Peter Sprigg is Senior Fellow for Family Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Christian Post on December 18, 2014.
Christmas celebrates a miracle.
It's not just "Jesus' birthday." And it's not just that Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus when she was still a virgin (although Christians believe that she was, and that the birth was miraculous).
The greater miracle is known to theologians as "the incarnation"— that in the conception and birth of Jesus, God himself became a flesh-and-blood human being.
Hollywood has depicted a link between Christmas and miracles—with varying levels of theological correctness. One beloved classic film is Miracle on 34th Street—but the "miracle" there is an encounter with the real Santa Claus.
Another is It's a Wonderful Life, the 1946 Frank Capra film. In it, the miracle is the intervention of a "second-class" angel named Clarence to stop James Stewart's character, George Bailey, from committing suicide on Christmas Eve. The Christian film website MovieGuide has faulted It's a Wonderful Life for "false angelology." Nevertheless, if we accept it as a work of fantasy and not theology, its message is heartwarming and timeless.
I recently had the privilege of performing in a stage musical version of It's a Wonderful Life at my church. For those who have never seen the film (I have met a few!), it tells the story of George Bailey, a man from a small town in upstate New York whose loftiest plans and ambitions have all been thwarted by various circumstances. Nevertheless, he is a hero to the townspeople and to his loving family.
When he faces a crisis, the angel Clarence miraculously appears and persuades him of the value of his life by miraculously showing him an alternate reality—the dismal state of the town and his loved ones if he, George Bailey, had never been born.
Most people see It's a Wonderful Life once a year around Christmas. Between dress rehearsals and performances, I (playing Clarence) got to see the entire story of George Bailey unfold before my eyes six times in seven days. In a song, Clarence explains to George that "this is Christmas Eve/the perfect time to trust God and believe/in angels and miracles and love that never dies."
It's a Wonderful Life certainly promotes "family values"—George and Mary make "the perfect couple" (in Clarence's eyes) as husband and wife along with a quiver full of children. However, for the most part I considered playing the part of the white-hatted, miracle-working angel Clarence to be an escape from, not a complement to, my work as a marriage and family public policy analyst at the Family Research Council.
The piece summarized an academic study by Williams College sociologist Nicolette D. Manglos, published in the journal Sociology of Religion in 2013. The study reportedly found that "adolescents and young adults from intact families are significantly more likely to report that God is working miracles in their lives."
We have long known from the social science research that children raised in an intact family (that is, by their own biological mother and father who are committed to one another in a life-long marriage) have better physical and mental health and economic security, on average, than children in other family or household structures. But—more miracles?
Could this perception simply be because people from intact families have easier lives, and interpret that as God's blessing? Not really—Manglos explains that "young people who experience stress from traumas are more likely to report miracles" (such as "healings or similar interventions").
"Stress from family breakups, however, is negatively correlated with miracles," she reports.
Let me offer a theory as to why this might be true. In the movies, miracles often occur as a way of drawing unbelievers to faith. In real life and in the Bible, however, miracles often occur in response to faith (think of the bleeding woman who sought and obtained healing by touching the hem of Jesus' cloak in Mark 5:25-34).
If the earthly mother and father who created us show that they can be trusted to stay together and raise us, it becomes easier to trust the Heavenly Father who created us, too. On the other hand, if our mother and father reject each other, it becomes easier for us to abandon faith in God—unwittingly distancing ourselves from his miracles.
"Miracles," Manglos notes solemnly, "are positively correlated with life satisfaction and partially protect against the negative effects of stress on life satisfaction."
Or as George Bailey could tell you, having an intact family—and experiencing miracles—make it a wonderful life.