I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Christmas. There were presents, of course. Not too many–just enough to wake you before your parents. Saving the best for last, my brother and I went first for smallish parcels from dista nt relatives while still working the kinks from our corneas, the phlegm from dry winter windpipes. It wasn’t all that important we got a good look at what was inside the boxes anyhow. Yawning and bleary-eyed, we unwrapped and deposited the contents far from the tree in discrete piles–for me, a pile of brightly colored clothes mostly, whose tags wouldn’t be plucked until the afternoon they were dropped at Goodwill. I’ve always wanted just to blend in; these logoed pastels raised expectations I knew I couldn’t meet. I needed Army-green, brown, khaki–navy blue, maybe, if I’d had a really good week.
There were Christmas parties, lavish meals, awkward phone calls to family we hadn’t spoken to for exactly twelve months, and church services too. The parties were crammed with flushed, sweatered adults cradling mugs of warm cider, balancing red and green paper plates above plush white carpets, smiling broadly and more often than they were used to. We kids eventually coalesced into a corner of our own, where we yelled our conversations behind handfuls of calories while scanning our parents’ body language for the cue to leave. The parties were fine–something to do–– but I wouldn’t say they beat vegging out in front of the television set, where we might munch away mindlessly on candy canes and caramel corn straight from the can, flip aimlessly past old Christmas black-and-whites we’d heard so much about but never had the will to endure, and drift in and out of consciousness as our bodies molded to the sofa.
Meals were overly formal and long. Elders instructed us to take big cloth napkins– musty, creased into four perfect rectangles, felling like sandpaper on a young boy’s face–and drape them over our laps. People were silent for long stretches as silverware clanked and large heavy dishes were passed round the table. We were tight-lipped, tense: we had to think unceasingly about which hand to saw the meat with, which fork not to pick up right away, whether we might have some stray morsel on our shirts or faces. And we were polite. But our tiny tummies filled more quickly than the others, and as time wore on we got antsy and began to squirm. To make matters worse, there was always some game on we were missing, a game in the fourth quarter or in overtime, invariably dubbed the next morning as “the best game of the year.”
Phone calls to distant family were amicable, benign, painless overall. I labored to put faces to voices; more often than not, I couldn’t. The voices asked questions, which we dutifully answered, our feet dangling listlessly as we sat on the countertop, the long corkscrew cord wrapped tightly about our arms, then–in jest–around our necks. Sometimes we even asked questions too, since it was the decent thing to do. Our parents stood idly by.
Of church services, there were two: one on Christmas Eve, ending as the tall clock downtown struck midnight, and another on Sunday morning. My favorite was on Christmas Eve, when the stone sanctuary was dark and deep-woods quiet, and we were bathed from all sides by wreathed radiant candlelight. We scooted into purple-cushioned pews, nodding to friends and stealing glances at the pretty girls, ever mindful of the sacredness of the occasion. Familiar hymns peopled with shepherds and lowly virgins and angels on high were sung cheerfully, a cappella; familiar stories of guiding stars and swaddled infant were read by large black-robed men in reassuring bass or baritone; familiar themes of grace and joy were heard from pulpit, from choir loft, from neighbors dutifully reciting the folded page. And when the blessing had been given, we departed after pinching thin cardboard-skirted candles, filing sleepy and serene into a dark but purposeful universe, watched over by a loving father whose son once said we were of infinitely greater worth than many sparrows.
But I haven’t been back to either service in eight years, not since our son was born. Each Thanksgiving weekend, we still put up a plastic tree draped in white lights, colored globes, and an odd array of dusty knickknacks hung from yarn, but there’s no infant savior sleeping in a manger, no virgin mother, no dream-prone father, no magi bearing gifts, no monomaniacal king out for blood, no angels singing triumphantly in the night sky, no shepherds hurrying on foot for a glimpse of the long-awaited messiah. Yes, still there are parties and meals and phone calls, but no Christ-child, no midnight metamorphosis of mere cold starry darkness into a genial firmament. And I wonder why not, because I miss it.
