I read an intriguing piece in The Times this weekend by columnist Giles Coren, called ‘Peace on Earth, so long as you keep the receipt’. Its central premise is that the Christmas story as reported in the gospels misses a trick, failing to take full advantage of the one time of year when a large portion of the population is, even in its varying degrees of sozzledness, more receptive than at any other to engage with the Christian message – or at least part of it. Basically he says, the story is too short, if it’s there at all (only Matthew and Luke), it ends abruptly then cuts to Jesus age twelve, and most regrettably of all doesn’t tell us what happens on Boxing day. He then spins a witty account of what ‘might have happened’, replete with references to current affairs and culture - example: And Mary said: ‘Lo, is ratings all you people ever think about?’
A couple of lines stand out. At the beginning: ‘Christianity staggers under the weight of its myriad modernisation crises, congregations wither, faith falters and children forget how to spell “God”…’; then later ‘I am sure they (Luke and Matthew) would have written a bit more about the Nativity if they had known that after two thousand years there wouldn’t be much left of Christianity apart from Christmas and some rowing about what to do with the gays.’
A couple of things. First, it's a very western perspective; it’s well known, within the church at least, that as Christianity has dwindled in Europe, it has mushroomed in many other parts of the world. Second, while it’s true that Christmas has become the main vestige of the faith in a secular society, and its presentation in the bible is relatively brief, I’m not convinced it’s the bible’s job to spoon feed us a longer yarn about Christmas to stimulate an appetite for everything else it has to offer. The bible’s not blockbuster or tabloid entertainment (though it sure has some good bits); it purports to be a living breathing Word, that demands engagement. God has put eternity in our hearts, to quote the Old Testament mind-bender Ecclesiastes, and it’s hinted elsewhere he’s laid on some pretty impressive stuff, not least the wonders of nature, to move us to seek God. So we’ve got a part to play too – we’re meant to respond freely and willingly, not as robots or pampered kids.
Still, I don’t deny having been a bit troubled myself at times along the way by the seeming ‘irrelevance’ of some biblical material, when looked at wrong-headedly. Take the nativity scene with its familiar band of characters: we’ve tamed and confined it to the realm of the cute (school kids in tea towels), comic (Vicar of Dibley, Mrs Brown’s Boys), or sentimental. Too easy to feel it can just be packed away with the tree decs and forgotten about for another year.
But that universal spiritual yearning, if not stifled or squandered on lesser things, beckons us on an inner voyage of discovery. And once you start ‘getting into’ faith, it's possible to develop an appetite for the breadth and depths of vision and joy it offers. It can be ultimately transformative – of one’s life, and potentially whole sphere of influence – for the whole year. Like yeast or tea, it infiltrates, percolates. It's not just for Christmas.
Having an attitude of discovery rather than dismissiveness towards a familiar simple narrative like the Christmas one, opens up its depths, richness and humanity: Herod’s power politics and cancerous jealousy, the inner and outer journeys of Mary and the magi, Joseph’s turmoil… powerful stuff; the ‘Nativity’ TV drama a couple of years ago showed it just needs a decent scripter writer to draw it out.
After reading Coren’s piece, I watched the recorded second episode of BBC spy drama Restless. You don’t have to absorb any of the world’s stories or entertainments for long to see a myriad of themes and dynamics in common with biblical and other faith writings: trust, betrayal, fear, danger, the impact of the past… you get more than a taste of those in the nativity for starters.
Part of what the bible offers to the mix is alternative imaginings of what life can be like, when we switch our gaze from the merely temporal and tangible, to the eternal and spiritual. The centrality of characters from humble backgrounds in the nativity for instance – Mary and Joseph, the shepherds – counters our own culture’s infatuation with fame, celebrity, achievement and wealth.Relevance and challenge combined, if we have eyes to see.