by tom airey
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
…the world hears the birth stories only to discount them as myth, or legend, or sheer fabrication, or alternatively it convulsively embraces them for what they are not–clubs with which to cow unbelief or bludgeon half-belief into full submission. One can only deplore this misuse, and hope for a rising generation better suited to receive the true value of the story Christians recall at Christmas.
James McClendon, Doctrine (1994)
Radical disciples, all those followers of Jesus in North America struggling for church renewal and social change, approach this week’s Gospel text through a highly suspicious lens, especially in a context where Absolutist readings like this (from Seattle megachurch pastor hero Mark Driscoll) have largely steamrolled what qualities as “Christian”:
If the virgin birth of Jesus is untrue, then the story of Jesus changes greatly; we would have a sexually promiscuous young woman lying about God’s miraculous hand in the birth of her son, raising that son to declare he was God, and then joining his religion. But if Mary is nothing more than a sinful con artist then neither she nor her son Jesus should be trusted. Because both the clear teachings of Scripture about the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and the character of his mother are at stake, we must contend for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.
If we took a road-trip from Driscoll’s church and drove south 4 hours to visit Marcus Borg, the retired professor of religious studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, it would be an entirely different conversation. For Borg, the Gospels are literary creations, “metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus’ significance.” He points out the various differences between the birth accounts in Matthew and Luke (including but not limited to: the genealogy, the home of Mary & Joseph, the birth visitors & the use of the Hebrew Bible), some of which can be creatively harmonized, but some of which are just, quite frankly, irreconcilable. In other words, Driscoll and the Fundamentalists have to do some serious hermeneutical gymnastics to make it all fit.
Driving even further south and time-warping towards the end of the 20th century, we find systematic theologian James McClendon, researching and writing in Berkeley and L.A. during the last two decades of his life, who noted that the virgin birth episodes of Luke and Matthew never propose that Jesus is divine or sinless (these are claimed elsewhere in the New Testament) and the virgin birth did not become a touchstone of Christian “orthodoxy” until centuries later (earlier New Testament documents say nothing about it).
Like Borg, McClendon proposes a deeper reading of the birth narratives that show continuity with the God-infused stories of the Hebrew Bible (a lot of remarkable births throughout Israel’s history) and that, quite simply, God was actively participating in the events leading up to Jesus’ conception and long after his resurrection. These strange stories prepare the reader (Borg calls them “overtures”) for what will come later in the ministry, teaching, death and shocking climax of the story: the resurrection. In short, God’s Hand is at work in scandalously mysterious ways and we are invited to consistently and intentionally seek it and find it and be ushered into adventurous service.
The Virgin Birth is not about what we “believe in” or a boundary marker (a doctrinal moat) for what constitutes true faith in God. McClendon charted a course for Christian faith that placed a priority on “what we do” before “what we believe.” The order of his Systematic Theology volumes was intentional: Ethics (1986), Doctrine (1994) & Witness (2000). He beckoned readers to learn from the wayward decisions of the first “Christian” Emperor, Constantine, and powerful Christian leaders in the 4th century, who conducted councils to unite the Empire under the banner of Christian beliefs:
Is it not worth considering, finally, how different might have been the history of Christianity if after the accession of the Emperor Constantine the church’s leaders had met at Nicaea, not to anathematize others’ inadequate Christological metaphysics, but to devise a strategy by which the church might remain the church in light of the fateful political shift—to secure Christian social ethics before refining Christian dogma?
McClendon yearned for a “rising generation” of Christ followers who abandoned the counterfeit certainty of modernity for a radical postmodern obedience, holistically bound by how we relate with God as creatures (the embodied strand), in relationship to other humans (the social strand), and as witnesses to the radical Movement of Jesus (the resurrection strand). Our whole world is marked by “the new in Christ” because God’s Rule has invaded human life with a new order, a fulfillment, that transforms everyday life. This authentic Christian mentality reframes the questions that beautifully interrogate us during this Advent season, as Borg writes in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (1999):
The truly important questions about the birth stories are not whether Jesus was born of a virgin or whether there was an empire-wide census that took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem or whether there was a special star leading wise men from the East. The important questions are, “Is Jesus the light of the world? Is he true Lord? Is what happen in him ‘of God’?” Answering these questions affirmatively lays claims to our whole lives.
This Christmas, let’s consider that the point of this kingdom episdode is not that every “real Christian” should believe that God supernaturally impregnated this 1st century Jewish teenager, but, perhaps, that every “real Christian” ought to be ready for God to show up in the most awkward and surprising places to heal the world. No place is safe from God’s transforming touch. Not even a womb.