For the past five years, I’ve taught the Christmas stories to undergraduates, and I think this may have something to do with it. Let me explain. About midway through my introductory course on the New Testament writings, we devote one full class session to the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke (Mark and John have none). After students have gathered into groups, I ask them to jot down as many differences between these stories as they can and then tell me which elements in both they find unlikely to have happened as narrated. Parsing these differences has the advantage of encouraging an unhurried, attentive reading of tales many feel confident they already know, and of teasing apart two distinct narratives routinely conflated by churches each December. Students, for instance, invariably point to different hometowns for Jesus and his parents, different casts of characters for each story, and different plots. I also help them see that the two accounts set Jesus’s birth about ten years apart and point out a few historical inaccuracies, such as that Caesar Augustus once ordered a census of the whole inhabited world (he didn’t) and that Roman censuses registered people where they were born rather than where they lived, worked, and paid taxes (they didn’t).
When I suggest that we address features of the stories they found “unbelievable” students avert their eyes, begin shifting uneasily in their chairs, and reach for a drink, a bag of chips, or a peek at their iPhones. Thankfully, there’s always some courageous soul who eventually raises his or her hand and floats one feature with which the whole class is likely to resonate, like the roving star that leads the magi to Joseph and Mary, the slaughter of every male child under the age of two in and around Bethlehem, or the appearance of God’s heavenly army (yes, that’s the Greek word used here) over fields where shepherds are tending their flocks. And so we begin–slowly, tentatively–filling the long awkward silences. One of the last (if not the last) features mentioned is the virgin birth. Its belated arrival is a testament to the enduring sanctity of the claim that Jesus was born not of the union of two ordinary hominids but of Mary and the Almighty.
What I find interesting–and encouraging–is that once one student has voiced doubt, it frees others to acknowledge theirs, even those who have hinted at strong ties to a Christian community. Although Christian students generally do not go so far as to outright deny the virgin birth, they will acknowledge that the doctrine strains credibility, and many seem relieved to find that their peers share their skepticism.
As our discussion of the stories’ “incredible” features winds down, I often have a few guilt-stricken students anxiously blurt, “But it’s not like I don’t believe it all happened just like the Bible says, Mr. Metzger,” as if their parents or pastor had suddenly walked in the door and announced that the whole hour had been captured on a hi
dden video recorder. I often gently push back: “But, you can’t believe it all, can you? The stories are so radically different. As we saw earlier, they flat-out contradict one another time and time again. They can’t both be right, can they?” Students who have been paying attention know there is no reconciling these stories, and they also know that each is bloated with mythical features that simply do not mesh with our modern view of the world. Yet, they feel as if they should believe every last sentence on those crinkly pages. Why? Because it’s the Bible, a holy book inspired by none other than the creator of the universe. How can it possibly manifest untruths, contradictions, or errors? Surely any contradictions or errors must be apparent rather than real.
Toward the end of the session, I introduce other miraculous conception stories from the ancient world in which a child is claimed to be the offspring of a deity and a woman. Students generally are surprised to learn that so many of them predate the Gospels, and they very quickly are able to discern their purpose: whoever is awarded a divine conception story–whether Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, Octavian (Caesar Augustus), Jesus, or even Plato–is no ordinary mortal; hailing from another realm, such a one brings unique gifts, extraordinary abilities. Each of these stories functions rhetorically to boost the hero’s reputation.
Not surprisingly, all students deny the veracity of these other divine conception stories from the ancient world, but few if any Christians are willing to give up on the accounts in Matthew and Luke. So, I often ask, “On what grounds, then, might one argue that the Gospel’s infancy stories are true but all of the others are false?” Of course, the only way to avoid the charge of arbitrarism is to fall back on the claim that scripture is God-breathed and therefore true, for there really is no other argument by which one might defend the primacy of the Gospels. In the end, many students concede, “Well, I guess you just have to have faith.” And this, I believe, is precisely why I’ve been so reticent to invite Jesus and angels and virgin mothers back into our home, or to drag our son to church on Christmas Eve.
There’s just something so deeply unsettling about suppressing the obvious: that these narratives were created to enhance Jesus’s honor as a man of uncommon wisdom and abilities and do not–nor even purport to–offer modern readers an accurate account of “what really happened.” Put differently, there was no virgin birth in Bethlehem two thousand years ago; neither were there any roving stars, nor angelic warriors hovering above fields where shepherds were tending their flocks. And yes, based on what we know of how the world works and how babies get born, it’s safe to say that none of the other accounts of miraculous conceptions that predate the Gospels are true either.
The virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke remain attractive today because they present readers with a Jesus who is part-divine and whose teachings therefore carry weight. Because what he says in the remainder of these Gospels ultimately is from God, we have a ready-made reason to heed his counsel. Rooted in the divine will, there’s no need to engage in the difficult work of evaluating which of his teachings still may be useful and which are better left in the first century.
But any tradition that falls back on a divine conception story to authorize a hero’s teachings will inevitably raise suspicions. Can his words not stand on their own merit? If not, which teachings in particular require divine authorization to solicit broad assent? By grounding his teachings in an infallible transcendent will, his early followers give the appearance of trying to shield them from public scrutiny, from open debate. If he really was a teacher whose uncommon wisdom should be self-evident to all, why bother with a divine conception story at all? Why not resist the temptation to moor them to claims of divine origination and simply lay them out for all to peruse, with the sole stipulation, “Test and see for yourself”?
But appeals to divine authority not only discourage critical reflection. When potentially deleterious teachings appear in the corpus of a visionary (and they always do), religious leaders may continue to hammer them home regardless of their effects upon adherents. A case in point is Jesus’s uncompromising stance in Mark on divorce. It is clearly in the best of interest of persons stuck in an abusive marriage to initiate divorce proceedings, but according to Mark, Jesus would prohibit his followers from taking any such action. Religious leaders, then, may deny congregants a much-needed reprieve from verbal or physical abuse with the simple rationale, “Jesus, who speaks God’s mind, prohibited divorce. So there you have it. I’m really sorry about this, but it’s your duty to remain by this violent rascal’s side until one of you croaks or the Lord returns.” Expunge from the tradition divine conception stories that ground Jesus’s words in God’s infallible will and his teachings become the humble musings of an ordinary Jewish peasant, shaped inevitably by his particular historical moment and culture–musings, importantly, that, because mortal, are always up for negotiation.
If Christian communities candidly acknowledged that we are dealing with fictions, I would be eager to return to church during the holidays, but I can’t remember any minister ever conceding this fact from the pulpit. Across the United States, these stories still are minimally sold as “roughly what happened,” even in many progressive mainline communities. Certainly many well-educated ministers don’t believe the infancy stories are historical, but neither do they publicly admit that they are fictions. Insofar as they remain silent, they are complicit in perpetuating an unjustifiable belief and no better than John Boehner and other GOP leaders who knew Barack Obama was born in the United States but refused to call out their party’s “birthers.” It is likely that the authors of Matthew and Luke, who penned their narratives nearly ninety years after Jesus was born, knew not a single thing about the circumstances of his birth or infancy. As I noted above, they can’t even agree on when he was born: Matthew suggests that it occurred a few years before the Common Era, during the final years of Herod the Great’s reign, while Luke places it several years after the beginning of the Common Era, under Quirinius, then governor of Syria.
For me, the problem with treating fictions as if they are history, or even refusing to challenge the widely held assumption that they may testify to “roughly what happened,” is a deeply moral one. Belief aims at or presumes truth, and it shouldn’t casually or haphazardly be extended to just any proposition. What kind of example are we setting for the next generation if we do? What kinds of mental habits are we encouraging in our children? The implied message from most Christian communities during Christmas is, “Take it on faith.” I cannot endorse any institution that commends a leap of faith over open inquiry or places a premium on metaphysical comfort over the pursuit of truth. When churches advocate a posture of “faith” toward core doctrines like Jesus’s divine conception (or, at Easter-time, his resurrection), they effectively are saying that critical inquiry and evidence sometimes do not matter. Sometimes you just have to believe.
