Why are Christmas stories such as Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, so popular while American culture seems so often to contradict their messages?
We are horrified by the prospect of a vulgar, self-serving and brutal Pottersville and are repelled by the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge saying that the struggling poor and sick should die and decrease the surplus population. Yet, a sizable proportion of the American population support the policies that advance the very agendas they seem to loathe when they see them dramatized.
Are the Christmas stories merely sentimental, idealistic and naive? This seems to be the cynical take on things. The cynic will tell us that a single human life can't prevent a town from going bad; a person can't really be changed, converted or transformed from selfish to selfless.
Or do these Christmas stories exemplify goodness?
A Presbyterian pastor I knew and respected greatly, the late David Pittenger, once called into question the criticism someone had of "do-gooders." David asked, "Would you as a Christian prefer 'do-badders?'"
David was as sophisticated an ethical thinker as you'll meet. He understood how ideology and high idealism can get in the way of making wise decisions. He was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, and a proponent of the ethics of "Christian Realism." But he was also aware that if our practical decisions do not reflect the substance of our faith, we aren't really acting as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Bible has a name for us when our actions don't match our values: hypocrites.
Christmas is upon us. It will be hard to miss A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life on a television near you. As you watch them this year, I invite you to reflect on the question that is haunting my holidays: Why don't we live up to the stories we tell?