It’s Christmas in July, Beloved.
I kind of love that. Christmas is so fun that Americans feel the need to have a preview, a teaser, a taste of the gingerbread feast that is to come.
I’m taking a writing course right now, and we’re studying archetypes in the course. One of the archetypes we discussed today was the idea of a “virginal birth.”
This is not a religious group of writers, mind you. I’m not even sure what their stance on religion is. But we used the many virginal births throughout the history of religions to discuss why that might be important for humanity, and what this recurring theme says about us.
Now, you might do a double-take right there…I’ll allow it. Go ahead, read it again. Because I did say “the many virginal births throughout the history of religions.”
And I said it because it’s true. Many of you may have only heard of Jesus, but in the history of supposed virginal birth accounts, Jesus has to get in line. The Egyptian gods Ra and Horus were supposedly born of virgins, some 2000 years before Jesus.
Oh, and Alexander the Great. He was conceived by his mother and a lightening bolt, which sounds like a painful story…
And some histories have Krishna being born of a virgin, as well.
And there are others. You probably know of some.
So what, then, do we do with the Jesus account, specifically in Matthew and Luke (Mark and John don’t really think it’s important)?
So here’s my stance on the virgin birth: I don’t care. And I’d encourage you not to, either.
I don’t care if Mary was a virgin. Really, only Mary knows…and she isn’t going on record about it, and a lot of the focus on this probably has to do with Christianity’s problematic (obviously platonic) relationship with sex, but that’s a whole other post.
Why do I not think it matters?
I mean, take into account the fact that the writer of Matthew misquotes Isaiah when he says that the prophet said, “A “virgin” shall conceive and bear a son…”
Actually, Isaiah wrote, “A young woman shall conceive…”
In the Greek it’s “virgin.” But in the Hebrew it’s “young woman.” What are we to make of this?
Ancient stories of other virgin births (Alexander the Great, for instance) were intended to bestow upon the baby certain prestige and power. It could be that the writers were meaning for you to see that such prestige is meant for Jesus…
Take all this into account and what do you have? You at least have some basis to question where it all came from and why it’s in there.
Questions, like sex, are good, Beloved.
What I don’t think we can question is that this sort of image is, for good or ill, powerful for humans. It’s good, I think, when it conveys some sort of holy surprise. It’s bad, of course, when it’s all about sex…
I know, though: we’re not supposed to talk about such things because it might disrupt someone’s faith.
I have more faith in you, dear reader, than to believe that. Plus, a little disruption is healthy.
I mean, look, if this question, or even this type of question, is the foundation that the whole testimony of scripture is built upon for an individual, they must be prepared to be disappointed.
In fact, I would say that about any verse or event in Scripture. If the veracity of the scriptural account stands upon a Western, 21st Century, post-Enlightenment understanding of what it means to have 6 days for creation, what it means to rise from the dead, what it means to have a virgin birth, what it means to have the sun stand still, what it means to have the blind receive sight, you will be disappointed.
All of those events pop up in other religious narrations, by the way, some long before Jesus. Pastors don’t talk about it often, but it’s true. There’s no denying it.
Look, when it comes to scripture, the question isn’t “did it happen?” the question is “is it true?”
And judging by the number of supposed virgin births throughout religions, this is certainly a strong archetype that humanity has clung on to for some reason…for ill or for good.
This is a hard concept to wrap the head around; it truly is. The thought is, “Well, if you question one thing, you bring everything into question!”
Is something wrong with that? Like I said: questions are good.
When we insist that the readings and accounts contained in the canon that we call the Bible have to be “true” by Western, 21st Century, post-Enlightenment litmus tests for truth to be considered reliable, we are trying to get the texts to be something they were never designed to be.
They are texts of faith, not fact.
We are essentially taking something and trying to fit it into our worldview, instead of allowing something to speak on its own, from its own location.
And when we do that, we usurp its power.
It becomes no more powerful than a dictionary or an encyclopedia whose truth relies solely on its content, rather than a deeper truth whose veracity relies upon its impact, its richness, and its ability to shape humanity.
In fact, I’d contend that quite a bit of what calls itself Christian these days does just that: relegates the scriptures to an encyclopedia or IKEA instruction manual for life.
See, the story of Jonah is powerful. But it’s not true in the post-Enlightenment, 21st Century, Western understanding of “true.”
To even utter that will be, for some, to call the whole Bible a big fat lie.
But they are the ones missing out, if that’s the case.
Because you will fail to learn something from a story if you can’t take it on its own terms. Instead of learning the lesson from Jonah, we spend all our time pretending that we don’t know anything about biology or literature, and we try to find ways to allow a human to survive in the belly of a fish without being eaten by stomach acid…
But we cannot pretend that different types of literature apart from histories are not present in the Biblical canon. Myth, legend, short story, comedy, poems, letters…along with histories are all present.
And even the histories that are present aren’t like National Geographic or The History Channel types of histories! They’re more like Fox News or MSNBC or CNN types of histories: biased accounts. They have agendas.
And agenda isn’t always a bad thing, mind you. It’s like the agenda Matthew and Luke have for the reader when presenting Jesus’ birth as virginal: you are supposed to take note that this is special!
Or like John’s agenda when he has Jesus dying on a Thursday. You are supposed to see him as the lamb of God, sacrificed the night before the Passover.
It’s meant to convey something to you; convey a truth about humanity and the Divine that history can’t hold by itself, so it uses the most powerful thing we have to hit it home: story.
With all these “Christmas in July” posts going on now (which are a welcome break from pandemic updates), it seems timely to remind us all of the power of story.
The virgin birth reminds me of the possibility, the hope, that sometimes miraculous things happen when you least expect it. That sometimes things can be birthed and you’re just not sure where it came from because you didn’t see it coming.
And in a pandemic, that’s probably worth holding on to for a while.
It is true.
And that truth has nothing to do with Mary’s sexual history.