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Nativity Naivety 21 December 2013

Posted by Dr Moose in Church, Faith, Life, Ponderings, Theology.
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It’s Christmas! So let’s tell the old, old story again, shall we? Erm… which story?

Yesterday I had the privilege of going to LMP’s end of term Christmas gathering in church. And, looking at who (didn’t) show up from among the parents, I think it was a genuine privilege. I had a day off and the time to go. That doesn’t mean I was an unabashed fan of the event or the content. Some of the carols, for example, had been emasculated in an attempt to make them politically correct, meaning that there was no proclaimation of the Lord’s appearance “to men” nor bringing “God’s glory to the heart of man” in the Calypso Carol, for example. However, I’ve grown to expect that, and this isn’t about “political correctness gone mad”. I was genuinely impressed by the apparent thought that had gone into the planning and presentation.

Nevertheless, as the event went on, I found myself reverting to Theology-degree-holding-pedant mode and playing “Christmas Fallacy Bingo”. The rules are simple, from your knowledge of scripture and tradition, with a dose of reason, look for the presumptions, plot holes and errors and resist the temptation to jump up and shout “house”!

They were all there, of course. So we had the donkey, the inn, the stable, three wise men following a star on camels and so on, the inevitable conflation of tradition, presumption and probable mistranslation/misunderstanding. (Mary and Joseph probably wouldn’t have had a donkey, certainly scripture makes no mention. Inns of the type envisaged by us and the translators of the King James Bible, if not earlier, don’t fit the culture as Joseph was meant to be returning to his town of birth, and therefore distant kin, and might reasonably expect some form of hospitality. No problem with the guest room being full, and so the family bunking down with the animals, except that it would have been somewhere inside the house. And the Wise Men? The story of the Epiphany is a completely separate story and comes later, even if it has been presumed as part of Christmas in the Western tradition for years. They came to the infant Jesus, not a new-born, and we don’t know how many there were, or whether they rode camels. Compare  Luke 2: 1-20 with Matthew 2:1-12).

What caught my attention particularly was a well-explained and well-intentioned presumption: that the Wise Men trusted God, and that that is why they came looking for the baby Jesus. Except, of course, they didn’t. The description we have from Matthew’s Gospel points more to astrologer-priests (and magi is the root word for magic, don’t forget). They examined portents in the sky and sought to interpret the meaning. To use a more contemporary idiom they are more like Professor Brian Cox (and I know he is not an astrologer and might have some very uncomplimentary things to say on the topic), or other similar theoreticians with less popular appeal. (I wonder if Professor Hawkings’ wheelchair could stand in for a camel?) The point of the Epiphany story is about the process of the manifestation of the Messiah, the Christ, being for all the world, not just the Jews. It’s about God using the wisdom of the world to his ends and purposes, saying that Yahweh is bigger and farther reaching than expected.

But why does this all matter? I could understand you asking. Why complicate things for the children? What’s wrong with seeking to convey truth at a level they understand? And the answer, of course, is that there’s noting wrong with that at all (although those of other faiths, including Muslims who esteem Jesus highly as a prophet, and the disciples of Dawkins, might say otherwise).

The problem is not in the presentation to the young, per se. The educational process, as I experienced it, was very good at teaching one thing, and then later coming along and saying, “you remember we said that it worked like that? Well, that’s not quite true, and this is why”. Not once, but repeatedly. Sometimes it was annoying and frustrating, but it was an open process.

The problem instead is something that we might term infantile inertia.  Recent opinion polls may well show that 59% of the UK population describe themselves as Christians (can’t find source, which is annoying as it’s doing the rounds on Facebook) but my personal experience as a Minister leads me to expect that a very large component of those who self-identify are Christmas Christians, or the Hatch-Match-Despatch Brigade. (And, thank God for the grace that is already there and the openings that come with it). The problem is that so many in wider society who claim Christian faith have what used to be called a Sunday School faith, or even less than that. There has been no growth, no education. Should a teenager with that level of knowledge and simple faith actually start to apply critical faculties to it, it usually augurs badly for their faith, especially if they’ve done what most do and left church behind. (And given church attendance figures, even this is a small group). I strongly suspect that this would apply to many of my friends who are reading this right now. Infantile inertia and nativity naivety don’t equip an adult for faith in the real world. It’s not enough to say that “Jesus is the answer” or “the Wise Men trusted God” if it appears that you don’t understand the question or know scripture worse than those who’ve taken the time to question.

