Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The First Christmas

For Advent Kathy talked me into teaching the Adult class on Wednesday evenings at our WWE event. She had purchased Mickey Efird's bible study called "The Birth Narratives." Mikey was a professor of mine when I was at Duke, he is now retired, and some former students convinced him to video tape him when he is out teaching at various churches and market them to the rest of us. They are very good --- but, they are watching someone lecture on a TV. After watching a couple of his sessions, I decided not to actually use them, but to go a different direction. That of course meant coming up with material for 4 nights of classes.

I read the classic work on the birth stories written by Raymond Brown: The Birth of the Messiah, close to 20 years ago. It is well worth the effort to get through. A couple of months ago, Jeff mentioned to me that Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan had a new book out on the birth stories. I read the "companion" book, The Last Week, last Lent and was intrigued by their take on the stories. This is a long way in saying that the class I have been leading comes a great deal out of The First Christmas by Borg and Crossan.

I have read most everything written by either Borg and Crossan. I tend to find myself aligning pretty closely to what I understand Borg's theology to be. And so I felt very comfortable with their overall premises.

Of all their books, I found the writing to be rather uneven, however. They spend a great deal of time looking at the birth stories of Roman Caesar's --- particularly Augustus, and it got rather tedious. I know that it was important, but it really bogged me down --- and I had to stay really focused or else I would miss the nuances that they were suggesting.

The power of their work was found not in their treatment of the stories as parables (which I think is right on), but on the implications of these stories for us today. The question, is not whether or not the stories really happened the way Matthew and Luke tell us they happened (which is impossible), but the real question is WHAT DO THESE STORIES MEAN?

They do a great job helping us understand what they meant to a person at the end of the first century CE who was trying to understand the Jesus experience. But their greatest service is found at the end of the second section of the book when they ask us in the good old USA what these stories mean today.
The terrible truth is that our world has never established peace through victory. Victory establishes not peace, but lull. Thereafter, violence returns once again, and always worse than before. And is is that escalator violence that then endangers our world.

The four-week period of Advent before Christmas --- and the six-week period of Lent before Easter --- are times of penance and life change for Christians. In our book, The Last Week, we suggested that Lent was a penance time for having been in the wrong procession and a preparation time for moving over to the right one by Palm Sunday. That day's violent procession of the horse-mounted Pilate and his soldiers was contrasted with the nonviolent procession of the donkey-mounted Jesus and his companions. We asked: in which procession would we have walked then and in when do we walk now?

We face a similar choice each Christmas, and so each Advent is a time of repentance for the past and change for the future. Do we think that peace on earth comes from Caesar or Christ? Do we think it comes through violent victory or nonviolent justice? Advent, like Lent, is about a choice of how to live personally and individually, nationally and internationally.

Christmas is not about tinsel and mistletoe or even ornaments and presents, but about what means will we use toward the end of a peace from heaven upon our earth. Or is "peace on earth" but a Christmas ornament taken each year from the attic or basement and returned their as soon as possible?

WOW! The book gets even better in part 3 in which they explore "Light, Fulfillment, and Joy". Again, they challenge our nice homogenized Christmas celebrations and invite us into a real life changing experience of God.

I cannot recommend this book enough! It is a challenge, and it will challenge a great many of your nice and tidy preconceived notions about the birth of Jesus --- but it will also help you understand WHY Matthew and Luke tell us the stories of Jesus birth they way that they do!

If anyone out there has read this book and would like to dialogue about it, give me a holler, I would love to explore it with someone else.


saluki69 said...

Hi Steve!! Following your recommendation, I will read this book. Challenging our preconceived ideas is always fun, isn't it?? I'll let you know how I feel after I get started.

saluki69 said...

By the way, thanks for including the web site in the latest Ridge News. I'm glad to know about it.

Steve Conger said...

Hope you enjoy the book, I would love to talk with you about it!

lillian said...

I am not a minister and certainly not a theologian -- I am a language arts teacher. I am reading The First Christmas as a book study for my Presbyterian church's Lenten observance. I'm one third of the way through the book and find reading it to be a struggle.

Certainly because of my profession, I often read literature with a critical eye as to the author's word choice and sentence structure. Having said that, I find Borg and Crossan to be needlessly wordy and overly scholarly.

As a measure of wordiness, I quote from page 34: "A parable is a narrative metaphor, a metaphorical narrative, whose truth lies in its meaning. All Christains agree about this. They see Jesus's parables as meaning-filled and truth-filled, as meaningful and truthful stories."

Terms such as factuality, eschatology, and parabolic weigh me down. I hope Borg and Crossan lighten up as their book continues.