Christmas: A Candid History (Book Review)

Christmas: A Candid HistoryOne book I would recommend in researching the history of Christmas is Bruce David Forbes' Christmas, A Candid History.  I usually refrain from recommending books I have not read completely, but yesterday I finally finished this one, I think.  I have used this book as a primary historical resource for the “Recovering Christmas” series and in doing so, I have not read it consecutively, but in sections.  I have criss crossed, highlighted, and notated it, and I must say it is very entertaining, easy to read, and incredibly interesting.  As far as its historical accuracy, I have found that when it comes to Christmas, as stated in my previous post, there are many versions of the legends, but always similarities.  At most every point I have cross referenced Forbes‘ information with other historians and he holds consistent with reliable sources.   

The author is a fellow believer, a United Methodist, and a religious studies professor, who seems to be struggling, like many of us, with the indulgences we associate with Christmas.  "On the one hand, I love the music, lights, and family gatherings along with the story of the Christ child, shepherds, and wise men, and the messages of generosity, love, joy, and peace.  On the other hand I am frustrated by how hectic and commercialized the season has become, and worried that all of the cultural trappings can overwhelm spiritual aspects of Christmas."  His introduction is an apt description of how many of us feel during this season, but really don’t know what to do with what we know has gone wrong. 

This is the profit of history.  History explains why we are as we are and how we may be able to make some corrections.    As a preacher I am not big on rote historical recitations.  I look for interpretation and application.  How has history shaped us and what can we learn from it?  I really appreciate Forbes’ work in this respect.  He shares great history and a great message.  For me, the overriding message is that left to itself, Christmas has nothing to do with Christ.  If we want this to be a truly meaningful season for our families, we must be intentional, but careful.  The gospel does not declare itself, nor does Christmas in itself declare Christ.  The message needs the voices of people who have been deeply changed by it.  Throughout history, Christians have been able to do some very meaningful things with the season, some have gone well, others not so much.  We should learn from our mistakes, especially those that explain why Christmas has so easily slipped away from us.  Perhaps the most convicting message I gleaned from the book is that Christ didn’t ask for, command, nor does He need Christmas.  He is who He is without December 25th.  In “The Earliest Centuries” and “Christmas Comes Late,” Forbes shares how the church knew nothing of Christmas for at least 300 years after Christ.  They were a resurrection people.  The birth of Jesus, though important, was not the central message of the early church.  Reading this chapter has challenged me that when it comes to Christmas, sharing the birth narrative is not enough, we must be the gospel incarnate and proclaim its full message if we desire to see people come to Christ. 

Although Forbes claims to be a believer, he seems to purpose his book for a much wider audience.  In appealing to a wider audience Forbes explores some issues and draws a few applications that require discernment.   One such issue, is that early on Forbes makes the very conjecture I warned us about at the outset of this series; critiquing historical tradition is not the same as critiquing the Biblical text.  In a section entitled, “Is The Christmas Story True,” Forbes seems to speculate that since the history of Christmas is so sketchy, and not quite what the church would believe it to be, that the birth narrative of the gospels may need to be questioned as well.  This is an illogical and unnecessary connection.  Just because the church gets it wrong doesn't mean that the Biblical text is errant.  The Bible has enough internal evidence to sustain its own integrity without the interpretations of the church throughout history.  If I could illustrate my point, God was God before people believed upon Him.  He did not become God when people began to believe.  In the same sense I would also say that because all of the horrible mistakes people have made in their application of Scripture, those human errors do not diminish the glory of God.  In the same way, the Bible is the Word of God with or without the church.  The church is fallible and errant and as a result has made some gross mistakes in misapplying or categorically ignoring Scripture in Jesus name.  Though these mistakes have been made by the church the Bible remains infallible and inerrant.  I could by a car manual at Auto Zone and make a horrible mess of an engine.  The horrible mess is not so much as testimony to the manual or its writer as it is to my sheer lack of mechanical skills.  Shade tree mechanic I am not!  

With that said, it is not uncommon to disagree with writers and still appreciate their work.  Disagreement is evidence that we think.  And I am, at some level, comfortable recommending books with which I disagree at various points.  I trust that if you read my blog you are curious, have a desire to learn, and that you are discerning.  Use your brain, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible, you can figure out what's what.  So if you want a great historical read this Christmas, check out Bruce David Forbes’ Christmas, A Candid History.  Even if you did not enjoy it as much as I did, at the very least, once you finish it, you will be awesome at Christmas Trivia! 


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