At my first church ago, I opened a Christmas Eve sermon by saying, “It seems every year I ruin somebody’s Christmas.”
That’s because every year, I would talk about the Christmas stories consisting of myths. The wise men, the star, the angels, the shepherds, the birth occurring in Bethlehem (against all evidence)…
One time, I suggested that the shepherds were not really present at the Nativity; rather, they were a literary device – part of the crafting of the story. Shepherds were the poorest of the poor. Yet these lowly were privileged to be the first to hear the news of the Birth. Injecting shepherds into the story upholds the Old Testament prophecy that the lowly shall be raised up; the oppressing mighty shall be brought down to size. “Every valley shall be raised up; every mountain and hill laid low.” [Isaiah 40: 4]
An elderly woman in the congregation came up to me after the Christmas Eve service and protested, “Christmas IS the shepherds.” She meant, it’s not Christmas without the Shepherds and the Wise Men and the Star and all of the other props. She may as well have said, “It’s not Christmas unless it snows” (showing our narrowness in thinking only of the season as it occurs in the Northern Hemisphere).
“Christmas IS the shepherds.
I countered, “Christmas is our relationship with the Child.”
Many believers, however, can not get past the remark – it’s a myth. They think I’m saying – it isn’t true. They think I’m saying – I don’t believe the Bible.
One problem is that many people think believing what you’ve always believed is “faithfulness.” What you believed as a 9-year-old – you continue to believe as a 59-year-old. That kind of non-movement, they think, means they’re being faithful to the Scriptures.
What happens when new information arises? Like the Earth not being the center of the universe.
Can they jettison that belief and still believe? Can they adjust?
Jesus’ earliest followers believed He would be a Savior in the form of a nationalist hero who would drive the Roman occupies out of their ancient kingdom. Instead of manhandling the Romans, however, Jesus gets manhandled BY the Romans. How does hanging helplessly from a cross help anybody? But the believers thought about it, and they adjusted their idea of what style of Savior they had in a suffering servant.
Adjusting belief is biblical.
Many people, however, think – giving up a detail of the Scriptures (like Creation in six days) means giving up on the Scriptures – period.
That is one problem when I talk about Christmas consisting of myths. The main problem, however, is: Most people simply don’t know what is meant by “myth.”
The famed mythologist joseph Campbell opened his book Thou Art That with an account of an interview over a radio talk show with a host who was combative about myths in religion. The host began the interview by asserting, “The word myth means a lie. Myth is a lie.”
Campbell and the radio host went back & forth, when finally Campbell realized – this fellow doesn’t know what neither myth nor metaphor myth IS. So he asked the interviewer: “You give me an example of a metaphor.”
The interviewer blithered and blathered, and finally came up with: “My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer. There’s a metaphor.”
“That is not a metaphor,” Campbell responded. “The metaphor is: John is a deer.”
The interviewer snapped, “That’s a lie.”
Thus, the problem.
Many people do not know what is a myth vs. a fact. A myth need not be a fact in order to be true. “Mark McGwire could hit a baseball a mile.” That’s language of metaphor. It is not factual (not as if he could hit a ball 5,280 feet). But it is true! It’s just that the purpose of saying it as a metaphor or myth is two-fold: For one thing, as a literary device, it hits people harder than mere factuality. The celebrated paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that we can talk about the Earth in geological measurements of millions and billions of years – we can say the words, we know how many zeroes to put after the numbers – but it doesn’t really hit us in the gut: not like saying it this way – Imagine the entire length of time of Earth’s existence is the length of your arm. Now somebody takes a nail file, and swipes barely a shaving from the end of your middle finger of your extended arm. THAT would erase the entire time of humankind’s existence on the planet.
