Friday, December 12, 2014

The Truth in the Nativity


About a year ago, I published a post on another blog (which has now gone private) with the same title as this post.  When I did, I felt like I had to summarize and leave out so much information (while this post is much longer, the feeling is still there) - this is one of the perils of blogging (write too much and people might not read it, write too little and people might not get it).  I had always wanted to write a longer version of the same post, and originally intended to include this as part of the series I keep saying I'm going to eventually finish and publish which I'm calling "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  But, due to the season we're in and the fact that this just seemed to flow naturally from the last post I published, On Being a Skeptical Christian, I felt it appropriate to just do it.

Originally, when I published my old post titled "The Truth in the Nativity", I mentioned that after reading an article on Huffington Post about a concept called "Pub Theology" and reading the book by the same name (and author), I started talking to some people about starting our own group.  In our discussion, we agreed that one of the goals of the group would be to give people a chance to voice their views, no matter what they may be, and to be a safe-haven for people of varying backgrounds to explore the deep questions of life together.  This would be a way to bring skeptics and believers together.  We wanted to give our group a unique name, and decided to call it "The Thirsty Skeptics" - and the previously mentioned last post on my blog explains some of my own thought process behind living out that name as well.

Because of my efforts to be, as I explained, a "Skeptical Christian", I often feel as though I am right in the middle – right between the "True Believers™" and the skeptics.  Sometimes I feel as though one side is trying to tell me that I should renounce all belief as it is all preposterous, and the other side is trying to tell me to shut off my brain and stop thinking so much.  This is a common problem with the modern mindset – dualistic thinking.  There’s only two possibilities: black and white; right and wrong; good and evil.

The Nativity is one of those stories of faith that can be a battleground for these dualistic fights.  Are we really to believe that a virgin conceived a child as an act of God?  The skeptics will tell you that this is superstition, and the true believers will call you a heretic if you don’t repent and believe.  Are these the only options?

My own proposal (and that of many scholars) for what the stories of the Nativity represent are that they are part of a mythicized history.  Now right there, some of my readers might be tempted to throw their keyboard on the ground, shout at the screen, and close this window.  I hope they keep reading.  But the reaction would be understandable because with our modern western sensibilities, "myth" is virtually synonymous with "lie", and is seen as a vicious attempt to mislead a person.  This can hardly be helped when we speak of "dispelling myths" and watch TV shows called "MythBusters" (I love that show, by the way).  But the ancients did not share these sensibilities - they had no problem with mixing myth and history together.  For them, this was a way to infuse a historical event with meaning - to tell the audience what the events meant, not only for the present, but to point "the Way" forward to the future as well.  (And I hope with that last sentence my readers hear an echo in a certain statement from the gospel of John where Jesus says he is "the Way").  

I will be further exploring this concept of mythicized history in my upcoming series, but for now I'd like to move forward to examine some of the problems with taking The Nativity as literal history.  I'm going to start with an issue that by itself is no kind of proof at all (it would be called an argument from silence), but taken along with what follows I believe it takes on some importance.

The Omission

There is, today, a scholarly consensus that the gospel of Mark is the first of the four gospels to be written – partially because of the analysis of language, and largely because of the fact that Matthew and Luke both seem to use Mark as a source document.  There are very few passages in Mark which are not also found in either Matthew or Luke, while the latter two seem to have some other sections in common which are not in Mark – scholars believe they drew on another common source that was a lost document referred to as "Q".  Matthew and Luke also have stories and sayings which are unique to each of them.  

Keeping in mind the Marcan priority, it is interesting that Mark has completely omitted any mention of the birth of Jesus. It was apparently either not considered important, or simply not known.  Additionally, it is widely agreed that the apostle Paul was the earliest Christian writer, and he never mentions Jesus’ birth story in his writings.  Even more curious, the gospel of John, which is regarded to be the last of the four gospels to be written, also does not mention Jesus’ birth.

Why is it that this story was completely left out of all the earliest writings, as well as the gospel of John?  And why was the story added in later by Matthew and Luke?

The Differences

The second problem with a literal historical interpretation of the Nativity stories is that there are contrasts between Matthew’s story, and Luke’s version of it.

The first striking difference is the genealogies.  While both trace Jesus back to King David, Matthew only goes back as far as Abraham, and Luke goes back to Adam.  But if you line up both genealogies starting with David, you’ll notice that between David and Jesus, they don’t have a lot in common - and perhaps worse, the names they do have in common are ordered differently.  You can see this here:

I've heard some apologists try to get around this difference by saying one is the genealogy of Mary and the other Joseph, but both genealogies go from Joseph to Jesus, so that seems to me a convenient stretch.  But there are a few other problems between the genealogies as well - Matthew goes from David to Solomon (a king), and Luke has the prophet Nathan as David's descendant (which is pretty unlikely - I'd use this as an argument for taking this metaphorically, as in a "spiritual ancestor").  But also notice how Luke has Eliakim before Salathiel and Zorobabel and Matthew after?  And while both genealogies have a similar name for Joseph's grandfather (the difference between Matthat and Matthan may amount to a mispelling that occurred somewhere), there is a difference in Joseph's father.

