Kirk Cameron starred in the sitcom "Growing Pains" in the 1980s, and last year he released the film Unstoppable about questions about faith.
If living rooms could scream
At the beginning of the movie, Kirk is sitting in front of a classic living room screaming CHRISTMAS!, complete with a tinsel-bombed tree and a roaring fire with stockings and wrapped gifts. At this time of year, he explains, people "want to be more generous. Donations go up all around the world!" (It seems he had to specify that it is a global phenomenon so that American viewers would not suspect that year-end donations are influenced by IRS tax deadlines.) Also, he says, the Christmas story is very special. Theologically, it means that "something big happened, and because of it, everything is going to be OK. And I love hot chocolate."
It is bothersome to him that some grinches – "wet blankets," to use his term – try to dampen Christmas. He is vague about who these grinches are. They are people who say that Christmas celebration is "all bad" and should be "thrown out," or, more mildly, who simply consider it "private stuff" and "don't want us to love Christmas so much and celebrate it the way we do." What will they try to pull next, he wonders; will they claim that "Druids invented hot chocolate?" Fear not. He coins a whatever-this-means motto: "Maybe someone like Santa Claus is actually on the team."
The film that follows – presented in partnership with Liberty University, a Christian institution – is not a direct indictment of secular, atheist, Jewish or multicultural opinions on public Christian religious displays. That is to say, it's not a battle cry in response to the alleged War on Christmas (although the term "War on Christmas" is uttered once in the movie). It is a little more subtle. In this film, Kirk's fictional brother-in-law, conveniently named Christian, is a serious Christian in distress after being exposed to some "War on Christmas" ideas on Wikipedia and possibly other unnamed sources. He has heard that Christmas trees are imitations of trees that pagans once used to worship "the gods." When challenged by Kirk, he cannot name these gods (suggesting a mashup of the Norse "Thor" and the Egyptian "Osiris" – what, no Attis?), but his ignorance is irrelevant because what he does understand, limited though it may be, is already ruining his day. He has a flat, depressive affect and is nearly non-responsive to the people around him. He looks at the large, deliriously happy Christmas party that his wife has put together in their beautiful home and he sees nothing but "phony smiles and spoiled, bratty kids," "perverted symbols with hidden meanings," "needless spending," and "materialism, paganism, elf worship," all of which is "a big slap in the face to the true meaning of Christmas" and "cannot be what God wants." To bolster his own self-righteousness and get away from the terrible tinsel, he hides in the car in his own driveway. This is where Kirk Cameron spends the rest of the movie, ministering to him. Kirk begins with, "You're all wrong...You drank the Kool-Aid."
Christian challenges Kirk: "Explain to me how that Christmas party honors and glorifies Jesus." Kirk begins by describing a time when Herod's soldiers were killing babies. At the nativity scene, where Joseph is "surely amazed at what just happened" (no kidding – that's one way of putting it), the swaddling cloth and spices brought to the infant Jesus presage his eventual burial. Christian declares, "That stuff blows my mind!" and is now in favor of nativity scenes.
Similarly, Kirk endorses the winter solstice as a good time to mark Jesus' birth, since it's a time when the world turns from darkness to light. He endorses Christmas trees because, according to his Biblical interpretation, they recall how the first man Adam sinned by eating the forbidden fruit and couldn't return it to the tree because it was already inside his body, and much later, Jesus consented to have his body hung from the "tree" of the cross. "When you walk onto a Christmas tree lot," he counsels, "I want you to see hundreds of crosses that will never be used because of Jesus's finished work." Eh... This symbolism is a hard sell, since non-Christians martyred many early Christians on crosses and, subsequently, Christians launched inquisitions and burned non-Christians at the stake. Whatever Kirk may have meant us to understand, the crucifixion of Jesus was not the last human execution.
What about Santa Claus? This is the clincher. He's based on a real-life Nicholas who defended the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea by whacking a fellow Christian in the face to make his point heard. The act is dramatized in all its violence in the "Saving Christmas" film. Was it good for Nicholas to do this? It was bad-ass awesome. "These were difficult and desperate times. Truth was on the line, and it was not the time for this pastor to stay quiet," Kirk apologizes, nor was it the time for him to be "politically correct." In case his brother-in-law has missed the point, Kirk explains that Santa Claus "is actually the defender of the faith you want to be!" Santa represents someone who isn't afraid to whack someone in the face with a stick for disagreeing with him about Jesus. That is super cool. Christian agrees, and is able to rejoin the party with true joy. Quite fine that the party is full of food, gifts and decorations, since, Kirk editorializes, the holiday celebrates God taking on a material body. It is great to celebrate. We only need "to rearrange our lives and our homes so that every single thing points to Jesus."
No characters in the film are presented as anything other than believing Christians and Americans; nowhere in the film is the existence of non-Christians anywhere in the world even acknowledged; no one discusses conversion experience, apologetics, or theological differences; and nothing addresses how people of different backgrounds and belief systems relate to each other about Christmas. On the surface, the film is only about how holier-than-thou Christians who don't like hot cocoa ought to stop being pills and enjoy their own holiday, especially if they don't even have good theological arguments beyond "this smells like idolatry" for why they should be boring jerks while their long-suffering spouses are frantically providing hospitality and relationship-management to many guests in the living room. The arguments and historical claims from the "pagan" or secular side are not presented coherently, to say the least, nor are they directly refuted; they are merely replaced with Kirk Cameron's preferred symbolic interpretations. That's OK, because hot cocoa.
In short, the film is mostly innocuous, at least on the surface. It seems to be about cheering up joyless people and encouraging them to take interest in the holidays that belong to the faith they already believe in. Perhaps a deficient ability to enjoy festivities is a problem among the more zealous students on Liberty University's campus. (Niche.com ranks Liberty University's party scene a C-minus, with one junior commenting: "It's against school rules to go to parties.") In that case, this movie may strengthen the voices of the choir and perk up its allegria.
What is bothersome, however, is the film's failure to locate the potential cause of such misery inside the miserable people themselves. The sad brother-in-law may be suffering from his own misdirected zeal, a personal problem, or a chemical imbalance. The film assumes that he has been made to be sad because some anonymous person out there is spreading "pagan" and "politically correct" messages that render worthy Christians confused about the merits of their own holiday parties. A yet more bothersome implication of the film is that Saint Nick needs to hunt down and bitch-slap that PC pagan with a birchwood cane (need we show you that violent scene again, in case you missed it the first time? Remember, truth was on the line) and then all the kids can get their photos taken with Santa, their hero.
The film is not a toxic cultural irritant on the level of Bill O'Reilly's relentless "War on Christmas" rants. It is mildly concerning that Kirk Cameron and Liberty University perceive this film to meet some social need, but in their goofy, rambling, light-handed approach, their cocoa is not hot enough to scald. Mainly, all this film will cause the infidel viewer to worry about is Kirk Cameron.
Image of elf ornament from Wikimedia Commons. Taken by Jelene Morris. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.