Roadrunner Cartoons, Sisyphus, and the Virgin Birth

One Christmas years ago, when our middle children were 3 and 4 years old, my family and I visited my parents for a few days.  I slept late on Saturday morning (I was on vacation) and awoke to the sound of the television, my daughters’ giggles, and my father’s very loud guffaws.

I went downstairs to find my children snuggled up with their Grandpa watching a Roadrunner cartoon.  I sat down.  Wile E. Coyote set a trap using Acme products.

blueprint

Roadrunner didn’t fall for it.  Wile E. Coyote checked on the trap to see what was wrong with itcoyote fail

and it blew him up.explosion

All four of us laughed.

“It’s the myth of Sisyphus, don’t you think?” Dad said.  “But lots funnier.”

“I was thinking it’s a commentary on our dependence on technology,” I said.  “He’s a coyote.  Why can’t he just pounce on that sucker and eat it instead of using all the Rube Goldberg Acme products?”

“Shhhh,” said the children.  They loved the colors, the action, the explosions.  They couldn’t read the signs Roadrunner held up, but they still laughed.  Not just because we did, but because it looked funny.  Philosopher, naturalist, and young children, Roadrunner spoke to all of us.

So.  What does this have to do with the virgin birth narrative?  Here goes:  The Gospel writers Luke and Matthew both wrote to diverse audiences.  Their original hearers (the Gospels would have been read aloud to groups in a culture where books were so expensive to produce) were diverse in age, but also in their backgrounds.

  1. Some of the Jews would have known the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) in Hebrew.
  2. Others (a. Jews who had been raised in a Greek-speaking culture and  b. Gentiles who had attended synagogue) would have known the same Scriptures from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
  3. Finally, there were Gentiles who had come into the Christian community without any background in Judaism and little or no knowledge of the Scriptures in either language.

In the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew cites, and Luke alludes to, the prophet Isaiah who told a nation under siege that the forces of evil would not win:  “Look, the young woman (Hebrew almah) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (God with us.)”  The Greek translation of this passage reads, “Look, the virgin (parthenos) is with child . . .”

Either way, Isaiah’s point, in 701 B.C., was that God had not abandoned Israel.  The king to whom Isaiah spoke, Ahaz, was a royal screw-up.  The people had every reason to believe that the siege of Assyria and Ephraim, teamed up together, would succeed.  Isaiah’s declaration gave hope beyond the immediate failure; that the child about to be born and called Immanuel, “God With Us,” would show the nation that God had not abandoned them.

So, what does this mean for Matthew and Luke?  And what does it mean for us?

Matthew, in his inimitable heavy-handed way, says, “Look!  We’re going through the same thing with this damned Roman occupation that God’s people went through with the Assyrian occupation in the time of Isaiah [700 years before.]  God was in charge then, provided a child, Immanuel, God with us (Good King Hezekiah) who saved God’s people.  God is still in charge, despite the brutal occupation of Rome, and is saving us through a child, Immanuel (God with us) named Jesus (God saves).”

Luke employs more subtlety, but he tells the story in a way that will call his original audience to remember God’s faithfulness and recognize it in the birth of Jesus.

And that is Luke and Matthew’s point:  God is faithful still.  Whenever you oppose tyranny and oppression, even when it feels like you are losing, you are not alone. You are doing the Lord’s work.  Whether you read Hebrew (almah, “young woman”) or Greek, (parthenos, “virgin”) does not matter to Luke and Matthew; they want Jew and Greek both to understand this.  What matters is that you know you are not alone when you suffer under Roman occupation, or apartheid, or tribal warfare, or addiction, or whatever evil haunts your life.  God has entered the world in Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.  We are not alone.

So, here’s the question:  When you have witnessed or experienced extreme injustice in the world, have you sensed God’s presence, or God’s absence?  Do you have a specific story you can share with us?

The Crazy Uncle Examines Mary’s Virginity

Thanks to those who commented on this post from my Facebook page; I’m still figuring out how to make the comments from FB available to all readers of the WordPress blog.  If there’s a way to make them migrate, maybe somebody will take pity on this tech-challenged crazy uncle and let me know.  For those of you who don’t know me on Facebook, I’ll figure out today or this weekend how to make these blog posts and their comments public on my FB page.  Or, just friend me.  Neill Morgan is my real name.

Roman soldier

Here is an authentic photo from the first century of a Roman soldier.  Great resolution for the time, don’t you think?

Roy put forth the hypothesis that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of a rape by a Roman soldier.  To fill out this hypothesis a bit, a New Testament scholar would point to the Roman occupation.  Rape by soldiers was common and unpunished; that is, the soldier was not officially punished for his crime.  The girl or woman who was known to have been raped, especially if she became pregnant, would have received dishonor, insult upon injury from at least some of her community.  So would her family.

