My favorite Christmas movie is the Kirk Cameron showpiece Saving Christmas, which, upon its release in 2014, received universally negative reviews. It contains all the necessary elements for a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic. It is a live-action Christmas movie made after 1990 that, rather than sticking to the time-tested Hallmark Channel method of making everything as generic as possible for maximum digestibility, attempts to do something new. It is the passion project of a former child star who became a zealous born-again Christian after his career peaked playing a supporting role on the eighth-best family sitcom of the early ’90s. It was produced by Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University. It was the first feature film in 13 years to be directed by Darren Doane, whose previous work includes music videos for the Jason Mraz song “I’m Yours” and blink-182’s “Dammit.” It received a zero percent rating from professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes, to which Cameron responded by asking his fanbase to “storm the gates” of the website with positive user reviews. It did not work.
Saving Christmas is a bad movie, but in a unique way which deserves more examination than was given by critics. As stated unsubtly in the title, the movie is a defense of Christmas. The holiday’s main attackers, in this case, are not politically correct liberals seeking to punish saying “Merry Christmas” by death, but fellow Evangelicals who lament the intrusion of corporate branding and pagan ritual into what is meant to be an explicit celebration of Jesus. This alone makes Saving Christmas a relic of the early-mid 2010s, a period when the War on Christmas discourse was stupider than it had ever been before, but had not yet reached the nadir of Trump saying “everybody is saying Merry Christmas again” at a “Merry Christmas Rally” last week while actively being impeached by the House of Representatives.
Saving Christmas is a bad movie, but in a unique way which deserves more examination than was given by critics.
Back in 2014, there were multiple differentiated enemies of Christmas rather than an amorphous “they,” and apparently some of these were the Biblical scholars who note the lack of eggnog and $29.99 Amazon Fire tablets in scripture. Even for the time, this was an odd axe to grind; Evangelicals have never been known to shy away from consumerism, and reminders that the yule log was invented by pagans typically come from 14-year-old Ricky Gervais fans rather than malcontent churchgoers. One gets the distinct sense that Saving Christmas is not an argument against, say, atheists or Unitarians, but against a series of intrusive thoughts that plague the minds of inflexible Biblical literalists.
The movie’s central scene is a dialogue in a parked car between Kirk Cameron, who plays himself, and director/writer Doane, who plays Cameron’s pouty, Christmas-hating brother-in-law actually named, uh, Christian. Doane’s character is somehow every Christian movie archetype in one person, making him the perfect receptacle for the True Meaning of Christmas but incredibly confusing as an avatar for the viewer. He is so despondent at the Cameron family Christmas party that he goes to sit silently in the car, but he is also down for a spirited hour-long argument about Saturnalia and the exact birth month of Jesus. He dresses and talks like a smug lib college professor, but also sincerely worries that Christmas trees may be a form of idolatry. Directors will often give themselves brief, incidental cameos in their own work as a small show of modesty and respect for the lead players; Doane’s cameo is not brief, but he retains that spirit of modesty by making Cameron the only actual character and giving himself the role of a sad-sack who exists to move a disjointed Christmas sermon forward with leading questions.
The dialogue is structured as such: Christian brings up an element of the modern Christmas tradition which is conceivably non-Christian in origin, dismisses it sarcastically, and then Cameron provides a lengthy just-so story explaining it as rooted in Biblical scripture. The Christmas tree, which is probably ultimately rooted in pre-Christian Germanic traditions, is Christian because there was a tree in Genesis, and because the wood used for the crucifix was made from a tree. “When you walk into a Christmas tree lot, I want you to see hundreds of crosses,” Cameron says.
And the tradition of gift-giving, which in its current form is mostly a creation of the American retail industry, is wholly Christian and therefore beyond reproach because the Three Wise Men brought gifts for Jesus. That the decided-upon date for Jesus’ birth coincides with the winter solstice despite no one being sure which year he was born, let alone the month, is unimpeachably Christian because God made the winter solstice. Doane’s character, fulfilling his purpose as a strawman, buys each of Cameron’s bizarre explanations without hesitation but remains combative enough to keep the conversation going for 40 minutes. Needless to say, everything Cameron says here is a huge reach, as every contemporary review pointed out. But the interesting thing about Saving Christmas is not that its content fails to withstand theological scrutiny, but that it chooses the particular battles it does.
There is no threat to Christmas, either real or perceived, from pagans and scriptural pedants.
Doane and Cameron’s project of absorbing pagan and consumerist influences into Christianity — and, crucially, framing it in a way where it is not a compromise on the part of true believers — is not indicative of an ongoing battle in the culture wars, either in 2014 or 2019. There is no threat to Christmas, either real or perceived, from pagans and scriptural pedants. Annual Christmastime complaints about consumerism and Santa Claus being a creation of the Coca-Cola Company nearly always come from a place of secularism, and biblical explanations, even logically sound ones, are not likely to shut those people up. Unlike most critically-panned Christian movies, Saving Christmas is not a jeremiad targeting conservative hate figures, and this is what makes it worthy of examination. The impulse that fuels the theological exercise of Saving Christmas — the psychological need, after making compromises to religious coherency in order to stay relevant, to pretend there are actually zero inconsistencies — has deep roots in Christian tradition.
The complexity of early Christianity’s relationship with historical world powers makes it unique among the Abrahamic religions. Islam, which came about during a crucial period of weakness for the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, was able to spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East virtually undeterred within a generation or two of Muhammad’s death. Judaism, on the other hand, had the misfortune of being sandwiched between a series of warring great powers for most of its history, giving rise to a tradition in which symbolic resistance to imperial encroachment is given the highest of honors.
