Nobody puts baby Jesus in a corner.
by Deborah Whitehead
Former child star, actor and producer Kirk Cameron’s story is by now familiar to many: he rose to fame as a teenager on the television series Growing Pains in the late 1980s/early 1990s, underwent a dramatic conversation to evangelical Christianity at the age of 17, and left Hollywood for several years, only to return to work in the Christian movie industry in the 2000s with films like the Left Behind trilogy (the original, not the inexplicable 2014 Nic Cage remake), Fireproof, and a handful of other limited distribution films and documentaries that reinforce the values of “advancing our faith, building our families, and restoring our nation” which are featured prominently on his personal website. Cameron is also known for his work with Australian evangelist Ray Comfort on The Way of the Master television show and the 2007 Nightline atheist debate. For Cameron and many evangelical Christians who share his views, there is a deep divide between Christ and culture, yet the solution is not retreat but rather confrontation and challenge, an ongoing struggle in which popular media — television, films, websites, and social media — can be crucial allies.
His latest project takes on criticisms of Christmas by secularists, neopagans, atheists, and, surprisingly to those who may be unfamiliar with the deep divides within the evangelical community, fellow Christians. Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (with the tagline “Put Christ back in Christmas”) opened in limited release on November 14 for a two week run, just in time for the holidays. The 80 minute film is described on its Facebook page as “an engaging story that provides a biblical basis for our time-honored traditions and celebrations, and the inspiration to stand strongly against a culture that wants to trivialize and eliminate the faith elements of this holy season!” The two most important elements in this description are “biblically-based story” and “inspiration to stand strongly.” Put simply, Cameron wants Christians to stop believing the hype that Christmas is actually a pagan holiday, an embrace of secular materialism, and a commercialistic bingefest that doesn’t honor Christ. His intended audience for this film is fellow Christians who have bought into all of these critiques: those who each year faithfully set up a tiny nativity set in their living rooms next to the giant Christmas tree and worry that something is very wrong with their spatial and festive priorities; those who are concerned about the possibility that they are actually celebrating an ancient pagan winter solstice ritual rather than the birth of Christ; those who suspect there may be something deeply sinister in the fact that you can rearrange the letters in “Santa” to spell “Satan.” For several decades now there have been resources devoted to helping Christians deal with these anxieties: for example, these widely reprinted suggestions, drawn from a 1954 pamphlet entitled “Our Christian Home” by Rev. Joseph Fischer, include observing Advent with your children, going to church more frequently during the holidays, displaying “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” bumper stickers on your car, asking local businesses to put up nativity displays, stubbornly insisting on sending only religiously-themed Christmas cards (rather than the more inclusive “Season’s Greetings” ones), baking a birthday cake for Baby Jesus and serving it as the centerpiece of your Christmas dinner, and making “the crib, not the tree, the center of attraction in your home, club, or place of business.” Today, Christian anxieties over Christmas are even more heightened in a context in which nativity scenes must share space at state capitol buildings with Festivus poles, Flying Spaghetti Monster displays, and Church of Satan dioramas; and in which every year Bill O’Reilly laments the creeping contagion of “Happy Holidays Syndrome” and all the “bullies” who set out to declare “War on Christmas” because they must not feel good about their own beliefs. (Side note: although O’Reilly declared last week on Late Night with Seth Myers that after fighting the good fight for ten years, the war on Christmas “is over [and] we won,” Fox News apparently didn’t get the memo, running an abbreviated and alarmist version of a Washington Post feature entitled “Yes, Virginia, There Is a ‘War on Christmas'” the very same day, about the American Atheists sponsoring alternative programming “free from superstition and fairy tales” on Dec. 24-25 on its AtheistTV channel.)
Saving Christmas opens with Cameron seated in a red leather chair in front of a Christmas tree and a fireplace festooned with stockings, drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate, and declaring, “I love Christmas!” Cameron says that “we’ve” (meaning, I think, fellow Gen X-ers with families) been listening to the wrong stories about Christmas, from those who don’t want us to love it so much, and that we need new ones. The film is, to quote Cameron, “about a guy named Christian White who represents the typical white Christian male and he’s got a bad case of religious bah humbugs.” It is a sort of parable, if you will, about a well-meaning yet misguided white middle-aged husband and father who decides to sit out his wife’s annual Christmas party in his truck in the driveway because he’s sick of all the Christmas hype. He’s sick of the expense, the over-the-top decorations, the Costco-sized buffets, the giant tree, Santa, the presents, everything. Cameron, playing Christian’s brother-in-law, finds him and they have a long talk in the truck, which is, perhaps fittingly, the setting for most of the film, considering that Christian complains that “Santa carjacked our religion.” But the film pokes fun at such ideas, via clueless Christian, who repeats “the most commonly parroted myths about the origins of Christmas,” which Cameron’s character proceeds to dismantle one by one. Come on, he says to Christian, you really think Christmas is a Druid holiday? What do you actually know about the Druids? Can you name any of their gods? (“Uh, Theseosiris,” Christian mumbles.) You don’t think Jesus was born in December? Then when was he “really” born? Christian can’t answer any of these questions. But “there is a War on Christmas! I saw it on Fox News so you know it’s true!,” Christian insists. Cameron just shakes his head, smiles, and patiently explains the real meaning of it all, thus saving Christmas, theologically and decoratively. For Cameron, Christians don’t have to work so hard to put Christ back into Christmas; he’s been there all along. Instead, they need to understand the true meaning of the celebrations: the smiling toy soldiers represent Herod’s soldiers who came to kill the baby Jesus; the Christmas tree signifies both the Garden of Eden (“the original tree lot”) and the cross; Santa, in a dramatic historical reenactment set at a tavern deep in the woods and involving conspiratorial “ousia” whispers, a table-clearing brawl, and a red-ribboned shepherd’s staff used as a weapon, is actually the heroic bishop St. Nicholas who according to legend may or may not have slapped the heretic Arias for denying the consubstantiality of the Father and Son at the Council of Nicaea. After the tavern beatdown, Nicholas subsequently sets out in a sleigh with a wide grin and a jolly laugh, apparently to deliver presents to children. “Santa is The Man!” exclaims Christian, after hearing this. Now he sees everything in a new light; “I’m gonna be the guy who saves Christmas!” he says. (It’s always a guy who saves Christmas.) There’s a dramatic re-entrance to the party, a long-simmering marital conflict put to rest, smiles and happy kids all around, and a hip-hop dance party rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High” to close things out.