If it is the case that a rape haunts the historical backdrop of Mary’s pregnancy, we would have to assume that Luke expected his first readers to understand his subtext.  The theological claim in this context is consistent with Luke’s explicit agenda:  that God takes the power of evil and oppression (especially the power of the Roman government) and turns it against evil.  The crucifixion leads to resurrection, the destruction of the temple leads to the spiritual temple of Jesus’ resurrected body and the spread of the good news to every corner of the world.  A rape by a Roman soldier leading to the conception of God in human flesh fits in nicely with Luke’s theology of the cross, of God taking injustice and, in a kind of spiritual jujitsu, turning it into a powerful good:  “We are getting what we deserve,” says the criminal crucified next to Jesus, “but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Ultimately, however, I am skeptical.

I’m partly skeptical because I don’t want to do unto others what I would not want done unto me.  I don’t buy it when someone else begins with his or her own theology and works backward into the text.  If I do that to someone else, someone who does not share my theology, it will feel forced, like retrofitting:  “If God didn’t mean for us to have iPhones, God wouldn’t have given us thumbs!”

I’m also skeptical because I can’t find any textual evidence that Luke intended in this story to address the issue of the rape of Jewish girls and women by soldiers.  Luke explicitly places his story in the context of the Roman occupation, when Herod was the puppet king, Augustus was Emperor, and Quirinius was governor of Syria.  He often addresses the issue of the confiscation of property and injustice perpetrated by Herod’s puppet regime.  But, he never addresses the rape issue.  Luke can be subtle, but he’s never opaque.   

Primarily, I’m skeptical because I don’t see any evidence that plausibility was a priority for Luke.  The historical explanation of rape by a Roman soldier, or a scientist’s explanation of natural parthenogenesis, reach for plausibility.

 Luke’s agenda was not plausibility, but meaning through mystery.  

Christine’s comment, “Why does everything have to be about science?” gets to this issue.  I love science.  Science helps me make sense of this world.  Evolutionary Science has helped me eat healthier and find an exercise program that works for me.  Medical science saved my life at least once.

But, I don’t think Luke, even though he was a physician according to legend, had a scientific world view.  He lived in a pre-scientific age.

The crazy uncle approach to scripture attempts to understand the biblical writer’s agenda by entering into his or her context to the extent that we can.  That’s where I’m going in my next post, taking a look at Luke’s historical, cultural, and literary context.  From there, we will have a clearer view of the meaning of Luke’s theological claim in this story of Jesus’ conception and birth.

Here’s my question for you:  To what extent does it matter to you whether Luke intended to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as an accurate historical account, or intended to tell this story as it was shaped by his experience of faith and his desire to share that faith with his readers?

Should Mary Hang On To Her Virginity?

Virgin Mary

One of my seminary classmates ran into a problem in the process of getting ordained to the ministry.  His scholarly approach to the Bible did not sit well with the more conservative members of his ordination committee.  One of our professors agreed to coach him on answering their questions with integrity and truth, but in a way that might satisfy those who took a more literalist view of the Bible.

He made it through the committee with a tie vote; therefore, the larger governing body, a meeting of about 400 people, would have to examine him and decide whether or not to ordain him.

His examination began well.  With poise and confidence, he articulated his answers in such a way that respected the authority of Scripture while embracing the tools of academic biblical criticism.  Then, it happened.  An elderly man came to the microphone and asked, “Young man, do you believe in the virgin birth?”

In the brief pause between the asking of the question and the breath he took to answer, perhaps two seconds, I could see in his frozen expression all the phrases, all the complex theological doctrine pass before his eyes:  historicity versus narrative theological witness; the line between faith and superstition; modern magical thinking versus ancient theological witness.  He turned slightly and made eye contact with his professor-coach who sat on the front pew.  

She was frantically nodding her head and mouthing the words, “YES! YES! JUST SAY YES!”

In my posts this week, I will do my best to tread through the minefield between the academic and the pastoral approach to the story of the virgin birth of Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke.

Before I don my steel-plated boots, I’ll stop here and turn it over to you, dear readers.      How important to you is the doctrine of the virgin birth? Why does it matter, or why not?

The Crazy Uncle Declares War on Christmas Pageants

I had this dream in which a grumpy prophet crashed our Christmas pageant rehearsal, raving like a lunatic.  “I’m the ghost of Advent past!” he screamed.  Dressed in camel’s hair, leather belt, and munching on locusts dipped in honey, he gave off the smell of John the Baptist, but his beard had more of a Carl Jung metrosexual trim to it.