The next difference you might notice in the stories themselves is that there seems to almost be a discrepancy between the two as to where Joseph and Mary lived.  Luke has their hometown as Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem because of a census.  Matthew simply says that Bethlehem was where Jesus was born – as if this were their hometown.  In Matthew, Nazareth only becomes Jesus’ home after the family had moved to Egypt for a while, then moved to Nazareth because Joseph was afraid to move back to Bethlehem with Archelaus reigning in Judea (see Mt. 2:21-23).  If you read the entire story of Luke and pay attention to the logistics, the path goes: Nazareth (Lk. 1:26), Bethlehem (Lk. 2:4), Jerusalem (Lk. 2:22), Nazareth (Lk. 2:39) - this addition in Luke of going to the temple 8 days after Jesus was born presents a bit of a problem for those who wish to mash the two stories together as they were supposed to be avoiding Herod, not going to his own home city (note how the presentation at the temple is often left out in Christmas pageants).

I would also like to note here that Mark only ever mentions Nazareth as being Jesus’ hometown.  The gospel of John seems to support the idea of Jesus coming from Nazareth as well – and we find that this town does not have a very good reputation (see John 1:46).

The third difference you will find is in the visitors – Matthew has "wise men from the East" who follow a special star (how does a star visibly move through the sky in a way that can lead to a place?), while Luke omits this entirely and has shepherds visiting instead.  This does not represent a direct contradiction, but it is curious that there is no overlap between the stories amongst the visitors.  Also, the visit of the wise men poses an additional problem with the visit to Jerusalem - if the family had gone off to the temple, the Magi might have missed them!

One must also ask, of Matthew's star - how does a star visibly move through the sky in a way that can lead to a place?  This story might make sense if we still believed in a three-tiered universe, but, if taken literally, makes no sense at all in our post-Copernican views of the universe.  As former Bishop John Shelby Spong puts it in "Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew's Gospel":
Could a star wander through the sky so slowly that wise men could follow it? That might be conceivable if we assumed that God or one of God’s angels could pull that star on a string across the roof of the earth, which would be the floor of heaven, to guide these wise men to their destination. We are told, however, in Matthew’s story that the star did not lead them to the Christ child. It rather led them to the palace of King Herod (Matt. 2:1, 2). Did the star get lost? No, Matthew was saying, it simply needed to be reprogrammed by Jewish scripture in order to get back on the right track (Matt. 2:3-6 [...]). Reading the Bible literally requires the suspension of all reason. What kind of people, we might also ask, would it be who, upon seeing a new star in the sky, would immediately interpret that star as announcing the birth of a new king of the Jews, and therefore set out at once on a journey to an unknown destination to pay homage to that infant king? Did they keep not only the camels nearby to transport them, but also a supply of gold, frankincense and myrrh, just in case these gifts were needed for this purpose?
The fourth difference is in the plot of Herod in the second chapter of Matthew.  There are historical problems with this story.  While there is ample evidence to show that Herod was ruthless and cruel, there can be found no other evidence of this massacre besides the tale in the gospel of Matthew.  This is remarkable, as there are many chronicles written about “Herod the Great”, and the stories of his cruelty are not omitted in them, so it doesn’t appear to be that a coverup is going on here.

There are other differences between the birth stories, but let’s move on to another historical problem: Luke’s census.  Luke claims that the Syrian governor, Quirinius, called for a census and people were required to go to their hometown to register for this.  There is historical evidence to show that 10 years after Herod’s death – in the year 6 A.D. – such a census did, in fact, happen.  But now we are faced with two major issues:

  1. As Herod was dead when this census happened, we now have a discrepancy between the timing of Jesus’ birth between Luke and Matthew.
  2. Because the purpose of a census was taxation, a census would have registered citizens in their current residence in order to assess their property.  There is nothing written in any of the legal code of Rome – and Rome was known for their thorough documentation – to suggest a practice of sending people to their original hometowns for such a census.  Additionally on this point, there are about fifty generations between David and Joseph - so if Rome had actually ruled that everyone from David’s time up must go to the hometown where their ancestor from fifty years ago resided, the descendents “of David” would have numbered in the billions (had they all survived).  Not only would this have flooded the little town of Bethlehem beyond what it could bear, but tracking this would have been impossible with Rome’s technology.
  3. There is no record of Rome having ever required an entire family to register together for a census - on the contrary, only the head of the household is required to register on behalf of his household.  So it would have made no sense for Joseph to drag his pregnant wife along on a very long journey by foot.
Depiction of a Roman Census
While I disagree with his conclusion (namely, that Jesus was a Zealot - or, a violent resistance leader), Reza Aslan does a good job of outlining the problem with the second item in his book, Zealot:
Luke’s suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father’s birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which, in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous.
And there's one final issue I'd like to explore with Luke's story.  Let's put it this way - if Luke were created as a movie, it would be a Disney musical.  In Luke's Nativity, characters (Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and the angels) spontaneously burst into songs with very well-developed poetry, and no one around seems to have a problem with this - a problem which Disney's "Enchanted" explores:

