I love Christmas. There is all of the pagan stuff of course: trees, holly and ivy, lots of feasting, carousing and boozing; but there is also the biblical Christmas.
As an atheist, one of the things that really annoys me about believers is their intellectual laziness and lack of knowledge of the background to their own beliefs. This appears to apply at least equally in Islam (where people accept the writings of men as the word of god) but it is with the Christian religion which I am most familiar, and it is to that faith that I can best apply my own views.
“And some fell on stony ground..” This phrase comes of course from the parable of the sower, which is to found in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) This is an explanation and justification of the art of allegory to represent the complex philosophical issues addressed by the rabbinical franchise that we today call ‘Jesus.’
Basically, it can be summed up as “when people are ready, they will see the point of an allegory; on the other hand, it will be lost on the lazy and dim-witted (stony ground) and on those whose understanding is muddled by their own preoccupations (weeds and brambles).”
There are many proofs that the Christian Bible is not to be taken seriously as an historical record. For example, there is no archaeological or contemporaneous documentary evidence for the Egyptian captivity and exodus from slavery (in one of the most record-conscious civilizations ever). Likewise, there is no historical record of the Poll Tax census described in St Luke’s Gospel which compelled Joseph and the pregnant Mary to travel to Bethlehem where the birth would take place.
However, it is the ‘stony ground’ approach to merely dismiss biblical authority on the grounds of its historical inaccuracy; and at the same time, it is extremely difficult for rational modern people to suspend their disbelief when confronted by the provable untruth of the ‘weeds’ of superstitious tosh.
The middle way is also the most clear-sighted: to take the advice offered in the parable of the sower and to regard the Bible and its narratives as literature and specifically as allegory.
When we take the Christmas story, we should start with its central figure, Mary, as without her, there would be no story, just as there would be no resurrection without Judas. If we were to hear her story now, (“I was visited by an angel who made me pregnant”) any rational person would dismiss her as a schizophrenic or (most likely) a very implausible liar.
However, when we reject this shallow ‘stony ground’ interpretation, and take her status as that of a literary figure, this changes. In fact the Annunciation story of an inexperienced young woman having an uncomprehending but transformational sexual experience with a stranger would not be out of place in the work of Leonard Cohen or William Blake. The outcome is an unplanned pregnancy, with conception inconveniently established before the wedding to Joseph.
Joseph himself is not very involved in the story. We know he is apparently is descended from King David, presumably in a branch of the royal family that has hit hard times. There is also a hilarious contradiction at this point in the story as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke try to link Jesus by descent from King David.
The absurdity is not only that they each do so through different lines, but this is also compounded by the complication of the Annunciation: we do not know who the father of the baby is, but one thing is clear is that it is definitely not Joseph. So the character Jesus is not descended from David at all. In this case, those with the ‘weeds’ of an existing agenda have got their hands on the narrative, as they seek to use it to fulfil an earlier prophecy.
But the story tell us that there is a baby, who is borne illegitimate and effectively homeless . Whose mother is probably very young and maybe a liar or mentally ill, and whose is father no more nor less than a common working man. And who is later forced to flee as a refugee when persecuted by a genocidal dictator.
Again, and like the dismissal of Mary as mentally ill or a pathological fantasist, this can be taken as the everyday cruelty of the world. We only need to watch the news in December 2013 (or any other year) to see it on our televisions. But this again is the ‘stony ground’, shallow interpretation; likewise its elevation to the Second Coming or the birth of a god is to hijack a great narrative for a pre-existing agenda, in that case founded on the ‘weeds’ of supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
If instead we see the events around the birth as allegory, their true significance is revealed. The new baby is revered by both the common people (the shepherds) and by top scientists (the wise men.) The allegory is therefore one of the everyday miracle that birth represents: in this case taking place amongst animals and yet with universal significance (as Oscar Wilde would later say: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”)
Furthermore, the wider New Testament narrative is one that shows that the child in question, born in extreme social and political circumstances, with no advantages and many disadvantages, can go on to “work miracles” and offer leadership and light to world. In our own times, those miracles could be medical advances which could cure cancer or prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s or MND.
And those who offer leadership and light can be born anywhere under any circumstances. Like Willy Brandt, born 100 years ago this week, illegitimate in Lübeck, Germany. Or Nelson Mandela, born in a hut in the rural Eastern Cape, who died last week. Every child is a potential threat to all dictators, as Herod knew.
Today, the children who can deliver these miracles are being born in the UK in need of foodbanks and homes; and in refugee camps in the Middle East. And all over the world in poverty and obscurity, just like in the nativity story.
And the nativity is just that: a great story. (And don’t just take the word of an old atheist for it – a certain rabbi in 1st century Palestine was reported to be of the same opinion in his parable.)
If it is read as that alone, without the stony ground of cynicism or the weeds of superstition, it relates one of the great universal truths – that every birth is a miracle, every child is a treasure and all of us are born with unlimited potential.