Thinking Anglicans

They told me a fairy story

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
Till I believed in the Israelite.

(words by Peter Sinfield from Greg Lake’s 1975 Christmas record)

If your Christmas has been anything like mine you’ve heard quite a number of tellings of the birth of Christ over the last few weeks. Sentimental, imagined, romantic, harmonized, fictionalized, sanitized and idealized — that sums up so many of them.

Perhaps you’ve been told that Joseph was the best carpenter in Nazareth, with a reputation that spread far and wide. Perhaps you’ve been told that Mary was a good girl who did all the cooking for her parents, using herbs she’d grown herself (I heard that one in a service on Radio 4 last Sunday morning). No doubt you’ve heard all about the cute little donkey that plodded to Bethlehem, and the ox and the ass that nosed around the stable; and three kings who rode on camels and were most definitely called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Maybe you’ve even heard that it was cold and snowing. And so on.

Do we, in telling the story this way, conspire with our hearers to perpetuate a fairy story? Do we perpetuate the idea that the birth of Jesus is a fairy story, just a fairy story, something that — like the idea of Father Christmas or the tooth fairy — parents use to encourage children to be sweet and good? But something which we fully expect them to grow out of by the time they are 10, and see that it is just a fairy story that they have listened to uncritically and can discard uncritically?

For it is certain that nearly all will discard the story uncritically. Very few will appreciate the subtle distinction that theologians might make when talking about ‘myth’. No, we have fed them only sentimental tosh, and sentimental tosh is what they will discard in the harsh light of the real world. And they have been given nothing on which to build a stronger understanding of faith. When they grow out of fairy stories they grow out of the fairy story we have spun them and discard the fairy story of the sentimental Jesus, meek and mild, that we told them in their childhood.

What, instead, should we be saying? We need to recover the sense that we are proclaiming the euangelion — originally the ‘good news’ proclaiming the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but a word harnessed by the first Christians to describe the truly great news that is the birth of the son of the emperor of all creation. We need to tell the story in a way that lets listeners and readers see the timeless truth of the Incarnation rather than a childish fairy story. It is in the euangelion according to John that, in poetic but unsentimental and timeless language, stripped of all narrative, the Incarnation is most clearly stated, and all else is commentary at best:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Simon Kershaw is one of the three co-founders of Thinking Anglicans.

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Jonathan Jennings
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Jonathan Jennings

A helpful and thoughtful contribution.

‘Not a tame lion’ comes to mind …

Thank you.

Fr Paul
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Fr Paul

Thanks Simon. Perhaps you would like to preach for me this Sunday on the visit of the Magi!!
Cheers

Paul Webb

Craig Nelson
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Craig Nelson

This is a very profound post and well worth pondering on. I favour a ‘scriptural’ approach to demythologising religious stories. As the Bible got formed there are different tellings of the story – doubtless each gospel doubtless comes from a distinct Christian community and doubtless there are four (leaving to one side the earlier and variant approach of Paul’s epistles to the life of Jesus)gospels because when they were evaluated by church groups before being part of the Bible they felt unhappy with them. We have developed a handy knack of running together elements of 3 of the gospels in… Read more »

Bob McCloskey
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Bob McCloskey

Reminds me of a scene in a New York church during an Epiphany pageant in the 1950’s. My mentor, Dr. Norman Pittenger was the invited guest of the then Vicar and his wife. During the procession of the 3 kings up the aisle she leaned over to Norman and whispered, “Isn’t it wonderful?” To which he replied “Yes, too bad it never happened.”

Pluralist
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I’m unconvinced that a ‘middle way’ is sustainable, that somehow by making the myth less childish it preserves the core ‘truth’. If you take the view that I do, that Jesus was born in Capernaum or Nazareth, and grew up unnoticed, and had a fairly quick ministry and was knocked off by the authorities when he arrived at Jerusalem at a particular moment in Jewish religious culture then you don’t tend to develop a well grounded incarnational theology but one in which you are dealing with scraps of possible history and a lot of concepts that became packaged into a… Read more »

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

Yes, how we tell stories is terribly important. Many of you will know that recently I have been working hard to re-telling them so as to root the re-telling in current research (or such of it as convinces me personally) and in human reality. I am always a bit panicked in case my stories take too firm a hole and become reality instead of generating thought and exploration.

Stories take hold on people, they need them. Therefore stories need to be as richly dark and grounded in research and humanity as we can make them.

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

What a richly varied response this has provoked. \the more so for writers being in short-term ignorance of what others write.

Me? I don’t think you can tell anything without stories. People tell stories of their lives anyhow. Really, there is no such thing as history.

