If you go back in the blog archive to January 30th 2013 You’ll find an item about the Nativity story, explaining how the traditional story of ‘no room at the inn’ is a misunderstanding based on a mistranslation of a word which primarily means a ‘guest-chamber’. Recently I was discussing this and got a rather unexpected reaction – as my heading has it, “Don’t spoil the story!”
OK, I’m sympathetic, that image of the pregnant Mary turned away from the inn to give birth in a stable is dramatically powerful. I’ve been trying to rewrite the story as the Bible actually tells it, and it ain’t easy to make it so exciting. BUT….
For me, the problem has to do with the other group who don’t want us to ‘spoil the story’ in this way – the atheists. They don’t want us to tell the story the biblical way, they want us to carry on telling the story the traditional way; not because they’re bothered about the drama, but because that version of the story plays into their hands and provides them an opportunity to mock and deride our faith.
In early days – 1500 years or so ago – it probably seemed just a ‘strange foreign thing’ that census officials in the east would send a man back to his ancestral home to register, even though he might have no current connection with the place. Modern interpreters are not so … er … racist … about other people’s customs, and have largely fully realised that the situation is actually absurd. Yes, people went back to their home city; though few would need to go far, few people would have left their birthplace and family lands to begin with. They didn’t go back because of a far off ancestral link, but because that was still the current family home, even if they were among those few who had been taken elsewhere by business and similar reasons. Having made this point, the atheists will then say that the absurd story is only being told because Jesus ‘had to be’ born in Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy – it’s been made up for that reason. At the same time all too many Christians haven’t caught up yet and go on thoughtlessly repeating the absurd story, and the essentially wrong nativity plays go on perpetuating it.
After you’ve read this, just have a look on the web and see how many atheists are using the absurd ‘no room at the inn’ story to mock the nativity in general. It may seem sad to spoil the drama for the five-year-old; but what when that child grows up and as perhaps a thirteen-year-old is faced by atheists and agnostics all to ready to explain the absurdity and mock him for still believing it, and the mockery is not just from school-friends but from prominent figures like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry? If then he finds no better attitude from adult Christians than “Don’t spoil the story!” – well far less than that has turned people aside from the faith in the past, and if he never realises that the inn story is wrong, and the actual biblical story perfectly sensible at that point, he is all too likely to continue to regard the faith as discredited and not worth further investigation.
The basic answer to this one is very simple; Jesus is “The Way, the Truth and the Life” and his people should be telling the truth about His birth, not risking people’s souls for the sake of ‘not spoiling the (untrue version of) the story’.