry of CHRISTIANITY TODAY and Editor Sherwood Wirt of Decision expressed these congress interests as follows:
1. We affirm the responsibility of God’s people to penetrate the world for good, as light and salt. Gratefully we point to the historic influence of the Christian faith upon the cultures and societies of men. A flood tide of kindness and compassion has risen from the efforts of believing men and women obedient to the teachings of our Lord. Medical care, prison reform, charitable institutions, improved working conditions, care for the homeless, direct relief, and many other social ministries owe their original impulses to servants of the Church of Jesus Christ. We recognize the need for legislation to curb human evil and to promote equal justice and opportunity in a free society. Christians should be identified with every effort to improve the lot of man, but the institutional church should resist efforts to make it a political agency. We reaffirm the scriptural truth that only the Gospel of redeeming love can bring about a moral regeneration of the human heart. In a day of vastly increased human need, in a century of unprecedented cruelty, we call upon all Christians, not only for an authentic contemporary biblical witness, but for a demonstration of their faith by works of compassionate concern and sacrificial love.
2. Within our sense of obligation and indebtedness to men of every race and nation, we acknowledge areas of particular Christian concern. We pledge our continued prayers for walled-in believing brethren in countries where the Church is no longer wholly free to evangelize, and where totalitarian powers suspend the rights of men upon the prerogative of government. We grieve for our fellow human beings whose countries are yet ravaged by war. We pray that the world powers may be directed to seek righteousness and peace, and that the arm of the aggressor may be shortened in our day. As the atmosphere of our planet thickens with radioactive dust, we look with increased longing to the time when, as the Prophet Isaiah foretold, “of the increase of his government there shall be no end.” We remind the rulers of our age that God has published the criteria by which all men and nations shall be judged.
3. We consider the great cities of our modern world a prime goal of evangelism. The expanding industrial revolution and the staggering explosion of population emphasize to us the cruciality of the city. We do not intend to see biblical Christianity reduced to a rural or suburban cult in the general advance of urbanized society. We ask that any regional followups of this World Congress on Evangelism give major attention to the big cities.
4. Further, we cite the evangelistic potential of the world student population as it struggles to discover the true meaning of existence and a valid ground for life commitment. Only as these students are reached for Christ will the leadership of tomorrow’s world be guided and motivated by the Gospel. We encourage Christian schools to challenge their students to prepare for key positions of influence worthy of godly leadership. We call for intensified evangelism on secular campuses, and we share the hope of a future World Student Congress, to draw together evangelical university leaders, administrators, and teachers as well as students. Mindful that the Reformation was a reassertion of biblical Christianity by university-trained men, we emphasize the need for trained leaders in both older and younger nations of the world. We thank God for the developing rapport between theologians and evangelists to which this World Congress attests. The global struggle for the minds and hearts of men demands both theological depth and evangelistic confrontation.
5. As a direct tool of evangelism we recognize the thrilling potential of the literacy program. Here is an unparalleled opportunity to present half the world with a training program that will not only open man’s eyes to the world about him but also reach his heart with the Sword of the Spirit. Literacy we hold to be a two-edged weapon; without the teaching of Christ, it can leave the new reader wide open to godless ideologies that corrode the mind and spirit. We therefore encourage the method of “each one teach one and win one to Christ.”
6. Living in an age of bursting scientific knowledge, we point to the reality of the living God, who is the God of Creation. We call into service every scientific technique and method now known and yet to be discovered, to make them all captive to the cause of Christ for the promulgation of the Gospel in our day. We pledge ourselves to stronger efforts to use the mass media and modern methods of communication.
While widely disseminated birth-control techniques now present the opportunity of a more fully responsible parenthood amid a burgeoning world population, we believe that the primary problem is not that this globe, orbiting within the purposes of a providential God, is populated by too many people, but that it is populated by too few believers.
