Well . . . a Merry Christmas to my Facebook “neighborhood.” I’m enough of a still-learning student of my faith to view this day as part of a holy and humbling story. Our Christmas mythology* proclaims a birth that represented a counter-cultural and subversive tale written to challenge the hypocrisy and excess of an empire . . .
A long-time friend, once a college roommate, someone I now disagree with about politics and religion and completely agree with regarding the good San Francisco Giants vs. the evil Los Angeles Dodgers, asked about my use of mythology*. How does it apply to the Christmas story? Within the limits of Facebook personal messaging, I tried to give him a brief explanation.
I wasn’t very persuasive.
I suspect my buddy wasn’t much open to being persuaded.
To use inadequate labels, my friend is conservative compared to me. His politics veer toward the “right” while mine embrace the “left.” We are Christians, but as a United Methodist claiming progressive theological views, my faith influences don’t share much commonality with his Mormon beliefs.
For him, I think, the Christmas story is fact. Real. If Jesus’ birth didn’t happen exactly the way it was described in the Gospels, it was close enough. After all, even sacred scripture, inspired by God, may not include every single thing that happened. And so, for me to call the birth of Jesus a myth is to miss the mark. Wasn’t Christmas, as told by Matthew and Luke, an historical event in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose? I suspect my former roommate would confidently add that Jesus’ birth was predicted in Hebrew scriptures, a long-anticipated piece of God’s plan.
My friend is not alone in his beliefs.
Others, certainly Mormons, but also spanning a multitude of Christian denominations, would claim Christmas as literal history. Referring to Jesus’ birth as myth may not be viewed by those believers as sacrilegious, but many on that “side” would disagree with me. Why is Christmas a fact? Because the Bible (and for my friend, also the Book of Mormon) says so.
But I am not alone in my beliefs.
Jesus told tales. His parables, mere “stories,” confronted and developed the faith of his first listeners. They still do! Christianity, for “liberals” or “conservatives,” includes the imaginary influence of good Samaritans, prodigal sons, women searching for coins, and a fellow finding treasure in a field. They are fictionalized characters helping all believers follow Jesus’ way. Wouldn’t everyone from long ago or today, or who reads scripture literally or metaphorically, agree that “made up” tales are central to personal faith?
While it’s possible to assume general agreement about Jesus’ parables as fiction, making that claim about other Christian scripture faces considerable resistance. Many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians—and Mormons—read the Bible with a more literal understanding. Scripture is reliable history. Faith is fortified by Biblical facts. For some, there’s no problem in quoting scripture to “prove” scripture. And doesn’t the Old Testament predict the New Testament’s Jesus? Unto us a child is born . . . the ninth chapter of Isaiah stated. Obviously, Isaiah anticipated Bethlehem’s gift. Right?
Well, maybe and maybe not . . .
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Even believers that don’t proclaim the Bible as infallible, might cringe (or worse) at my metaphoric/mythic take on Jesus’ birth accounts. Ironically, this immense divide is recent. As theologian Marcus Borg explained in Days of Awe and Wonder,
Fundamentalism, as a specifically named movement, began around 1910. I mention this because a good number of Christians as well as non-Christians think that believing in biblical inerrancy is orthodox Christianity. It’s not at all; it’s a modern development. [pg. 184]
Christians proclaiming the Bible as literal, infallible, and containing verses directly inspired by God have 19th century roots. Given the 2,000-year span of Christianity, that theological branch is recent. Furthermore, those roots were initially planted and have grown the deepest in the United States. That era was not only about fundamentalism. Numerous distinctive denominations emerged in the 1800s, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christian Science.
So too the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smith’s discovery of the gold plates that led to the Book of Mormon occurred in the 1820s. Those gold plates documented “the lives of the inhabitants of the ancient Americas.” Some of these inhabitants were the Nephites. According to LDS history, “The crowning event recorded in the Book of Mormon is the personal ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ among the Nephites soon after his resurrection.” By the mid-1800s, Smith’s golden treasures had been transcribed and published in English. Latter Day Saints revere it as a reliable, reverent account of Jesus’ continued work and mission. And, indeed, the Book of Mormon also confirmed the Christmas story:
And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God. [Book of Alma 7:10]
As I understand it, and I could be wrong (more on that in a moment), the Book of Mormon should be taken literally. While Joseph Smith was the only person to view the “golden bible,” the history, theology, and predictions engraved on those plates was deemed a direct revelation. The Book was disclosed to Smith by God through God’s messengers.
