The Wild Child of Bethlehem

A Christmas sonnet

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During my 30s and early 40s, I went through a period of spiritual struggle and exile. This poem was written at that time. It looks at Christmas through the lens of Good Friday and my own conflicts.

Though angels carol in his birth, this child

Bestows no peace within My Lady’s heart,

For from his mouth a sword shall dart

To rent her settled order. He is wild,

This child, and will not rest content, beguiled

By rules and law. His way is one apart:

His own self’s way. No charm or mother’s art

Can keep him to the home call reconciled.

 

This child is every child that would be free.

For this Orestes braved the furies’ sting

And tore asunder the maternal tie.

That’s why, before such horror cowering,

The nation’s elders, priests, and throne agree

The newborn child must bend, be tamed, or die.

 

© Gordon Lindsey, 1984

Can We Read the Bible Nude of Church Tradition?

Bible text: Various

When the Protestant Reformers looked at the medieval Church, they saw an institution full of corrupt practices and doctrines. Defenders of those practices and doctrines regularly appealed to the authority of ecclesiastical tradition.

The Reformers sought a platform where they could stand in criticizing these practices and doctrines. They believed they found it in appealing to the sole authority of Scripture—the reformation principle of sola Scriptura.

They also had confidence that responsible exegesis would illuminate the meaning of Scripture without any appeal to tradition. [Exegesis is the technical term Bible scholars use to describe the process of a close reading of the Biblical text to determine what the author intended to say, not what we want the text to say.]

I have come to believe they were wrong in their confidence. Ecclesiastical tradition profoundly influences the way we read and interpret the Bible, whether we realize it or not. We carry those traditions and a host of other cultural traditions into every act of exegesis, thus determining what we hear in the Bible. This is true for Protestant exegesis as much as it is true for Catholic and Orthodox exegesis. [Postmodern literary theory has also established that this is true for the reading of any literary text, religious or not.]

Let me offer some examples to make my point. Let’s begin with the Christmas story, which we have so recently read in our churches and celebrated in Christmas pageants. Our traditions about Christmas are heavily influenced by tradition, not by the Biblical texts.

The Gospel of Luke says that when Jesus was born, he was placed in a manger. It does not, however, say anything about animals present that night. We assume that because of the reference to the manger. So in our Christmas crèche scenes we include sheep, cows, and maybe a kneeling donkey. Tradition adds that, not the Biblical text.

Luke also says that when the Christmas angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, an angelic host praises God. But he does not say explicitly they sang their praises. He says they said them. The angelic choirs singing on the hillside comes from tradition, not the Biblical text.

When Matthew tells the story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus, we read that as a visit by three of them. Matthew does not say that explicitly. He just says wise men (number unspecified) made the visit. Church tradition determines our reading of three wise men (probably because there are three gifts).

Likewise Matthew does not say they are kings. He says they are magi, scholarly astrologers from the East. Church tradition has changed them into kings, most likely from conflating Matthew’s story with the prophecy in Isaiah 60:1-6, which talks of kings bringing gifts of gold and frankincense to Jerusalem.

And when we see the hundreds of images of the Annunciation story, we invariably see the announcement to Mary coming from the archangel Gabriel, who has a stunning pair of wings growing out of his back. The Bible has many references to angels, but it never says they have wings.

Yes, the prophet Isaiah has a vision (Isaiah 6) of seraphim with six wings. But in the ancient Near Eastern context in which Isaiah lived, seraphim were not envisioned as having a humanoid form. Seraphim were regarded as composite creatures, bearing maybe a human head, but the body of a lion or other beast. Wings, like the wings of an eagle, were a part of this composite understanding.

And yes, Revelation 14:6 has a reference to an angel flying in mid-heaven, but it never says that angel is flying by means of wings.

Yet church tradition, especially as expressed in Christian art, images angels as humanoid creatures with wings. And that is just as true of the art we find in Protestant churches as well as in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Our image of angels draws more from pagan Roman and Greek iconography than it does from the Bible.

