Saturday, December 22, 2007

And What Does It All Mean?

Here in our Redemptoristine monastery we follow an age old custom of contemplative nuns. We eat our main meal on ordinary days without benefit of conversation. Ordinary days are distinguished from feasts or solemnities of the Church calendar or, as is our tradition, the feast days of American or Redemptorist saints. Through the gift of modern technology we no longer have to ask one sister to postpone her meal and read aloud. These days we are listening to audio tapes of talks given by the reknowned scripture scholar Raymond Brown. How wonderful that even after his death we have so many of his lectures to enjoy over and over again. The current series concerns the Infancy Narratives of the Synoptic Gospels. Father Brown makes these stories come alive in new ways by explaning their connection with Jewish tradition and Scripture as well as placing them within the historical and cultural context of the time in which they were written. Such information only serves to expand the theological meaning and teaching which the Gospel writers intended to transmit.

A new book published this season for the holiday market is The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth, by two of today's most well known Jesus scholars, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who joined forces to "show how history has biased our reading of the nativity story as it appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke." The book jacket continues, "they explore the beginning of the life of Christ, peeling away the sentimentalism that has built up over the last two thousand years around this most well known of all stories to reveal the truth of what the gospels actually say." Marcus J. Borg is Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at De Paul University, is regarded by some as the foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time.

A brief radio interview of these two men drew a great contrast between their approach and that of the esteemed Raymond Brown. In short, they spoke of the stories of Jesus birth as parables, as teaching instruments used much in the same way that Jesus used parables to convey the meaning of his revolutionary concepts. They spoke of the Gospels as pointing to the "primordial sin of empire" which is the human tendency toward control and domination. I could not argue with them there. Further they spoke of the Gospels as not only focusing a spotlight on the sins of the empires of Jesus's time but also of their power reveal in bold print the primordial sin of our empires, most specifically the imperial behavior of the United States in the current world scene. I do not argue with them on this point either. But I do argue that on one hand they did not go far enough with their metaphor and on the other hand left something completely out of the picture.

In an effort to make a timely and scripture-based observation concerning current events in our world, Borg and particularly Crossan seemed to assign empire building to only the outer world, the world outside of the individual. There was no reference to the empires we humans tend to create in our interior lives. There was no mention of the emperors or Herods which our egos become when they run rampant over the needs, desires and rights of others, constantly encouraged to do so by the surrounding culture. Whom do we try to rule, to take advantage of, to put down, to exclude, to imprison, to execute? Surely these things happen on a large scale because of the collective will. However, each of us, each individual, can behave in such a way as to embolden the collective. In addition, each of us lives in many small worlds; the worlds of family, friendship, workplace, local community, the city block in which we reside. The Christmas stories point to both the empire without and the empire within.

Admittedly, the interview I heard on the radio was a very brief look into the thesis of the book by Borg and Crossan. Their reference to the Infancy Narratives as parables does not bother me because we know from many scholars, including Raymond Brown, that the writers of the Gospels did not hesitate to use and embellish stories. They did not hesitate to 'cut and paste' or borrow from tradition. These were common literary practices of the period. We also know that their style was designed to teach, to point to theological truth, truths greater than any particular story, myth, or parable. These are means to an end, each an imperfect but effective way of pointing to the truth. The truth in this case is the identity of the man named Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, the man who lived in Galilee, was crucified and rose from the dead, is not a story. Borg and Crossan seemed to leave these theological truths to which the Gospels point completely out of the picture.

Without a doubt, our nation and the people serving in our government could learn some mighty lessons from the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, lessons applicable to the world situation today. However, those lessons and the stories from which they derive cannot be separated from the nature of the ultimate teller of the story, the Only Begotten Son of God who became man for our sake; Jesus the Christ.

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