I’m not sure what the answer is, although despite my misgivings over theological details the Alpha Course and other comparable offerings are part of the answer. Another part is for churches to have the courage to engage with adults at an adult level, to challenge convention, even if that means causing discomfort to the Christmas Christians who fail to get their ‘fix’ of being child-like on the one time a year they go to church. (Perhaps social media have a part to play in promotion and follow-up of the Christmas services. “If you didn’t like it, tell us why” is an invitation to continued engagement, as well as opening ourselves up to criticism). I also recognise that is very difficult! And, of course, part of the answer is in me, as University Chaplain, not only plugging away at my social media connections with posts like this, but trying to find a way to engage with critically-minded students. If the Atheist, Humanist & Secularist Society still exists next year there might be a good opportunity). Put it like this, it couldn’t be any worse than the Christian Union Carols this year, no matter how well intentioned, could it?

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Comments»

1. David Scott - 21 December 2013

As someone who was brought up a Christian, (but since renounced my baptism), I was surprised that I wasn’t aware of some of the bingo items weren’t in the bible. I was more surprised about the epiphany. When did it all become conflated and expanded? Is this the start of new modern Jesus birth story? Thanks for shattering my memories. But politically correct carols, that gone too far.

2. Jane Williams - 21 December 2013

“Should a teenager with that level of knowledge and simple faith actually start to apply critical faculties to it, it usually augurs badly for their faith…”
Yep. Especially when the answers given at senior school in the RE classes amount to “thinking is EVIL, thou shalt not question”. Teenagers are quite good enough already at assuming adults are idiots without giving them that amount of evidence in favour of the assumption;

3. Anthony - 21 December 2013

I suspect the Wise Men were actually of Jewish descent, if not outright Jews. Not all the Jews taken into captivity by the Babylonians returned to the Promised Land after the exile. The vast majority chose to stay. I think the Wise Men were descendants of those that stayed. They knew who they were looking for. Matthew’s gospel says they asked for the King of the Jews and that they had “come to worship Him”, which seems remarkably astute given Jesus told Peter that knowledge that He was the Messiah had come from the Father in Heaven. I believe these people to be Jews from Persia looking for their messiah. Astrology would have been forbidden them.

When it comes to the bingo, though, don’t forget the date! I’ve read it’s made clear when Jesus was born in the Bible, and it wasn’t late December….

4. nysalor - 21 December 2013

And of course, the whole nativity myth is a literary construction, cobbled together from stray Tanekh verses by the multiple authors of the second and third gospels each for their own mythopoetic (though contradictory) purposes. Are the last hundred years of scholarly research allowed to be part of the game? Merry Christmas!

5. Thomas Zunder - 21 December 2013

I am sorry that your religion has been so badly mangled but I have to point out that it is the Christian establishment that ran this Christmas for so long that did it and continue to do so.
Also, if you are going to adopt a fundamentalist approach then that leads you into some deeply problematic areas, whereas a more Gnostic approach means you can forgive all the Christmas stuff.
An historical interpretation is the most dangerous for Xians IMHO since then the magi become Zoroastrians and so on and so on and a whole other cans of historiography tumble everywhere.
But I am an atheist and have tested my faith and come back to it again and again.

6. Thomas Zunder - 21 December 2013

Islam, of course, also has very similar nonsense with loads of Islamic practices that are not at all in the Q’ran!

7. Mark Galeotti - 21 December 2013

Fascinating ruminations. I suppose one of the fundamental issues must be that myths acquire their own weight and momentum and do at least do _a_ job, of providing a comforting common baseline sense for a community of “what we believe.” Most of that self-identifying 59%, I suspect, neither expect not want their faith to be something about which they have to devote much thought; it’s a set of simple precepts, stories and occasional (but not inconvenient) rituals that make you feel part of something greater and an all-round good egg. But begin to deconstruct the myth, force people to think and, as you say, this behind to turn people off because suddenly it becomes inconvenient, shorn of simple answers and neat formulae.

