This is Part I in a 2-part series on the theology of traditional Christmas songs. This week, the three worst. Next week, we crown the best.
We’re slowly treading through that half of the year when Christmas songs fill our land. This made me wonder - how theologically accurate are they? The traditional Christian ones, I mean, not the ones praising the large man with rosacea whose animal and little person exploitation is overlooked by PETA and the ACLU.
Before you say “Who cares?” understand that Christmas songs teach us just as our regular worship songs teach us. Song is a powerful medium because lyrics are repeated over and over and get stuck in your head.
Plus, they communicate the news about Jesus to many non-believers, so the church must be careful about which ones it promotes.
First off, I tried to give these songs the benefit of the doubt. A virgin giving birth to a full size child with oxen and donkeys watching probably wouldn’t be as silent as “Silent Night” suggests, but it gets a pass. The lyrics are setting a tranquil mood. We get it. I am not teaming up with the Grinch to go on a Christmas carol witch-hunt.
But here are what I found to be the most theologically misleading Christmas carols. As I go through this list I will address the songs directly, out of respect.
Honorable Mention: Away In A Manger
You, song, almost made the top three because of this verse:
The cattle are lowingThe poor baby wakesBut little Lord JesusNo crying he makes
Like Silent Night, you could just be setting a peaceful mood. Or, you could be downplaying Jesus’ humanity, as if he was so holy that he didn’t even cry as a baby. Which is it, song? A baby is not sinning if it is crying since it is a God-ordained means of communication. Jesus even wept as an adult (John 11:35). So, on a bell curve of “Jewish baby tears” Jesus would have probably landed right in the middle.
Why is this important, you ask? Heb. 2:17 says that Jesus had to be made like his brothers in “every respect,” so that he might become our merciful and faithful high priest. He became like us to save us. Therefore, we can’t downplay his humanity, even with something as harmless as making it seem like he didn’t cry as a baby.
3. Do You Hear What I Hear?
Song, you have a melody that tickles ears. You do. And you creatively tell a story. Jesus is born (although you don’t use his name), and a primitive game of telephone is played. A night wind tells a lamb, who tells a shepherd boy, who tells the king, who tells the people everywhere this:
Listen to what I sayPray for peace people everywhereListen to what I sayThe child, the childSleeping in the nightHe will bring us goodness and lightHe will bring us goodness and light
But do you hear what I hear? Song, you have a major problem. When Herod was informed about Jesus, he didn’t say “He will bring us goodness and light”; He said “KILL THE BABIES!” and Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to escape his infanticidal fury (Matthew 2:13-16).
Yes song, I know you are using imagery to tell the story of the message of Jesus being proclaimed everywhere. I know that night winds and lambs don’t speak, and that shepherd boys don’t have access to the most powerful person in the land. But the historical event you are describing gets skewed by your creativity. I’m not urging you and your song friends to read like legal treatises, I’m just asking that you stay within the boundaries of truth.
Why does this matter, you ask? Song, Jesus does bring us goodness and light, but most people denied this during his life on earth (1 Peter 2:4-7). He was executed for claiming to be the light of the world. It is good for us to “pray for peace everywhere,” as you say, but Jesus gave us some harsh realities about this. He does leave us peace within our souls now (John 14:27), but he says that he came to the earth not to bring peace (Matt. 10:34-36).
This means that his gospel is so powerful that it will separate his disciples from the rest of the world, which can even mean that families will be torn apart. Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted by the world until the day he returns. Then there will be peace, and every king will bow to him, and there will be nothing but goodness and light.
2. We Three Kings
Song, you have been consistently beaten up by critics because the “three kings” were not actually kings, the Bible doesn’t say there were three of them, and they most likely weren’t even coming from the Orient. Despite the fact that these details make up a huge chunk of your lyrics, this isn't why you're #2.
Your chorus is your dark side. You know what I’m talking about? Let me jog your memory:
O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
Now, song, I know what you are about to argue. Yes, Matt. 2:10 says “when they saw the star, they were overjoyed,” and they worshiped Jesus when they got there, so “Guide us to thy perfect light” is referring to Him.
Is it, though?
Why do you say “Guide us to thy [your] perfect light,” as if the star possesses the perfect light, instead of “Guide us to the perfect light?” which would be Jesus.
Am I the Joseph McCarthy of Christmas music? Probably. But are you promoting the worship of God through his creation, or are you worshiping creation itself? (Rom. 1:25) The star does not possess the perfect light - King Jesus does - just as the cross is not divine but the man who hung on it is. (Fun fact: The Magi were most likely Zoroastians, who were astrologers and would worship light. Because of this you are more historically accurate than you probably intended to be - the three magi actually would have worshiped the star).
If the “star of wonder” stuff were just a verse, you might have gotten a pass. But because it’s in your chorus, which is sung repeatedly, when people are done singing you they are probably thinking about stars, not king baby Jesus. Herein lies your deception. And for that you are on this list.
1. It Came Upon The Midnight Clear
You are the undisputed #1 theologically misleading song. I didn’t know you before I began this study on Christmas music, but I do now. You are the Diet Coke of Christmas carols - bad taste, zero substance.
Plenty of Christian artists have covered you, and you have generated a decent amount of controversy. Read this small sample of yourself:
And man, at war with man, hears notThe love-song which they bring;O hush the noise, ye men of strife,And hear the angels sing.
Your main message, song, is for peace on earth and the end of war, but you mention nothing about Jesus anywhere. You even say that we can all just get along and that heaven will be on earth - just like “the prophets” said! No, song. No. They did not prophesy this. You are the social gospel in poetic form. You are the Christmas version of John Lennon’s Imagine. We Christians are fortunate that you’re not that popular.
Song, let me be straight with you. People are evil (Rom. 3:10-12). The only hope we have is that the righteousness of Christ will save us. Humanity cannot save itself on its own. Jesus is the blessed and only sovereign, the king of kings and the Lord of Lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and will return to end all war and pain and bring peace to the earth.
Pa rum pum pum pum.