The Birth story was unremarkable in its factualism. Jesus was a commoner. His birth would not have been a matter of record, not as if he were royalty (like today how there’s such a fuss over the birth of a royal child in England). Thus, we don’t know the date of Jesus’ birth. If the event occurred with all of the fireworks that accompany the story in the Bible – the bright star suddenly appearing in the sky, the mysterious Wise Men showing up to proclaim the Child as a king, the angels exploding in the night sky, announcing the news to shepherds – why isn’t it mentioned in two of the four Gospels, nor in any of the Epistles?
The truth is, the Birth wasn’t an occasion for notice until AFTER His followers perceived Jesus to be the Christ. Only then did writers go back and craft a story as if the Birth had been a big deal, and it had been evident from the start that Jesus was the Savior.
The Birth stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are beautifully, poetically told – using myth. The stories hit us right in the gut. They are easy to imagine (in a day when people weren’t using drawings to illustrate stories because of strict interpretation of the 2nd Commandment forbidding the making of images). The stories are easy to picture in one’s mind – they’re easy to tell to others. Myth serves its purpose!
Unless you think none of it is myth – all of it is factual. Then faith is on shaky ground.
Do you really believe that the star was there? A star that nobody had seen suddenly appears as bright as a supernova in the night sky – but only the Wise Men can see it. King Herod, the king of the Jews, can’t see it. Nor can anybody else in Jerusalem.
In addition, the star is situated directly over the house where the Holy Family has taken up residence. The star leads the Wise Men right to the correct address.
If anybody believes that a star which is light-years distant could pinpoint a single house here on Earth, that takes some stretch of belief! The nearest star to Earth is Alpha Centauri. It is more than four light years away. It looks like a dot in the night sky. Its light no more could pinpoint anything here on Earth than could somebody with a flashlight shine light on the Moon.
Was the star in the story really there? Defending is as fact damages the truthfulness of the story. Remember – the job of believers is not just to believe; it’s to share their belief. In our scientific age, to insist that what is written about the star is factual requires that people suspend knowledge of astronomy. What kind of religion asks people to check their brains at the church doors in order to become believers?
Do you want to defend the appearance of the shepherds as being literal? Okay – here are the lowest of the low, tending to their sheep on a winter’s night. An angel explodes into the night sky with the brightest light. The angel tells the shepherds of the Birth. The shepherds seek out the Nativity scene. When they get there, they visit for a while – and then leave! Get this. They’ve just been told that this Baby is the incarnation of God Almighty. They drop by, take a look – and then leave! Why – to go back to their stinking sheep?
Do you want to defend the Birth as occurring in Bethlehem? The Gospel of Luke says that Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem, because Joseph was a descendant of David, and there was a census by the Roman Empire requiring every male to go to the home of his ancestors. Historians have long known that there was no such census at that time in the Roman Empire, nor was there a requirement when the Empire did conduct a census that men had to go back to the home of their ancestors.
Luke says that the provincial governor over Judea at that time was a man named Quirinius. But Quirinius took office in 6 AD. The Gospel of Matthew says Jesus was born during the time of King Herod. Herod died in 4 BCE. The Gospels – believed by some to be inerrant – can’t agree on Jesus’ birth. The claims from one date vs. another span some 10 years!
Bethlehem as the location of the Birth is more than likely a myth. Placing the birth in Bethlehem reaffirms Jesus’ identity as the Messiah descended (as predicted in the Old Testament) from the blood line of King David, whose hometown was – Bethlehem.
The Holy Family on a wild-goose chase, going from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a (non-existent) census; and Matthew is even worse, sending them from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth.
Either way, Jesus winds up in Nazareth (where his parents are from). Why not just leave Him in Nazareth all along? Is that enough to make you lose your faith?
Faithfulness is not a pose of arms crossed, face set firmly, refusing to budge from anything one used to believe. We adjust. Some things we must jettison – like belief in Creationism. Because we get new information. Recognizing the noble role of myth in the Scriptures rather than thinking we must defend every thing as factual is another dynamic of faith as we leave childhood and enter adulthood. We adjust. We grow.