Well . . . a Merry Christmas to my Facebook â€œneighborhood.â€ Iâ€™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 wasnâ€™t very persuasive.
I suspect my buddy wasnâ€™t much open to being persuaded.
To use inadequate labels, my friend is conservative compared to me. His politics veer toward the â€œrightâ€ while mine embrace the â€œleft.â€ We are Christians, but as a United Methodist claiming progressive theological views, my faith influences donâ€™t share much commonality with his Mormon beliefs.
For him, I think, the Christmas story is fact. Real. If Jesusâ€™ birth didnâ€™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. Wasnâ€™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 Jesusâ€™ birth was predicted in Hebrew scriptures, a long-anticipated piece of Godâ€™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 Jesusâ€™ birth as myth may not be viewed by those believers as sacrilegious, but many on that â€œsideâ€ 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 â€œstories,â€ confronted and developed the faith of his first listeners. They still do! Christianity, for â€œliberalsâ€ or â€œconservatives,â€ 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 Jesusâ€™ way. Wouldnâ€™t everyone from long ago or today, or who reads scripture literally or metaphorically, agree that â€œmade upâ€ tales are central to personal faith?
While itâ€™s possible to assume general agreement about Jesusâ€™ parables as fiction, making that claim about other Christian scripture faces considerable resistance. Many evangelical and fundamentalist Christiansâ€”and Mormonsâ€”read the Bible with a more literal understanding. Scripture is reliable history. Faith is fortified by Biblical facts. For some, thereâ€™s no problem in quoting scripture to â€œproveâ€ scripture. And doesnâ€™t the Old Testament predict the New Testamentâ€™s Jesus? Unto us a child is born . . . the ninth chapter of Isaiah stated. Obviously, Isaiah anticipated Bethlehemâ€™s gift. Right?
Well, maybe and maybe not . . .
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Even believers that donâ€™t proclaim the Bible as infallible, might cringe (or worse) at my metaphoric/mythic take on Jesusâ€™ 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. Itâ€™s not at all; itâ€™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 Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christian Science.
So too the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smithâ€™s discovery of the gold plates that led to the Book of Mormon occurred in the 1820s. Those gold plates documented â€œthe lives of the inhabitants of the ancient Americas.â€ Some of these inhabitants were the Nephites. According to LDS history, â€œThe crowning event recorded in the Book of Mormon is the personal ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ among the Nephites soon after his resurrection.â€ By the mid-1800s, Smithâ€™s golden treasures had been transcribed and published in English. Latter Day Saints revere it as a reliable, reverent account of Jesusâ€™ 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 â€œgolden bible,â€ the history, theology, and predictions engraved on those plates was deemed a direct revelation. The Book was disclosed to Smith by God through Godâ€™s messengers.
Though the early Mormon movement included cruel acts done to them by others, their unique beliefsâ€”and literal claims about scriptureâ€”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 Allahâ€™s angel Gabriel to and through Muhammad the Prophet. The best and worst of fundamentalism spans all religions. (And how â€œbestâ€ and â€œworstâ€ is determined . . . well, thereâ€™s another bucket full of divisiveness.)
I think I understand why Christians might choose to take scripture literally. But itâ€™s far from the only interpretation over two millennia, and itâ€™s certainly not mine.
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But I could be wrong.
No, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m wrong about my sparse examples of Latter Day Saint history or that Muhammad received a direct revelation, but something else â€œfundamentalâ€ troubles me in my relationship with my Mormon friend. And my relationship with others that wouldnâ€™t â€œagreeâ€ with my beliefs.
Am I right and he is wrong? Or vice-versa?
Or can we both be â€œcorrect?â€
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 wonâ€™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 â€œfollowersâ€ of Jesusâ€™ 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 Iâ€™m not an historian or theologian.
Iâ€™m just a guy who believes the Christmas story is, at least partly, a majestic myth. Iâ€™m just a guy who could be wrong. It doesnâ€™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 Romeâ€™s statistical whims wasnâ€™t â€œhistory.â€ Caesarâ€™s power will be challenged by the lowly birth of a â€œkingâ€ in a manger. The downtrodden and outsidersâ€”not the mighty and wealthyâ€”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 folksâ€”the â€œliberalsâ€ and â€œconservatives,â€ the â€œfundamentalistsâ€ and â€œprogressives,â€â€”donâ€™t have any personal history. Thereâ€™s no trust formed in the past that fuels trust in the present. Mostly, those on differing â€œsidesâ€ 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 mediaâ€™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. Weâ€™ve sung carols, re-told the story (as fact or myth), exchanged gifts, and prayed for peace on earth. The magi, fearing Herodâ€™s wrath, took a different way home. Donâ€™t we still take different and differing routes, and arenâ€™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 dictionaryâ€™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? Isnâ€™t someone or some thing with an â€œimaginary or unverifiable existenceâ€ . . . likely ridiculous or potentially relevant?
For you, is referring to the Christmas story as a myth a positive or a negative . . . or what?