Sunday, December 30, 2012

Did Christmas Really Happen?

Last week, a former seminary professor of mine wrote an article for Huffington Post whereby he claims that he doesn't "know or care if [the Christmas story] 'really happened'" and that whether it is or isn't "factually accurate" doesn't matter as to whether the general themes of the story are "trustworthy and true". 

As much as I like David Lose (heck, I even made a figgy pudding for Christmas dinner this year!) I'm sure you can guess that I have a big problem with this.

Dr. Lose uses most of his article to do some pretty basic historical and textual criticism of the varying Biblical "infancy narratives".  Luke and Matthew have basically no factual overlap, we can't really know the details because they're reported so differently, nobody else but Matthew talks about the Slaughter of the Innocents, Luke "seems not to know about" the escape to Egypt, etc, etc.  Thus, Lose tells us, the two accounts are "virtually irreconcilable", but none of this matters because 
Such stories tell us the truth, the truth about the world we live in, about our capacity for good and evil, bravery and cowardice, and about the hopes and fears and tragedies of our lives. But they don't stop there. These stories of wayward magicians, outcast shepherds, and unwed teens also confess the truth that somehow, somewhere, God is mixed up in all of this.

Okay, let's start with this: I am not opposed to historical (or other) criticism per se.  I think that knowing the geopolitical, religious, and other cultural settings at the time of the writing of various books of the Bible is interesting and helpful.  I think it's good to know how language and literature functioned in the ancient world, what the various intended audiences of the prophets, story-tellers, and letter-writers would have heard, and how they might have reacted, to the message.  I am completely fine with the idea that, particularly in the Gospels and the historical books of the OT where there are multiple accounts of the same event, it's because there were different individuals writing (or otherwise preserving) the accounts, and they had different purposes and different audiences.  I don't feel the need to harmonize the Easter stories, and I don't feel the need to get all worked up about two different creation stories.  There are things to be gained from each rendering, and it need not destroy our faith. 

That said, I think that we need to be incredibly humble when we start claiming that so-and-so "seems to know nothing about" Event A, or that he is "playing fast and loose" with the facts.  No matter how good our archaeology is, no matter how deep into history we might get, we, living 6000 miles away and 2000 years hence, will never know more about "what happened" than people who actually lived in that land, in that time, in that culture, people who knew the participants in the events, or at least, knew the people who knew them.  To suggest otherwise - that we know more about 1st century Palestinian events than people who actually lived in Palestine in the first century - is arrogant, along with just patently ridiculous.

To be sure, literature did function differently in the ancient world than it does today.  Dr. Lose is completely correct in stating, "Luke - and Matthew, Mark, and John for that matter - are playing for bigger stakes than mere historical accuracy. They are trying to share their faith far more than they are trying to establish the facts."

And what of it?  We still do this today, after all.  Anybody who has preached a sermon can tell you that there are details of the story they've chosen not to deal with (you can't preach on everything, all in one sermon), there are theological minutiae that they've skirted around, or linguistic ambiguities they haven't engaged, for the purpose of the sermon at hand.  And so long as we aren't twisting the text to make it say what we want, in contradiction to what it in fact says, or making things up out of whole cloth, I don't think there's anything wrong with this.  Depending on how good of a preacher you are, you've got people's attention for somewhere between 10 and 45 minutes - there's no way you're going to be able to say it all.  Heck, we even do this in the movies!  Does anyone think that Lincoln is 100% factually accurate in every last detail?  Of course not.  But it, and your average Sunday sermon, are on the whole, reasonably close to "factually accurate".  Which is the task of the preacher, and the documentary-ish filmmaker. 

So why then are we Christians so afraid to extend that same charity to the Biblical authors?  Do Luke and Matthew share different details of Jesus' conception, birth, and infancy?  Yes.  Do all four gospel writers share different - even contradicting - details of his trial, death, and resurrection?  Yes.  Does that mean that, on the whole, they are not reasonably close to "factually accurate"?  Of course not.  When two honest-and-sincere witnesses share differing accounts of a car accident we do not impugn and denigrate their motives, throw up our hands, and declare that we'll never know, and it doesn't even really matter if the accident itself happened, all we need to know is that some people are hurting right now.

"Did it really happen?" matters because Christianity (and Judaism, for that matter) is a religion based on claims that God actually, factually, concretely intervened in the long, sorry history of this world, and further claims that the consequence of this intervention is that the long, sorry history of this world and the people in it have been redeemed, and that one day, the "final intervention" will take place, and the whole entire thing will be completely recreated. 

