Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Telling the Truth for Christmas

Here is a noble challenge to my colleagues in ministry.   The challenge is not shrill or insistent.  It is a noble challenge, take it up if you feel like it.   The challenge is to tell the truth this Christmas.  Not my truth.  Not John Shelby Spong's truth.  Not Al Mohler's truth.  Your truth.

Tell the truth during worship on this upcoming Fourth Sunday of Advent or Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (that conveniently happens to be on Sunday this year) about the Christmas stories.  What do you really think of them?    The challenge is to come clean. 

Here are a few questions to get you started.
  1. Do you think Jesus was born of a virgin?   
  2. Do you think a star stopped over the place where Jesus was?  
  3. Do you think wise men followed this star from the east?
  4. Do you think angels are real and that one of them spoke to Mary?
  5. Do you think angels told shepherds about Jesus?
  6. Do you think the Hebrew Prophets (ie. Isaiah) predicted Jesus' birth?
  7. Are these stories historical or legendary?
  8. What do you think? Where do you stand?
I am not saying what to think.  I am offering a challenge to tell the truth as you see it.   If you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and the angels and shepherds and star and wise men tell pretty much what happened then go ahead and tell the church folks that on Christmas.   I bet your folks would like to know.    I know I did.  I wanted to know what my minister thought about these stories.  I rarely got a straight answer (except from fundamentalist preachers).  

Al Mohler and his type rely on the timidity of educated mainline clergy.  Mohler and his fundamentalist friends know that we are so scared of our congregations and of somehow offending them that they can get away with their bullying (by saying "a true Christian will not deny the virgin birth" and other bizarre crap) and know that rarely will it be challenged.   

If your seminary experience was anything like mine and my guess is that it was, you learned biblical criticism of the historical-critical variety and you also got the message that you shouldn't talk about it with your people because it might hurt their faith.   You might have heard something like, "Don't take away something without replacing it."  Whatever that means.   Or you heard, "Just tell them the story and they can come to terms with it by themselves.  You'll please everyone that way."  

I call BS on that.  I think people deserve to be treated like adults. They deserve to know where we stand and how we understand the texts about which we teach and preach.  I am not saying that there are not valuable nuances in legendary material and I certainly enjoy Christmas carols as much as the next person.    I don't always tell the truth.  I fudge as well.  Although I do it less than I used to.  

The challenge could have consequences.  I lost my last church for telling the truth as I saw it not only about the Iraq invasion or LGBT rights but because of my views on Jesus, too.  People were especially pissed about Jesus.  I have lost members in my current church for being honest about my views.   But we are doing OK.    I don't regret any of it.  

In fact, I think that many people have the same doubts as we do and are looking for someone to validate them.   They have outgrown their childhood religion with its magic potions, virgin births, and unicorns and are searching for an intelligent evaluation of their tradition.   For sure, some folks don't want you to go there.   I think it is those folks who have kept the church from maturing.   

I do think there is a danger of handing this rich tradition over to the fundamentalists.   I think we should fight for our tradition.  We do so by telling the truth about how we understand it. 

That is my challenge if you care to take it up.  Tell the truth this Christmas.   In the words of Mary:

Me, I'm just a small-town woman, 
a carpenter's wife, Jewish mother, nothing 
special. But listen, 
whenever I told my baby a fairy tale, 
I let him know it was a fairy tale. 
Go, all of you, and do likewise.

20 comments:

Jodie said...

Hey John,

I am not a member of the clergy, but can I answer your questions anyway?

1. Do you think Jesus was born of a virgin?

I like to think so, yes.

2. Do you think a star stopped over the place where Jesus was?

Not exactly verbatim, no.

3. Do you think wise men followed this star from the east?

Yes. And I think it was a triple conjunction. The planetarium at the Griffith Observatory has a re-creation of the planetary movements visible in the Middle East at the time of the birth of Jesus, and Persian astrologers might easily have interpreted them as indicating the birth of a mighty king taking place in Palestine. It raises interesting problems for the Fundamentalists though, because it suggests that God speaks to pagan religions in a language they can understand without conversion to Judaism or Christianity. It raises some intriguing possibilities.

4. Do you think angels are real and that one of them spoke to Mary?

Yes, and Yes. Why not? But they rarely get any credit. Cut backs and all.

5. Do you think angels told shepherds about Jesus?

Possibly. That part of the story doesn't hold well with the rest of the story. I think that part is a literary adaptation.

6. Do you think the Hebrew Prophets (ie. Isaiah) predicted Jesus' birth?

Not knowingly, no. But there is a repeating pattern in prophetic literature that allows for multiple historical events to fit the same template. In other words, multiple entendre, all of them right.

7. Are these stories historical or legendary?

Yes

8. What do you think? Where do you stand?

Nothing is ever quite what it seems. God is subtle. But something happened Two Thousand years ago in Palestine that changed the whole course of world history. And the literature that came out of that period is the most influential literature ever written in human history. Its not just the story it tells, but the way it tells it. It doesn't have just one or two layers of meaning, but many. And no matter how old or young you are, or what culture you come from, or what language you speak, from anywhere and any time, it speaks to your heart.

