Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Inner Intellectual on Christmas Eve

I am used to feeling out of place in church.  I have heard a woman say to another woman who was suffering great pain and had just had bad news from a doctor, "We worship the great physician.  You just ignore those doctors and keep praying.  You'll get better."

I wanted to inject myself.  I wanted to say, "That's crap theology.  What does that mean if she doesn't get better?  That God ignored her?  That she didn't pray hard enough?"

But I didn't say those things.  Who am I to strip away hope?

I'm used to feeling out of place particularly around Lent and Easter.  I have real problems with atonement theology.  I don't believe that Jesus had to be crucified because some day I would sin.  Jesus was crucified because he was seen as a threat to Roman order.  Otherwise he'd have been killed another way, stoning perhaps, or beheading.

Usually around Christmas I can silence my inner intellectual.  This year, perhaps because I've been reading Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I find my inner intellectual increasingly tough to drown out with my usual arguments about loving the essence of the Christmas story.

This year, I hear Aslan's words:  "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 I 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 possessions, which in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous" (p. 30).

I don't read the Bible as history--what folly that would be--but I know so many people who do.  They are astounded and disbelieving when told that there is no historical record of this census of the Romans.  Why, then, did Jesus' parents go to Bethlehem?

Is it because I've gotten graduate degrees in literature at a time when the literary theorists looked at texts and audiences and creations of texts and the many motivations for creating a text?  I also don't think those Hebrew Bible prophets were talking about Jesus.  I see that literature of prophecy as talking about current conditions, but in veiled terms, so that the writers weren't killed.

I see the same thing in many literatures.  My dissertation looked at Gothic literature, traditionally thought of as unrealistic, as an exploration of domestic violence in the modern 18th/19th century family.  So, the fact that I approach the Bible the way that I do is not surprising.

What is surprising--I don't find that many other people read the way I do, particularly not church people.

But perhaps I'm being too grim on this Christmas Eve.  Let me remember the other approaches to the Christmas story.  Let me remember the wondrous story of a God who wants to be with us so much that God will put up with the indignities of being trapped in human form.

Here's a wonderful quote that I came across in the comments to this post by Historiann, a post about beliefs in Santa and in God.  Contingent Cassandra says, "Interestingly, the sermon in my church this morning (on the lectionary passage, from the beginning of Matthew), focused instead on Joseph, and what one does when one’s plans have been entirely overturned, and God is saying 'just go with it; good will come of this.'  This same argument would, of course, work for Mary (but the annunciation isn’t included in Matthew’s account, so it hasn’t been the subject of a sermon this particular year; we’ll get back to it another year), but Joseph had more of a choice (and Mary was in much more peril, up to and including the possibility of stoning). It was a good sermon, one which I think would even work in some ways from an entirely secular viewpoint, since the emphasis was on what to do when everything seems to have fallen apart (stop, consider/discern in whatever way fits your beliefs, live into what seems like a 'mess'). But the idea that one tries to listen for God’s voice in such crises is certainly distinctive to a religious viewpoint (though few if any members of my church are expecting guidance from angels, or dreams; in fact, the preacher acknowledged that that’s not part of our experience these days)."

I love this paragraph.  I love the idea of living into what seems like a mess.  Living into the mess!  Maybe that will be my motto for 2014.

I'm also drawn to the idea of how God speaks to us.  We are so narcotized by so many things these days:  junk TV, alcohol, high calorie foods, hard drugs, soft drugs, more junk TV. 

But the Christmas story reminds us that being narcotized in this way may be part of the human condition.  How many times did God try to get Mary's attention, Joseph's attention, the attention of the Magi, the attention of the shepherds, before resorting to sending angels?

I don't want to let my inner intellectual blind me to the larger vision.  We have good news of great joy:  the kingdom of God is breaking through, right here, right now.  It's not about a savior who will be tortured on a cross, although that's part of the story.  It's about a savior who came to show us how to live the best life we can live as humans.

Now that's news that's worthy of angel choirs--and human choirs too.

1 comment:

Eric Ash said...

Actually, there is archaeological evidence for the census, as a quick Google search will show. When it comes to tax policy, is anything preposterous? In an agricultural community, where most people lived close to their families and where they were born, asking people to return home would not require many people to travel very far. It would not shut down the economy and it was not an annual event, it happened maybe once every 14 years. We do well to read those who write with an agenda to discredit the Bible at least as critically as we read the Bible. Do not believe everything you read just because a so-called expert wrote it.