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.
- Do you think Jesus was born of a virgin?
- Do you think a star stopped over the place where Jesus was?
- Do you think wise men followed this star from the east?
- Do you think angels are real and that one of them spoke to Mary?
- Do you think angels told shepherds about Jesus?
- Do you think the Hebrew Prophets (ie. Isaiah) predicted Jesus' birth?
- Are these stories historical or legendary?
- 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.