In a Disney musical, bursting into well-developed song spontaneously is no problem, but in real life it doesn't really work out that way.  It tends to work more like this:

So with these problems with viewing this story as history, what is the spiritually minded person who is drawn to the story of Jesus to do with these problems? Does he insist that the stories of Matthew and Luke are true, despite these issues?  Or does he reject Christianity altogether and either become agnostic, atheist, or look at other religions for spiritual guidance?

Something's wrong here...
Or perhaps there is a third option – somewhere in between rejecting Christianity, and accepting these stories as being factual despite their problems?

The Truth of the Nativity

A reasonable case can be made that a man named Jesus existed and was executed by Rome.  I say that this is reasonable because it is confirmed by sources which were not “Christian” in nature.  The historian Josephus mentions Jesus twice in separate sources.  The first mention is in Book 20 of his Antiquities of the Jews.  In chapter 9, he describes law-breakers being stoned, and one of them is “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.”  The second is a longer passage in the Testimonium Flavianum in which Josephus describes Jesus as a wise man who was a “doer of startling deeds,” a teacher who gained a large following, was condemned to death on a cross by Pilate, and “up until this very day the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.”  Now, it is important to note here that scholarship widely agrees that the passage of the Testimonium Flavianum is not accurate in its entirety but was added to later on by the Church in order to give more weight to its claims - however, it is not a majority opinion that the entire passage was made up.

The second “non-Christian” source for the validity of Jesus’ existence is from the Roman historian Tacitus, who records in “The Annals” that the Emperor Nero pinned the blame for the fire on Rome “on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus….”

And in addition to these, there is a reference that scholarship argues over from Suetonius.  Suetonius and Tacitus are of some importance as they were in no way in support of Christianity - and thus would have no reason for making up a historical person or even writing about one which could have been completely made up as myth.

So we can reasonably assume that there was a man named Jesus who lived and died by execution in Rome, and Christianity broke out as a result of his movement.

But what can we reasonably say about his birth?

There is actually a very old argument by opponents of Christianity that Jesus was an illegitimate child of his mother.  Shockingly, this may actually have Biblical grounding.  In Mark chapter 6, we find Jesus preaching in his hometown, and the reaction was one of surprise – as if Jesus was not the same man they had known who grew up with them.  Verse 3 has the audience saying “Is not this...the son of Mary?”  When you put this into the historical context, this is a very important statement: in this day and age, there were no surnames, and you would identify people by their fathers – Jesus would have been “Jesus bar Joseph” (literally: "Jesus son of Joseph"), not “Jesus bar Mary”.  Calling someone by their mother’s name was not just unusual, it would have been seen as an insult – the implications would have been obvious to anyone in that culture: Jesus was an illegitimate child.  Even more curious, Matthew and Luke both have similar reactions, but Matthew has the audience ask first about his father and then about his mother (Mt. 13:55), and Luke drops the reference to Mary altogether (Luke 4:22).

Now, as there is no argument, even from Mark, that Jesus had brothers, it is impossible to know how this illegitimate birth occurred – whether Mary had been raped by a Roman Centurion (as the Greek philosopher Celsus argues), or whether Joseph and Mary had just jumped the gun.  But with the evidence, it is plausible to conclude that Jesus was at least widely regarded as an illegitimate child!

So what does this mean for the stories of Matthew and Luke?

A Tale of Two Lordships

The conclusions I draw from this evidence - as I mentioned before - are that Matthew and Luke are both mixing mythology and legend with historical fact – a practice which would not have been unusual with writers in that day.  Moreover, the audiences would have realized this!  If it was widely known that there had been a man named Jesus who had gained a following and who was considered to have been illegitimately born, the audience would have picked up on the fact that Matthew and Luke were trying to get them to see these circumstances in a new light.  They would have picked up on the fact that a well-known story was being retold in a new way.

With this in mind, I suggest that rather than asking "is this story factual?", we should rather ask "what were they trying to say?"  In other words, it's not so much that I am saying "these are the things I don’t believe" or "these are the things I reject", but more along the lines of asking: what is the message the writers of the gospels wished to convey?  What were the important ideas they wanted to get across?  And when we find that a literal interpretation of a story is not plausible, that doesn’t so much mean that we are saying that it is not true, as merely saying that it’s a different kind of truth - just as a fable or a parable is not literally truth but is metaphorically true.  Or, as scholar John Dominic Crossan puts it in Who Is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus:

My point... is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.
The first thing you need to consider when trying to answer the question of meaning is the intended audience. Starting with Luke, the stage is set for explaining the similar intentions of the author of Matthew.  Luke is widely regarded to have been intended for an international audience – meaning that he was not so much writing for Jews, but for the purposes of evangelizing non-Jews within the empire of Rome.  As such, there are certain details which this audience would have picked up on that are largely ignored by modern readers.