Let me give a few more examples, outside the Christmas story. It is universally assumed that the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden was an apple. The Biblical text does not say that. Yet Protestants as well as Catholics joke about the apple the first sinners ate.

We assume that the creature that swallows the prophet Jonah alive is a whale. The text does not say that. It says it is a big fish. If you read Matthew 12:40 in the King James or the Revised Standard Version translations, you will hear Jesus call it a whale. But the Greek word those versions translate as whale is the word ketos. This word does not mean literally a whale, but a sea monster. Tradition has come to regard it as whale, and so most of us read the story in that way. Tradition has even influenced how we translate the Bible.

Finally, most people tend to read Revelation 21-22’s description of the new Jerusalem as a description of heaven. Our image of heaven having golden streets, for example, comes from this interpretation. But the text is not describing heaven. It is describing a city of great beauty that will descend from heaven in the new creation. It images the idea of that perfect indwelling of God with creation when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness at the end of the age. Our eternal home is not heaven, but this new transformed creation in which God fully dwells with us.

What I hope these examples suggest is how much our reading of the Bible is influenced by church tradition, and in some cases, cultural traditions outside the church. We simply cannot read and interpret a Bible nude of traditions, assumptions, and prejudices that we bring with us to our reading.

This is not to disparage the vital task of exegesis. As my examples try to do, we see how a close reading of the text can help us see how our traditions and assumptions are influencing what we are reading.

But exegesis can never be purely independent and objective. Every interpreter of the Bible has his or her blinds spots. This is why the Protestant assumption that every reader can interpret the Bible for himself or herself independently of anyone else has proved so destructive. It feeds the constant fragmentation of Protestant churches over conflicting readings of the Bible.

This places a huge premium on reading and interpreting the Bible within a climate of dialogue, among various theological traditions, social classes, races and ethnic backgrounds, and genders. What you see in the text may be something I am blind to, and vice versa. This never leads to any form of infallibility of interpretation, but it does help to sharpen our exegesis. Our eyes can be opened to see things we never saw before.

The examples I have offered in this posting have been relatively frivolous and unimportant. They will hardly damage anyone’s faith or religious practice. But tradition can also influence the way we read important Biblical texts that lie at the heart of critical doctrines or practices in our churches. In so doing, it can lead to distortions that do indeed cause great harm in the spiritual lives of ordinary people.

I want to tackle one such example in the traditions for interpreting John 3:1-16, a gospel passage that lies at the heart of much Christian evangelism. I will do so in my next blog posting. See you then.

Courageous Mary

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896

Bible text: Luke 1:26-38

When I read the gospel writer Luke’s account of the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, I find that most Christmas cards and a lot of Christian art through the ages get the story wrong. They tend to picture Mary as meek, mild, and unassertive. They see her as the proverbial dishrag of a woman.

If we read Luke’s picture of Mary in that way, we miss entirely what an amazing woman Mary proves to be. In her culture, most women were given in marriage as soon as they became sexually mature. That means at the ages of 14, 15, or 16. So Mary was likely just a teen-ager when the angel visited her.

This is an age in our culture when girls are obsessing about their appearance. Their anxiety concerns whether they are attracting the attention of the boy of their present infatuation. They are busy chattering to each other about the current fads in shoes and jeans. Concerns with doing the will of God seldom rank high in their priorities.

In Luke’s story, when Mary hears the message the angel delivers, she certainly feels anxiety. How can this be because she is unmarried? But in the end she exercises a profound act of faith. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,” she responds, “let it be to me according to your word.”

That response indicates that Mary is a teenager with an incredible level of spiritual maturity despite her young age. How did she acquire that maturity? Luke does not say.

Her response also shows Mary as a woman of profound courage. As an unwed mother, Mary will have to endure all kinds of attacks on her reputation in the village where she lives. Neighbors will gossip about her. The pious will look down upon her with condemning judgment. The other girls in town, many of whom might have been playmates at one time, are likely to look at her and whisper sneering remarks to each other behind her back.

And if Nazareth society was anything like many societies in the Middle East today, her family may have felt that her pregnancy brought dishonor onto the family’s reputation. For many Middle Eastern women today, such thoughts have brought on murder from outraged fathers or brothers.

