Dear Christian Radio,
I don’t listen to you often, but when I do I must admit I don’t always not like what I hear. I mean there are times when I’m looking to just fill my aural space with the safety and ease of knowing what I’m going to get. I dial when I’m looking for what, by your own admission, you are offering: something positive, something encouraging. And even though I’m apt to criticize you for your unspoken “Jesus quota” in your songs, perhaps that’s exactly what I’m looking for when I hit that last preset to the right, tired of quarrelsome talk radio, exhausted by sports hot takes, burdened and overwhelmed by the BBC World Report’s most recent litany of disturbing world news.
This makes it all the more distressing to me that most recently I tuned in to hear a pretty awful rendition of “Jingle Bells.” Aside from truly not liking that song, I had to pause and wonder, aside from the Christian Contemporary Musician (CCM) covering this well-known holiday hit, what in the actual content of the song made it appropriate for “Christian” Radio airplay? No mention of the coming Messiah. Not even any of the usual carol tropes of mangers, angels, shepherds, and wise men. Just bells on bobtails ringing, making spirits bright, perhaps something like a 19th century version of “good vibes.”
While I think you should reconsider your programing choice here, really I think you’re on to something playing this music, even if it breaks your normal modus operandi. I have a modest proposal which hearing Jingle Bells rang for me: Consider the Christian Calendar.
You’re not wrong to intuit the importance of seasons. The way time is marked is important. No offense, but typically I don’t like to use the word “Christian” as an adjective. It seems to work so much better as a noun. But I’d love to introduce you to my favorite use as an adjective: to describe the calendar year.
We all follow a handful of different calendars without even thinking about it. Our lives are scheduled around when the semester starts and ends, when the post office is closed, when it is and isn’t kosher to wear white, when the new iPhone comes out, even when ___insert favorite NFL team here___ plays. Each has a story. Each enlists us. Each in some small way crafts our personal and communal definitions of what a full and flourishing life looks and feels like.
Professor Lauren Winner puts it this way:
I want the Christian story to shape everything I do, even how I reckon time. I want it to be truer and more essential to me than school’s calendar, or Hallmark’s calendar, or the calendar set by the IRS. I want the rhythms of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost to be more basic to my life than the days on which my quarterly estimated taxes are due.
So playing a frivolous party tune like “Jingle Bells” reveals something. It communicates that this runway up until Christmas is a time for unabated merriment. But that’s not the world we live in. That’s escaping from the world we live in. Which is subtly but vastly missing the entire good news of the Incarnation. That God might enter into this world. Light might arrive into Darkness, even as just a little flagging flicker. That Jesus wasn’t born into ideal circumstances but into a genocide as a refugee.
But I’m thankful for you, Christian Radio. Because I am you. You remind me that I’d much rather have a disembodied “positive & encouraging” now than the grueling exercise of marching through a season of not yet. I’d much prefer assuming that I get to shift and modify my calendar, trying to squeeze in opportunities to celebrate and squeeze out chances to watch and wait. You allow me to consider how inhospitable this life I’ve built is and repent for just how unlikely it is that I would have been in on the “Open Secret” of Christ’s advent.
I’m thankful for you, Christian Radio, because you show me the ways I privilege the fun parts of the Christian experience while short-shrifting the more difficult or more costly. How I love the idea of a manger, God’s gift of pure grace, while, like Peter leaving behind the cost of the cross. How I’d rather skip straight to the revelry of the feast, without ever feeling the vulnerability and dependence of the fast.
I’m thankful for you, Christian Radio. Because you hold a mirror up to me, showing what it looks like to have playlists curated squarely around things I currently feel or want to feel. You reveal how culturally insulated I am: I get news from sources that I trust. I screen out comments that challenge or frustrate me. I wouldn’t dare debase myself with that kitschy art (unless its just enough ironic detachment). You make me consider how emotionally isolated I chose to be. How addicted I’ve become to the exact affective world of my headphones. No need to mourn with those who mourn or rejoice with those who rejoice, just what I want and when I want it.
And I’m also thankful for you, Christian Calendar. Not because you’re the failsafe. Heaven knows there are plenty of Christians who follow you for some pretty un-graceful reasons. But because you create space for me. For me to be formed in hope, peace, joy, and love. For me to sing songs even when I don’t feel them or want to, because at some point I will to draw from the well that the Spirit has dug in those times. Because you make me worship a God who I didn’t create, but who created me, along with time and space. Who operates with story and history. Who called a People whose prophets imagined a Savior (Annunciation, Lent), and who entered into the plot to re-form a People around His Son (Christmastide, Epiphany). Who taught some things that really hurt our modern ears. Who showed us how to be Human Beings. Who bore the pain and loneliness of being victimized by the ones he came to save, crushed by sin and death (Lent). But raised by God’s Spirit (Easter), that same Spirit that breathes new life into cold hearts, the same Spirit that empowers the church to join with God for renewal (Pentecost).
Saint Augustine of Hippo is often quoted to have said, “He (or she) who sings, prays twice.” This makes sense to me. Prayers deserve rhythm and melody, bluesy minor chords and triumphant, joyful major chords, solos and harmonies.
I just hope these songs, these twice-prayed supplications are powerful enough to form me in this wonderful Story of the Living God.