The very word "gospel" has a meaning which is largely lost on modern readers.  It comes from the Greek word "
euaggelion", which literally means “good news”.  But this word was not used for just any good news – it was used to indicate a specific kind of good news: the news of a new Caesar and/or the news of victory (when Pheidippides returned from the battle of Marathon, he cried "euaggelion").  Vol. 2 of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says that "euaggelion" was "a technical term for news of victory".

To understand how such an ambiguous word could indicate such specific connotations in that culture, consider this - in American culture, if I said "inauguration", people would immediately assume I was talking about a ceremony for a new President.  However, the word literally means "a ceremony to mark the beginning of something" - it is our frequent use to indicate a Presidential inauguration that gives it the connotation I'm speaking of, and due to the frequency that euaggelion appeared in the context of speaking of a new Caesar, the assumption would be similar in that culture.

This is the inscription on a tablet from the city of Priene, believed to have been inscribed around 9 B.C.:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life showing concern and zeal has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving it to Augustus by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor for men and by sending in him as it were a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war cease, to create order everywhere ...; the birthday of the god (Augustus) was the beginning for the world of the euaggelion[translated “good news”] that have come to men through him... [emphasis mine]

There are other similar inscriptions to be found - in the city of Myra (on the southern coast of western Turkey) is found an inscription to the "divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and savior of the whole world."  North of this city is Halicarnassus where there is the following inscription: 

Since the eternal and immortal nature of everything has bestowed upon mankind the greatest good with extraordinary benefactions by bringing Caesar Augustus in our blessed time the father of his own country, divine Rome, and ancestral Zeus, savior of the common race of men, whose providence has not only fulfilled but actually exceeded the prayers of all. For land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord, and prosperity. [emphasis mine]

The Roman poet Virgil wrote in the Aenid:

From this noble line shall be born the Trojan Caesar, who shall extend his empire to the ocean, his glory to the stars, a Julius [Augustus], name descended from great Iulus!
Afterwards, the speaker (who happens to be Jupiter) says that “wars shall cease and savage ages soften” into peace on earth.

In "The First Christmas", scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write:

Julius Caesar, along with his grandnephew and adopted son Octavian - the later Caesar Augustus - belonged to the Julian tribal family (gens). They claimed a millennium-old descent from the goddess Venus, daughter of Jupiter, and her human consort Anchises, a Trojan hero from the time of that legendary war against the Greeks. The divine son of Venus and Anchises was named Aeneas, and it is through his son, Julus, that the Julian line claimed descent. 
As you can see, this was a common way of speaking about Rome’s emperors.  Rome treated its emperors as divinely sanctioned authority – gods, even.  They were the “savior of the world”, they were called "Lord", they made wars cease (by having crushed all their enemies), they brought economic prosperity (to those who were already rich to begin with), and their birth was good news (literally euaggelion– and it was only good news to some).  Notice how the language matches language used of Jesus - "providence", or the "eternal and immortal nature of everything" has given us this "savior" as an answer to "prayer", who has brought benefits that exceed expectations and the kingdom of this "divine" figure shall have no end and his glory shall extend to the stars.

The Roman governor of the province of Asia minor, Paulus Fabius Maximus, also wrote of how "the birthday of the most divine Caesar" (speaking of Augustus) was "set on a part with the beginning of everything", "that he restored order when everything was disintegrating and falling into chaos", changed "the whole world" which "would have met destruction...if Caesar had not been born as a common blessing to all.  For that reason one might justly take this to be the beginning of life and living...."  He continues on to propose that Augustus' birthday be treated as the New Year's Day.  Note especially how, for the Roman cultus, Augustus' birth marked the beginning of a new creation.

One can hardly help but hear the echos on the declarations the gospel writers make about Jesus - putting him in direct competition with Caesar, which would have been very subversive (high treason, even).  But let's compare this to the message Luke has an angel bringing to lowly shepherds to see the difference:

Luke 2:10-12
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news [literally euaggelion] of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  [emphasis mine]
Luke’s audience would have immediately picked up on the fact that he was borrowing language commonly used about Rome’s Caesars and pointing them at Jesus, but he was doing this in a way that turned the whole thing upside down.  Rather than being good news just for Caesar’s allies (specifically those who were rich and important), it was good news for all the people.  The message of this son of God’s birth was brought not to the rich and powerful, but to lowly shepherds: the poorest of the poor (shepherds in that culture were often former land owners who'd lost their land to the banking system, and were now working for "minimum wage" on their own land) - the gospel is proclaimed to the marginalized ones, rather than the royal dominators.  And this Savior was born in a manger.  The message would have been clear to Luke’s audience: greatness does not lie in a palace – greatness is found in the lowliest of places.  Jesus’ entire story plays on this juxtaposition.  He does not pander to the rich and powerful as Caesar does – Jesus values the poor; the sick; the outcasts of society, and says that the kingdom belongs to them.  Jesus does not make peace by crushing his enemies through warfare and hoisting his enemies up on crosses – he makes peace by giving up his own life on a cross.