I can’t help wondering, though, whether — as in every other aspect of life 😉 — Lenin had the answer: better fewer, but better. In other words, if the price of a wider “faithprint” is sticking with the mythic pap, is this not too high a price? Is it not better speak to fewer people, but those willing to engage fully? Or is this just elitist?

8. Thomas Zunder - 21 December 2013

Lenin is not an example I would follow. I was brought up in the Marxist faith and it’s as dogmatic and myth strewn as any other ideology.

I don’t believe the Christmas story as a literal story. What I read suggests it is indeed a syncretic mytho poem and the magi are clearly name checking one of the dominant religions of the period: Zoriastrianism, now one of the smallest and little known.

Mark Galeotti - 22 December 2013

My Lenin comment wasn’t especially serious and simply referred to the phrase, not any suggestion that Marxism-Leninism offered a path for, well, pretty much anything…

9. Anthony - 22 December 2013

Nonsense? A myth?

Sigh.

Can’t people come up with something new? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard similar rubbish.

You’ll be telling me Jesus is a copy of Mithras soon!

Thomas Zunder - 22 December 2013

Oh come on. The Nativity is one heck of a lovely myth.
Jesus isn’t a copy of Mithras.
What he might be: syncretism wise; I’d not important here.
Stuart makes a very good point. The weave of fantasy in many religions does mean there is a strong danger that anyone with a critical mind has a cornucopia of contradictions to perceive and lead then from faith.
Mind you: some of the accretions to “science” can have a similar effect.
Remember that one of the things that Cromwell was hated for: true or not; was banning Christmas.
This is; after all; a pagan festival far older than any of the gods we worship today. Maybe simply remove baby Jesus from it and recognise it for what it is: an end of year and start of winter the passing of the Solstice. God can fit into that very human process far better without magi.

Anthony - 23 December 2013

Oh come on what? All you’ve done is offer bald assertions about how you feel it’s a myth. You haven’t really brought anything to the table that I haven’t heard two dozen times before.

Like the stuff about a critical mind, as if those who believe have just said “duh, yeah, OK” in their best Goofy voice when they’ve chosen to accept that Jesus is real.

The contradictions…. Care to name a few? And not that ridiculous 1,000 contradictions in the Bible document that was doing the rounds a few years ago and was solidly refuted. What have *you* found in the Bible that’s contradictory?

The problem isn’t that there’s a strong weave of fantasy in the Bible. It’s that people spread the idea that there is without really doing any research of their own. What I took from the article is that the inaccuracies are because we apply the same old things we always have to the story. Things that aren’t really there and then as we begin to question, we decide it’s all nonsense simply because we look at the things we added and decide they can’t be true…..

And yes, Christmas is largely pagan. In fact, I think it’s probably all pagan. But then, in my original post, I was saying that Jesus was likely born late September/early October. That we choose to celebrate it now is a matter of convenience and perhaps tradition, that’s all. You don’t want to because it’s all myth and pagan belief, well that’s up to you!

Christmas is a side issue anyway. The child in a manager grows up and was crucified for you. That’s the real message.

Thomas Zunder - 23 December 2013

I believe Christmas is a myth based on the reading I have done. But that’s my belief. You make a very good point that whether it’s a myth or not, it’s not core to Christianity. I read above, or I thought I did, a concern that the story of Christmas, whether literally true, mix of truth and myth, or total syncretic creation, can lead to “Christmas Christians” who don’t see what the core is. Similarly that those with critical minds can be turned away from religion as they start to learn of the inconsistencies, or layers of non core beliefs (let’s avoid needing to discuss if they are true or not), and in doing so religions lose many of the minds that could grasp the core of their religion and advance it in a critical and yet committed way.

However, and I have just thought this, there are many who actually believe religion is not about critical thought or reasoning but is in fact about faith.. and so perhaps Stuart is dismissing a lot of people who actually relate to religion through faith and ritual, in fact aren’t they the majority?


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