March 25, 2019

Another Look: The Strangeness of Christmas

The Annunciation to the Shepherds. Joachim Wtewael

The story of Jesus has no bite. A tame “baby Jesus” makes his annual, heart-warming appearance, and leaves us largely un-bothered and un-changed. Yet when I read the two Gospel accounts, I am struck by how strange these narratives are, unsettling and fantastical at every corner.

• W. David O. Taylor

• • •

Thank you, David O. Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, for putting it so bluntly.

In a piece in the Washington Post, Taylor calls the biblical Christmas stories “weird,” “incredible,” “bizarre,” “unsettling,” “fantastical,” “strange,” “disturbingly odd,” “decidedly troubling,” and “terrifying yet life-giving.”

And he criticizes the church and our cultural institutions for taming and sanitizing them.

One would scarcely know how bizarre these narratives are, in fact, by the activities of artists and advertisers, along with plenty of churches, during the Christmas holidays.

Artists will extract portions of the story, tidy them up, set them to pop or hip hop or classical music, then allow radio stations to play it to death. Grocery stores will play it to a second death. Gas stations will complete the cycle by turning the songs into dismissible clichés.

Sermons, for their part, will rehash the stock details of the gospels, with the hope that parishioners will feel the “magic” or “mystery” of Christ’s birth.

Church pageants will trot out the cute kids in bathrobes, a pretty girl will play Mary, while an awkward Joseph remains forgettable, and an angel-child will belt out the good news to shepherd boys dragging their broom-sticks, eyes wandering over to the cookie table, even as the violins reach their sentimental climax.

iPhones will record the whole business for posterity, so that parishioners will remember how cute and sweet the drama was, even if the actual birth narratives are decidedly troubling and incredible.

I find myself in the same position as he reports: “Year after year, then, I find myself desperate for the church to confront me with that strangeness.”

If the story were truly told, in all its bizarre glory, Taylor says, we might see that, in the coming of Jesus, God is offering us hope instead of good cheer, joy that accounts for suffering rather than mere happiness, and the kind of love “that bears all things, including death and the loss of privileges, so that the faithful might become agents of the kind of shalom that Jesus exhibits…”

He imagines how this might be so, suggesting that we might encourage artists to present us with images, literature, dramatic pieces, and music that show the true human pain revealed in the Christmas narratives: things like the agony of infertility, poverty and peasant life in the Middle East, shame, doubt and social stigma, injustice, political intrigue and persecution, human fascination with astrology and “foreign” beliefs, and the anguished questions of parents who lose innocent children to cruelty and violence.

What if churches, he asks, focused on characters like Simeon and Anna and presented the long-suffering and patience of the elderly whose hopes have been deferred for years?

What if worship leaders gave space in services for people to share their experiences of pain and doubt, travail and suffering?

What if artists were commissioned to create pieces that evoke the terrifying sight of angelic visitations instead of the prettified “Precious Moments” angels that “touch” us so gently?

David O. Taylor asks:

Might such artworks provide us the capacity to live more faithfully in the actual conditions and contexts of our lives? Might they enable the birth narratives of Christ to become fresh again with insight and sharp with tension, for the sake of a new kind of “Christmas in America”?

And might such a Christmas contribute to the healing of our broken world, a world marked by infertility, divorce, doubt, shame, violence, abandonment and strange dreams?

Once I preached in my home church using the ancient carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” I noted how we so often sell short the song’s repeated refrain: “O tidings of comfort and joy.” It usually evokes in me warm images and feelings of Victorian seasonal festivity, good cheer and contentment.

However, the true “tidings” that proclaim “comfort and joy” are the tidings of the gospel, the good news that — as the carol says — frees us all from Satan’s pow’r and creates a new world where God makes things right in Christ. These are the tidings of Mary’s Magnificat: casting down the powers that rule over and enslave us and raising the dead to life.

By domesticating the “tidings of comfort and joy” that this season proclaims, we rob ourselves — and our world — of what we need most.

David O. Taylor is absolutely right. The biblical birth narratives are weird and incredible. We can (and must) stop sanitizing them.

Comments

  1. Pellicano Solitudinis says:

    I love Jan Pienkowski’s “The First Christmas” for precisely this reason. Mary is doing laundry when Gabriel shows up, she looks heavily pregnant and hideously uncomfortable arriving in Bethlehem, the angel’s appearance to the shepherds is really quite scary, and the massacre of the innocents is depicted, all in a book for children. The artist gets away with the sometimes quite disturbing material because he uses silhouettes.

  2. The biblical birth narratives are as strange, and full of the uncomfortable and disturbing, as our world today — if we have eyes to see; if we don’t, nothing will stop us from sanitizing them.

  3. Susan Dumbrell says:

    shepherds return home
    they have seen, such amazement
    the Heavens open

    “Glory to God in the highest
    and Peace on Earth”

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Yet when I read the two Gospel accounts, I am struck by how strange these narratives are, unsettling and fantastical at every corner.

    As “unsettling and fantastical” as Reddit paranormal stories on YouTube…

    What if artists were commissioned to create pieces that evoke the terrifying sight of angelic visitations instead of the prettified “Precious Moments” angels that “touch” us so gently?

    CHRISTIANS. WOULD. FREAK. OUT.
    “DEEEEEEEMONS!!!!!!!”

    Like any paranormal story on YouTube — even simple cryptids. There is always at least one Christian in the first ten comments screaming “FALLEN ONES COME TO DECEIVE US!” and/or setting up for an Altar Call.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      P.S.
      What if artists were commissioned to create pieces that evoke the terrifying sight of angelic visitations instead of the prettified “Precious Moments” angels that “touch” us so gently?
      Here’s a scene from My Little Pony that fits that description — Princess Celestia’s appearance in S2E3 “Lesson Zero”:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-ULo1BFngY

      Compare that to “Precious Moments” angels. Either Lauren Faust is more creative than God Almighty or Christians have really dropped the ball.

  5. What is most sanitized about the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke is how utterly incompatible they are, agreeing in almost no details. And interestingly no one seems to have been particularly disturbed by this before the rise of modern fundamentalism. Their efforts to reconcile these accounts are herculean and clever.

    What are we to make of this? Were there lots of these stories floating around mid-century and these two accounts just happened to be the ones written down and preserved in print? Did the authors of these accounts really think they were reporting accurate, historical details? Perhaps they had other purposes?

    After we’ve ruminated on all that then we can ask ourselves why Mark and John (and Paul of course) didn’t seem to think that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were worth reporting.

    Strange, indeed.