Looking at Christmas Through a Rear-View Window

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 7 January 2009 0 Comments

It still has magic power. Across the Western world hearts beat lighter during the Christmas season, generosity expands and romance overflows its normal boundaries. Of course, there is a minority of the population for whom this is never true. For them the Christmas season is a cruel reminder of their plight. The picture of family members smiling around the decorated tree exacerbates the loneliness of those who have no families. The warmth of the burning fireplace seems insensitive to those who are cold. Yet, despite these hard reminders that Christmas joy is never universal, it is nonetheless true that the Christmas season grabs and warms the Western consciousness as does no other time of the year. These are data that beg the question why? Why is this the season of good cheer and romance? What is there about this season that brings dreams of peace and hope of good will so powerfully into focus?

Part of the answer to this query is surely that in the Northern hemisphere the Christmas season comes at the darkest time of the year, when human beings yearn for the return of the sun that will inevitably hurl back this winter darkness. Perhaps we are still in touch, at least subliminally, with those elemental anxieties that marked our ancient ancestors, who feared each winter that the sun might be disappearing permanently and who were thus gripped by a deep sense of insecurity or angst. We do frame the Christmas story as one in which the darkness is penetrated first by a bright star in the East and later by an angelic chorus that opens the night sky to sing its heavenly message to hillside shepherds. We explain the power of Christmas through the symbol of light breaking darkness.

Symbols, however, are tricky. We are always tempted to literalize them. Yet, increasingly, men and women today dismiss the literal understanding of the biblical Christmas myths. Only the biologically naïve still argue that a virgin can conceive. Only the astronomically challenged believe that a star can announce a human event or wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can actually keep up with it. Only the historically inept can still pretend that a decree was issued to all the descendants of King David ordering them to return to their ancestral home in Bethlehem to be enrolled. The time between King David and Jesus was about 1000 years, or some 50 generations. King David had multiple wives and numerous children. Stories about this family echo through the books of I and II Samuel. If this king had 50 direct heirs in his generation, which would represent a very conservative number for a royal figure in that polygamous and patriarchal age, try to imagine the number of direct heirs there would be 50 generations later. At the end of five generations the number would be approximately 30,000. Ten generations later that number would have expanded to more than 40 million and, by the twelfth generation, it would have passed the one billion number. Fifty generations would produce hundreds of billions of direct heirs. Can you imagine a real king issuing such a decree designed to reach all of the descendants of one who lived a thousand years ago, or that they would obey it? If that were literally true it should surprise no one that there was no room at the inn at Bethlehem, a village of less than 500 people!

The myths are beautiful and appealing but they were never meant to be taken literally. Nonetheless, they have been read as the “Word of God,” placed into hymns, liturgies, pageants and repeated so often that most people grow up thinking of them as history. While no one with any scholarly background today regards them as literally true, their power is still undiminished. At pageants, we love to see that manger, listen to the angels sing and watch the wise men journey to Bethlehem. Something is powerfully real underneath even our non-literal symbols.

Pious believers do not like to be confronted with facts. In the world of our experience, however, virgins do not conceive, stars do not wander, wise men do not leave their homes in search of a newborn king, angels do not sing and shepherds do not search for a baby lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Beyond that, it is an established fact that the birth stories do not appear in the Christian tradition until the ninth decade. Paul, who wrote from 51-64 CE, obviously had never heard of this tradition. Mark, the earliest gospel writer, portrays the mother of Jesus as thinking he was “beside himself,” that is, out of his mind, a kind of family embarrassment that must be put away by the time he was grown. That is not the response one would anticipate from the Jewish maiden to whom angels had made the annunciation and the promise that she would be the bearer of the “Son of the Highest.” Of course, Mark had never heard of the miraculous tales of Jesus’ birth because they had not been formulated when Mark wrote his gospel. It was in the 9th decade when Matthew first introduced this tradition to the Christian community. He did so, we now believe, to counter rampant rumors about Jesus’ questionable paternity that were being circulated by the enemies of the Christian movement. These rumors are stated quite overtly by Matthew in verse 18 of his opening chapter: “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child…. And Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly.” Then Matthew tells us that Joseph learned from angelic sources that the child was holy and not illegitimate. Matthew explains this by saying that the miraculous birth of Jesus was predicted by the prophets and cites Isaiah 7:14 to buttress his case, but we now know that he mistranslated his proof text. Matthew said that this verse read, “Behold a virgin will conceive.” That text, however, announces only that “a woman is with child.” That is quite a difference. Matthew surely knew that and perhaps that is why in his seventeen-verse introduction to this narrative of Jesus’ miraculous birth he describes the strange genealogical line that he claims led to Jesus of Nazareth. The DNA that produced Jesus traveled, said Matthew, through some dark and sexually compromised waters. One of Jesus’ ancestors, he tells us, was born through an incestuous relationship between Tamar and her father in law, Judah. Others were born to the prostitute Rehab, through an act of seduction performed by Ruth and through the adultery of Bathsheba. That is quite a way to introduce a narrative of Jesus’ miraculous birth, but that is exactly how Matthew does it.