The movie has been panned by critics for a variety of reasons, from its low production values to its sermonic quality. “Coerced merriment,” sniffs the New York Times’ Ben Kenigsburg. The aggregate site Metacritic registers a score of 18, “overwhelming dislike”; Rotten Tomatoes gives it a critics score of 0. It’s currently ranked the worst movie of all time on IMDB, displacing even “The Room” from its spot at the bottom of the list (“It is ‘The Room’ of Christmas movies,” says critic Christy Lemire. “Actually, ‘The Room’ is more enjoyable. But you get the idea.”). In a December 6 blog post, Cameron attributed his film’s low ratings to an “unprecedented” campaign by “militant atheists,” apparently started on a Reddit thread, to deliberately lower the film’s internet rankings on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. On his Facebook page he pleaded with fans to “storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes” with good ratings to counter the bad ones, and subsequently rejoiced that “the gates of Rotten Tomatoes are falling!” when the approval rating shot up, briefly, to 94% (the audience rating subsequently dropped to 32%). But the battle wasn’t over: “Now the haters and atheists are coming out of the woodwork, attempting to hammer your good work (they rallied to drop your rating super low),” he posted on November 21. “They are attempting, once again, to ruin Saving Christmas for everyone. Look at their language, vulgarity, and spirit of hate. They can try to ruin a rating, but they can’t stop you from going with family and friends to see Saving Christmas this weekend! If people continue to turn out, the theaters will hold the movie longer. YOU have the power, just like with Rotten Tomatoes, to keep Saving Christmas in the theaters.” The Washington Post picked up the story from there, running a feature on December 8 with the headline “Kirk Cameron says ‘Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas’ is the target of an atheist conspiracy.” But, drawing inspiration from both the bible and P.T. Barnum, Cameron concluded that there was a silver lining to the bad press: “with all the publicity that atheists have generated denouncing the film,” he posted that same week, its original two week run was extended and the film was held over and expanded to more cities, culminating in a special nationwide showing on December 15.
For Cameron, the haters, atheists, secularists, pagans and the “religious bah-humbug” Christians have out-grinched the Grinch by stealing Christmas, not once but twice: first by insisting that there’s no “Christ” in our current “Christmas” celebrations, either by origins or by omission (a point on which each of these groups, despite their diverse perspectives, agree), and second, by waging a social media campaign against this film. In an interview with the Christian Post, when asked why he made the film, Cameron reiterated his love for the holiday: “I’m a sucker for all of it, and of course the nativity, and there’s a lot of people who really want to put a big wet blanket on the celebration. It starts this time of year. You have people who want to pull down nativity scenes, you have lawsuits showing up in schools that can’t have Christmas performances … it has to be winter break or holiday break or sparkle season … they want to take that out of Christmas so they don’t offend people who hate Christmas. And then we have a new group who are telling us, convincingly, that Christmas is actually a celebration of paganism.” So for Cameron, against all of the “haters,” this film is about ownership of Christmas traditions, and more specifically about the power of narrative authority. Like the eponymous character in the film, most “Christians” aren’t savvy enough to challenge competing narrative claims on the holiday season; they can’t answer the criticisms, they give too much away. “We don’t know this stuff, we kinda drink the Kool-Aid and believe pagans when they tell us they have ownership of these things,” Cameron says. While many will not find his creative theological interpretations of Nutcrackers, trees, and Santa convincing, some may; and as a child of Hollywood, Cameron understands well the power of the Christmas movie as a reliable, albeit cliched, narrative convention that calls us to embrace what is best and what is resilient in the human spirit, whatever we might attribute it to, starkly embodied against the winter landscape. From “Miracle on 34th Street” to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to claymation “Rudolph,” to “The Christmas Story” and even “The Grinch,” these films are embedded in the American popular cultural imagination. And it is here, on narrative ground, where Cameron wants to fight the War on Christmas, crafting a new, inspiring story to counter the negative ones. “Stories are tricky,” the film’s voiceovers at beginning and end intone. “Stories shape us, teach us how to live.” But over time, stories get old, they no longer have meaning. So “we need to tell our children new stories, infuse old traditions with new meaning. This is our story.” Feast, give and receive gifts, throw your arms around your Christmas tree, the film tells us: the story is powerful enough to save you from all of the hype and the haters; the story, ultimately, is what matters.