Thursday, December 20, 2007

I'm going to cover my ears and hum till you stop

Ever since I stopped being a teenaged Baptist and came back to the Episcopal Church thirty years ago, I have been amazed at the reaction of "Biblical conservatives" when someone, especially a religious leader or theologian, talks out loud about what is really in the Bible.

Their reactions are either "Stop! You are attacking the faith!" or "Stop! You are confusing the faithful!"

Today, the conservative blogs are having a field day (once again) at Rowan Williams expense. Now comes news the Pope has set up a nativity scene in the Vatican that, following Matthew's Gospel, shows Jesus born in Joseph's home--in Nazareth--not in the stable in Bethlehem.

David Walker over at Cartoon Church describes what's going on with the ABC, which mainly says that +Rowan is attacking the faith:
There are ‘Archbishop says nativity is legend’ stories popping up all over the internet. But let’s see what Rowan actually said:
Well Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us that there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us where they came from, it says they’re astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That’s all we’re really told so, yes, ‘the three kings with the one from Africa’ - that’s legend; it works quite well as legend.
The transcript is here if you’d like to see it in context, or you can listen again to the whole programme.

The thing that Rowan said was legend was ‘the three kings with the one from Africa’. Nothing more. He only uses the word ‘legend’ once, and this is it. Trust me, I’ve been through it with a fine Firefox ‘find’ function. He definitely does not describe ‘the Nativity’ as a legend.

But you wouldn’t know it from the various reports that are popping up. Lets do a bit of ‘didn’t read the transcript’ spotting:

Rowan Williams’ nativity own goal : December 2007 : Holy Smoke : UK : Telegraph Blogs:

Does Rowan Williams EVER think before opening his mouth? He waits until the week before Christmas before describing the nativity as a “legend” and condemning the poor wise men, asses and oxen to the realms of fantasy.

Archbishop says nativity ‘a legend’ - Telegraph:

Dr Rowan Williams has claimed there was little evidence that the Magi even existed

The Daily Mail:

Dr Rowan Williams yesterday debunked a large part of the Christmas story as a myth.

Stand Firm - +Rowan: Nativity a ‘legend’:

But Matthew does claim that the Magi were real rather than legendary figures

Over at Baby Blue Online, she posts the Telegraph story. She takes the "Stop! Your confusing the faithful!" line.

It is pretty clear that she actually read the transcript--good for her!--and doesn't disagree with what +Rowan said but doesn't like the timing of when he said it. Downstream she later comments in response to another person who felt he did nothing wrong:
There are places, significant places where one has theological discussions about what is the biblical understanding of the Magi (I think in the Church calendar we don't actually recognize the Magi until in January, if I remember correctly) [Uhm, "Epiphany?" -atg+] It's always worth having signficant discussion about references in scripture and engaging in exegesis of the text and the cultural implications to the societies that engage in traditional observances of biblical events. I can spout it out with the best of them.

But you do not - do not - as a staff member permit a theologian of any stripe to debunk deeply held traditions (especially when you are the Guy In Charge) as little children are in Nativity Plays all over the world.
And then, after describing how she woke up to Fred "Congressman Gopher" Grandy making fun of this on talk radio this morning, she said:
But I'm sure Jack Spong loved it.
And further downstream, she says:
Perhaps Rowan is appealling to that Spong-Majority that will just love this. But for the Regular Joe the timing is terrible and it seems to me its a staff issue. Heads need to roll at Lambeth or someone else's head is going to roll.
Huh? What's Spong got to do with this? Who mentioned anywhere anything about Spong?

Her friendly advice to +Rowan is this: scholarship is great and what you said about what's in the Bible is true, but please let's not muddle people's brains with facts. It's a-okay to talk about what the Bible really says among grown-up, mature Christians in private but, please, not in front of the kids!

I can't wait to hear what they have to say about the news from Rome. Talk about confusing the faithful!

The Telegraph, the folks who started the Rowan-wrecks-Christmas story, says the Vatican's nativity scene will not be set in the stable outside the inn in Nazareth, but in the carpentry shop of Joseph in Bethlehem.

When Pope Benedict XVI inaugurates the life-size Nativity scene on Christmas eve, the sheep and hay will be gone.

In their place will be a model of three rooms.

Jesus will lie in Joseph's shop, complete with "the typical work tools of a carpenter".

On one side, the shop will be flanked with a "covered patio", while on the other there will be the "inside of a pub, with its hearth".

The news came in an official statement from the State Department of the Vatican, which organises and builds the giant presepe, or Nativity scene.

The new setting was inspired by two verses in St Matthew's gospel, Chapter 1:24 and 1:25, the Vatican said, which state: "When Joseph woke up, he did as the Angel of God ordered and took Mary into his house. Without them knowing each other, a child was born and he called his name Jesus".

The gospel goes on to mention Jesus' birthplace as Bethlehem, but a spokesman for the Vatican said a decision had been made to place the scene in Nazareth regardless.

"It was time for a change," said the spokesman "and a return to St Matthew's gospel".

The traditional depiction of Jesus in a manger comes from St Luke's gospel, which said there was "no room at the inn".

But it is Matthew's gospel which forms the basis for the Angelus prayer, and the view of Jesus in a carpenter's workshop matches the Franciscan tradition.

Nazareth, not Bethlehem! The chambers of commerce of the these two Pennsylvania towns up the road from me are going have a field day with this, I am sure.

The Telegraph says:

None of the three Vatican departments which organises the Nativity scene could comment on who had taken the decision to shift the location, or for what reason.

However, sources close to the Vatican said there was a desire to crack down on the various "fanciful Nativity scenes" that have sprung up in recent years.

Fanciful, indeed. Maybe Rowan Williams, Jack Spong and Pope Benedict XVI are in cahoots?

A quick perusal of Text Week show no artwork about the Matthean version. And their list goes back to 1120. As insightful as the Archbishop's comments were and as interesting as the Vatican display will be, I don't think it will shake a thousand years of tradition, let alone the faithfulness of the Regular Joe.

Seriously, as one of those preachers at the back door, any help I can get to get people to actually read the Bible and engage it passionately, faithfully and deeply, I am all for. The fact of the Incarnation is not in the least shaken by two birth narratives--any more than God's role as creator is not shaken by two creation stories. Assisting folks in knowing a little more about the depth of the Bible and the different ways the various Biblical witnesses relate to the truth of the Incarnation is in my mind a good thing.

1 comment:

Ann said...

The matronizing of Baby Blue is amazing - don't tell the little people that there are 2 nativity stories - as if they never read their Bibles and noticed. Seems like this a great opportunity to share the deeper truth of THE story.