About a decade after Matthew, Luke wrote his version of Jesus’ birth. He disagrees with Matthew on many details. Matthew says that the family of Jesus lived in Bethlehem, while Luke asserts that they lived in Nazareth. Only Matthew tells the story of a star and wise men, while only Luke has an account of angels and shepherds. Matthew has the holy family flee to Egypt, later return to their home in Bethlehem and finally make an angel driven retreat to settle in Galilee and Nazareth. Luke has this family remain in the Jerusalem area until the child is presented in the Temple on the fortieth day of his life before returning home to Nazareth in a leisurely fashion. When we come to the Fourth Gospel the birth stories, about which John must have known, simply disappear. John calls Jesus “the son of Joseph” twice, suggesting that his birth was quite natural. In this gospel it is not one’s natural birth that is significant, but one’s spiritual birth. That, John argued, was what made Jesus who he was. There is nothing even controversial about these data in the academic world where all birth stories are regarded as interpretive myths. That, however, does not diminish these myths’ power. Mythological truth is of a different order from either literalism or history. The purpose of the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth is to introduce us to this order.

Hidden beneath these myths are expressions of the human hope that even in the darkness of winter we are not alone in this universe. There is within all human life a yearning to know that the realm of the spirit does enter and indeed does permeate the earthly realm that we inhabit. In our imagination we always tended to locate that spiritual realm above the sky. So our myths speak of mysterious signs in the skies of heaven all of which serve to announce that the Christ Child is the one life in whom God is experienced as fully present in the human realm.

These symbols remind us that this planet earth is not just a tiny clod related to minor star located about two-thirds of the way toward the edge of our galaxy, but rather makes the claim that on this earth we bask in the direct gaze of the God, who is the source of the life that fills the universe. We further claim that it is within this life itself that we find meaning and purpose and that is how we know that we are not alone. That is the Christmas claim and its appeal is a very powerful one. That is also why we cling to our interpretive myths so tenaciously.

No myth is literally true. It is the nature of myth to point to a truth that limited words cannot embrace. That is what the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth do and that is why we love them passionately and respect them so deeply. Our assertion in these stories is that there is a place in this world where God and human life come together. We call it Bethlehem, but it is not an external town located on a map, but a place deep within each of us. There is a manger at the end of the human journey where each of us lies in the crib of God, but to find it we must go deep within ourselves. There is a hunger in the human heart that only God can fill and so we tell of wise men and shepherds who take their journey in hope. That is why the search for God is always identical with and part of the search for ourselves. These meanings in the Christmas narratives never emerge until we surrender our need for truth to be literal. Perhaps that means that literal religion must die before God can be known. That idea grows on me the older I get.

– John Shelby Spong


I subscribe to your letters, and I have read most of your books and have found them helpful in my personal search for truth and in the search for my own identity as a Christian. I am 75 years old and retired from a busy practice of family medicine. I consider myself a second-commandment Christian.

