Friday, December 23, 2005

We wish you a mythical Christmas?

Karen Armstrong writes that "the Christmas story was not intended to be factual". The problem is that Luke, particularly, is a meticulous historian, seeking to write an accurate history. The other gospel writers are no different. I have to wonder if she has even opened the texts she critiques.

She says that the gospels are not accurate biographies. They are not comprehensive biographies detailing every detail of Jesus' life. They are designed to teach us about Jesus, often with explicit statement of "authors purpose". (see also - John's purpose statement). John, like Luke, wants to record accurate evidence of what happened so that we could believe that. Neither has any interest in fiction or myth. Armstrong believes that Luke and Matthew make events happen in particular ways but they state what happened and it is the events, not their agenda, that drives things. She cites particularly Jesus' birth in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth. Luke says there are particular specific reasons why this happened. They gospel writers arrange their material carefully but they dare not play with the truth.

Armstrong further notes that the Christian story is marked by inclusion of outsiders. Quite true! But this is inclusion around the person of Jesus Christ and his good news. However, this never implies that Christians shouldn't claim to know the truth. They distinctively do - because the truth became a person, and it is that person Jesus Christ we have encountered and been included by. This is the word incarnate inviting any kind of person to come to him, but on Jesus' terms not our own.

Armstrong further misapplies such inclusion of sinners to say that this prevents us saying that certain things are wrong. She rightly denies the right to be "self-righteous" in condemnation of others. But Christians are by definition not self-righteous, they have renounced self-righteousness to recieve it from Jesus. Jesus welcomed all kinds of sinners but called them to leave their sin behind. Whether adulterers, tax-collectors or murderers like the apostle Paul. History is not forgotten but it is no burden either.

I'll grant that I'm not sure what benefit is really gained by identifying the particular sin of non-Christian people. Sin is sin. And that can be said, but it has to be accompanies by an invite to even the worst of sinners (as Paul called himself) to come and find life, forgiveness and welcome in the abundant grace of Jesus Christ.

Armstrong observes the deep irony of the capitalisation-fest that Christmas has become,. This is indeed most distasteful to Christians who are well aware of the fleeting nature of earthly treasures. We are wrong to buy into this. The good of "generosity" is sadly corrupted by human greed.

Armstrong's tirade continues with observations about women in Luke's gospel. Jesus grants women great priviledge, more than their culture would have done. It is note worthy that it is women who are witnesses of the death and resurrection of Jesus. A myth writer would have changed this detail since women's testimony was worthless at the time. But Luke and the rest are unable to avoid the truth. Armstrong goes on to say that female church leadership should be allowed if women are to be well treated. This is irrelevant to the issue of the content of Luke's gospel.

Meanwhile, Matthew is branded a male chauvinist because of his ommission of the angelic message to Mary, since he only tells of the visit to Joseph. This is an argument from silence displaying something of a feminist paranoia. The accusation lacks foundation and is opposed to the whole of the Bible which gives men and women equaly dignity in God's image from the start. When Paul goes on to write of the fall it is women who take blame in 1 Timothy 2, and men in Romans 5. All are sinners. All can be saved.

Finally, Armstrong misapplies Jesus' words about leaving family to follow him. She says that he is shown to devalue family. Likewise when Paul teaches the benefits of singleness. Again, one wonders if she has read Luke's gospel. Jesus is teaching about the infinite value of following him rather than the the lack of value of family.

This is the Jesus who didn't call people to a life based on myth but on evidence and truth. He called people to consider his words carefully, as to his gospel-writers. The New Testament writers have no notion of being fiction-writers. Paul explicitly makes the historicity of the Christian claim the foundation of belief. Whilst a Hindu faith survives if none of its history happened, the Christian faith is utterly undone if it is based on fiction. Christian faith has always been based on evidence about God who stepped into human history.

A consumerist orgy is a misunderstood celebration of the wonder of Jesus' incarnation. But the story is not at fault. A better approach would be to humbly ask that child, who grew up, died and now reigns to give us eternal life. The gospel writers are clear that those who will humbly ask will recieve eternal life, freely. Whoever they are.

All can say is that I hope Karen Armstrong might re-read the gospels with appropriate humility. Perhaps for her like so many others, Jesus will walk off the pages and she will find in him eternal life this Christmas.


  1. That's the problem with reading the Guardian...regular attacks on the Gospel. (Mind you, it does give you some good quotes for sermons!)

  2. I read it for its anti-christian agenda mostly. And cos I quite like the Berliner format. Good to know where people are coming from...

  3. However, it's better than some right-wing press (that I read) where Christianity is not critised as much but only because it is considered English/traditional.

  4. On second thoughts, who can say which is better, half-hearted acceptance for the wrong reasons, or hostility bred by hate of God, and misunderstanding.

    God will judge.

  5. Their web site's pretty marvellous as well.

    Papers like the Telegraph irritate me with their coverage on Christianity because it is, as dave says, considered by them "right" rather than true. It's like decent people are Christians... but they don't believe all that silly stuff in the Bible! I get the impression that they don't criticise it for fear of alienating the readership rather than writing something that they think is worth reading.

    In fact, I hate all newspapers and media outlets.