Friday 21 December 2007

Let Me Help

The Archbishop has added to the fun of the season of Advent (the joining of current news Advent stories of the present time has become so bizarre - contrast all this with his Advent Letter) by pointing out what is not in the Biblical account of the nativity. He has added to this by saying that the Virgin Birth is not necessary for belief, and he was not fussed about it thirty years ago, but, handed down in tradition, he came to appreciate it more, and now does.

This should be a link for a short time: however, it is via BBC Radio Five Live when the Archbishop spoke to Simon Mayo.

Do I detect the demands of the religious bureaucracy and having a leadership position bending what he believes and does not believe? Just a bit?

How does this relate, then, to the Advent Letter and one way of reading the Bible, that this is part of the expectations of Anglican Churches on other local Churches, and that Churches which fail to read the Bible one way could be declared failed Churches by a the centralised Instruments of Communion under a Covenant?

Over at Fulcrum there is one of those discussions where The Episcopal Church (TEC), that carries on with a standard Anglican liturgy, is being viewed as a Church needing discipline, and where someone who discusses faith with me at times suggests that TEC follows a different religion. A different religion?

How is what TEC does, in terms of having theological breadth within Christianity, any different from the Archbishop of the province of Canterbury saying that the Virgin Birth is optional?

If African Churches and Western fundies start saying that belief in the Virgin Birth is compulsory, will the new Instruments of Communion consider that the Archbishop is potentially heretical and that the southern bit of the Church of England is to be put into some kind of ecclesiastical quarantine?
Let me help regarding the birth narratives. The expectant parents (two involved, beginning some nine months before the birth - the normal method of making babies) did not travel to Bethlehem, as there is no evidence of a census at all, and if there was one it would not have involved any such travel. Jesus was born, unknown and unvisited, in Capernaum or Nazareth, or abouts, a Galilean. He may have grown up a trained carpenter with a keen religious interest in the last days, or it could translate into being a learned scholar - the member of a family that got into the last days religious fervour of his day, in a situation under oppression, who met the Baptist (who may have related to that looser than we think lot called the Essenes), and who took up a similar but broader ministry of healing and teaching to prepare the poor sods of Galilee for the fast coming (taste it, it's almost upon us) utterly new reality of the liberating Kingdom where all the ethics of the present are reversed into the new. Then he went to Jerusalem to make his point, to prompt God at the heart of Judaism to say he is ready for the coming of the Son of Man, and was picked up by the Romans as another trouble maker who got shot of him as they got shot of so many.

In other words, if you want to say that the birth narratives are all bollocks, let's say it properly.

The Archbishop did not say it is all bollocks of course, nor all a Christmas tall story. He was careful, he was measured, he was found deep inside the myth, nudging this way and that within it. I do think he pushed the myth much too far in a historical direction, but it is typical that he has an insufficient mythic grounding for where how far he pushes the detail and what makes sense to him in this relevant section of a longer BBC Radio Five Live interview (verbatim) below.
Simon Mayo: We talk about Christmas, first of all. It comes round every year this story about, you know, we're not being Christian enough, or people don't know where Bethlehem is, and people have never heard of Mary and so on. So this is a sort of an almost like a tradition of Christmas, isn't it really, now. But I wonder, if people have got a traditional religious Christmas card in front of them. I just want to go through it, Archbishop, to find out how much of is - you think is - true and crucial to the believing in Christmas. So let's start with it. So we've got the baby Jesus in a manger; historically and factually true?

Rowan Williams: I should think so. Um, the Gospel tells us he was born outside the main house, probably because it was overcrowded, because it was pilgrimage time or census time; whatever. Yep, he's born in poor circumstances, slightly... slightly out of the ordinary.

SM: The Virgin Mary next door to him?

RW: We know his mother's name was Mary, that's one of the things all the Gospels agree about, and the two Gospels that tell the story have the story of the Virgin Birth and that's something I'm committed to as part of...

SM: It is.

RW: ...what I've inherited.

SM: You were a prominent part of a Spectator survey in the current issue which headlined, 'Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?' There are some people in this survey who would say they were Christian who don't have a problem if you don't believe in the Virgin Birth. How important it is it to believe in that bit?

RW: I don't want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they can, you know, be signed up; but I think quite a few people would say that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense, of what the Virgin Birth is about. I would say that of myself. Now about thirty years ago I might have said I wasn't too fussed about it; um, now I see it much more as, you know, dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story. Yes.

SM: Christopher Hitchens in that and amongst many others make the point that isn't the translation for young woman rather than virgin? Does it have to be seen as virgin? Might it be a mistranslation?

RW: It is... Well. What's happening there is one of the Gospels quotes a prophecy that a virgin will conceive a child. Now the original Hebrew doesn't have the word virgin, it's just a young woman, but that's the prophecy from the Old Testament that's quoted in support of the story which is, in any case, about a birth without a human father, so it's not that it rests on mistranslation; St Matthew's gone to his Greek version of the Bible and said "Oh, 'virgin'; that sounds like the story I know," and put it in.

SM: Right. So we go er. Virgin Mary, Jesus: Joseph?

RW: Joseph, yeah. Again, the Gospels are pretty consistent that that's his father's name. Yes.

SM: So we're panning out now. Shepherds? They're with the er, their sheep, and the oxes and asses?

RW: Pass on the oxes and asses; they don't figure very strongly in the Gospels, so I can live without the ox and asses.

SM: And the wise men with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh - with one of the wise men normally being black and the other two being white, for some reason.

RW: Well, Matthew's Gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from. It says they're astrologers, wise men, priests, from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told. So, yeah, the three kings with the one from Africa - that's legend; it works quite well as legend.

SM: Yes. But would they have been there?

RW: Well - not with the shepherds, they wouldn't.

SM: Right, so. So if I've got on my card the...

RW: If you've got shepherds on one side and the three kings on the other, there's a bit of conflation going on.

SM: And pulling back further - snow on the ground?

RW: Very unlikely, I think. It can be pretty damn cold in Bethlehem at this time of the year, but then we don't know that it was this time of year because again the Gospels don't tell us what time of year it was; Christmas is the time it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival.

SM: Just as a side issue on the kings and the wise bit. Do you have a problem with astrologers being seen as wise men? There'd be many people in your Church who would think, actually, astrology is bunk and should be exposed as bunk and the idea of saying that they are wise is somewhat farcical.

RW: Well, I 'm inclined to agree that astrology is bunk but you're dealing there with a world in which people watched the stars to get a sort of heads up on significant matters and astrologers were, you know, quite a growth industry; they were people who were respected who had a kind of professional technical skill and were respected as such. The thing is here, of course, is what's the all skill about? Well it's all bringing them to Jesus; it's not about fortune telling or telling the future - it's about a skill of watching the universe which leads them inexorably towards this event. So I don't think it's a justification of astrology.

SM: So if we're pulling back even further then, is there a star above the place where the child is?

RW: Don't know; I mean Matthew talks about the star rising, the star standing still; we know stars don't behave quite like that; that the wise men should have seen something which triggered a recognition of something significant was going on - some constellation, a star in the sky. There are various scientific theories about what it might have been at around that time and they followed that trek - that makes sense to me.
Now read the rest of his views (via books, on line texts) of the accounts of Jesus, his followers and the early Christian communities. It's not all history. It is myth, a tradition that comes down to us (as the Archbishop says), and narrative - more or less meaningful in different places.

By the way: Merry Christmas Archbishop; you have one tough and difficult job.

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