On both counts, human suffering has been one of my primary concerns. Early on as a physician and caring human being, it seemed clear to me that, of all the causes of human tragedy and suffering, there was no greater cause than that of people having children they didn't want or couldn't take care of. Therefore, potentially we had no more effective weapon than family planning against it. So I became an advocate of family planning. In the mid 1960s, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, there was and still is a religious bias against birth control, and not just from Catholics. Vasectomies were not done openly in the state of Wisconsin, as they were considered both immoral and illegal, so I was referring my patients to a urologist in Rockford, Illinois. After determining that vasectomies were not illegal in the state of Wisconsin, and having failed to persuade my urologist colleagues to do them, against all advice and in the face of religious criticism I decided to do them myself. Over the next few years I did thousands of them, as many as ten between morning hospital rounds and noon. I carried a surgical kit and did them on the road. Within five years, the practice of vasectomies was accepted and widely practiced in the state of Wisconsin.

I continue to be an advocate of family planning. Based on polls taken by our local health department and my own experience, I believe the majority of people favor making contraception and sex education available to all women of childbearing age, including sexually active teenagers.

So my question is this: Why the deafening silence from our Christian churches — conservative, mainline and liberal — regarding this humanitarian issue? Why the absence of family planning from all organized religious outreach programs? I have interviewed pastors and elected officials and concluded that religious leaders fear being seen as condoning sexual promiscuity, and both elected and religious leaders fear being divisive. They both dodge the issue by touting education and economic development, already long accepted approaches to the problem of poverty. But come on, that's not the issue. It's easy to support popular charities. I've always liked this somewhat obscure quotation of Emerson's that might apply here. "Your goodness must have some edge to it."

You've never been afraid of controversy, so I'm interested in your take on this issue, particularly if you can think of ways to change the thinking of the broad Christian community in a way similar to the way it changed regarding the specific issue of vasectomies a half century ago.


What a terrific letter and what a powerful witness your life has made. Thank you for that.

The question you raised is daunting and powerful. Before trying to address it may I say that you are obviously part of the Christian Church, a "second-commandment Christian" as you call yourself — so the Church spoke loudly and eloquently through you.

What you are asking about is why institutional Christianity has been so silent on things like family planning. There are at least two things that I think can be said, not to excuse, but to help us to understand.

First, institutional Christianity has always been tied up over and repressive to issues of human sexuality. This stemmed from its move into a dualistic Greek thinking world in the second century that identified flesh and bodies with sinfulness while extolling souls and spirits so pure and holy. In time denying the flesh or the desires of the body came to be identified with Christianity. Later the Church declared that the holy life was the sexless life and so virginity was the pathway to holiness and celibacy was the mark of the holy or priestly life. A wide variety of negative things flowed out of this, including the negativity toward family planning, negativity toward a married priesthood, negativity toward women who were defined as "temptresses" if they were not virgins and the sense that sex was somehow dirty or unclean. For years women had to go through a ceremonial cleansing after childbirth before they could return to the Church. During the Middle Ages, cathedral choirs were normally made up of men and boys because menstruating women in the choirs might pollute holy places with their unclean menses.

I think it is also fair to say that institutional Christianity's negativity toward homosexual people and even the outbreak of priestly abuse of young boys that has drained the resources of many part of the Roman Catholic Church in paying off lawsuits is one more illustration that unhealthy and sometimes violent expressions of sexuality always result from the repression of healthy sexuality.

Once these negative attitudes are present in institutional Christian life, any attempt to change the cultural attitude is defined as immoral. So nations and states have made it difficult to oppose laws that when they were enacted reflected that distortion of the dominant religious perspective.

Today, efforts to teach sex education in public school are opposed by an unholy alliance of traditional Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestant fundamentalists. The current administration in Washington, bowing to the pressure of its "religious right" supporters, had advocated the teaching of abstinence instead of sex education. It has been a colossal failure, as statistics reveal. It has been about as effective in curbing sexual activity as the "Just say No" campaign was in controlling drug use. This administration has also refused to fund international family planning clinics around the world for the same reason.

Perhaps your letter will give people new courage to act. I do see a new day dawning in America on these and many other issues.

– John Shelby Spong



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