Christianity was born into this latter paradigm, in the tumultuous years leading up to the end of Judea’s nominal independence from Rome, which is why the central theme of the New Testament is the Roman Empire’s cruelty toward religious and political dissidents. Everything in there, from the initial flight to Bethlehem to the Crucifixion to the mixed metaphors about serpents and trumpets, is about resistance to the debauched, Godless metropolis. The early Christian martyrs were, in part, driven to fanatical religiosity by their contempt for Rome, and when presented with a choice between publicly partaking in the rituals of the Roman state religion or being broken on the wheel, fed to lions and bears and crucified, they happily opted for the latter. This was, after all, the very same institution that put the Son of God in a loincloth and tortured him to death because he was giving out free food.
In an age of declining religiosity, tree worship and the hanging of wreaths would prove to be more popular than the actual Christian stuff.
After nearly 300 years of persecution, the Emperor Constantine had a vision of a cross on the battlefield and embraced Christianity with gusto. Within a generation, Roman religious policy shifted from brutal suppression of Christians to tolerance for Christians to the state-sanctioned demolition of pagan temples. This sea change must have been incomprehensible to Christians and pagans alike. It’s as if all the worst fears Tea Party lunatics had about Obama actually came true — mandatory Muslim prayers in public schools, Bible burnings, Americans forced to memorize the Quran, New Black Panthers outside every polling place — all in eight years.
Whether Christians realized it at the time, this was an enormous compromise. The New Testament had already been written and partially canonized with Rome as the archvillain, but now the Church was Rome, which must have felt like that Naomi Wolf interview where she finds out far too late that the thesis of her upcoming book is based on a fundamental misreading of court records.
In order to replace pagan traditions with Christian ones without upsetting the fragile balance of power after the Crisis of the Third Century, concessions had to be made to Roman and Germanic paganism. For centuries, this would remain of marginal importance, but later, in an age of declining religiosity, tree worship and the hanging of wreaths would prove to be more popular than the actual Christian stuff, and it would give a certain pop-punk music video director a lot of unnecessary anxiety.
Every week, some glossy liberal magazine will run a longform story asking why evangelical Christians support Donald Trump, the guy who gives them everything they want politically, when he is “thrice-divorced” and pronounces 2 Thessalonians “Two Thessalonians” instead of “Second Thessalonians.” This is a very stupid genre of article, and the reason there are so many is not because they illuminate anything about evangelicals or Trump, but for the same reason NeverTrump Republicans get column space — because it makes liberals feel good about a world that confuses them. Evangelicals embrace Trump for the same reason early Christians embraced Rome after 300 years of persecution.
Morally, it would have made sense to snub Constantine the Great en masse when he invited all the bishops to the First Council of Nicaea in 325, just 12 years after the end of the worst persecutions of Christians in Roman history. But all the bishops, even the ones considered heretics, showed up. To do otherwise would have spelled disaster for Christianity. They did what they had to do, and then they spent 1,200-odd years pretending there was nothing weird about celebrating the Latin Mass in the very heart of the Great Whore of Babylon two miles from where Christians were fed to lions in the Colosseum built with spoils from the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Evangelicals embrace Trump for the same reason early Christians embraced Rome after 300 years of persecution.
When the inconvenient, dissonant and arbitrary aspects of Christianity are taken away, a slippery slope opens that creates discord within the faith and fundamentally weakens it. This is what happened during the English Reformation; King Henry VIII broke ties with Rome because it suited his dynastic ambitions and because deference to the Pope was an obstacle to political centralization, and his advisors were able to justify this with scripture. Then, though Henry really only wanted to get rid of that one part, people began asking which other practices in the new Anglican Church were extra-biblical in nature, like priests wearing fancy clothes, graven images, music during church services, feast days, and the celebration of Christmas.
These were Puritans, and they weren’t wrong in their scriptural analysis, but their religious outlook proved so unpopular that even in colonial New England it barely survived into the 1700s. People wanted the whole package, with the feasting and the merriment and the stained glass windows, and they turned out to prefer the religious authorities that gave the official go-ahead to do the wrong, fun version to the ones who were technically correct but made everyone spend Christmas churning butter.
A similar dynamic has led to a massive decline in mainline Protestantism, the closest thing to a modern descendant of the Northeastern Puritan tradition. White mainline Protestants skew wealthy, college-educated, and well-connected, and since the 1960s mainline doctrine has come to embrace progressive causes like the ordination of women, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism, support for refugees — the sort of things the Jesus of the New Testament would have liked.
But that commitment to coherence and moral consistency, like the Puritan commitment to scripture, comes with a downside. Once you start chipping away at the bits of Christianity that go against common sense and modern sensibilities, eventually you come to the realization that any just God would prefer we sleep in on Sunday mornings and think about him at home, which is why there are not many practicing Unitarians. The lesson for any pragmatic church leader who wants to maintain a healthy congregation over a healthy conscience is that you have to take the whole thing, — the paganism, the crass consumerism, the xenophobia, the anti-intellectualism, and the quasi-worship of the “grab ‘em by the pussy” guy — wad it into a discrete ball of dogma, and then pretend until your dying day that every iota of it makes perfect sense. The second you don’t, it begins to fall apart.
Also, at the end of Saving Christmas, there is a 10-minute scene where all the characters, most of whom we have not met, breakdance in front of the Christmas tree to a rap version of “Angels We Have Heard On High” by Family Force 5, an all-white Christian group that self-identifies as “crunk rock.”