Now it should be noted that virgin births were not all that uncommon in the time when the gospel of Luke was written, and Augustus (literally "worthy of worship") had his own tale.  In "The Lives of the Caesars", Suetonius writes of a prophecy that came before Augustus was born "which gave warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people; thereupon the senate in consternation decreed that no male child born that year should be reared; but those whose wives were with child saw to it that the decree was not filed in the treasury, since each one appropriated the prediction to his own family."  Do you notice the similarity between this story and Matthew's story of Herod killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem?  

Suetonius goes on to describe the conception:

When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified her self, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.
One key difference to note here - Apollo did not request any permission from Augustus' mother.  This amounts to a divine rape of sorts.  Meanwhile, in Luke's gospel, an angel is sent to Mary prior to the conception, which is a stark contrast.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write about this story in "The First Christmas":

The story of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on the earlier and similar conceptions for the Greek general Alexander, imperial conqueror of the Persians, and for the Roman general Scipio Africanus, imperial conqueror of the Carthaginians. Augustus was destined to out-conquer them both.
He’s not that kind of god…
The Greeks had many “gods” and heroes who were born of virgins: Odysseus, Romulus, Dionysus, Heracles, and Mithras among them.  But these characters had stories involving a different kind of might – physical might used for war – and were surrounded by riches.  Jesus’ story, in contrast, involves a man who asked his followers to renounce riches in order to serve the poor, and who resisted his enemies using non-violent means.  This was an altogether different kind of “Son of God” for the audience Luke wrote to.

Matthew makes similar moves on his audience – the Jews.  The Jews had always believed that one day, a Messiah would come and would restore the kingdom of Israel.  This Messiah was expected to overthrow Rome through a display of power and might, and restore the temple in Jerusalem.  In the time Jesus was born, Rome had appointed Herod as the “king of the Jews”, and he had heavily taxed his people in order to undertake a massive rebuilding project in the city of Jerusalem, including a new temple.  But Herod was widely known as a ruthless and cruel ruler – even killing his own wife and sons.  Herod flexed his power through bloodshed and by humiliating his enemies – and he was called “the Great” for the fear that he instilled in his subjects.

Herod also believed in peace through victory, domination, and by crushing one's enemies.  But as Borg and Crossan write
in "The First Christmas":
The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And it is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.
What the author of Matthew does with the story of Herod killing the sons of Bethlehem, and Jesus’ escape to Egypt, is to frame Jesus' story as a sort of reverse Exodus – Herod is the cruel Pharaoh, and Jesus is returning to the place where Moses was called by God.  Thus, when Jesus leaves Egypt, he is the new Moses coming to Israel to deliver them and bring new law and order.  But he doesn’t do this in the way the Jews expected – his law is a law of love, and he overthrows Israel’s enemies by exposing their cruel might as a fraud, for the death they bring to him has no power over him and the non-violent resistance movement he started gains huge numbers after he is gone.

Additionally, the numbers Christianity gained in the years following Jesus’ time on earth were mostly non-Jews.  This is a mystery that the apostle Paul ponders in the book of Romans – why aren’t the Jews accepting Jesus?  With this setting in mind, the meaning of the visit from the wise men in Matthew becomes clear as well – he’s telling his Jewish audience “look, foreign dignitaries from other religions see that Jesus is special and important and have joined his movement while you’re still holding on to your pride!”  The fact that the word used for these visitors is "Magi" harkens to the "magicians", "enchanters", and the "diviners" that are the portrayal of Israel's enemies in Daniel 1:20, 2:2, 4:7, and 5:7. But Matthew paints a pictures of these "enemies" as pro-Jesus, while Herod "and all Jerusalem with him" are anti-Jesus (2:3).  

In addition, Matthew's star leading the Magi echoes back to Balaam's prophecy in Numbers 24:17, which speaks of  "a star" that "shall come out of Jacob" which will "crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites."  This is exactly what most Jews looked for - a king that would crush all of their enemies.  Yet again, Matthew reverses the expectation with the non-violent Jesus who offers peace to Israel's enemies.  If we see the symbolism of light coming in the middle of the night of the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, it is not necessary to wrestle with the problems this creates when trying to mesh this idea as a historical fact with science - it is metaphor!  And Matthew's star finds its parallel in Luke 2:32 where Jesus is "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" and in John where Jesus is the "true light, which enlightens everyone" (1:9) which "shines in the darkness" (1:5), as well as finding precursors in the light of creation shining in the emptiness (Gen. 1:2-3), Abraham's smoking fire pot and flaming torch (Gen. 15:17) which appeared in "a deep and terrifying darkness" (Gen. 15:12), Israel's "pillar of fire" (Ex. 13:21) that led them out of the wilderness, and the Psalmists "word" (parallels John's logos) which is a "lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Ps. 119:105), and even in the prophets (see Isaiah 9 and Isaiah 60 for two examples).  In addition, this image of light that brings a new self appears in the story of Paul's conversion (Acts 9:3-4, 22:6, 26:12-18), and in his letters (see 2 Cor. 4:4, 4:6, Eph. 5:8-14).  Light always symbolizes not only the presence of but also the experience of the sacred by those who have struggled in darkness for far too long - and it always seems to come when those who are struggling feel as though the darkness has won or even to those who seem to be the darkest.

