Comments: They told me a fairy story

A helpful and thoughtful contribution.

'Not a tame lion' comes to mind ...

Thank you.

Posted by Jonathan Jennings at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 7:20am GMT

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

Paul Webb

Posted by Fr Paul at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 10:57am GMT

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 a kind of religious make believe as if it's a completely unified story and that's the point at which we are clearly into myth making in a way that's not possible if we read the Bible the way it got written - the birth narratives can't all be true if contradictory and we're in the presence of worshipful poetry that we can be completely unembarrassed by.

And, usefully for us, the Bible has more than one account of creation in an area where literalism has proved damaging for us because there's a tendency to have problems with evolution. So I don't think we can go on without demythologising at one level.

Using Scripture to do this important work is an important element in dealing with fundamentalism which is a far greater harm to humanity than over enthusiastic fairy telling.

(A future post might talk about how we need myth, story and legend but lack them in our lives today and what role religion has in that).

Posted by Craig Nelson at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 11:17am GMT

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."

Posted by Bob McCloskey at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 1:39pm GMT

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 religion. This claim that there is some kernel of revelation somehow historical doesn't stand up once you clear out all this mythical stuff, nor (these days especially) is it protected by this mythical stuff.

Posted by Pluralist at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 2:51pm GMT

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.

Posted by Rosemary Hannah at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 3:03pm GMT

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.

Posted by Rosemary Hannah at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 4:39pm GMT

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 case of a few people sitting down writing an ancient version of Hänsel and Gretel.

So what were they doing? Why were they doing it? What were they trying to say?
That's not a middle way question, but one that goes to the heart of why the stories were told.
Which is precisely what we're still exploring every Sunday in church, with every sermon, in every bible study. What is this about? Why was it written? What does it mean for my life? What should my personal response be?

What's childish about that?

Posted by Erika Baker at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 5:55pm GMT

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 time and history and offer universal truths. I agree though that the retelling of them and reinterpreting of them in the light of our own time and understandings is vital if we are to really "make meaning".

Posted by suem at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 6:00pm GMT

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.

Posted by mudduck at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 6:18pm GMT

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. Not whether there was a directional star, or a conception without sex, or whether the Magi were Johnny-on-the-Spot or took three years. Is Jesus of Nazareth any less amazing/godlike/miraculous if he was not conceived by parthenogenesis?
And I love Christmas carols, the underlying themes they represent fill me with joy. Although, ... my too-rational mind never is able to wrap itself around "Do Tou Hear What I Hear" and the king telling people everywhere to give a child shivering in the cold some silver and gold. How about a nice warm blanket, and some firewood?

Posted by peterpi at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 7:16pm GMT

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.

Posted by Mike Peatman at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 8:04pm GMT

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

Posted by peterpi at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 8:19pm GMT

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.

Posted by Rosemary Hannah at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 9:35pm GMT

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 closed, pat stories which are supposed to express or embody all the truth we can possibly know - so much so that literalistic trends readily predominate in our religious thinking - we set ourselves and each other up, vulnerable to falling into many additional thinking traps. Once you accept most going conservative-pat starting assumptions, it is fairly easy to get all tangled up in mistaking your very tidy - I've heard rightwing Anglican leaders (Minns comes to mind?) lovingly call it, "Nicene" - map for the whole of the real life and church life territory.

Yet a close look at scripture and tradition demonstrates that some iteration of change for the better, pilgrimage - energized by often quite surprise occasions of God so far elusive to history and lab tests - is repeatedly central to both OT and NT witness. Some folks seem to concentrate on trying to get down to the bottom bedrock of the story river beds (as if knowing how the shores shaped the flows is indispensable), while others seem to concentrate on studying and appreciating the river waters, while yet others concentrate on various athletic creativities which open up for them how many different ways of swimming in the Great Waters of Story are possible for our species as related to other species.

Maybe any of the Christ and Culture motifs, thanks be to Niebuhr, can become stultifying and death-dealing in ethics and theology, once we idolize certainty and neatly tease out and elevate one motif above all others? Is the point of story to fake our rush to wrap up, inevitably rendering us brain-dead believers? Or, to enliven-deepen-widen the endless Great Evolutionary Conversation so that we may join and contribute?

Posted by drdanfee at Wednesday, 30 December 2009 at 10:23pm GMT

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.

Posted by Pluralist at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 12:42am GMT

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

Posted by brian mchugh at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 1:12am GMT

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

Posted by choirboyfromhell at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 3:10am GMT

" 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 such a heinous thing to do - reminding us that the Incarnation involved a living scena of real people and real elements of Creation? I think not. I can still remember the faces of the children whose curiosity and wonder are visible as they look upon these figures which the Gospel story evokes.

If all religion is myth, then let that myth be well and wonderfully told and re-presented, in order for us to unravel the mystery underneath.

Hapyy New Year, everyone!

