These things used to be kind of funny (see my "mean-spirited Santa-hating liberals" entry) but I'm finally convinced that commercial and civic efforts to banish Christmas from the public square are of sufficient gravity to elevate them to a new permanent skirmish in what some call the culture wars.
This conviction is founded upon two things: (1) the axiom that Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is wrong about everything; (2) The Washington Post carried a story today in which Lynn called anti-Christmas horror stories "the winter equivalent of those summer stories about shark attacks being on the increase."
Elsewhere in the Post, Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham has penned a piece that I take to be a shorter version of his earlier Newsweek cover story on the Nativity. I neglected to address that one because I like to leave Episcopalian issues to our house Anglican.
However, I was sucked into the sheer vacuity of the piece. Titled "Between Faith And Reason, Room For Hope," it tries to find a via media between "the secular dismissal of the sacred" and the "conservative insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible" and also between "literalism and a more historical view of faith."
Meacham waxes faux elegant for several hundred words and then gets down to that literal/historical divide:
Was Jesus, as Christians say in the Nicene Creed, in fact "incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary"? Only the foolish or the conceited would discount the possibility of miracles . . . [b]ut faith and reason need not be constantly at war; one can believe in the truth of the Bible without taking everything in it as literally, factually accurate.
He explains that though the Christmas story may be "moving," Jesus followers came to believe that he was of divine origin "with the cross and the empty tomb rather than with the crï¿½che." Why, "of the four canonical gospels, only Matthew and Luke offer an account of Jesus's earthly origins."
Further, the gospel writers shaped the tales to their readers. In telling of the Nativity, Matthew, and Luke were aiming at "target audiences: Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and gentiles in the Roman Empire." Because of this, it is somehow "impossible for us now to know which elements are historical as well as theological."
Then he contradicts himself. He insists that bits of the Nativity story mostly fit within "established Jewish tradition" and insinuates that the author of Matthew got around the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth by "simply put[ting] Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem" to fulfill Jewish prophecy. He also says the slaughter of innocents in Matthew is historically bogus.
Where to start? The literal/historical divide is such a bogus issue. I am so far from a literalist that it might scare readers, and yet even my historical-critical dark side can pick this apart:
1. Two out of four gospels ain't bad.
2. The "silent gospels," Mark and John, begin with the creation bit of Genesis ("the beginning of"; "in the beginning") to picture Jesus as a creator and remaker of the world. It is not hard to fit the Magnificat, the Virgin Birth, angels, wise men, etc., into this framework.
3. That a story is shaped to reach an audience does not make that story any less true (or false).
4. "Established Jewish tradition" did not equal "charming fairytales" to first-century Jews.
5. Re: the death of innocents bit, "no historical evidence for" does not mean "did not happen." If you cede any historical imprimatur to the gospel accounts, and you take in the brutality of Herod, the paucity of records, and Bethlehem's being a remote cow town, well, it's possible.
6. Matthew and Luke share a lot of material from a common source that scholars have short-handed "Q." But the Nativity scenes are likely not Q material. They contradict in too many details. From a theological perspective, that's a problem. From a historical perspective, that's called independent verification.