Monday, January 5, 2015

Experimenting with a Liberal Interpretation of the Christmas Narratives

So how does one preach “Christmas,” when the story itself—for all the many reasons all commentators wrestle with—is understood as being legendary? Or maybe just made up?

In fact, having moved from an Evangelical to a Liberal Christian context, finding that “new” voice is one of my greatest challenges. I’ve had lots of practice, over the years, of trying to make it sound as if accounts of angels and mangers, shepherds and magi, immaculate conceptions and detailed genealogies are historically accurate. Doing so made me increasingly uncomfortable.

But having rejected the “it’s history,” explanation for the Christmas narratives, I’ve needed to find another angle. And doing so is definitely a touch and go exercise. I’m not deeply convicted that I’ve found the right approach. So what follows is my attempt to understand the Christmas story from my new perspective. I know that some of my readers will disagree with this approach. I don’t hope to convince them. But I do hope that it is internally consistent and that it contains a relevant message for today. I guess you will have to be the judge. The sermon, based mostly on John 1:14, follows. Any advice my fellow UCC pastors or friends have to offer would be much appreciated!


I remember camping with my boy’s club when I was about 12 or 13 years old—winter camping. The leaders built two long rows of lean-tos out of tarps and two by fours, over straw. The tall ends of the lean-tos faced each other about six feet apart. Between the lean-tos half a dozen fires kept us toasty warm in spite of falling snow and biting wind. It was an adventure—sparkling logs, hot chocolate, stars, and us boys in our sleeping bags, like ears of unshucked corn roasting on a grill. A perfect adventure.

I remember another camping trip, when my boys were little. I had a new propane Coleman stove. However, when I lit it, the burners barely worked. I thought that maybe some of the gas was escaping from the hose, so I tightened the nut some. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that those nuts had reverse threads, and so instead of tightening the nut I loosened it. The escaping gas caused a small explosion. Flames fired six or ten feet straight up from the tank. I lost my eyebrows and facial hair. The park was evacuated, the fire department came, and after a few hours order was restored. But year after year, Irene, the boys, and I kept on camping anyway—with an old pump stove, mind you.

Why put up with cold winter camping? Why continue to camp in spite of disasters like the one I just mentioned? Well, the answer is complicated. We camped for the camaraderie and smores and the illusion of roughing it.

But we camp for other reasons, too. The sound of birds that waken us. The shadows of tree branches seen through the tent at dawn. Sand between my toes down at the beach. You can canoe around a bend in the river and feel like you are a hundred miles away from everyone else in the world. I camp to get back to nature, for the aroma of coffee brewing on an open fire, and for a glimpse of deer and maybe even something more exotic.

I camp, because because I love it.

One interesting footnote to the Christmas story is that in John 1:14 Jesus’ birth is described as camping. John writes, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The word there, for “lived among us,” is the Greek word “skene,” which means tent. When he was born, Jesus tented with us, he camped with us.

I wonder if Jesus loved camping with us.

We’ve romanticized Jesus’ birth, of course. The stable was, a best, a shack. Maybe a lean-to against the inn—possibly just a hollowed out overhang under some rocks. If you have ever owned a horse, or worked on a dairy or pig farm, you know it can smell very bad. Jesus’ manger didn’t come with a supply of blankets or pillows, or a Coleman stove. No vending machines or privies, either. Any townie who knew that Joseph and Mary were out back would have spat on the ground and cursed the flood of refugees from the North.

So what was there to love, in camping, for Jesus?

Now, before I answer that question, I should remind you I’m doing so from within the frame of the story. The story is true, but true only in some ineffable, mysterious sense that we humans can merely scratch at. So while I want to talk about the meaning of the Jesus’ birth in a shack, I don’t want you to be scratching your heads and asking, “how is that historically possible?” This story wasn’t written like an objective newspaper account might be.

But in telling his story, Luke was on to something—something that Christians have been trying get their heads around for two thousand years. It is this—what Jesus loved about camping in Bethlehem was . . . us. Jesus—who in this story stands in for God—loved us. That’s why Jesus tented among us.

In many—not all, but many religions, the point of religion is to appease God. You offer sacrifices to get God to do stuff, like give you healthy babies or a great harvest. Even some Christians—many Christians, actually—believe that if you pray enough, using just the right words, with a heart inclined the proper way—even many Christians believe that they can somehow manipulate God to heal them, or make their church grow, or save them from enemy bullets. In many though not all religions the whole point of temple and sacrifice is to appease God and thereby manipulate God to give us what we want.

But at the heart of the Christmas story a very different portrait of God emerges. Even before we prayed, even before we made that extra large donation to the church’s operating budget, even before we overcame temptation and did the right thing, God loved us. We don’t have to cajole God or bribe God. God just loves us.

In fact, God loved us so much that God—in the telling of this story that is—God loved us so much that God decided to camp with us, to be with us. According to the story, God stepped down out of heaven, left the angels at the throne, and put on human flesh, because from God’s perspective, humans are very special, because God loves us.

Look. The planet earth is not the center of the universe. And humans are not what the cosmos is all about. And we muck things up pretty good, again and again, as a human race. When it comes to treatment of the poor, or taking care of the planet, or embracing enemies we are not pros, or semi pros or even amateurs—we’re just not very good at these things.

But as much as all this matters to God—whoever, wherever, however God exists, whether in every living thing as soul or even if God exists merely as an ideal—what is lovely about this story, is that it insists that God loves us so much that God decided to camp out with us.

Listen, this is strange. Sometimes I get on this pulpit, and I feel—momentarily—like I can shed light on all this religion stuff. I have two Masters degrees in theology, after all. And a Ph.D. in hermeneutics—that is, in the interpretation of texts like the one we read a few minutes ago. But at bottom, I really don’t know much about God, or how to explain God, or how to answer the hard questions about why we exist—or suffer.