Faced with all this possible ignominy and even danger, Mary still responds, “let it me to me according to your word.” That took courage, tremendous courage and deep trust in the God who was calling her to her task.

Mary has spiritual backbone. That becomes vividly clear as we read on. Luke tells us that when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-58), Mary breaks out into song. Western Christian tradition has come to know it by its first word in Latin, Magnificat.

This song is a song of fierce jubilation over the fact that God is turning tables on society. The rich and powerful are being unseated from their thrones. The lowly are being exalted, and the poor fed. It is a song of almost revolutionary fervor. These are not the lyrics of a dishrag. They are the words of a teen-aged girl who already has a deep sensitivity to social justice and compassion.

I often wonder if Jesus did not get some of his passion for healing and justice from his mother. As she raised her child, she must have surely conveyed to him some of her own passion for justice, as we hear it expressed in the Magnificat.

As we celebrate the Christmas season, let us never forget how courageous and strong was the woman who became the mother of our Lord.

Living by Faith is Living Life Riskily

Scripture text: Isaiah 7:14-16

Among Christians this passage in Isaiah is one of the most beloved in the Old Testament. We have heard it read at Christmas celebration after Christmas celebration. Following the gospel of Matthew, we read it as a prediction of the virgin birth of Jesus. If we read it without those Christmas trappings, however, it speaks a much more jarring message.

In its original context, the passage is set during the reign of the Judean king Ahaz. Judah is under severe threat from its two northern neighbors, Israel and Aram. They have invaded Judah or are about to do so. When they capture Jerusalem, the two kings of Israel and Aram plan to overthrow the dynasty of David and set up a puppet king in its place.

The threat seems desperate enough that Ahaz is contemplating inviting the king of Assyria to come to Judah’s rescue. (Ahaz ultimately does just that, with disastrous results for not only Israel and Aram, but also Judah.) At this moment of crisis Isaiah visits Ahaz and delivers a word from God. Don’t take any such action, God tells Ahaz. Instead have faith in God, and you, Ahaz, will be firmly established.

As a confirmation of this word, God gives Ahaz a sign. A young woman shall bear a son and name him Immanuel (which in Hebrew means God with us). Before the child has emerged out of toddlerhood, the two kingdoms of Israel and Aram will be gone.

This sign is meant to confirm the promise of God and to strengthen Ahaz’s trust. But notice how the sign works. It places the guarantee of God’s promise into the future. That’s not how we usually expect a sign to work. We expect a sign to provide a solid, unchallengeable reason in the present to trust the divine promise.

The sign God gives calls upon Ahaz to trust in God’s promise without a present guarantee. This means that Ahaz must trust without any guarantee other than Ahaz’s trust in the reliability of God. (The ultimate guarantee is God’s own character.)

This means also that if Ahaz decides to trust in God’s promise, he must step out and accept a risk, a high risk. The life of faith becomes a way of living riskily.

This is quite the opposite to the way we often hear the life of faith presented in our churches. The more common way is to present the life of faith as a way of life that leads to security and stability. We enter into God’s shalom by trusting in God. Yet such an approach tends to obscure the reality that the life of faith always involves some acceptance of risk.

When we walk with God by trust, we can never know in advance where it will lead us. It may lead to a resolution of our problems, to emotional stability, and even to prosperity. But it does not always do so. It can lead us as well into situations of danger, persecution, high anxiety, and even deprivation.

Yes, the life of faith is backed up by God’s promise that he is leading us into his kingdom of peace and wholeness in the end. But getting there can involve accepting real risk. And I think we need to accept that as a fact of the life of faith.

Is it possible that learning to live life riskily is also part of the way Christ fulfills his promise that he has come to give us life, full life? A rock climber seldom feels more alive than when he or she is climbing a steep mountain cliff. The climber must be fully alert and conscious of each movement he or she makes. Is not the thrill of skydiving not tied up with the realness of the risk involved?

In a comparable way, is the life of faith never more fully alive and vivid than when we are called to step out into a situation with some risk in following