Rich Barlow | Spiritual Life

Seeking a fresh reading of the nativity

Marcus J. Borg says the nativity stories are less a factual account than a message that Jesus is 'the light in darkness.' Marcus J. Borg says the nativity stories are less a factual account than a message that Jesus is "the light in darkness."
Email|Print| Text size + By Rich Barlow
December 22, 2007

The birth Christians celebrate Tuesday anticipates the rebirth of the world, from sin to redemption. Earlier this month, seeking a similar rebirth for Christianity through a less traditional reading of Scripture, a conference of progressive Christians heard from a speaker who has co-written a new book on the nativity story.

Oregon State University scholar Marcus J. Borg didn't mention his book, "The First Christmas," in prepared remarks for the conference, sponsored by Harvard Divinity School. But themes from the book came up repeatedly when he spoke at the gathering held the second weekend of December at First Church in Cambridge.

In his book, Borg, an Episcopalian, and coauthor John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest, argue that a literal reading of the Nativity story is impossible for many modern Christians. Science and biblical scholarship have corroded belief in concepts like the virgin birth.

But the virgin birth is one of the few points of agreement in the starkly different birth accounts of Matthew and Luke. There's no manger in Matthew's telling, which also has the Holy Family living in Bethlehem before Jesus' birth, not visiting for a census.

But believers need not reject the Gospels because they aren't always historically accurate, Borg said.

"Reading the stories carefully suggests that the authors themselves did not intend these as historically factual accounts," he said in an interview between conference sessions.

Borg and Crossan write that both Matthew and Luke wrote their Nativities as parables and overtures. Like a symphony overture, they encapsulate the theme of the coming Gospels: for Matthew, that Jesus is the new Moses; for Luke, our obligations to the poor and outcast and the presence of the Holy Spirit. And like Jesus' parables, they are stories intended to convey lessons.

What are those lessons? That Jesus is "the light in darkness [and] fulfillment of humankind's deepest yearnings," Borg said.

Another lesson he sees is potentially more controversial.

The birth stories and the Gospels generally are "pervasively anti-imperial," he said. Jesus' listeners would have heard his references to the kingdom of God as a direct challenge to the Roman Empire under whose occupation they lived. Jesus meant the kingdom of God to be an earthly one, not just a blissful gift in the afterlife; the Lord's Prayer pleads that "thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven."

Borg defines imperialism in the book as being beyond territorial conquest and including political and economic imperialism, which has controversial implications when applied to the modern Rome, i.e., the United States.

"I could make a good case that the greatest source of suffering in the United States today is oppressive economic systems," Borg said in his talk.

He also deplored the support of many evangelical Christians for the invasion of Iraq. That support was an "extraordinary failure of Christian education," Borg said, considering that Christian views on war, whether based on pacifism or the just war theory, rule out preemptive invasions.

In the interview, he acknowledged that mining Scripture for political meaning demands "real discernment" to avoid the notion that God takes sides in specific policy debates, an idea conservative Christians sometimes stand accused of fostering. Still, Borg said, there is no getting around the Bible's relentless drumbeat against oppressive earthly powers, "as reflected in the story of the Exodus, as reflected in Israel's yearning for return from the Babylonian captivity, Jesus and [his talk of] the kingdom of God, Paul and 'Jesus is Lord,' Revelation and its portrait of empire as the beast whose number is 666."

Another panelist, independent scholar Diana Butler Bass, screened a brief documentary about her church, the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C., showing how it rescued itself from near closure by rethinking the obligations of Christian practice.

Among the innovations the church adopted was taking a longstanding ministry to homeless people, which gave away leftover food as a charity, and infusing it with hospitality, welcoming the homeless to dine with the congregation at church breakfasts. Church membership surged.

"When you welcome the stranger into your church, they stay," she said.

Her words evoked a story about an inn that had no room for a wandering family.

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