Thinking Anglicans

Look for the holy in the right place

Each year in our town we seem to find more and more Christmas Concerts on the social calendar. One of their consistent themes is to try and answer the need to return to a sense of Christmas being a special feeling and, inevitably descends into sentimentality and schmaltz. This derives from the sagging momentum of the German-style Christmas imported by the Victorians and, behind that, an awe-and-wonder reading of the sacred texts of Christmas.

To rescue Christmas from this increasingly wearying regression, we need to look again at the sacred texts in a way that invites us to be partners rather than spectators. Spectators see stars and magi, prophecies from long ago, squadrons of angels in the heavens and at the centre, a birth which is miraculous because it did not require the conventional preliminaries. All we can do, in the face of stories like this, is to exclaim that God is clever. Faced with our own inability to recreate such signs of wonder, our faces are pressed against the window of supernatural pyrotechnics and we come away empty-handed.

The stories of the supernatural birth of Jesus take on a different light when we consider them as part of a literary genre of the ancient world. There were many and various such stories, none more famous than the story of Augustus Caesar, born to his mother Atia and the god Apollo. Typically such birth stories came at the conclusion of the telling of the great deeds of an individual which must have been conceived in no less than the heavens. Augustus had brought the end of civil war and the longest period of peace that could be remembered. Although the Pax Romana was only felt if you were Romana, leaving the peasant classes impoverished, nonetheless it did not stop him being entitled Prince of Peace, while the coins of the empire styled him Son of God. When his biographer, Suetonius, concluded the story of his life he appended the story of Apollo coming to Atia in the temple and impregnating her. Ten months later, Atia’s husband dreamt he saw the sun rise from her womb and indeed the new Caesar would be born of Atia and the God of Light and be proclaimed Light of the World.

At the end of Augustus’s reign, there began the life of another man whose followers felt his life was patterned after the way of the heavens, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew. Not the heavens of the brute force of Rome, but the heaven of a God who had made a good earth and had promised a land to a nation in which all should enjoy its fruits. This man met violence with peace, met poverty by organising people to share food, and met sickness with healing. This, said his followers, must surely be what a god does. On the day this man rode into Jerusalem, to the acclaim of crowds, the Roman authorities took one look at him, decided he was trouble and executed him, in the manner where they put dissidents on public display to warn others what happens when you cross Rome’s rule.

But his followers continued to experience his presence and the movement spread. In time his story was written and, quite late on in the process, stories of his divine conception were told. His destiny was described in terms of heroes of the past, Matthew used the stories of Moses, Luke the story of Samuel, and the titles Lord, Son of God, Prince of Peace. In other words, these birth stories were treason; if you said Jesus was Lord, you were saying that Caesar wasn’t.

We need this view of divinity now, as never before. The majority of our world is malnourished, and since 1945 we have come to the end of being able to use violence as a solution; we need this view of the sacred which is non-violent before we go up in a nuclear flash.

Christmas is not about trying to explain wondrous events, as if they literally happened, in the vain hope they can be repeated in our own day. They are narrative aids, both to subvert the birth stories of the leaders of empire, and point to a much more important truth that the life of this man is the pattern for how humanity might shape itself to become like the realm in the heavens, the Kingdom of God on earth.

34
Leave a Reply

avatar
3000
34 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
15 Comment authors
Cynthia GilliattBillyDFather Ron SmithPat O'Neillrick allen Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest
Notify of
Pluralist
Guest

How does this either-or apply to people in liberal democracies?

Joan of Quark
Guest
Joan of Quark

I’m not the first person to notice that the resurrection story is similar to the Isis and Osiris story, too. If we were looking for good role models rather than truth the latter might even be preferable because it contains a strong female character. This is what always stops me evangelising (well, that and the fact that I’d look awful in a maroon polyester uniform) – I know the God who called me back to faith by a very direct intervention called me into Christianity, but I don’t believe that is any basis for telling other people they should believe… Read more »

Bb
Guest

Wonderful post, you hit it right on the mark. More religious people need to be able to take a step back and reconsider the source of their traditions and seek a real meaning for modern times. Just repeating the same old interpretation that worked a century ago and more will inevitably clash with how our view of the world has changed in the past century.

