“Don’t Spoil the Story!”

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’.  

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Marcus Brigstocke – whining about Christmas….

During her programme on comedy and Christianity, ‘Are you having a laugh?’  Ann Widdecombe interviewed comedian Marcus Brigstocke; a clip was shown from one of Brigstocke’s performances.  In it he said

I respect a person’s right to have a religion, but just how much do these people want from us?  Christmas starts in October and approximately two months is lights, songs, special meals, promotions, adverts, decorations, trees and nativity plays in thousands of our schools.  So my question is, how much more do you Christian campaigners think you might need from us before you stop your ******** whining?

OK Marcus, I know your tongue will have been a bit in your cheek and your conversation with Ann showed that you are a quite reasonable person when not in on stage mode.  I expect a comedian to exaggerate a bit – and yes, I found your rant funny (though the fun is wearing off a bit after repeated replays to make the above transcript!).  But hang on a minute… how much of those months of agony (and I don’t enjoy it much myself!) is actually to do with us Christians to begin with?

Most Christians in my experience only want to be doing Christmas as such for the month of ‘Advent’ leading up to December 25 itself, and Advent is more than just Christmas anyway.  For those who follow the ‘Christian calendar’ there’s plenty else to do for the rest of the year, including the much more important celebration of Easter.  Though less common, many others do not accept the dubious calculations which led the dubiously established Roman Imperial church to the December 25th date and we don’t feel a particular need to specifically celebrate Jesus’ birthday at all, though we’re usually polite enough to go along with those who do.  And actually in less overtly ‘Xmassy’ ways all Christians celebrate all year round the deep implication of Christmas as the incarnation of God in human form.

The massively extended (over-blown?) celebration that you protest about, Marcus, is really, as your mention of ‘adverts and promotions’ suggests, more to do with a commercialised festival which took off in the early Victorian era, perhaps particularly from the writings of one Charles Dickens, and has now almost taken over from the original religious feast.  It has increasingly taken on a life of its own and apart from using the name ‘Christmas’ (and even that often reduced to the anonymous ‘Xmas’) barely refers to the Christian beliefs at all.  Consequently far from campaigning for it, most Christians actually find this manifestation of ‘Christmas’ a problem.

For this modern materialistic winter festival the true god is ‘Father Christmas’; this figure is ultimately pagan, and is also prefigured by the ‘Spirit of Christmas Present’ in Dickens’ Christmas Carol.  There is confusion with the genuine Christian festival earlier in December of St Nicholas, a 4th Century Bishop famous for some spectacular gifts, but the modern ‘Santa’ has become a completely separate figure with a fairy story legend which makes him a kind of Scandinavian demigod as he allegedly lives at the North Pole with his elves.

Ironically Santa is one of the few religious beliefs on behalf of which you (even you, Marcus) may still be more-or-less officially persecuted in our fairly tolerant country.  If you are invited to visit a junior school and entertain the children, try telling a class of nine-year-olds that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, and see what happens.  If you get out alive… well, it may not be quite that bad, but it could still be an adversely career-changing move for a comedian who does a lot of work for children’s TV!  (Several teachers in recent years have suffered such persecution for misjudging whether their classes had already grown up enough to abandon belief in Father Christmas).  And see how the adults will rush in like the 7th Cavalry to repair the ‘damage’ you have supposedly done by telling the truth to the kids, with ‘special lessons on the meaning of Christmas’ to reinforce the Santa lie.  Most of those adults will have no serious Christian beliefs, and of course they won’t – unless insane – believe in Father Christmas at all!!

So Christians aren’t really responsible for much of the Christmas palaver you are whining about, especially the way it now starts in October (or even, I sometimes feel, in October of the previous year!).  I suppose the staging of nativity plays can’t be so easily disclaimed; though these days there is a considerable element of tradition and custom (“This is the ‘done thing’ at Christmas”) rather than serious faith on the part of teachers.  This is basically because of the many years when most of Europe was formally Christian.  Because this blog deals regularly with that issue I’ll not go into it again in detail right here, just say that according to the New Testament Christianity should not have had that special place in the state.  Mind you, much of the pattern of modern schooling derives from days when the churches provided education for people because the state in those days didn’t; you should at least give the church credit for that, and indeed for being the lead educator in many modern third world countries where un-or-other-believers can’t be bothered.

Christians I think have a right to campaign for their faith; as you, Marcus, have a right to oppose us and make fun of us.  If we are doing things biblically we won’t be seeking special privilege in the state, just humbly seeking to share things that have truly helped our lives.  And we are often dismayed by the modern ‘Christmas’ as much or even more than yourself.

See also a separate post on this blog about the Widdecombe programme….