In a widely anthologized essay titled “The Ethics of Belief” (1877), William Kingdon Clifford reminds us that beliefs are not merely private matters but often have profound social consequences. Beliefs ought to be based on patient inquiry and on the best evidence available to us, he ar
gues; they certainly should not be sustained “by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation,” which is what the church generally has done since the first serious challenges to its key claims began to emerge in the wake of the Renaissance. Any “solace and private pleasure” we may receive from beliefs that have not been earned through open inquiry are “stolen,” Clifford says. Perhaps most importantly, each time “we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons,” we nurture “the credulous character … and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them.” Fostering thoughtless credulity Clifford calls “one long sin” against our fellow human beings, a betrayal of our “awful responsibility” to the next generation. In encouraging “the credulous character,” the potential for harm is enormous: witness the widespread disregard in the GOP for the staggering amount of data evidencing human-induced climate change. A timely response, scientists have warned, is imperative to avert global catastrophe. But for some in the GOP, the evidence matters not. Sustaining a status quo that brings “solace and private pleasure” trumps truth–and, presumably, the welfare of their grandchildren.
Admittedly, our beliefs always surpass what we each of us is able to verify through personal experience. In fact, we rely to a large degree on the testimony and character of others for a majority of them. I trust, for instance, that Earth is round (roughly speaking, of course); I have not taken the time to establish this fact on my own. Intuitively it appears “flat,” but all astronomers and geologists agree on its “roundness,” and photographs snapped by satellites from different locations in outer space allow me to infer that they’re correct. Moreover, countless people now have circumnavigated the globe by boat and plane and come back to tell their tales. I feel that this combined testimony is enough to warrant my assent to the proposition “Earth is round” without my having to travel its circumference myself. Because this belief has behind it an enormous amount of easily verifiable evidence, it is one I feel justified holding. But that a Middle-Eastern peasant born just before the Common Era was the offspring of a god and an ordinary woman is not a belief we are justified in holding, given what we know about how babies are made and the present state of biblical scholarship. Furthermore, we have not a shred of evidence for miraculous conceptions, so to ask people simply to “believe” these accounts, and then to commend as “saintly” or “pious” any who coerce themselves into blind intellectual assent, is morally repugnant. It sets an unhealthy precedent for subsequent generations, encouraging habits of mind that will not serve us well as a species going forward.
So, I suppose it’s a nurturing of (or, in some cases, a failure to contest) “the credulous character” that troubles me most about Christmas as it’s celebrated here in the United States, and has kept me just outside those church doors. There are times, many Christian leaders argue, when you must table inquiry, shut your eyes, and take the plunge. And I often see the effects of this mindset in my classes. By the end of our session on the infancy narratives, Christian students understand that these stories are indebted to preexisting divine conception motifs and were created to enhance Jesus’s reputation; they also see that Matthew’s and Luke’s stories differ so radically that both cannot be “right.” But when it comes to religion, they have been taught to compartmentalize, to lockbox one’s faith commitments, to suppress doubt at all costs. Which is why I hear students say at the end of a productive discussion on the infancy narratives, “Now, don’t get me wrong, Mr. Metzger, I still believe it all.”
While the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke may not furnish a single reliable datum regarding the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, they do offer an intriguing glimpse into the concerns and values of some of the earliest Christian communities. For me, their primary appeal lies in the hope they convey before raw imperial might. Take, for instance, Luke 2:1-14, where the narrator informs us of Joseph’s and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem to be registered in a census and of the subsequent appearance of Gabriel and God’s heavenly army to a few shepherds, who learn of the “good news” that a savior–“the Messiah, the Lord”–has just been born. The historical setting against which the story is told is this: peasants in early Roman Palestine were being taxed a criminally high share of their annual harvest–some scholars estimate as high as 50 percent–and as a result, many were losing their ancestral lands, upon which they depended for nearly all of their basic needs. Peasants who lost their land generally had three options: either rent the family plot from the wealthy individual who had purchased it, uproot and go looking for work in one of the nearby urban centers, or join one of the many bandit groups and plunder to survive. Rome’s economy in Palestine was structured in such a way as to keep ordinary people at or below subsistence level while swelling the already vast estates of the wealthy elites.
