Reflections On Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Conversion


(OPINION) By now, I’m sure most people have heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s conversion. Not only because of her fascinating reflection on it, but also because of the countless responses from many different sides.

Some think the description of her conversion is unusual since her written confession spends more time reflecting on cultural motivations than her personal faith. We ought to heed Carl Trueman’s recent comments and not instrumentalize the faith for the sake of mere cultural renewal.

But, assuming the best, her piece is a fascinating reflection on the signs of the times. Ali is a former Muslim and politician and now works as a human rights activist, writer and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Her basic thesis — and what led to her conversion — is the bleak cultural picture before us.

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“Western civilization is under threat” from destabilizing cultural forces, and recent attempts to fend off these things have failed, she said.

If we look back to the history of the West from Theodosius I to Tocqueville, religion — and particularly Christianity — was the fabric that fashioned political and social unity.

But now things are crumbling fast, and “we can’t fight off these formidable forces,” she continued, “unless we can answer the question: what is it that unites us?”

The only credible answer is “to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” which “consists of an elaborate set of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom, and dignity.” Ali is on to something, she added.

The institutions of Western society are fracturing because the church is waning, as the recent book, “The Great Dechurching,” made abundantly clear. Many other books, such as Tom Holland’s “Dominion,” Yuval Levin’s “A Time to Build” and James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World” reflect on the essential role of institutions in forming culture. Church attendance continues to decline, despite bright spots such as Ali’s conversion and fewer people see religion as a public good.

Amid all this mostly bad news, Christmas comes around. Yule is always a season that unifies society and promotes the virtues of love, peace, and joy. Good things. Compelling things. Sure, the culture may absorb these virtues and turn them into silly movies and jolly elves, but underneath the wrapping paper and the eggnog is something beautiful and hopeful: The savior, who is Christ the Lord.

The Christmas season offers a kind of cultural liturgy, a term coined by James K.A. Smith, and speaks to the ways that cultural rhythms form us — often in subtle ways. We have a longing for a good life, and our cultural liturgies cultivate those desires, directing them in certain ways. As a negative example, Smith uses the image of shopping at the mall — an apt Christmas image — to describe a type of cultural liturgy that might lead toward consumerism.

At the same time, the liturgies of Christmas are unifying, forming an embedded apology for the Christian faith. There is virtually no other time when the whole nation is talking about the great theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. When people hum carols together while standing in their department store lines or consider going to church with friends or family.

While we may debate the viability of other cultural institutions such as public schools and universities or other voluntary associations and social clubs, we cannot do this with the liturgical calendar. Christians should celebrate the season of Christmas (among many other important days of religious observance) because we recognize the importance of ordering time around the celebration of the goodness of Jesus.

As people of faith, we need to celebrate Christmas with gusto. Put out your lights and your nativity. Watch “Elf” at least twice and “A Christmas Story,” too. Gather with your family and read Luke 2, Matthew 1-2, or John 1. Go to church, confess your sins and seek reconciliation with family and friends. Bring cookies or warm cranberry bread to your neighbors. Share a merry Christmas with those you meet. Let the wonderful season remind people that the church is good for the world. May these virtues fill the season and continue to teach us to love one another.

I know that Christmas has become overly commercialized and is losing its religious sentiments. Many want Santa’s jolliness and dancing snowflakes without the baby Jesus. They will take their presents with a side of hot cocoa, but pass on the Christian things. But there is hope because the birth of Christ still hangs around. He is, after all, the reason for the season.

As the Christmas season goes on, I cannot help but see it as something that confirms Ali’s sentiments. Christians should not only celebrate Christmas with joy but also lean into their Christian commitments.

Christmas is a Christian holiday. I know many feel the stress and struggle of the holiday season, but I hope that the liturgies of this season form them in love and hope. May we spread Christmas cheer for all to hear and celebrate, with Ali, that Christianity is good for society, announcing once again: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King!”

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