7. During these days together we have been awakened anew to our responsibility to Jew and Gentile alike. We firmly believe that to withhold the offer of God’s saving grace through the Gospel from our Hebrew friends would be an act of lovelessness. With gratitude we acknowledge our common heritage of the Old Testament; we look to Abraham as our spiritual father and to Moses as God’s servant and lawgiver. As Christians we confess with stricken conscience the past inhumanity that has been shown to the Jew, and we here proclaim that our approach to the sons of Israel shall be devoid of every offense except the offense of the Cross before which we all stand in judgment. We welcome every prospect of an enlarging and more understanding dialogue with our Jewish friends. We proclaim our loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; and we point to the Messiah who came and is coming as the hope of the world.
8. Finally, we express to Evangelist Billy Graham our gratitude for his vision of a World Congress on Evangelism. To the magazine CHRISTIANITY TODAY, and to the staff of tireless and efficient workers who have planned for and implemented the congress, goes our vast debt of thanks, together with our praise to God.
India’S Desperate Plight
The Christian world can only look with dismay on the unfolding tragedy that increasingly engulfs India. She is faced with mass disorders spurred by Hindu fanatics who oppose the slaughter of cows; with grave agricultural and industrial problems that virtually guarantee bankruptcy and starvation; with population increases that will double her numbers by the year 2000; with tens of thousands of homeless beggars who live in the streets and die like animals; with illiteracy and superstition that seem incredible in the twentieth century.
Christian compassion causes us to respond as best we can to India’s material needs. Material aid, however, offers no permanent solution. America cannot interfere in India’s internal affairs, and our own dwindling food surplus makes continued large-scale exports to India unlikely. Her physical problems are so immense that she will not be salvaged by economic help alone, important as that help is.
India’s plight is due largely to the non-Christian religions that shackle her people. Her best hope is in the Gospel, which brings enlightenment and dispels superstition. Acceptance of the Gospel would open hearts and heads to the use of advanced agricultural methods, lead to the control of population growth, and provide a view of life that would bring order out of chaos and hope in the midst of deepest despair.
Ecumenism And Expo ’67
Plans for Christian witness at Canada’s upcoming Expo ’67 show that Christian organizations are seizing new opportunities to present Jesus Christ as the hope of the world. We are distressed, however, that the editorial voice of the United Church of Canada, one of the eight Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches sponsoring the ecumenical Christian Pavilion, considers the Moody-produced Sermons from Science Pavilion at the exposition as a “rival” work and has cautioned its people “neither to contribute to nor support” it.
Although theologically conservative groups were invited to join the Christian Pavilion, backers of Sermons from Science, on the basis of its success at the Seattle and New York World’s Fairs, felt their project could be housed more efficiently in a separate building. They also wanted to use a direct approach to win men to Christ rather than the indirect “no pat answers” methodology of the ecumenical pavilion.
The true ecumenical spirit will honor all Christians who proclaim the biblical Gospel, even though there may be differences of approach. A Christian project is not a rival unworthy of support merely because it is found in a different organizational tent. We hope that Christian Pavilion leaders will look upon the Sermons from Science project as an ally in the critical task of making Christ known at Expo ’67.
Security Council Censures Israel
Israel joined the family of nations in 1948. Since then she has lived dangerously, surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors. For nearly twenty years former Palestinian Arabs have frequently crossed Israeli borders to engage in acts of terrorism. News media have reported an average of three raids a month during the past two years, and many of the raiders have entered Israeli territory via Jordan. Israel recently struck back by raiding Jordanian Samu with 4,000 troops and adequate air support. This brought a 14–0 vote of censure from from the United Nations Security Council, which, in effect, blasted Israel for its show of force but did nothing to curb Arab raids that led to the Israeli action in the first place.
While the Security Council was right in censuring Israel, it was wrong in failing to speak with equal firmness to the surrounding Arab nations. There is little doubt that continued Arab violations could lead to a war nobody would win and upset completely the balance of power in the Middle East.
We sympathize with the Jews, who possess a homeland for the first time in two thousand years, as well as with the dispossessed Arabs who gave way when the new State of Israel was created. We hope for a lessening of tensions. And above all, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
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