Thursday, December 19, 2013

Questions From The Womb

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:10-14

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.
Psalm 24:1-2

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit...
Matthew 1:18-23

...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)

The Christmas story begins with a knocked up teenager and a shotgun wedding. Imagine the stories told behind closed doors about the eventual Mother of the Lord. Yet, what better picture of a God who is truly with us no matter how messy it gets? If the earth and everything in it is, in fact, the Lord's, then why wouldn't God take his talents to Bethlehem in this most unconventional gossip-induced fashion?

At the beginning of this story, though, we must not forget that the author(s) of Matthew's Gospel is writing some 5 decades later with a post-resurrection perspective, portraying a Jewish peasant hero whose teachings and lifestyle will one-day turn the world upside and inside out in the most unimaginable way possible. Truly, we become transformed when we are so caught up in the Script that the story becomes our own.

Of course, some Christians will not be able to see the forest for the trees on this 4th weekend of Advent 2013. For them, the doctrine of the virgin birth is of utmost importance and it remains a key litmus test of who's in and who's out of the Body of Christ, clinging to right belief as the true moniker of faith. Take Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church for example:

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.

First, this analysis strikes me as inconsistent with the Bible's Main Character whose will is achieved through the most sexually mischievous of supporting cast members, as noted in Matthew's geneaological episode immediately prior to the conception account: Tamar, Bathsheba & Rahab. God certainly does not condone their sexual behavior, but transcends it, bringing healing through pain and brokenness. Why would it be any different with the very mother of Jesus?

Second, when Driscoll refers to "clear teachings" (in all of his writings) he can only be referring to what is "clear" to him (and those who have been ideologically trained to read Scripture exactly like him) and he should remember that bible scholars through the ages have claimed "clear teachings" to support all sorts of agendas ranging from slavery to excommunicating heretics like Gailileo.

Third, when we spend time and energy "contending" for the virgin birth or other doctrinal debates (with opponents whom Driscoll refers to as "educated beyond their own humility"), we take upon ourselves an embattled mentality that steers us away from the gentle dialogue that requires followers of Jesus to listen and seek understanding. Driscoll's name-calling and overgeneralizations are contagious with his passionate followers, but quite uncompelling to anyone else.

However, Driscoll's account of the virgin birth makes perfect sense to millions who view Christian faith through a Fundamentalist theological and philosophical prism. These followers of Jesus believe that Truth (the capital T is important) can be accessed (indeed, proven) through a self-evident reading of the inerrant Bible. Fundamentalists propose that everything in the Gospels--indeed everything in the entire Bible--happened exactly the way it was written down and we can trust it for its absolute reliability. If Jesus' mother was not really a virgin then it is possible that other events and sayings in the Gospel stories did not really happen (including the resurrection) and therefore the whole thing is a myth and not worthy of our attention. In other words, like a big game of theological Jenga, if you pull one block out, it leads to the other tower of truth crashing down.

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, he 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 (an doctrinal moat) for 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), as social persons (the social strand), and as witnesses to the resurrection 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:

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 a post-Jenga reading of the conception and birth of Jesus. The point of this kingdom episdode is not that every "real Christian" should believe that God supernaturally impregnated this 1st century Jewish teenager, but that 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.

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