We recently held a Lunar New Year party after one of our worship services on a Saturday night. The Lunar New Year is a big deal in Asian cultures and our context is highly Asian — which I love. Someone sent a message that we should not celebrate Lunar New Year because the celebration’s origins are pagan in nature, attaching a link to a history.com article detailing how gods and ancestors are worshipped on the day. It is important to note that history.com also states New Year’s Celebrations began as worship of the god Janus, New Year goal-setting began as a way for ancient Babylonians to please the gods, and the origin of Christmas trees were homage a sun god. To be consistent one would need to be against all those things.
What are Christians to do with practices, symbols, parties, and customs we find in a culture?
Here are three options when it comes to how we treat and respond to something in the culture.
- Enjoy it as common grace from God.
- Expel it because it threatens to pull us from growing in God’s grace.
- Engage and exchange the original meaning with a new and deeper meaning as a way to enjoy grace and share grace with others.
I believe we should “engage and exchange” inasmuch as our conscience allows. For my family, New Years is a day to remind ourselves that God’s mercies are new. And to set some plans for how we will know Him more in a new year. We never talk of Janus or the Babylonians. A Christmas tree in our home reminds us that Jesus is the best Gift and because of Him we can enjoy giving gifts to one another. We don’t expel “Happy New Year” or “Christmas trees” from our lives. But we also don’t only enjoy them in their original meaning (and am sure it is debatable what their original meaning was). We give them new and deeper meanings which helps us enjoy them, and His grace, even more
Halloween is another place where we have chosen to “engage and exchange.” Sure, there are some costumes we won’t wear but we aren’t celebrating the Enemy when we dress up as characters from Toy Story. We are engaging with one of the times our neighbors knock on our door, people spend time in the streets, etc. Shutting the lights out in our home and not being generous with the best candy we can find would be missing an opportunity to be hospitable and gracious. Hospitality and generosity are very Christian. And I also love what Jared Wilson said in this article: “Being Christian doesn’t mean sucking the joy out of the experience of common graces like toys and candy.”
Just as with Christmas trees, Easter eggs (history.com says they have pagan roots too), and neighbors coming to our door for candy, we did not spend time deconstructing the origins of Lunar New Year. Many of my Asian friends grew up celebrating Lunar New Year, and never associated the celebration with worshipping gods – just as I never associated “Happy New Year” with Babylonian gods. Instead, we remind ourselves that God created the different ethnicities and cultures and we can enjoy one another. Our parties can be even more joyful than the world’s parties because of Jesus. Instead of expelling a cultural party from our lives, we can engage it with deeper meaning and also enjoy time together.
Back to the enjoy, expel, or engage/exchange framework. Here is how I think about each bucket:
1. Enjoy: Some things in the culture can be enjoyed as common grace from God.
I enjoy mountain biking and the views of God’s creation up on the mountain. I enjoy playing basketball and the conversations with friends between games. I enjoy many of the restaurants that God’s crowing work of creation, people, have started. They serve cuisine that the tastebuds God has given me can enjoy. We can enjoy these more than those who do not know God because we know God is the One who has given them to us, and as we are grateful our joy increases.
2. Expel: Some things in the culture should be expelled as they undermine the gospel.
The Scripture is clear that friendship with this world is declare oneself an enemy of God (James 4:4, 1 John 2:15-17). Surely this is about our relationship with the thinking of the world and not the people of the world as we are commanded to live honorably among people (I Peter 2:12). I want to expel moralism, universalism, materialism, racism, and expressive individualism from my thinking as they can pull my thoughts from Jesus. We should be way more eager to expel thinking from our lives that pulls us from Christ than expelling people from our lives who we should be pulling towards Christ.
3. Engage/Exchange: Some things in the culture can be engaged and exchanged for a deeper meaning.
I place most cultural events in this bucket because the cultural events provide opportunities to be present with people, express hospitality, and show a deeper meaning for life. Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners because he went to parties. I am so thankful Jesus is a friend of sinners because if He is not then there is no hope for me. Paul was comfortable eating meat sacrificed to idols because they were not real anyway and the meat is from God (I Corinthians 8:4-6).
Paul wrote “to the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). A Christmas tree, an egg, a date on the calendar, and even food formerly offered to idols can be pure.