FrScott
Guest

This is a heck of a lot better than three french hens. Thanks, Andrew. This will be a terrific addition to our discussion of Brian McLaren’s 18th chapter of “Everything Must Change” tomorrow at adult ed (I’ll give you appropriate attribution, with url-footnotes – study use only).

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

“Christmas is not about trying to explain wondrous events, as if they literally happened, in the vain hope they can be repeated in our own day” – Andrew Spurr – Call me old-fashioned, Andrew, but I still find the ‘stories’ more than just helpful. In a world of uncertainties one needs some sort of anchor of mythology to hang one’s hat upon, and the sheer adventure of human experience has to have (at least to my mind) some understanding of a living and loving Creator God, and Luke’s account of the conception, birth and influence of the Jesus of Nazareth… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Fr Ron “And all of this cannot be determined by a clinically indifferent perspective of rationality” Who spoke about clinical indifference and rationality? Andrew spoke against literalism. Your understanding of the myths may be different from that of other people, but surely, the only important thing is that our understanding brings each of us closer to God, not that we all have the same understanding? Before Christmas I read your conversation with Ford with increasing difficulty. All this certainty about what has happened, all this importance given to Mary’s perpetual virginity and her immaculate conception was, to me, as strangulating… Read more »

Rev. Lois Keen
Guest

Myth: a story that relays a truth about God (or the gods) and creation/the world/humankind so profound that literal fact will not suffice. In the same way, the story is not to be taken as literal fact, or the truth that lies within, behind and beneath the myth is in danger of not being seen or heard or apprehended.

Myth is not: a lie. A made up fairy tale. Only something pagan.

This is my definition, informed by seminary training, by the Education for Ministry course out of Sewanee, Tennessee and university education in metaphor and poetry.

Pluralist
Guest

The Bishop of Durham criticises those who have taken the story as “just a myth, in the simplistic sense of a story some people find helpful but most people know isn’t true.” Somehow he links it to establishment.

http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=375

I think he is becoming like my Bishop of Drum.

http://pluralistspeaks.blogspot.com/2008/12/drum-says-liberalism-is-to-blame-for.html

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

“…all this importance given to Mary’s perpetual virginity and her immaculate conception was, to me, as strangulating as the evangelical certainties you were ridiculing.” – Erika Baker – Erika, with all due respect to your take on my conversations with Ford and Andrew on this blog, I think you will need to go back on my comments and discover that I have never advocated either the perpetual virginity of Mary, or the theology of her ‘immaculate conception’. In fact, the very opposite is true. To clear the air here (I would hate to be so badly misconstrued), I have said… Read more »

BillyD
Guest

“Christmas is not about trying to explain wondrous events, as if they literally happened, in the vain hope they can be repeated in our own day.” Talk about your straw men! Does anyone actually know of a person who believes in the factual basis of the wondrous events of Christmas in the vain hope of a replay? Anybody run across a believer who believes in the Virgin Birth who’s hoping for a reprise in the 21st century? It disturbs me that some people who are supposedly for the “Big Tent” type of Anglicanism can’t find room in the tent for… Read more »

Abigail Ann Young
Guest
Abigail Ann Young

An interesting Christmas message to be sure, but not on from which I can draw any nurture, I’m afraid. Once again I find myself too literal for the liberals and not literal enough for the conservatives. I do not claim to understand how, but I do believe that the child born in the manger was the Eternal Word. And I believe that he was resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit and appeared in his resurrection body to his disciples (and Paul). And although I am not drawn to evangelism and not sure how to do it, I can… Read more »

H. Lee
Guest
H. Lee

“Myth: a story that relays a truth about God (or the gods) and creation/the world/humankind so profound that literal fact will not suffice.” I’m very new to the party, but this is something that interests me. How is the modern clerical interpretation of Bible stories as “myth” any different from what is referred to in the political arena, sarcastically, as “truthiness?” Unlike Mr. Spurr, I don’t think the typical reaction of ordinary people to the Christmas story is to think that God is clever and to wish He’d apply some of that cleverness to their own problems. I think it’s… Read more »

Cheryl Va.
Guest

One of the issues with both Jesus and John the Baptist was their “perfect” nature. The problem goes back to a debate between the angels. With one camp claiming that this is a fallen unwanted world that God suffers until its inhabitants are either reformed or exterminated. The other camp arguing that this is a desired world, and that this world exists to enable profound lessons to be learn that are difficult to be learnt in more ephemeral realms. The former would grudgingly accept Jesus and John the Baptist, but then reject the rest of us as “broken” and unloved.… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
Guest
Pat O'Neill

