Christmas: Is that really what happened? (And does it even matter?)

After we explain what we believe and how it guides our lives, those of us with a liberal or progressive approach to Christianity often receive some appreciation from people of other faiths or no faith for focusing on compassion for others rather than doctrinal boundaries.

And we’ve usually gotten used to the dark looks and snide remarks from Christians of a more traditional bent, who sometimes fear that progressive Christians play “fast and loose” with matters of faith.

But Christmas (and Easter – that’s probably worth another article) add a piece to the puzzle that’s about more than ethics or spirituality. We’re told that a particular event happened at Christmas in a specific way, and there are a lot of unscientific, unexplainable aspects to it.

At some point, we liberals/progressives have to come to grips with the biblical Christmas story:

  • angels predicting things that actually happen
  • unexpected pregnancies and miraculous births
  • mysterious visitors following a star instead of GPS
  • events that fulfill ancient prophecies
Joseph and Mary gathered by the Christ-Child in the manger.

Joseph and Mary gathered by the Christ-Child in the manger.

Did it all really happen just as the Bible relates it? Are we required to believe in an angel Gabriel, Mary’s virginity through Jesus’ birth, a pregnant woman turned away from shelter and a Christ-child lying in a stable’s feed-box while three kings from a foreign country offer odd gifts by the light of a moving star?

And what happens if we decide we have trouble believing the story as it’s been told? Are we no longer Christian? Is Christmas meaningless? What’s the truth?

At some point after the Enlightenment, Western culture began to confuse “truth” with “facts.” Something could only be “true” if it were factual, subject to evidentiary validation.

Religion scholar Marcus Borg used the term “fact-fundamentalism” to describe both conservatives who require belief in the literal truth of the Bible and liberals who care only for things that are provable.

I think there’s got to be another way, and fortunately I’m not alone. Former Harvard professor James Kugel (an expert on the Hebrew scriptures) once suggested that this emphasis on factuality is a problem peculiar to modern Christians. Jewish biblical interpreters, he said, do not ask, “Did it happen?” but, “What does it mean?”

“What does it mean?” sets aside the factuality of an event – neither affirming nor denying it – in order to focus on deeper lessons. So what might the Christmas story mean?

Angels telling shepherds of Jesus’ birth while King Herod sits in his castle unaware might suggest God’s compassion and primary attention on the lowly and needy rather than those with status and power, making us think about who we prioritize.

The journey of foreign visitors and their welcome at the stable can imply that whatever “gift” Jesus brings is not just for “us” but for “them,” not restricted to one group (whether identified by ethnicity or doctrine) but open to all.

The role of God’s Spirit in making this birth happen points to the divine desire to be involved in all the messiness of our lives, rather than standing aloof from human tragedy and suffering, inviting us also to be in solidarity with the oppressed.

And the connection of this event to historical figures (accurate or not) indicates that this life and this earth are the places God desires to be and bless, and not some other-worldly plane of existence, so that we might value and care for our planet and seek good for those around us.

It’s said that Thomas Mann defined a myth as “a story about the way things never were, but always are.”*

I don’t know, for certain, if the biblical Christmas story tells of “things that never were” factual in exactly this or that way, but I don’t care.  I continue to hear “things that always are” true in the deepest sense, leading me into a more faithful life.

*Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) p. 50

7 Responses to “Christmas: Is that really what happened? (And does it even matter?)”

  1. Kris Katarian

    Well done, Steve. Such thoughtful reasoning outside of doctrinal boundaries transcends the question of myth or fact. As a deist, I welcome “outside the box thinking “. I hope you’ll give us a similar look at Easter. Heck, I would enjoy an expansion of this Christmas article.

  2. Steve Swope

    Thanks, Kris. I’ll keep Easter in mind for mid-March. As for expanded Christmas comments, I’d point you to Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan’s “The First Week” from several years ago.

    Of course, most of us clergy who studied at “mainline” seminaries learned this sort of thing in class and found it in standard textbooks. The problem often is, how does one communicate that in a church setting filled with folks of varying views, for whom this approach may be quite novel and even unsettling?

    I’ve known colleagues who’ve delighted in the bold announcement that “I don’t believe in” X or Y “anymore.” And some folks are enlightened by that, but others are turned off by a lack of sensitivity to what they’ve previously been taught. I prefer to emphasize what we (a) might hold in common, and (b) what new insight we might discover (c) without necessarily throwing someone’s treasured belief “under the bus.”

    Bottom line, though – because I wasn’t there, I don’t “know” that X or Y did or did not happen in a particular way. So I can never make a blanket declaration for or against. Since Christians have transmitted certain beliefs for centuries, I find it preferable to figure out and share what those ideas might mean for us today, in such a way that literalism isn’t either required or a hindrance.

  3. Ryan Levi

    Excellent piece. It is interesting to think about the two extremes of the debate – those that believe the entire Bible literally and those who will only believe what they “know” to be true. I’ve always felt that the essence of faith should be exactly that – faith. Hebrews 11:1 says “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I believe that the Bible is at its best and most useful – for everyone, both believers and non – when it is looked at not as a historical document to be proved or disproved but as a collection of stories that can help guide a person to a kind and fulfilling life.

    Every time I read your articles I am glad to find that there are those in the Christian community that look for ways to be inclusive and find the best in the Bible.

  4. DanialTaylor

    This blog is a masterpiece Steve. I always love to read such articles. Christmas is a occasion of fun and to celebrate with a family. There is one God and one Religion what this occasion always told to us. Christmas teach us to keep faith on God and to fight with a troubles. I always look for such articles which provides a boost to a Christian community.pharmaceutical packaging

  5. Steve Swope

    Ryan & Danial, thanks! Ryan, your penultimate sentence (“…a collection of stories that can help guide a person to a kind and fulfilling life.”) – couldn’t have put it better myself.

  6. Taz Chance

    This was a great article. It always amazes me that if we take away the “facts” from our beliefs, both Pagans and Christians might just be surprised at how similar our structures and core principals are. Christmas is a perfect example. Christmas is very similar to Yule. It happens at almost the same time, and historically there is a reason for that. But setting that aside, it is a time for the “light” to return to the world. A time for family and sharing, to thankful for what we have, and to help others who are less fortunate.

  7. Steve Swope

    Taz, thanks! Dar Williams had a great song several years ago called “The Christians & the Pagans,” about a pagan niece visiting a very Christian uncle on Christmas Eve. “So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table, finding faith and common ground the best that they were able.”


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