A census is always bad news for peasants, since its chief purpose is to further facilitate and regulate the collection of taxes. But, to offset Octavian’s announcement to register “the whole inhabited world” (a census for which we have no historical evidence), God’s archangel Gabriel proclaims to shepherds–a group at the bottom of the social hierarchy–that there is now “good news of great joy for all the people,” not just an elite few. The term good news often was used in reference to the accession of a new emperor to the throne or to a recent Roman military victory, but Gabriel applies this term to the appearance of another savior who has the interests of Palestine’s poor in view, as well as to the revelation that Caesar’s hold on power is finite. That Caesar’s reign will come to an end is signified by the disclosure in the night sky of God’s army, which presumably can trump any amount of force and ingenuity Rome might muster with its legions.
Appellations ascribed to Jesus here and elsewhere in Luke–“Savior,” “Lord,” and “Son of God,” for instance–had been applied to Caesar Augustus long before the Gospels were written. What this story does is offer a counterclaim to Roman imperial ideology: “Caesar’s not our Savior or Lord,” it says, “rather, Jesus is.” With the arrival of Jesus, Palestine’s ordinary people–hungry, indebted, dispossessed–now have a Savior, Lord, and Son of God who is concerned chiefly with their welfare. And he will inaugurate a lasting “peace”–not by force and at the expense of so many, as the Roman Empire had done–a peace in which all will have what they need and none will want. Implied, of course, is that these titles ascribed to Jesus by early Christian communities are not “timeless” and do not get at his “essence”; they emerged in a very specific social and historical context, and they only make sense within that context. It should come as no surprise, then, that continuing to call Jesus “Son of God,” “Lord,” or “King” might feel odd to many parishioners today, since we (post)moderns generally don’t use that kind of language anymore. Gone are the days when certain individuals were held to be the offspring of a deity and a human being; gone are the days when we referred to our superiors as “Lord” or bent the knee before a “King.” Here in the United States, th
e language is outdated and probably ought to be scrapped. What sense does it make to keep referring to Jesus as “King” when we don’t live in a kingdom, have long ago forgotten what living under a king is like, and certainly don’t expect a future “kingdom” to emerge any time soon? In continuing to call Jesus “King,” aren’t Christians implying that they desire a return to monarchic rule with Jesus at the helm, endowed with full power to do what he wants without any input from his lowly biddable subjects?
Despite the antiquated language, this short passage offers a forceful critique of injustices under the Pax Romana while heralding the beginning of a new era–what Jesus elsewhere calls “the kingdom of God”–in which land and resources would be redistributed fairly and those broken by Roman rule made whole. We have here a contestation of imperial power coupled with the dawn of a whole new set of values grounded in compassion and justice. Although reinscribing the story’s animating metaphysic (God, angels, a divine conception) would be undesirable, its revolutionary spirit can still fully be appreciated today. The text may confront Christian communities in the United States with rather unsettling questions, such as: Whose side are we on? Do our values resemble those of “God’s kingdom,” or do they mirror those of the Pax Romana? Have we remained true to our revolutionary beginnings, or have we betrayed them? This political reading is hardly irrelevant today, at least for many subaltern peoples, and pastors may offer up something similar to parishioners without foisting upon them the labor of believing the unbelievable.
But, as attractive as this reading might be to me now, is this really what I want to hear on Christmas morning? Do I really want to be implicated as oppressor after having oiled the late-capitalist machine by hemming the tree with shiny ribboned boxes and stuffing large monogrammed socks with useless trinkets from sweatshops overseas? Will my son even understand this message? After the service, will I have to explain taxation, exploitation, imperialism, and postcolonial hermeneutics? Won’t any minister who offers a political reading like this sour our buoyant holiday mood?
Whatever the answers to these questions, I do know that for me to return to angels and miraculous conceptions and traveling stars, the church must candidly say, “Of course not, given what we now know,” and not hedge or remain silent, as it so often has done. There’s a growing body of research that suggests our fundamental views of the world and core values, once formed, are very difficult to change, no matter what evidence we may encounter later on. If this is so, it’s all the more important that children are not infused with outmoded conceptions of the world that later they may undo only with the greatest effort and angst, or taught mental habits conducive to “the credulous character.” There’s just too much at stake. So, as much I would like to settle into those purple-cushioned pews and sing again of angels and shepherds and infant messiahs, perhaps we’ll just pass the caramel corn around and let Linus tell the story this year.
Jim Metzger has taught at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Luther College, and East Carolina University. His most recent book is a novel titled Dim (2011).