BillyD: But do you literally believe that a star appeared over his stable birthplace and never moved for two weeks? Oh, and as for the “virgin” part–you DO know that most scholars translate the Hebrew word in question as “maiden” or “young girl”, don’t you? One last thing–a good deal of the historical “set-up” in Luke’s gospel is wrong…Augustus’ census never required people to go traipsing off to an ancestral city to be registered, it didn’t happen while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and there are a couple of other items in that list that are inconsistent with each other.… Read more »

Pat O'Neill
Guest
Pat O'Neill

HLee:

Your grandfather analogy is a little off. If your family told you such a story, it wouldn’t be myth, but a lie. OTOH, if your grandfather really was a doctor, who worked his whole life to better the lives of his neighbors, and he died young from overwork…then exaggerating that to the story you were told WOULD be myth-making.

Ford Elms
Guest
Ford Elms

“I’m not the first person to notice that the resurrection story is similar to the Isis and Osiris story, too.” If I’m not mistaken, Augustine has you beat by several centuries. Didn’t he say that there is nothing new in Christianity? The idea that concepts like the dying and resurrected God, the virgin Birth, etc. are present in various strands of paganism is nothing new, it is merely taken as evidence of God giving partial revelation of Himself, first to pagans, then more clearly to Jews, then in full glory in Christ. That isn’t new, it isn’t a reason to… Read more »

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Fr Ron
Apologies if I have misunderstood you, or the whole conversation. Or maybe if I have remembered wrongly who said what in the earlier conversation about the immaculate conception.
Heresy? That made me giggle! I am the last person who can accuse others of non-orthodox theology!

But then, you and Andrew don’t seem to be quite as far apart as it appeared at first.

A very happy new year to you too!

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

BillyD

“And I’m getting increasingly disheartened by the Spongian sneering of those who insist that no educated, thinking, modern Anglican can really believe this”

I hope you find that most of us are simply saying that it is not necessary to believe it in order to be a true Christian.
I cannot imagine anyone on this forum who would call your beliefs uneducated. It’s just that a few of us don’t share them.

Pluralist
Guest

More like this, H Lee. Your family told you that your deceased grandfather was born already destined to be a doctor, and that as a doctor he didn’t dispense tablets but just said a few words to people, and everyone was miraculously cured, and that when this was done the belief that soon there would be no illness became, instead, your grandfather appearing after his death to your parents telling them how to do what he did. Instead it turns out that your grandfather was a pretty good doctor with an excellent patient relationship and some got better talking to… Read more »

BillyD
Guest

“The fact is that facts matter, at least to ordinary people. Here’s an illustration: Suppose I am told all my life that my deceased grandfather was a heroic doctor …”

You don’t have to get very hypothetical to find an example of this. Just this week we learned that the Buchenwald love story being trumpeted by the Rosenblats’ publisher and the news media was a fraud, supposedly cooked up some time ago. Said Mr. R., “”I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world.”

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7802608.stm

Cynthia Gilliatt
Guest
Cynthia Gilliatt

As someone who taught courses in the Bible as literature and in Greek mythology, I’ll add one more element to the discussion of ‘myth.’ H. Lee’s narrative about believing one thing about his grandfather [heroic doctor] and learning who is was in fact [shoe salesman] illustrates another difficulty in how we post-Enlightenment people think about facts and truth. H. Lee, in learning that his grandfather was a shoe salesman, has learned the FACTS of his life, but not necessarily the TRUTH about him. He may, for example, as a short-lived shoe salesman actually been heroic in working hard to provide… Read more »

BillyD
Guest

“One thing I have absolutely no problem with is the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass. To me that is important.”

I’m with Flannery O’Connor: if the Eucharist is just a symbol, then to hell with it.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

BillyD

“I’m with Flannery O’Connor: if the Eucharist is just a symbol, then to hell with it.”

Well well well, who’s intolerant now?
For me it is a symbol, but a very very powerful one that brings me close to God.
To hell with it? Absolutely not!