Remarkable, isn't it?

John Shuck said...

Hey Jodie, if you are being honest with your truth then good for you!

My honesty with my truth is "no" to the first six, and "legendary" on seven. Eight was a more open-ended question. I regard these stories in the way I regard Jesus' parables; they appear to be poking fun at the pretensions of the powers in order to show that the sacred is on the side of the ones who are put down, so I should take care about what side I am on.

Reverend Sax said...

My truth is that none of this is or was real, but myth and metaphor are the language of religion. We would not have to tell the "truth" about these things, if we knew that the hearers understood them as myth and metaphor. Unfortunately, they mostly don't (wanting literalism instead), so it is difficult for any of us to gain the wisdom that comes from myth.

Good preaching rarely exposes the myth, but rather unfolds the ways in which the myth illumines our lives. Doing this without dissembling about the "truth" is a challenge.

The local UUA pageant is "the shortest day." Now that's truth. Let's acknowledge our fears of the lengthening nights and celebrate with wonder the return of the sun.

Jodie said...

John,

Of course I am honest.

In my own branch of heresy, this is how it works. We choose the language, and God chooses the message.

If you no longer wish to accept the language of "myth" and "legend", that's OK. What language would you like to speak? If you no longer wish to accept virgins giving birth to sons of God, of angels declaring good news to Man, of a Prince of Peace coming to the rescue, or a king being shown to be born by the movement of the planets in the sky, then what language do you prefer to use?

Some choose to use the language of war and judgment, eternal fires of hell and damnation. For them, that is the language God must use if they are going to hear him.

Others speak of baptism of wind and fire and the ability to speak the language of angels.

Some even play with snakes!

The Roman Catholic Church used to think you had to speak in Latin and wear funny clothes.

So my question back to you, out of my own personal heretical curiosity, is "in what language does God speak to you?" such that when you hear it you say "oh my God, its You!"

John Shuck said...

If you no longer wish to accept the language of "myth" and "legend", that's OK. What language would you like to speak?

You are missing the point of my post. It is myth and legend and I accept it as myth and legend. The truth-telling I am advocating for those who wish to take up the challenge is to admit it.

This is especially important in a cultural context in which these stories are promoted as historical events and insisted upon as such (ie. Al Mohler).

John Shuck said...

@reverend sax

I think there is something else as well. I am also interested in who told them and why. What were the power arrangements and what did these stories do? In that sense there may be connections with our time as well (ie. in terms of power).

Reverend Sax said...

Cool, John. I guess I let down my post-modernist crap detector for a moment.

Bob Miller in Born Divine makes the point that people believe what they want because their is some payoff for them. If church leaders taught the virgin birth to gain power over believers, I suppose believers are those who are comfortable in that power relation - or who accept that power relation because the belief is emotionally satisfying.

John Shuck said...

Thanks for making a note of Bob Miller's book. It is excellent.

Jodie said...

John,

I do get your point. But did you get mine? I was just offering an alternate perspective. Namely that if you speak in the language of myth and legend, God can speak in that language as well, not just becoming a human being, but a human being who lives a mythical and legendary life.

The converse is true as well, in my own little heresy. If that kind of language does not suit you, God will not use it. Fundamentalism wastes everyone's time trying to convince people to believe the literalness of stories as if thats the only way a person can experience God, as if trying to teach God's divine language, when God freely offers to speak - already speaks - in the language of the listener.

It is the Evangelist who must learn the language of the Evangelised, not the other way around.

It's as if they believed that all non English speaking people don't really know how to speak, and so they must teach the Greeks to understand English in order to tell them a story about a Greek poet who learned to speak English so he could teach Greek to the English.

Thus missing the whole premise of the story.

I don't know if you buy into that possibility, but you did not answer my question. Since I answered yours, maybe you could answer mine? It's not a trick question, I just would like to know:

In what language does God speak to you such that when you hear it you say "oh my God, its You!"

I know you do.

Duke said...

Would you lie to save your family? Or your ability to provide for your family?

I read an article recently in Religious Dispatches that suggested this is why most ministers go along with these myths from the bible.

Others may go along with them because they simply don't know any better -- or for reasons not yet explained.

dangerchrist said...

Hey John,

Like Jodie, I too am not a member of the clergy, however I can share my insights:

1. No. The virgin tale is a knockoff of similar Pagan ones that was infused with midrash (Isaiah's prophecy that a "virgin shall conceive"). I believe that Jesus was born like the rest of us. Mark 6:3 even hints that Jesus was born illegitimately.

2. Nope. I did study astronomy in college, and stars don't move about in the fashion mentioned in the story.

3. I believe that it was about an actual astronomical occurrence that was present in the 1st Centuries BCE/CE.

4. I really don't subscribe to them...sorry.

5. No. I believe this story was a later add-on to deify Jesus and give his life story some "boost".

6. Nope. The Hebrew prophets all spoke to their present age. Any hint of a "Messiah" was for the Jewish nation. That would be like Martin Luther King Jr speaking about the 30th Century.

7. Legends built on some historical events.

8. I feel that the Nativity stories are allegory, not history. Plus, they were written years after the supposed events so anyone could put their spin on them.

As far as what Mohler stated about Christians believing the virgin birth as a part of their salvation is crazy. Nowhere did Jesus tell us to believe in his birth. This smacks of infantilizing Christianity and making the faith a pablum for those scared of trying to seek the truth.

Way to go John. You've asked some hard questions. Then again, the church needs hard questions directed at it. Peace!

John Shuck said...

@Duke

I think you are on to something. I have been singing that song for some time. We have put religious professionals in a place where they have to dissemble to survive.

John Shuck said...

@dangerchrist

Thanks!

I'll hold out a maybe that some astronomical event factored into the creation of the star legend. I think the star, wise men, etc. are creations by Matthew based on Isaiah 6:1-6.

John Shuck said...

@Jodie

In what language does God speak to you such that when you hear it you say "oh my God, its You!"

The question you are asking me sounds like a faith question and where I experience "God" question.

I often get asked that kind of question when I ask pointed questions about how we approach stories in the Bible or doctrines in our tradition. I am supposed to offer my faith credentials.

I find that question to be an avoidance of the issues I am raising which are quite simple and pointed.

It is a question that says there is something wrong with me "the non-believer" as opposed to the beliefs. I think the problem lies not in the doubters of the beliefs but in the beliefs.

As far as your question is concerned, I will answer it. I encounter the holy and sacred in many ways. But specifically in regard to texts what I find interesting, compelling, "God" if you must, is when these texts are interpreted in such a way to be liberating and empowering and when they change the course of a person's thinking, being, and doing toward justice, beauty, joy, and hope.

This is why I raise these pointed questions. In my evaluation of Christianity, including our own beloved Presbyterianism, the dominant church culture has turned these liberating and empowering texts into dogmatic prisons that are emotionally and intellectually bereft and lacking in compassion and imagination.

That is what "essential tenets" theology does.

John Shuck said...

@dangerchrist

Oops, Isaiah 60:1-6.

Michael_SC said...

Hi John: very interesting post, I myself often wonder about how to handle the historical/literary issues in a church context. Lately I'm wondering if the church is even in the business of telling the truth about this. It's like if someone goes to a restaurant, he simply wants to be served what he is craving, not learn about the nutritional value of the food, or the living conditions of the animals that went into the BBQ ribs, etc. In fact he probably specifically DOESN'T want to know, lest it diminish the experience. I think people attend church to get that spiritual BBQ, "with extra sauce, and please hold the actual back-story". I myself favor the side of telling the full modern truth as we understand it, and going on from there. But more people like BBQ than skinless grilled chicken. Thank you for your efforts in getting people to eat spiritually healthfully. (Amazing sermons recently, btw).

John Shuck said...

Michael,

Thank you for the kind words. I affirm your metaphor! I once compared religion to sausage making in a sermon.

I think it is assumed that people don't want their myths evaluated. I have found that not to be the case for many, many people. Even if they initially might be "disturbed" to quote Thomas 2, they find the challenge worth it.

Jodie said...

John,

Not asking for your faith credentials - I know you have faith.

And I don't think of you as a "non-believer", although it is true that you do not believe in much that 'believers' do.

So what? Its just not a very useful or informative label, and I find it of passing interest at best.

There are many people who encounter God and then suffer from cognitive dissonance between what they have been taught about God and the God they have encountered.

And there are others who suffer that cognitive dissonance even without having encountered God.

I have huge respect for those who have the cognitive dissonance with no experience at all to rely on.

I am more in the first category, but the world of possibilities opened by that encounter make the Gospel story strangely familiar.

And impossible in the ordered subset of the Universe in which I work and operate. It is essential in fact that the boundary of that Universe not be porous, or else I would not be able to make a living.

But a long time ago in a land far far away, a crack opened up long enough and wide enough so that seeing glimpses of the more, the less became more as well.

I think its those glimpses that are "liberating and empowering" that "change the course of a person's thinking, being, and doing toward justice, beauty, joy, and hope."

The texts come later.

And without those glimpses, there will always be those who find ways to try and make those texts "dogmatic prisons that are emotionally and intellectually bereft and lacking in compassion and imagination"

It's who they are.

But its not who I am.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Love, Jodie

John Shuck said...

Hey Jodie,

There are many people who encounter God and then suffer from cognitive dissonance between what they have been taught about God and the God they have encountered.

Nicely said.

there will always be those who find ways to try and make those texts "dogmatic prisons that are emotionally and intellectually bereft and lacking in compassion and imagination"

It's who they are.

But its not who I am.


I know that.

Merry Christmas and love back at you!

John

Reverend Sax said...

One group we need to "out" about truth telling: Professors of Bible and theology at our seminaries. A lot of these folks know in their minds (as my wife says, "Where else are you gonna know it, your butt?") that Jesus couldn't have said or done this or that, but instead they denounce the Jesus Seminar, and evade the questions that pastors at least have to answer.