Though the early Mormon movement included cruel acts done to them by others, their unique beliefs—and literal claims about scripture—were also nurtured in that tumultuous, recent, and distinctly American era of Christianity: the 1800s.
Christianity is not alone with adherents harboring a literal view of sacred scripture. Muslims believe the Quran was directly conveyed by Allah’s angel Gabriel to and through Muhammad the Prophet. The best and worst of fundamentalism spans all religions. (And how “best” and “worst” is determined . . . well, there’s another bucket full of divisiveness.)
I think I understand why Christians might choose to take scripture literally. But it’s far from the only interpretation over two millennia, and it’s certainly not mine.
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But I could be wrong.
No, I don’t think I’m wrong about my sparse examples of Latter Day Saint history or that Muhammad received a direct revelation, but something else “fundamental” troubles me in my relationship with my Mormon friend. And my relationship with others that wouldn’t “agree” with my beliefs.
Am I right and he is wrong? Or vice-versa?
Or can we both be “correct?”
Neighbors and nations holding starkly different beliefs while happily co-existing together represents an ideal. But its societal reality has grim consequences. Ask any Mormon about Joseph Smith and the Mormon beginnings: there was public condemnation of them and bloody violence against them. Look at the current vitriolic (and often faith-driven) debates about abortion, gun control, or immigration.
This is a huge subject. I won’t solve anything with these brief, paltry words. Anguished disagreements, for Christians, have been present from the get-go.
- Was Jesus divine or human? Or both? Ah, tension!
- Based on scriptural accounts, Peter first wanted to only include Jews as the “followers” of Jesus’ Way. Paul boldly and quickly embraced the Gentiles. Ah, tension!
- Jesus was the only Son of God, the only way to believe. Jesus, a child of God, revealed one of many ways to sense and serve the Holy. Ah, tension!
I could fill pages with examples of ancient and modern religious disagreements. Most spawned turmoil that led to divergent paths . . . and martyrs.
But I’m not an historian or theologian.
I’m just a guy who believes the Christmas story is, at least partly, a majestic myth. I’m just a guy who could be wrong. It doesn’t matter to me if a virgin birth, an angelic chorus, wise guys following a star, and a bureaucrat forcing Jews to travel to their birthplace for Rome’s statistical whims wasn’t “history.” Caesar’s power will be challenged by the lowly birth of a “king” in a manger. The downtrodden and outsiders—not the mighty and wealthy—will recognize the divine preference for love, hope, and peace.
Fine. Mythology works for me. Hooray!
But for others?
If one fervently believes her or his way is right, and mine is wrong, what then happens to our relationship? I love my aging, cranky, generous way-back-when roommate. We shared, though college was a fleeting moment in the past, experiences that shaped the best parts of us. But the majority of folks—the “liberals” and “conservatives,” the “fundamentalists” and “progressives,”—don’t have any personal history. There’s no trust formed in the past that fuels trust in the present. Mostly, those on differing “sides” only have their shared doubts (or worse) about the other. I could blame President Trump and his excesses for the disagreements. I could blame social media’s malevolent ways of permitting anonymous attacks and bullying for the disagreements. I could blame . . .
Blaming the other is easy. Learning about the other is hard.
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We have journeyed through Christmas once again. We’ve sung carols, re-told the story (as fact or myth), exchanged gifts, and prayed for peace on earth. The magi, fearing Herod’s wrath, took a different way home. Don’t we still take different and differing routes, and aren’t we all still afraid?
In my head, I understand why some disagree with me. And I with them. But that understanding leaves us divided, on separate paths, content to build more walls and fewer bridges.
In my heart, I ask: is there no common ground?
How can I learn to be a better listener? A better learner? A more open-hearted believer?
*Of myths, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary:
a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon . . .
a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence . . .
Those are two of the dictionary’s summations. Though similar, the first seems positive, with myth as a way of understanding a specific people and a specific belief system. Is the other negative? Isn’t someone or some thing with an “imaginary or unverifiable existence” . . . likely ridiculous or potentially relevant?
For you, is referring to the Christmas story as a myth a positive or a negative . . . or what?