          When I had to tell a man, years ago, that his wife and child died in a car accident, my theology education wasn’t all that helpful. When I hear in the news that a man lying on the ground crying out “I can’t breathe,” nevertheless was choked to death, I don’t know what to say, other than this is evil. After I saw the museum to the atom bomb in Hiroshima I fell into a deep spiritual depression that still haunts me at times. I don’t get it.

But we have these divine stories for just those occasions that linear theology and propositions fail us. The Bible’s storytellers, for example, tell of how once upon a time God camped with us. The storyteller Luke suggests here, in the gentlest way possible, and yet with great force, that the point of life is to live it for others, even as Jesus lived for others at great cost to himself. Why was Jesus born? Because God loves us. And so whatever else we make of this Christmas story, remember this. If God so loved us, why shouldn’t we love each other, too? It’s hard, usually, I know.

And yet, it is good to remember, as we try, that the storyteller insists that to love each other is actually divine.


  1. Ever watch the movie Big Fish?Big Fish

  2. Yes. Used it in a preaching class actually. Years ago. What is the connection for you?

    1. Guessing it is the storytelling--it was true.

  3. Our reservations in telling the story arise from our cultural assumptions about time, history and authority. "Yeah but"ing all of the stories is of the same genre as building a duplicate ark and figuring out fast evolution of animals can account for current animal diversity. We all bring our cultural filters to the text but if we want people to have any encounter with the story at all we need to tell it as the story we've been given. I know lots of "yeah but"s about all sorts of things but if I can't talk about the Garden and the Flood and the Exodus and David they don't find their way into our story or we into theirs. When I preach out of Matthew I'll look at Luke and Mark but I'll stick to Matthew when I tell the story unless I've got some other homiletical point to make where the Synoptic study is useful. I don't really know any other way to help us find ourselves in that story or have that story encounter our own.

    this is an important subject that I think was hardly touched on at CTS maybe because Profs were afraid of getting shot at. I don't know. Maybe I slept in that class. I've just come to discover that putting an asterisk by everything with a footnote that says "may or may not have happened in such and such way based on archeology, science or contradictory synoptic story" is a lousy way to grow through working with the Bible. If someone listens to me and says "he's a rube because he talks like ________ while so and so says X didn't happen like that" so be it.

    Our approach to authority and history and time (secularity meaning only one type of time) is our own. If we only know our own way of viewing the world we're impoverishing ourselves.

    1. The "ya but" approach to Biblical narratives arises out of our cultural preoccupation with "objective reporting," and discomfort with stories, maybe. Obviously, there are both historical and non-historical story threads in scripture. How important is it to make a statement in each and every sermon as to which you think it is? I don't know. I find that when I "ya-but," I'm often responding to concerns I had ten years ago but that my congregation has never had. Finding my way, I guess.

    2. Similarly, just noticed that one of the search terms that was used to find my blog was, "Jesus coming back" "myth" "lie." There is a huge group of people who still try (even though it is impossible) to see everything as either true or a lie. Stories? Not much room in these folks' psyches for stories.

  4. Can the complex become simple? Is the obvious no longer transparent? We search, we land --- we search again.

    Keep writing, John.

    1. Yes. All is flux, as they say. Better to try and swim than be swept away.

  5. If I remember correctly, this preacher's wife understands that the Greek word “skene” refers back to the OT tabernacle. God has been on a very long camping trip! The point of life may be to first and foremost serve God. What does that look like? "

    In trying to find a non-evangelical voice, I hope you won't fall into the trap I seem to observe especially in the UC (based on limited experience, of course). Rather than make people feel guilty about sin, the emphasis moves towards making people feel guilty about their lack of compassion for the homeless, their complacent attitudes towards racism, their lousy environmental record, etc., etc. If it's all about God's love, can we avoid making it conditional on our social justice record? IF life is really mostly about living it for others, frankly, I think we're doomed even more so than if it's about fear of hell.

    1. In a denomination oriented towards social justice and action, it is a temptation to fall into a works righteousness all the time mode. Good to warn against that!

  6. I appreciate your telling of the story, John. The writer of Luke used powerful images that would have been understood by the people of his time, but some elements of this narrative may not be very meaningful for us. 21st century preachers, if they care about their craft as you do, try to do the same, using imagery we understand and relate to in order to tell of the truth imbedded in the ancient narratives, to make the testament in these narratives come alive for us. It is a huge challenge to make the incredible credible for our lives in a way that encourages us to grow in faith (faith as distinct from a set of beliefs rooted in reinforce centuries old interpretations and doctrine.) I think the writers of the gospels, who were not eyewitnesses to the events of which they wrote, faced these challenges too. And, historically in Christianity, others have attempted to meet the challenge. Santons de Provence, for example, are collectively about 50 or so figurines traditionally displayed at a Provence Christmas creche. The figurines represent not only the Mary, and Joseph, but masons, bakers, tailors, and everyone in a European village of 300 years ago. And so, God came to our everyday lives. Does it matter if Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem Judea or to some obscure teen girl in Nazareth whose betrothed or some other guy was the father of her child, Jesus. I really don't think so. I personally like the latter as a image because to me that speaks more eloquently to God being with us in all of our ordinary humanity. A big reason I go to church (I am a United church member) at Christmas is to hear a story about the incredible love of God in a way that is not obscured by all of the schmaltz and sentimental romanticism we often associate with Christmas and even the Luke narrative (cozy, sanitized stable scenes). I see the tent imagery this way.

    1. Yes. There is a lot of division in the churches about the importance of historicity (and how much of it we need for a story to be "true.") Don't see that going away any time soon. But I'm more comfortable with these Advent and Christmas accounts as stories than I am with them as history.


What do you think?