002-john-baptist He stormed into the sanctuary, scaring all the shepherd children in their bathrobes and fake beards.  Toddlers in their sheep costumes bleated and ran to their parents.  An athletic girl from the church rugby team, (our church has a rugby team?  Where in my subconscious did that come from?) recruited for the part of the innkeeper, stood in the lunatic’s path and recited her line:  “There’s no room for your kind here, Mister.”

“Then who will set you straight?” he boomed.  “I’ve seen enough of these Christmas pageant travesties! It’s time to set the record straight.”

We three adults who thought we were in charge just looked at each other and shrugged, as if to say, “Record?  What record?”

The shape-shifting prophet peeled off his beard, revealing the face of Antonin Scalia.  He grabbed a Bible from a pew rack, whacked it with his fist and yelled, “STICK TO THE *#@%ING SCRIPT!”

Our Director of Christian Education, with director’s clipboard in hand, wouldn’t take any guff from anyone, not even a Supreme Court justice.  “A strict constructionist, are you?” she spat out the words as an epithet, eyes narrowed.

“What other kind is there?” he said, taking the form of Woody Allen.  “Places, everybody,” he said.  “You, children, yes you.  Take off those beards.  Shepherding was a child’s job, not an old man’s.  Remember King David before that business with Goliath?  He was a child, he was a shepherd.  It’s what children did.  Be yourself, be children.”

He turned to the beautiful rugby captain, looked her up and down and said, “I have bad news and good news.”

She arched an eyebrow.

“The bad news is you don’t have a part in this pageant.  There is no innkeeper.  There is no inn.”

She stood taller, towering over Woody.  She jabbed at the text in his hand, “It says right there in Luke 2:7, Mary ‘laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.’”

“Yes, well, that’s an unfortunate translation influenced more by the English culture of King James in 1608 than the actual Greek word.  Look at it.”  He pulled from his pocket a little blue New Testament in Greek.  “Kataloumai, it says,” and he slammed the book shut as if to say, “That settles it.”

He looked around at the quizzical expressions on each face and looked up to the rafters and whined, “God!  Doesn’t anybody know Greek anymore?  What happened to teaching classics in school?”  The prophet shape-shifted again; no longer Woody Allen, but my grandmother, who just happened to have been a high school classics teacher, back when there were lots of them in Texas.

Kataloumai,” she explained, now with the patience of my classics-teaching librarian grandmother, “means literally ‘upper room.’  In chapter 22 of Luke, your English translation renders the same word ‘guest room,’ to describe the large room upstairs where Jesus and his disciples ate the last supper.

“So who sent them to the stable since there wasn’t a place for them in the guest room?”

“It was Joseph’s family.  Think about it.  Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to pay the tax because it was Joseph’s home town.  They wouldn’t have stayed in somebody’s Bed and Breakfast.  They would have stayed with family.  But, here’s Luke’s point in telling the story this way:  Joseph’s family took him in, prematurely pregnant wife and all, but told them, ‘There’s no place for you in the room reserved for honored guests.’  He started out life disrespected by his own family.  It will take another twenty chapters before he makes it to the upper room, and it will be his very last meal before the Roman government puts him to death; the same government that made Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem for the census.”

“So, what’s the good news?” Ms. Rugby captain asked, “You said there was good news.”

Morphing back into the raving prophet, our visitor said, “You only need one stage set! There was no stable either!”  He shook the posts that held up the cardboard rafters.  “That’s a medieval convention imposed on the story long after Luke wrote it.  Animals were kept in the house on the ground floor.  There would have been a raised platform made of stone where Joseph and Mary slept, and an indentation near the edge where the animals could get hay was the only manger.  That wooden contraption–no need for it.  Cut it to pieces and throw it in the fire!”

With a sweep of his arm, he burned down the set.  Everything vanished except the people.  “This is all you need,” she said, again taking the form of my grandmother.

“Tell a story,” she said.  “Tell a story of a newlywed couple who come home to the groom’s family to celebrate a glorious event, the birth of their first child.  Tell a story of their struggle to stay connected to parents, aunts, and uncles and cousins and friends who do not understand them; who reject them for stepping outside the laws and conventions of sexual behavior.  After all, do you think anybody believed Mary’s claim of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit?  Of course they didn’t.  They whispered among themselves, ‘Back in my day, we stoned adulterers to death.  Hmmf.’  Tell us the story of God’s love for them, God’s plan for them, when their own people refused them the guest room even when it was time for her to give birth.”  The teacher gazed out over the empty pews, soon to be filled with pilgrims who want to hear the story, though they have heard it many times before.  “You don’t need to tell them what it means,” she said.  “Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, those who have ever felt rejected or discounted, will find themselves in this story.  And they will hear what they need to hear, in the words of the angels, good news, great joy for all the people.  All.