Because the church of which I'm a member offered our traditional "Journey to Bethlehem" experience yesterday and will again today (Saturday), I want to spend just a bit of time this weekend exploring how we are to understand stories in sacred scripture, especially the Bible.
First, of course, we have to say what we mean by the Bible. The Hebrew Bible? The Christian Bible? If the latter, the one that includes the books of the Apocrypha or not? And which translation from the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic (the latter two languages being found in the manuscripts that made up the books of the New Testament)?
Differences between and among translations can make a lot of difference.
The Christmas story, as played out in our congregation's "Journey" presentation, may be a good place to start. That's because the play we present smashes together biblical stories of the birth of Jesus that, in the original gospels, likely took place over several years and not on the single night we call Christmas. Which is to say that in our play, the so-called wise men arrive at the stable soon after the birth of Jesus, whereas in the biblical account, it probably was a year or two before these astrologers from the east showed up.
But that's the point. Figuring out the day and hour the wise men showed up at the manger is like asking what language the snake in the Adam and Eve story spoke or whether Adam and Eve had bellybuttons. As Jeff Sharlet puts it in his terrific new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, "You can't fact-check a myth." Exactly.
What we're dealing with here is not all literal history, though for sure some time around the year 5 or 6 B.C.E., a family from Nazareth added a boy they named Jesus to its numbers. Only the most radical historian denies the existence of Jesus.
The story of the birth, however, is not told as the kind of history we find in classroom textbooks that cover, say, the American Civil War or the lives of U.S. presidents. In such books, if you wrote that Harry S. Truman wrapped up his time in the U.S. Senate on Jan. 16, 1945, before becoming Vice President Truman on Jan. 20, it would be a two-day factual error. His last day in the Senate, it turns out, happened on my very birth date, Jan. 18, 1945, as attested to on Truman's gravestone.
Such historical precision is not the point of the Bible or, really, of any religious tradition's sacred scripture. The point, rather, is storytelling with a purpose. So when reading the Bible, it may be interesting to ask if the event described ever happened in actual history, but a much better three-part question is this: What does this story say about God, about us as people and about our relationship with God?
That, of course, is why it's nonsensical to insist that in the creation stories in Genesis God created the world in six 24-hour days and then plopped on the couch on day seven. Insisting on such literalism misses the point almost entirely. The point had to do with the idea that the impulse behind God's act of creation was love and the hope for healthy relationships within humanity and with the rest of the natural world. The impulse was God's love of life and a divine desire to share life with others.
I'm not equating the story of Jesus' birth with the story of Santa working all year at the North Pole to be ready to drop down millions of chimneys to deliver millions of toys. That would be a ridiculous comparison between what Christianity insists was one of history's most important historical events -- the incarnation -- and a lovely but silly folk tale.
But I am hoping that when you read stories in scripture, you won't read them all as literally accurate history. If you read them that way, you'll almost certainly miss their point.
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A PAPAL CALL FOR A LESS MASCULINE CHURCH
Pope Francis recently made this plea to the International Theological Commission: "One of the great sins we have witnessed is ‘masculinizing’ the church. This is the job I ask of you, please: Demasculinize the church.”
Said a male pope to a commission he appoints, a body currently made up of 25-plus men and five women.
The pontiff is right, of course, but it's true of not just the whole Catholic Church, which will not ordain women as priests or deacons, but of the whole of Christianity. Many branches now ordain women and offer women leadership roles, but in countless ways the church is dominated by men and masculine thinking. Some of this goes all the way back to the Adm and Eve creation story, but clearly the church (indeed, almost all faith traditions) can and should do better in the effort to demasculinize. Said this one man.