For Matthew's Jewish audience, his picture of Jesus as Messiah would have been a striking and scandalous reversal of their expectations - undermining the religious purity culture of his day.   Matthew is declaring that Jesus is Savior not just for Jews, but for the whole world - including Israel's enemies.  As Matthew has Jesus declare in 28:19
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.
What both authors are doing is to challenge their audience's value structures.  They are in essence saying: "what you think is valuable is worthless, and what you thought was worthless was actually seen as incredibly valuable by God.  And what you thought looked like power was weakness, and what looked like weakness to you was real strength."  These audiences were used to seeing the miraculous within gaudy, extravagant riches and surrounded by overwhelming military might.  But the birth stories of Matthew and Luke ask their audiences to see the miraculous in a man of questionable origins; a man who may have been born illegitimately, and whose parents took a chance on their own reputation by staying together for his birth; a man who was an outcast even among his own people; a man who was poor and lowly; a man who came from a place that had a bad reputation; a man who had no army of men with swords and spears following him, but rather fought by allowing himself to be killed without lifting a finger to defend himself.

Both narratives are performing reversals of the way their audiences were used to viewing the world.  Luke reverses the way the
euaggelion works, with good news going to the “least of these” (as Jesus would say), and has the true ruler of the world being a humble peasant king.  Matthew has foreign dignities coming to pay respects to this same peasant king, while his own people are plotting to kill him – challenging the exclusivity that was so common among Jews of the day.

The point of these stories is not to be historical fact, but to be a parable of sorts, pointing to the kind of character Jesus had and the meaning that he represented.  The ridiculous nature of Luke's census pointed to the extravagant lengths the Domination System of Empire went to in order to control its citizens - much like the ridiculous efforts Herod stoops to in order to protect his power.  These stories were never meant to be seen as facts, but as a political satire of sorts - pointing at the desperate attempts by Empire to hold on to its control, which only caused more unrest and turmoil with its people.  Fighting over the factual nature of these stories is to completely miss their point!

Rather, the meaning in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke is to ask their audience to turn away from the extravagant, and to see the miracle in the mundane.  Because when you can’t experience awe without seeing gaudy riches, miraculous events, and cruel displays of strength, you become numb and unable to experience wonder at all.  But Jesus came to awaken us to the wonder all around us in the life of those we all too often overlook – those lonely outcasts of society who were made in the image of God.

So, while I’m not sure these stories were factually accurate, I affirm them as true, and I hope you can see the truth in them as well.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On Being a Skeptical Christian

Um, I'd like to talk to you about my grade?
When I was a young student in college working on my BA, I had a computer science professor with the last name of Smith.  Coincidentally, during my time in school the movie "The Matrix" was released, which as you can imagine was a very popular movie amongst a classroom full of computer nerds, and was even appreciated by Professor Smith.  One day, Professor Smith was speaking directly to one of the students in the classroom with the last name of Anderson, and the professor did his impression of Agent Smith when he addressed "Mr. Anderson", and at that moment the entire class simultaneously realized the irony of Professor Smith doing an Agent Smith impression while addressing Mr. Anderson.

Professor Smith had a tendency to repetitiously use certain techniques in his exams in order to drive home a lesson that he felt was very important for a computer programmer.  Two such lessons come to mind for the purpose of this post.  One of these lessons was on the importance of acknowledging our assumptions.  Often in Professor Smith's exams, he would give us a word problem that we needed to provide the solution for, but he would leave out some key piece of information.  Without this piece of information, the correct way to address the problem could be "A" or it could be "B" (or possibly, there might be many other letters you could add after these options).  If a student answered the question simply with method "A" or "B", Professor Smith would mark down their answer to this question.  However, if the student began the exact same answer with the words "assuming [some assumption] is true...", there would be no markdown.

This is what I do all day.
Another lesson Professor Smith taught through his exam questions was called "be the computer".  Such questions would start out by instructing us to answer with what would be displayed on the screen of a computer at the end of executing a block of code that followed.  The method of answering such problems would be to "get inside the mind" of the computer and understand what happened in the logical "brain" of the computer as the result of each line of code.  Professor Smith was very tricky, however, and the students had to keep in mind that every single line of code was very important, and if you messed up on one line you would very likely come out with a completely different answer than the "correct" one - so in order to try to earn mercy, it was advisable to "show your work", much like in math tests.

