My wife and I went looking at Christmas lights last Christmas. We saw the usual carolers, snowmen, nutcrackers, reindeers, sleighs and so forth. At one particular house, we saw two things I'll never forget.
What message are we sending the world, Owen asks, when we advertise Santa's picture next to baby Jesus?
The first was a birthday cake covered in white lights. Green lettering spelled out "Happy Birthday Jesus."
The theologian in me cringed for fear of the message being sent with this cake, but all in all I thought it was a cute gesture.
Jesus did have a birthday, and whether it was during the winter solstice is probably irrelevant. I still hesitate, though, representing Jesus' birth so casually.
What got me more than the birthday cake – what set me off as a theologian and still more as a Christian – was that standing beside the cake was a white baby Jesus lying in a manger with St. Nick overlooking him.
The image was irresponsible, unbiblical and an unfortunate step backward for all the churches trying to separate the enmeshed imagery of Santa and the elves with God and the heavenly hosts.
This image broadcasts (whether intended or not) that Santa is somehow equivalent to God.
Together, God and St. Nick overlook the baby in swaddling clothes and declare that the birth of Jesus is profoundly "good."
I understand the opposing view: that Santa is not overlooking the baby as a co-creator but rather as someone showing reverence. All people, even Santa and other fictional characters, bow before baby Jesus.
The biggest problem here (for either interpretation) is that one part of this image is make-believe and the other part is very real. Mixing these images for children is dangerous and borderline unethical.
Christians must be more careful. Christianity must be more deliberate.
What message are we sending the world when we advertise Santa's picture next to baby Jesus? Is this the message you want your children getting in Sunday school? Is this the message you want from your pastor on Christmas Eve?
Christmas is supposed to be about the moment when Jesus breaks into a world of sin, doubt, hurt and guilt to declare with his presence that God is and forever will be among us.
What Christmas is not about is Santa Claus bringing gifts to good little boys and girls – and it is most definitely not a mixture of the two.
The Christmas story must be about the incarnation of Jesus – not Santa. This story must be good enough for the church to tell society on its own instead of clouding it with unhelpful, make-believe imagery.
The Christmas story has the power to change lives. It tells people that heaven is breaking in to earth and isn't leaving. It says the inauguration of God's kingdom is at hand, and our lives, through the face of Jesus, are being redeemed.
The biblical Christmas message is powerful – especially in an age of world poverty, ecological degradation, human depression and war.
If Christianity wants to continue being a viable option for people, then churches need to get Santa out of the Nativity and start talking about how the birth of Jesus offers hope in an age of hunger.
J. Barrett Owen serves as the admissions associate at McAfee School of Theology as well as pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga.