Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Christmas Shoes" Is Not About You, And Life Is Not an Action Movie

Image source.

Well it’s that time of year again. When we have to listen to the song “Christmas shoes” seemingly over and over again. (Even in China, I heard it because I was listening to a playlist of Christmas songs from the internet. So I guess it’s my own fault.)

If you don’t know the song, you can listen here. Basically, the singer is talking about how he was waiting in line on Christmas Eve, and a boy was there trying to buy shoes for his mom who is apparently about to die- “I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight.” But the boy doesn’t have the money, so the guy in the song pays for the shoes. And Christmas was saved.

Actually it’s not a bad song, but a lot of people hate it just because some radio stations keep playing it for every third song around Christmas. And it’s so sappy and over-the-top.

Recently I saw a discussion online about what some people believe to be the worst line in the entire song: “I know that God had sent that little boy to remind me what Christmas was all about.” The commenters I read were saying, what, did God give this kid’s mom cancer just because God wanted our hero to be happy on Christmas?

To be honest, I was a little surprised to read that criticism, because this belief that “God cares about every little thing I do in my day-to-day life and constantly micromanages everything” is very much par for the course in American evangelical Christianity. Most evangelicals I know would say the most important part about Christianity is having a relationship with God. We should constantly pray and ask God for help with every little thing- hey if it matters to you, it matters to God- and look for God working in every interesting event that occurs in our lives. If something good happens, then yay praise God for the blessing that God gave us! If something bad happens, then it must have happened for a reason; maybe God is trying to teach us something.

(In my experience, it seems that black American Christian culture emphasizes this even more than white Christians do. There is a lot of focus on each individual having a dynamic personal relationship with God, and a strong belief that God really does hear our prayers and bless us. But my experience there is limited, so if you know more than I do, go ahead and leave a comment on the blog. Thanks!)

Back to the Christmas shoes. According to the singer, God brought that boy into his life to teach him about giving and Christmas. This comes across as a little selfish, right? Hey, dude, this story is not about you. Maybe God sent you to help the little boy, not the other way around.

Of course, the counter argument would be that God is micromanaging everyone’s lives. So God is using this event to teach our friend here a lesson about the meaning of Christmas, while also using it to help the boy, and also to comfort the dying woman (because really, isn’t she the one God should be most concerned about in this story?). You see, God is very skilled, and can efficiently do all these things simultaneously, using this interaction to bring good into several people’s lives.

Yeah, but, no. The song is so sappy and over-the-top. The little boy is pretty much a stereotype meant to look as pathetic and innocent as possible. He’s wearing old clothes. He’s trying to pay for the shoes in coins. His wonderful perfect mother is dying. He needs someone to help him. Really, this story only works if the little boy is as helpless as possible; the more helpless, the better the good deed that our hero did.

Furthermore, I see this same line of thinking, about God using events in our lives to help us or teach us something, show up in stories where God steps in to help one person but not others. The "no it's not selfish because of course I don't believe God is just doing this for me" argument doesn't work at all. For example, there are stories of how God apparently saved people’s lives by making them miss their flights on September 11. Okay, so, what about the people that didn’t miss their flight? So God loves them less? Or, why didn’t God make the terrorists miss their flights? See that would have been good thinking, God.

[content note: the next story is about rape, so if you want to skip it, go down to the picture of the scene from Star Trek with the dead red shirt guys]

Or, here’s another example: A while back, there was this story making the rounds on facebook, where a young woman, let’s call her Stacy, was walking home alone at night, and she saw a suspicious man and she was really afraid. The next day, she found out that someone had been raped near where she was walking. And then somehow, Stacy ends up meeting the rapist later, when he’s in jail, and it’s the same suspicious man she saw. (I have no idea how in the world she would meet him, but hey, I didn’t write this urban legend.) And he tells her the reason he didn’t rape her was because there were 2 big strong-looking men walking with her. Oh wow! God had sent angels to protect her!

But wait, what about the other girl? Did God care about her? (And also, that’s not really how rape works.)

Image source.

It seems to me that in a lot of these stories, in order to show that there was real danger that God saved you from, you need to have other characters in the story fall victim to that danger. And if you’re making an action movie, that makes sense. A lot of stuff gets destroyed and some people die, but the heroes win in the end. And the audience doesn’t really worry about the background characters who died; they were just red shirts.

But this is real life. This is not an action movie. In real life, there aren’t background characters who don’t really matter. In real life, there are no red shirts.

Image source.

Let’s come back to the idea of “having a personal relationship with God.” To be honest, I think that focusing so much on one’s relationship with God can cause people to be more selfish, to think “everything that happens is about me,” as the singer of “Christmas shoes” did. According to this way of thinking, the most important thing is to get closer to God, to be more like Jesus- and those goals are very much about ourselves. Of course we also believe we should help others, but really, it’s a means to an end. I help others because that’s how I show God that I love God.

Instead, I believe we should help others because God wants God’s kingdom to come on earth. The goal of being a Christian is to create a world with love and peace and all that stuff (it’s called the kingdom of God). It’s not about me; it’s about God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom is about people. Loving others is not something we do because God commanded it and we believe we will be better people (or have a better relationship with God) if we do what God commanded; no, loving others in the actual goal itself. Loving others is the kingdom of God. That’s the gospel, and that’s good news. 

Does God work in our lives to teach us things? I don't know, maybe. But don't be so focused on God's work in your life that you miss the image of God in other people.


Discussion questions:

Does God actually intervene in people’s lives in the real world? If so, how can we reconcile this with the fact that there are a lot of bad things that God does not intervene to stop? If not, how can we reconcile this with all the examples in the bible where God intervened?

Should Christians “have a personal relationship with God”? What does that mean?

What is the purpose of helping others?

And also, please enjoy this song, instead of listening to “Christmas shoes”:

1 comment:

  1. I have this weird theory that God does intervene in specific ways in certain people's lives, but it's for the greater good of humanity. Sort of a butterfly effect type of thing. If this person is in this spot and has the opportunity to do this thing and they do, then there will be a spiral of events outward that might change the world. That sort of scenario.