Now one might question why I bring up these analogies in a post titled "On Being a Skeptical Christian".  I am going to answer this, however I must start by stating the problem which I am attempting to solve.  To do this, I must first remind my readers of a phenomena I have written on before titled the "Rise of the Nones".  Simply stated, the "Rise of the Nones" is a statistical phenomena researchers have noticed where there is a very sharp rise from generation to generation of people who self-identify on religious surveys as "none" (meaning that they do not identify with any of the other religious affiliations provided).  More recently, there are some whom have begun to add nuance to this phenomena as they've discovered that a significant number of these "nones" are actually "dones" - they are formerly highly active members of churches whom for whatever reason left the fold, usually due to frustrations or not having certain needs met through their religious group.  As you can imagine, many churches would like to figure out how to bring these "nones" and "dones" back. 

Unfortunately, I feel that all too often they are going about it in the completely wrong way - and the reason for this is that they are refusing to acknowledge their assumptions.  This can be demonstrated very nicely in the following video from the documentary "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers":

One of the reasons I think Christians refuse to acknowledge their assumptions is that it puts them in a vulnerable position.  It is much easier to insist that a certain assumption is true than to start in a very basic position and work your way up, and additionally it is a scary experience to consider that your assumptions might be incorrect and to try to imagine other possibilities and where they might lead.  And so what all too often happens with the "nones" and "dones" when a Christian enters into a discussion with one is that the Christian makes a number of assumptions as to why this person has become a "none" or a "done" without having ever sat down with this particular person and listened to them describe how this occurred in their own words.  So the Christian instead sits down and begins an argument with a number of assumptions in their head and is baffled when they discover that the "none" or "done" finds none of the arguments satisfying.  But the reason why this occurs is very simple: Christians must learn to recognize and challenge their own assumptions before they seek to challenge (or assume that they know) the assumptions others are making no matter how vulnerable this makes us feel.

To further illustrate what happens in an argument between a Christian who is refusing to acknowledge their assumptions and a "none" or "done", I would like to go back to the "be the computer" problems I described.  I would like you to imagine that the problem on the exam was written in such a way that the code could have been written in more than one language.  For those of you familiar with computer code, try to imagine a problem that could be either javascript or some .NET code (VB or C# perhaps).  For those of you who are unfamiliar with computer code, try to imagine a sentence that is written in such a way that it could be either Spanish or French (these two languages, sharing the common ancestor of Latin, are quite similar at times).  If we assume the script is written in one language, it might mean one thing, but if we assume that it was written in another the meaning might be completely different. 

This is an extremely useful analogy, not just for imagining how a Christian should try to communicate with non-Christians who do not share their assumptions, but also for understanding how a Christian of one denomination who makes certain assumptions when interpreting the Bible should try to communicate with a Christian of another denomination who has come to completely different conclusions about the same passages based on a different set of assumptions.  One of the biggest problems I think is contributing to the endless division within the church is the fact that we've bought into the lie of the "plain reading of scripture", where we pretend that it is possible to enter into reading scripture without any assumptions at all, and that this results in "pure" conclusions without any interpretation at all.  One of the difficult lessons I feel Christians must learn is that they are only and always interpreting everything they see, hear, and read, and that this interpretation is always the result of assumptions they are making.

One idea I'd like my Christian readers to try to understand is that when you refuse to acknowledge and/or challenge your own assumptions, you are engaging in what I would call the Imperial version of Christianity - perhaps we could call this "post Constantine Christianity".  You see, prior to Constantine, Christianity was a small minority of outcasts and rebels that stood in defiance of the dominant culture of their day.  They did not have the luxury of insisting their assumptions must be treated as self-evident truth like Western Christians (who are the dominant culture of our day) do.  So when dealing with non-Christians, the early Christians would often appeal to popular non-Christian philosophers, much like Paul did on Mars Hill.  In this manner, Christians would "speak the language" of non-Christians by finding common ground and then leveraging it in order to understand each other. 

Western Christians have a very hard time understanding how to do this because we live in an environment where Christians (or at least people who self-identify as Christians) represent the vast majority of our society.  And so, because of our very priviledged status we feel that we can plow on through with our assumptions without ever acknowledging or challenging them and simply disregard those who refuse to do the same.  This is, I feel, one of the main contributing factors to the "rise of the nones", and the answer for a Christian to combating this problem would be, to paraphrase in summary form Philippians 2:5-8, to take on the attitude of Jesus by humbling ourselves and emptying ourselves of all assumptions in order to serve those who do not share our own assumptions.

Learning the lesson of acknowledging and challenging our assumptions, and the lesson of "be the computer" are, I believe, the first step in communication not only between Christians and non-Christians, but between Christians and former Christians, as well as between Christians of one denomination and another.  And the solution to the problem of challenging all assumptions lies in learning how to become a skeptic.

