Have you ever noticed how American Pop Culture never ceases to produce something new? When I was young, Americans enriched the rest of the world with the glories of T.G.I.F., Vanilla Ice, the Real World, and Saved By the Bell. And in the recent past we've exported gems like Call Me Maybe, Reality Television, Real Housewives of Atlanta, and What Does the Fox Say? And let's be honest, that list could go on and on and on. Social media has made earning our 15 minutes of fame as easy as posting a video to YouTube. Culture-at-large is masterful at pumping out the latest fad and the newest gimmick.
Which is why I'm amused that Americans have been singing the same Christmas songs for decades. In fact, almost all of our most beloved Christmas carols were written in the 18th or 19th centuries. In a culture that overvalues what's next and undervalues almost everything that's old, it's surprising that the Christmas songs we know and love are the same songs that our great-great-grandparents knew and loved.
But as is the case with anything that's been around for a while, Christmas songs are easy to sing without ever thinking about the words. The lines of what we categorize as "traditional Christmas carols" are actually filled with deep theological truths. So every year at Christmas unsuspecting Americans everywhere suddenly become Accidental Theologians.
Consider these few lines from the 1st verse of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" (written by Charles Wesley in 1739):
"Hark, the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
So when families sing carols around the tree, who knew that Uncle Fred, who hasn't been to church since Easter, had such strong opinions about Jesus' Kingship? Or that Aunt Susie, who claims to be a Buddhist Catholic, had formed such deep thoughts on the nature of humanity and how true peace can only come from being reconciled to God?
Wesley continues in the 2nd Verse:
"Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel"
And we thought celebrities were just using old Christmas carols as an excuse to sell another album. All this time they were simply making counter-cultural statements about the miracle of the virgin birth. And if we can't count on the likes of Mariah Carey, Boz II Men, and N'Sync to teach us about the mysterious dual nature of the God-Man Christ Jesus, then really, who can we count on?
Accidental Theologians indeed.
Of course it's easy to poke fun at pop culture mindlessly singing theological truths, but I believe many Christians are guilty of something similar. Recognizing an Accidental Theologian is simple. But remembering that there is no such thing as an Accidental Worshiper could be a little more intrusive for most of us. Because whether we're singing the words of a carol from the 18th century or a few lines right from the pages of Scripture, if our hearts aren't engaged with the words coming out of our mouths and we aren't singing as a response to the nature and character of God, then it isn't worship at all. It's just a really old song.
Culture may accidentally stumble across theological truth from time to time, but no one accidentally stumbles across authentic worship. A disciple of Jesus can only worship to the degree that their heart is in love and engaged with the One that they're worshiping. Worship is a real response to a real God we really love.
So as we celebrate Advent as a church community or if your family is celebrating together throughout this month, be aware of the times your heart is disconnected from the words you're singing. Don't just settle for another year of Christmas carols for tradition's sake. Rather, let's sing those songs as a response to our great God and Savior for all that He is and for all that He's done. Let's teach our children the words of our favorite carol, but let's also teach them about the God who is worthy of the songs that our great-great-grandparents sang.
And as we sing, let's drink deeply from the well of God's goodness and mercy and allow this Advent season to give us the courage to fight to keep our hearts alive in the midst of American materialistic marketing madness. Let's go to great lengths to avoid being Accidental Worshipers for fear of creating the next generation of Accidental Theologians.