Justin Brierley recently hosted an Unbelievable? debate on 'The Atheist Christmas Album', which takes all the Christian references out of classic Christmas carols. But does it makes sense?
Tylean Polley grew up loving Christmas and all the festivities surrounding it. As a musician and singer herself she particularly loves the carols and music associated with the festival. The only problem is that, since Tylean became an atheist in her adult years, she has never been comfortable singing the religious lyrics of the songs she loves so much.
It was while listening to a Christmas CD with her own child, and trying to skip over any tracks that mentioned Jesus or the Nativity, that Tylean came up with the idea of creating her own album of classic Christmas carols, but reworking them with purely secular lyrics.
And lo, The Atheist Christmas Album was born.
It features songs such as 'Oh Rest ye Merry Gentlemen' instead of 'God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen' as the lyrics are changed from the traditional verse:
God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To Tylean's secularised version:
Oh Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
let nothing you dismay.
For centuries we celebrate
every year on this day.
Both songs still include the traditional refrain: "O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy".
Meanwhile 'Go Tell it on the Mountain, that Jesus Christ is here' similarly cuts out any reference to the birth of Jesus to become 'Go Tell It On The Mountain, that Christmas Eve is here'.
Tylean's album focuses on the celebration and joy of the season without referencing the Christian story of Christ's birth that lies at the centre of the festival. But does that makes sense? What is Christmas Eve the eve of, if not the celebration of the birth of the person that the very word Christmas includes - Christ?
Debating Christ-less Carols
When I invited Tylean to discuss the issue with Christian evangelist Glen Scrivener (whose excellent Meet The Nativity online videos have been a big hit this Advent), he asked her what the tidings of comfort and joy referenced in her reworked carol actually point to.
"Tiding means 'news'. So what is the news that is going to make me happy? In the midst of the darkness what news is giving me comfort and joy?"
Tylean responded: "Just the celebration. Let's drink and eat and enjoy each other's company. If we didn't have that - particularly in this part of the world where it's a bit cold and wet and damp - then we might not be particularly nice to each other without the festive spirit in place."
But Glen wasn't convinced that celebration alone was enough: "The festive spirit comes from a particular news item - that the light shone in the midst of the darkness. Therefore there is comfort and there is joy. There's something to cling on to."
"I just wonder if celebrating celebration is sustainable? I want to celebrate something that elicits that celebratory response from me. Because its joy-giving nature calls forth the joy."
Nevertheless Tylean insisted that atheists can speak of joy and comfort at Christmas, not by referencing a light that comes from beyond, but the light "that comes from within", in the love we show each other.
"Christmas doesn't just happen. Someone has put the time and the care and the love into preparing everything - the decorations, the food. It's a lot of love that goes into making Christmas. For us atheists, the love is just love of our families and friends."
But, Glen reminded TyLean, family isn't always a good thing at Christmas: "While family is, from one angle, the greatest thing about Christmas, it's also the worst thing about Christmas! If my hope is my family then I'm actually my biggest problem. No one has sabotaged their own happiness better than I have in my life. What will call forth praise and joy and comfort for me is news of something beyond family."
Personally, as the host of the conversation, I came away impressed at Tylean's commitment to rephrase the classic Christmas carols and refuse to sing lyrics that she doesn't actually believe in.
But in the end, something feels wrong about singing carols with all the trapping of Christmas, celebration and joy, without having the amazing good news of Christ, Emmanuel God with us, at the centre of them.
It's rather like unwrapping a beautifully packaged Christmas present on Christmas day, only to find there's nothing inside.
To hear the dicussion on TyLean's atheist Christmas carols, check out the Unbelievable episode from 23 Dec 2017. For more information visit premierchristianradio.com/unbelievable
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.