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FIRST-PERSON: These shoes don’t fit

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (BP)–If I hadn’t already sensed a calling from music ministry to pastoral ministry, I’d begin to wonder if now was the time to forsake church music as I know it. If all the Christian publishers’ Christmas music offerings are similar to the one I’ve seen so far, we’re in trouble this year. I’ve been leading church music programs for more than 17 years, and the material with which we have to work doesn’t seem to be getting better.

I opened a sampler package recently and began perusing “The Christmas Shoes,” created by Donna VanLiere and Eddie Carswell. This is “a dramatic musical for Christmas … inspired by the #1 Hit Single from NewSong.” (Benson Music Publications, catalog no. 45757-0573-7, arr. J. Daniel Smith (c)2002) This is a fully staged production, the preparation of which will greatly tax the resources of most churches’ music and drama ministries.

The more I read and listened, the more incredulity and discouragement swept over me. I could have easily dismissed this musical without a thought had it come from a secular company selling to public schools and community theaters. But this is from a major Christian publisher selling mostly to evangelical churches. The book’s back cover reads, “These magnificent arrangements … make the musical THE CHRISTMAS SHOES a must for your church production this season.”

My first exposure to this sappy, syrupy sentimental sludge was through an e-mail circulated ad naseum a few Christmases ago. The story involves a young, unkempt boy wanting to purchase a pair of pretty but modestly priced shoes for his terminally ill mother. He knows his mama will die soon, and he wants her to wear these shoes to meet Jesus in heaven.

Alas, the boy is short on funds and cannot buy the shoes. A bystander who had earlier been irritated by the boy’s rambunctious behavior is now moved to tears and gladly provides the monetary shortfall. The grateful boy is home in time to deliver his gift of love to his dying mother. The selfish man turned benefactor discovers the joy of giving, the true meaning of Christmas.

Never mind that Christmas isn’t defined by what we give each other but what God gave us. Never mind that suffering in this life doesn’t necessarily mean joy in the next. Forget for a moment that clothes on a corpse don’t go to heaven with one’s spirit. And most of all, let’s be sure to abandon any notion that absolute truth is absolutely independent of our emotional response to it!

Have we really so reduced the awe and wonder of the incarnation to the point we can only understand it in terms of how it makes us feel? “The Word became flesh and it felt oh, so very good.”

Back to the musical. Am I saying this musical is totally without merit? No, it has a few good points. The man giving the money also realizes that his family is a gift that he has been taking for granted. This family’s bonding provides the happy ending, how sweet. The good news about Jesus is tucked away in there, too. If one carefully listens to all the lines and lyrics, they may walk away knowing that the Creator demoted Himself to humanity to buy us back from the evil one.

Like some ill-fitting shoes, though, this gospel is too small. It says nothing about sin and the terrible price that Jesus paid to correct its damage. Bethlehem is referenced but Calvary isn’t.

As the musical winds down, the new widower sings “‘Cause even though I’ve never seen Him, He lives inside my heart I know. He’s the miracle that came to us two thousand years ago.” We’re told that Jesus is in his heart, but not how He got there. Incidentally, the concept of Jesus living in our heart is found nowhere in Scripture.

Even if, for the sake of discussion, we can say the gospel is presented here, is it presented in a way that it can’t be missed or ignored? Unfortunately not. Again, the gospel is an afterthought, not a central one. Even though the gospel can be distilled through the piece, it certainly isn’t enhanced by “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the Dr. Seuss classic. No, I’m not kidding. The entire song is really in there, right down to “I wouldn’t touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole. Oh no!”

One can well imagine people responding to and gauging this musical only in emotional terms. “It was wonderful” they may exclaim, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the place!”

So what’s wrong with sentiment at Christmas? In itself, I suppose nothing. But unrestrained sentiment for its own sake is already inescapable in December, what with the songs, movies, advertisements, parties, decorations, plays and TV specials. Do we really need to add a few more drops to this overflowing ocean?

When our churches invest dollars, time and toil producing little more than budget Broadway, we betray our mission. Whatever we produce should transmit the timeless and complete gospel in clear, unmistakable terms without an overabundance of sentiment. What the world hears from us must be something they will not hear from each other.

So if I’m held hostage in an audience watching “The Christmas Shoes” this December, I’ll probably have a good cry with them. But we will be crying for different reasons.
John Boquist is the minister of music at Calvary Baptist Church, Newport News, Va. He is also a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.

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