Now the word "skeptic" often has negative connotations within certain Christian circles - namely ones whom really do not like to challenge or even acknowledge their own assumptions.  And in some circles, the term has been quite misunderstood and misappropriated.  So I must start by defining what a skeptic is not - a skeptic is not someone whom arrogantly insists that all their own assumptions are self-evident truths while insisting that all your assumptions are self-evident falsehoods (the word "lies" would often be used by such a "skeptic").  Rather, a skeptic is someone who comes to a discussion between parties with differing views with the goal of discovering all the assumptions and challenging all the assumptions as equals.  This means not only discovering and challenging the assumptions of those you disagree with, but it also means applying the same vigorous standards in discovering, acknowledging, and challenging your own assumptions.  This is very difficult for an "Imperial Christian" who is used to entering into a discussion with an athoritative stance - a "trump card" that can be used to end the discussion in the favor of that "Christian".  "Imperial Christians" are used to being able to quote chapter and verse (usually preceded by "THE WORD OF GOD SAYS...", spoken in a very sanctimonious tone) and having disagreement shut up instantly.  But we must remind ourselves that this was not how Jesus acted, as Philippians 2:5-8 says.  Jesus did not expect everyone to bow to his tyrannical authority and to shut up and listen without providing any objections.  Jesus was not part of the authority structure of his day, but rather he challenged the authority structures of his day as an outcast.

Likewise, I believe that if Christians want to offer any solution to the "Rise of the Nones", they must first acknowledge that for many years we have not been outsiders, but have been part of the Imperial structures of our day - in other words, we've forgotten what it is like to be an outsider.  And as a response, we must humble ourselves and seek to understand the outsider.  In order to be able to communicate to the outsider - whether he or she be an atheist (either formerly Christian or never Christian), agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, or any other religious affiliation - we must first understand the outsider's point of view with such familiarity that we can "be the Atheist/Agnostic/Christian of another denomination/Hindu/Buddhist/Jew/Muslim/whatever", as it were, and thus understand what words and ideas mean to them

Coincidentally, immediately after I had finished writing the first version of this post, someone shared a post from the atheist/former Christian Neil Carter's blog that echoed many of the sentiments I had just written down, and one part really stuck out:
It’s not really a conversation if nothing I say is being heard.  It’s not a conversation if they keep spouting off programmed sentences and quoting Bible verses as if the words have the same magic for me that they have for them.

If we want to be able to communicate with people who are not like us, we've got to stop pretending that everything that was magical for us will be just as magical for them, and we've got to understand their point of view first.  This is why I have sought to be a Christian Skeptic and to challenge my own assumptions, and this is why so often other Christians have accused me of being more merciful to Atheists than fellow Christians (I've even been accused of being a secret Atheist before).  But in my mind, because of the humility of Jesus as outlined in the Philippians passage I've been referring to, I believe it is inherently part of being his follower that we "become the outsider", and to me this involves "being the computer" and "acknowledging the assumptions".

The Tower of Babel and Christianity
Before I close, I would like my readers to consider one final analogy.  I would like you to try to understand the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel as a parable - a word picture that teaches a moral.  I would like you to consider it as a parable about Empire.

The human race has always been diverse, and will most likely always be.  Empire occurs when one group within that diversity is able to set up structures that allow them to dominate others.  And for a time, these Domination Systems seem to be a success.  So those who are part of the structures of domination seek even more power - like the builders of the Tower of Babel, they seek to reach the heavens themselves through might and power.  But along the way, they discover that they are not so unified as they believed.  They discover that even within their own group, there is diversity.  And as the habit has always been to cast out and/or destroy diversity, the insiders of the Domination System begin to fight amongst themselves for control.  This is, I believe, what the picture of the confusion of language in the story of the Tower of Babel points to.

And this is an important picture for Christians today.  With Constantine, Christianity began to resemble the Domination System of Rome.  We created creeds and cast out those who did not completely agree with every little thing that the insiders decreed to be truth.  In this way, Christianity sought to destroy diversity and became another Domination System.  And this worked for a long time, until Christianity discovered that not all of the insiders agreed with one another.  Since then, Christianity has experienced division after division, and now there is an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 denominations.  We are discovering that when we use certain language with the assumption that everyone around agrees on what that language means, we are mistaken.  Our language has been confused, much like the builders of the Tower of Babel, and now our tower is falling with the "Rise of the Nones".  And the answer is not for one group to dominate all the others, but to learn to stop acting like the Insiders who are far to used to their control - we must give up our control and become outsiders.  This is the lesson Jesus exemplified, summarized in Philippians 2:5-8.

In closing, I'd like my readers to consider these words by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who died in Nazi prison, from his book "Life Together":
The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.  So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.  Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.  This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.
The next post explores a practical application of the principles explored regarding skepticism and Christian theology.