If we find that the Gospel writers are playing "fast and loose" with the facts of this intervention, then those of us who have placed our trust in the God we believe has intervened in this way, are placing our entire salvation at stake.  Because once we declare that the Gospel writers are the sort of people who manipulate historical facts to the point that they no longer recognizably represent the event (regardless of the reason why), then everything they wrote about - up to and including the Resurrection - is up for grabs.  And as St. Paul writes, if Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain and we are most of all to be pitied.  

To be fair, I don't think David Lose, in this article, is denying the historicity of the Nativity.  I think he's attempting to reach out and make Christianity slightly more palatable and accessible to the average 21st-century skeptic.  But I just don't think anything is gained by this strategy.  Christianity is offensive, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is because it asks us to believe things, that, to put it mildly, boggle the mind.  It asks us to suspend disbelief, and trust the promises.  And how are we to know what those promises are, and that they are real, if they weren't, at some point, in some particular situation, given to us?  Whether it's from the top of a mountain or the back room of the Temple or in a field by night, somewhere along the line it had to actually happen.  Backing down from the authority or reliability of the canon in an attempt to "win over skeptics" is not doing them - or the faith - any favors. 

Thus, I'm frustrated, in part, because I think this particular article could have been written with all the info explaining that Matthew/Luke/John were writing to different audiences, Matthew is taking great pains to set the infancy narrative in the context of Jewish history, Luke is concerned with geopolitical history, and John's prologue focuses on cosmic history.  This of course means that stories and details will be somewhat different, but as Christians who affirm that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, we believe that, all things considered, the birth of Christ happened basically in the fashion in which it's described, and while there are many parts of the story that are "hard to believe", we nevertheless find it harder to believe that God is a liar whose word cannot be trusted.  Therefore, dear skeptic, because we believe that God chose to intervene in history in this way, at that time, in that place, because we believe that Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us, we also believe that God is just as present at a Slaughter of the Innocents in Newtown, CT, as he was in Bethlehem; we believe that the young Jesus whose parents spirited him away to Egypt and who knows what it is to hide from crazy murderers was lovingly, graciously, really present in closets and bathrooms with young children attempting to escape the crazy murderer of their own day. 

Bottom line: if we are going to do evangelism and apologetics, let us do them well.  To "apologize" in the classic sense, is to defend - as in, "defend the faith", not "defend our inability/lack of desire to believe."  The historic, orthodox, traditional Christian faith tells us, in the words of the Apostles Creed, that Jesus was "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary."  Let us not shrink from this scandalous nature of our faith, nor water it down - for when we alter the message because we can't bear it, are we not counted among the company of the rich young ruler, or no-longer-disciples of John 6? And that, Christians, is a place I don't want to be...

PS: One final point on the topic of historical criticism - it is so strange to me that Biblical scholars feel totally free to deny the historicity of, say, the Slaughter of the Innocents, an event which is attested to by the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of James, and Macrobius, and which has been observed by the Church as a liturgical feast since 485 AD, and yet, also feel free to unequivocally affirm the existence of "Q". (This is not about David Lose in particular - I have no idea about his personal opinion on Q, I'm speaking of scholars in general here.)


Anonymous said...

I'd have to ask why the professor is a professor of religion. If he's a pastor -- I think he needs to find a new job.

Please don't call the ELCA a Lutheran organization anymore.

Kathy said...

Hi Elizabeth -- Kathy Suarez here. Happy New Year! Hey, Liz, I am an old lady and I cannot read the white on red type format you have chosen. Could you just use good ol' black on white? Right now I am going to copy and paste your posts so I can read them! Am I speaking the Truth in LOVE?

I just started a blog at WordPress -- black on white.

Elizabeth of Hungary said...


I've been thinking it's time to play with the format a little bit...thanks for the heads up that it's hard to read - I'll work on it - if not tonight, then hopefully tomorrow! :)

Happy New Year!

(And btw - please feel free to hang out here and comment, and share your perspective - sorry if I came across as overly touchy's just that I've near-literally gone through hell and back "discerning" where I need to be, and at this point, "continuing to discern" is really just an invitation to hang out in the darkness some more.)

Also, please know that I have nothing but respect for the Roman Catholic Church - "some of my best friends" are some of the best, most faithful Catholics I know. :)

Thanks for being here!

Kathy said...

I'm home alone on New Year's Eve... so ... another comment. Hey, thanks! Some of my best friends are Lutherans -- I was a Lutheran (LCA) for 27 years! Tim Lull -- the now-famous author -- was a good buddy of mine. (He died in 2003. Sad.)

My blog is called Lutheran/Catholic: Reconciliation in a Broken Church. I just wrote a post about the David Lose article.

I firmly believe the time has come for the Church to be re-united. It is possible! We have the information at our fingertips -- the internet! Let's do this. Information. Truth. It is possible!

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