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 4:04am GMT

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.

Posted by Erika Baker at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 9:09am GMT

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.

Posted by Rosemary Hannah at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 11:19am GMT

"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 imagine what that life must have been like for Mary, at home, doing the household chores (the Orthodox in Bethlehem have the tradition that the angel appeared to Mary at the local well), then that brings more into focus how extraordinary an event this is, that God becomes a part of this ordinary human story, enfleshed in its blood, bone, emotions. People are fond of quoting St John for the "true meaning" of the incarnation, but I would point out that it is in John's gospel that we are given the most human portrait of Jesus, along with a careful statement of the historicity of the events.

I can't help feeling that the desire to dismiss the human story is a displacement from believing that God makes a difference to our own personal lives.

Posted by Roger Antell at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 12:26pm GMT

Wow, a lot of comments!

In the first place, the target of my article is a combination of two things: first, the large number of additions that are made, and assumptions that are brought to many of the retellings of the Nativity narratives that get told at this time of the year; and secondly, the suggestion that many of the listeners will not hear any other version of the story, or indeed perhaps any other part of the story, from on Christmas to the next.

It is these two things, taken together, that I was writing about.

I do agree that there is space for a whole variety of ways of telling the story, from stripped down biblical criticism, through theological and philosophical meanderings, sharp theological points, straight biblical readings without comment, historical reconstructions of what life was perhaps like in first century Judea, and even maybe sentimental or twee stories.

All this and more is a balanced diet that regular churchgoers should get over the course of a reasonable period of time, and ought to be at least aware of, and be able to understand the different genres. (Whether they actually do is another matter, not part of this particular issue!)

But many only come to the annual Christmas carol service, or crib service. We may be glad that they come and grateful that they want to join in at least the fringe of our life, and it is one of a small number of opportunities to reach some of these people. If they only ever hear sentimental, twee, obviously imagined, versions of the Nativity then we are, I suggest, failing. If we give the impression that that is the sum total (or a representative sample) of what Christians believe and that to be a Christian you have to suspend your historical and adult faculties, then we are, I suggest, failing.

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 12:51pm GMT

Thanks Roger (Antell).

I think my previous comment responds to a number of the points you have made. My article attempted to be focussed on a particular issue and not cover every possible tangent -- so I don't think we are as are apart as might be suggested.

The Incarnation is human -- absolutely, and presumably that's one of the points that the narratives in Matthew and Luke are trying to make. The Incarnation is also divine -- God-made-man -- and we have to hold the two in balance. That is perhaps very hard to do, for us as much as for our predecessors, and it must depend on what we understand by the divine. Hopefully we understand a bit more about what it means to be human. I wrote a bit about this a couple of years ago

Orthodoxy tries to hold the divine and human natures of Christ together, and not give the person of Jesus of Nazareth two personalities or two minds, and so on. Many people I talk to seem to think that either Jesus must have known everything and been capable of doing anything (because he was divine), or else that he was only really human. But I have tried to write from within the 'human and divine' Chalcedonian position.

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 1:13pm GMT

History, myth, fairy story, what's the difference?

I would say that 'myth' might be historically true, but it might also be not literally true.

The standard Christian position has been that the myths at the heart of Christianity -- the Incarnation and the Resurrection -- are not just myths but also historical events. Jesus was born; Jesus has died; Jesus is risen.

When it comes to the infancy narratives some may think that the detail of the story is not necessarily historically accurate (and it is hard if not impossible to make a perfectly consistent story from what the first and third gospels tell us). But both narratives witness to the myth of the Incarnation: that the Word of God was made flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and that in the view of the writers this Jesus is not son of God by adoption, or by apotheosis, but at his conception and birth.

We need the stories which help us understand the divine, and we need the stories which help us understand the human. We need to be able to set them aside, look at them from different perspectives, try and understand what the writers might have wanted to say, enjoy the richness of it all (whilst recognising that too much variety will give some people indigestion).

All of that is, I think, in keeping with the gospel message, which offers no easy short cuts, no simple answers, but instead challenges each of us to listen, to work it out and to reach for and be part of the divine.

That, I suggest, is the counterpoint to Roger's last sentence ('to dismiss the human story is a displacement from believing that God makes a difference to our own personal lives'). I agree and add to it the imperative to reach for the divine in our own lives. God-with-us.

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Thursday, 31 December 2009 at 1:31pm GMT

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 had included some analysis of poetry - a bridging of the gap between (likely) reality and the performed recitation of the story - a kind of disclaimer on the nature of "myth" and why we hold these old stories dear through creative dissonance - I would have been much happier.

If Simon Kershaw's original post means he'd like to see greater place given to studious rather than sappy sermons in church, presumably throughout the year but also in fair measure at Christmas, then I'm entirely in agreement.

Posted by Tim at Monday, 4 January 2010 at 8:26pm GMT
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