Erika Baker
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Erika Baker

Pluralist, what childish stories? I don’t get it. There is no middle way. To those of us who are not literalists, and to those of us who are so far at the liberal edge that we nearly fall off the credal edge, there is still the fact that the authors of the stories knew they were not historical fact (this is a very modern mind question, it simply did not occur to them). Nevertheless, they wrote the stories as we find them, and their lives show that they clearly had a huge impact on them personally. This is not a… Read more »

suem
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I agree that we cannot really tell anything without stories, ” the word was made flesh and dwelt among us” may sum it all up- but it doesn’t give anything tangible for the imaginations of many to cling to. Stories, legends and myths are so important because of their simplicity – and their potential complexity. Stories work on many levels and are accessible to all. A child can understand and respond to the Christmas story and yet an academic can still grapple with its mythical significance. Myths are the truest things we have because they transcend any particular moment in… Read more »

mudduck
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mudduck

History is story with evidence. Science is story with a lot of evidence. My husband looks on the old stories as ways of pledging to act with justice and mercy. Too much of religion is promoting one version of a story over another version. I wish we could get on with the doing of justice and mercy.

peterpi
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peterpi

The Gospel stories, and I do believe they are stories, were never intended by the authors to be taken at face value. They’re a way of telling the writers’ intended audiences, “Hey, look! This man is important. This man was filled with God!” The Gospel of John is far too heavily theological for me, but nonetheless I can’t read John 1:1-14, especially the last verse, without getting the sense of awe, of life-changing experience, of a sense of being in touch with the Divine, of having his whole life utterly changed for having known Jesus of Nazareth. That’s what’s important.… Read more »

Mike Peatman
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Despite its seemingly anti-Christian sentiment, I have always like that song. I think it poses the key challenge as to whether Christmas really is a fairy story that can evaporate with other childhood tales when people grow up, or whether it is about a deeper truth that really engages the genuine issues of the world.

peterpi
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peterpi

On our way to the Epiphany:
Do you know what would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men?

They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

Ancient biography (of which it is increasingly likely the gospels are a form) are not however a form of fiction. Then there are the questions of what the authors INTENDED to be understood, and what we understand. In the birth stories, this would include (for starters) the nature of the place Luke’s tradition considers Mary and Joseph lodged, the nature of tha magi et al etc. I think Simon’s point related to what we do to the narratives, which have no cute donkeys, no three kings, etc. The stories are much much tougher than our cute additions.

drdanfee
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drdanfee

If some core human and social developmental process does exist, such that we can use Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg type stage models, then our big tent Anglican dilemma is that even our most important stories will be understood (and even applied in real life) differently, at least partly parsed and distributed by the deep impact of the developmental stage in which we are mostly anchored. Yet, humans nearly always seem to be coming from one place, now in a process of obvious or subtle life change, aiming towards another place as direction. As church life focuses more and more on… Read more »

Pluralist
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Erika: You or anyone can go on dealing with the stories at the level you do. My point was simply the notion that you can remove so much of the identified by others ‘reliance on the childish’ and still end up with “in poetic but unsentimental and timeless language, stripped of all narrative, the Incarnation is most clearly stated, and all else is commentary at best: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” My point is that removal of the overbearing childish, and fully, produces just a relative, human story that has no uniqueness about it at all.

brian mchugh
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brian mchugh

If this never happened, it’s a fairy story still, no matter how much hermeneutic tinsel you drape over it.

choirboyfromhell
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choirboyfromhell

At the risk of being simplistic, why is sentimentality such a sin for ‘liberal’ theologians?

Father Ron Smith
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Father Ron Smith

” I think it poses the key challenge as to whether Christmas really is a fairy story that can evaporate with other childhood tales when people grow up, or whether it is about a deeper truth that really engages the genuine issues of the world.” – Mike Peatman on Wednesday – Simon Kershaw’s article obviously misses out on the simplicity of the story, and it’s effect on people like Francis of Assisi, who thought the traditional Christmas message so important, that he en-fleshed it in the first public evocation of the Crib – with people, animals, et al. Was that… Read more »

Erika Baker
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Erika Baker

Pluralist
If you remove important parts of a story, you can’t then complain that you’re only left with the ordinary.
Put them back in and try to work out why they were there in the first place.

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

No, Simon’s point is that the stories are simple, dramatic compelling. Then we tinsel them over with willing donkeys and pity knows what else.

Roger Antell
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Roger Antell

“Sentimental tosh” is a very loaded statement. By what assessment is something sentimental, tosh, or profound truth? This is verging on a subjective definition of truth or reality. The problem with dismissing the human story in favour of the deeper reality of the “myth” (whatever that means) is that it denies the reality of the incarnation, and removes it to a Platonic level of an ideal or principle remote from actual human experience. These were human beings, living their lives from day to day just like us, and into it came an experience of God. And if we want to… Read more »

Tim
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A couple of years ago, I became interested in critical thinking, historical method, etc, as applied in scholarly fashion to Biblical texts. I’m now quite familiar with the idea that the nativity stories (plural) are more fabrication by Matthew and Luke than historical material. They have their differences, blatant inaccuracies and not-always-subtle agendas. That year, we had a full-on reiteration of the nativity in its most “traditional” (a euphemism for “least historical”) form, and I sat uncomfortably in the choir thinking “this is rubbish” – saved more by amusement-factor / poetry, not accuracy. For me, at least, if the service… Read more »