BillyD
Guest

“But do you literally believe that a star appeared over his stable birthplace and never moved for two weeks?” Why should I? That’s not what Luke says. It’s what someone intent on “debunking” Luke says that he says. “Oh, and as for the “virgin” part–you DO know that most scholars translate the Hebrew word in question as “maiden” or “young girl”, don’t you?” Um-hm. Except for those scholars who translated the Bible into Greek in the third century BC. They translated “‘almah” as “parthenos.” Maybe they knew something. At any rate, theirs was the version of the Bible that the… Read more »

H. Lee
Guest
H. Lee

>>H. Lee’s narrative about believing one thing about his grandfather [heroic doctor] and learning who is was in fact [shoe salesman] illustrates another difficulty in how we post-Enlightenment people think about facts and truth. >>H. Lee, in learning that his grandfather was a shoe salesman, has learned the FACTS of his life, but not necessarily the TRUTH about him. He may, for example, as a short-lived shoe salesman actually been heroic in working hard to provide for his family.<< A shoe salesman may easily be as heroic as a doctor, but in that case, he should be described as a… Read more »

BillyD
Guest

“I hope you find that most of us are simply saying that it is not necessary to believe it in order to be a true Christian.”

Most, yes.

BillyD
Guest

“Well well well, who’s intolerant now?”

Hey, don’t blame me, blame Flannery O’Connor. 😉

“For me it is a symbol, but a very very powerful one that brings me close to God.”

Of course it’s a symbol, Erika. Sacraments are by their very nature symbolic, it would seem to me. The question is, is that all it is for you – a symbol? If so, how on earth do you sit through the Communion Service assenting that it is, in fact, much more than that?

BillyD
Guest

My bad…of course, the story of the three wise men is in Matthew, not Luke.

rick allen
Guest

“you DO know that most scholars translate the Hebrew word in question as “maiden” or “young girl”, don’t you?”

The funny thing is, in older English, “maiden” means “virgin.” The connotations associated with words may vary with time. (Graham Greene rather played on this when his Monsignor Quixote inadvertently attended a pornographic film, enticed by its title, “A Maiden’s Prayer”).

The German word for “virgin” is “Jungfrau.” But we live in a time when it is apparently unthinkable that “young woman” should have a virginal connotation.

Pat O&apos;Neill
Guest
Pat O&apos;Neill

BillyD: Regarding the star…it is certainly the only possible interpretation (and the star isn’t in Luke, it’s in Matthew, isn’t it?). The star appears over Bethlehem, is seen by the Magi some hundreds of miles to the East, they begin their trip, and arrive at the stable some weeks later. Clearly, it had to remain stationary for that to happen. Regarding “virgin”…the church relied on that early translation because it was the only it had; it certainly doesn’t make it right. Regarding Luke’s history…you’d go with a single source that offers no documentary evidence over the documentary evidence of scores… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest
Father Ron Smith

I still think this is one of the most poetically convincing statements in all of Scripture:

“The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld (I still ‘behold’) his glory: The glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. (St.John’s Gospel)

Thanks be to God – and to all who believe!

BillyD
Guest

“Regarding the star…it is certainly the only possible interpretation (and the star isn’t in Luke, it’s in Matthew, isn’t it?). The star appears over Bethlehem, is seen by the Magi some hundreds of miles to the East, they begin their trip, and arrive at the stable some weeks later. Clearly, it had to remain stationary for that to happen.” Go back and read the account again. First of all, the story doesn’t talk about the star standing still until after the wise men show up in Jerusalem, asking where the baby was. A journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem doesn’t take… Read more »

Cynthia Gilliatt
Guest
Cynthia Gilliatt

“My bad…of course, the story of the three wise men is in Matthew, not Luke.” Actually, Matthew doesn’t say how many there were – nor does he say that each came from a different ‘race’ [white, black, yellow], nor does he give names to them, as found in the Epiphany hymn, “We Three Kings …” And on another note, look at the ages of the boys – the Holy Innocents – that Herod goes after. It’s not newborns, is it? So Matthew’s story may conflate a birth narrative with traditions about the young Jesus. For an exaushting, but well written,… Read more »

Cynthia Gilliatt
Guest
Cynthia Gilliatt

“exaushting,”

“exausting!” Thish is how I will likely shound towards the end of 31 January! Happy New Year!