Unhelpful Literalism (More problematic Biblical imagery)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been following a discussion in a LinkedIn group concerning the recent election of a new (Lutheran) Archbishop in Sweden. This is a historic moment in the Swedish church, as it is the first time a woman has been elevated to such a high post. The discussion included the above link, a tag line of “Thanks be to God!”, and nothing else. The originator of the discussion made no further comment. This is his standard operating procedure, and I have yet to figure out exactly why he starts a multitude of discussions in various groups and yet does not participate. (He also never starts a discussion with an original thought of his own, which I find highly annoying out of a fairly senior cleric, but that is another story for another time.)

In the two weeks that this discussion has been open, there have been eighty comments, which makes it a fairly active topic. Unfortunately, in this particular group, “active” usually indicates a descent into nasty, and this instance does not disappoint. And it’s almost always about who is a “real” Christian and who is not, and it can become quite dismissive. This time, the wording is “well, you can believe it if you like, but it’s not Christianity.” As frequently is the case, a fairly junior cleric in the group is unimaginatively parroting what he learned in theological college, and worrying more about doctrinal correctness than about how his online behavior looks to anyone who is either (a) outside the church, or (b) might consider whether or not to call him once his mandatory curacy is over.

Now, I’m not sure about whether the originator of this topic is saying “Thanks be to God!” as a result of an archbishop being elected, or the fact that it is a woman. Supposedly, this does not matter to Junior Priest (although I think the gentleman doth protest too much). Junior cannot say “Thanks be to God!” on the election of Antje Jackelén to the office of Archbishop because her views of the Virgin Birth and Bodily Resurrection do not conform to the early Church’s ecumenical councils‘ teaching, and therefore she is in danger of teaching some kind of heterodoxy.

And of course, the discussion has devolved into playground snottiness concerning whether one must accept Mary’s virginity at the point when the infant Jesus was conceived in her womb as literal fact, and whether you can be a Christian if you do not accept this.

Personally, I’m adamantly unconcerned with the condition of a two-thousand year old hymen, and don’t believe it has much to do with my faith in Jesus Christ. Neither am I convinced that it was a particular sticking point of the Councils. And my own seminary or other theological training raises the question whether the writers of the Gospels were determined to provide a gynaecological fact (nothing I ever read or heard discussed in a classroom indicates that was their intention). But, according to Junior, I can believe whatever I like, I’m just not allowed to call it “Christian”.

I have no problem with not believing in a literal “virgin birth”. Willam Temple was initially refused ordination on precisely this point. Look how important it was to his career.

So, I call myself Past Christian, and feel quite free to give a fairly strong objection to this, from a couple of different viewpoints.

The first is to query the intent of the authors of the four gospels, and to say why I’m not at all convinced that Mary’s literal virginity (as we now use that word) was a necessary point to the story, or that belief in that literal virginity is an appropriate litmus test for naming someone/thing as “Christian” at any point in history. Especially in the 21st century.

Only two of the four Gospels–Matthew and Luke–say a word about the conception or birth of Jesus. Matthew indicates that Mary was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (1:18). Luke, approximately contemporary with Matthew, gives a more elaborate account of how this came to be (1:26- 38); Mark and John give no nativity story whatsoever.

There is no indication that the authors of either Matthew or Luke had any notion that a pregnancy was possible without a biological father. The question was also raised about translation–did the words in Greek or Hebrew that were translated into English as “virgin” really mean a woman who has never had sexual relations? It seemed more likely (to me, anyway) that the words meant a “young” or “unmarried” woman.

So, literal “virginity” in the modern sense was perhaps not what was meant.

Although (and this brings me to the second point), since having sexual relations outside of marriage was punishable by death, especially if a pregnancy gave evidence to the fact, it was assumed that all living women who were not married were virgins.

But clearly, both Matthew and Luke indicate Mary was an unmarried pregnant woman. And somehow, by both God’s protection and her betrothed’s forbearance, she was not stoned to death.

Which brings up the third reason I have trouble with the “virgin birth”. It’s obvious that the point of claiming some kind of miraculous birth is not about the biological facts of reproduction, but to say that the person thus born was in some way exceptional. And it almost always is done by followers or admirers who came quite a bit later than the miraculously-born person. Jesus wasn’t the first or only person about whom this claim was made.

And even if the opinion about the conception is wrong, the fact that an unmarried woman was found to be pregnant, and allowed to live well past giving birth and weaning the child, does say something pretty extraordinary. Possibly more than the meek and mild version we usually get. This is the child of an unusually resilient and resourceful mother, under special protection from a God who convinced a man to raise the child of an unverifiable father as his own. Bastard children would ordinarily have been stigmatized and impoverished. It is extraordinary that the child was born at all, let alone having been well brought up in a religious household and learned a respectable trade.

Intact hymen or not, Mary was the exceptional mother of an exceptional child. You don’t have to assent to wonky science to believe that. You don’t dishonor Jesus (or Mary) by not having a literal, biological “faith” in the virgin birth.

And perhaps it is better to leave it at that, rather than to engage in endless speculation about Our Lady’s lady parts.

But there are more distressing things that have been brought to the forefront of my mind by the discussion. And they both have a lot to do with what the Christian church looks like to those who might (metaphorically) be standing in the archway and trying to decide whether or not to enter. Or leave.

The first is the pronouncement of exclusion–who is in and who is out–which seems to fall so readily from this junior cleric’s keyboard. What is and is not “Christian”, what every Christian must believe, who is heading toward apostasy. And the arrogance with which it is being delivered to more experienced clerics (and sometimes, more learned lay people). This is what the church is happy to let loose on the unsuspecting faithful: new priests who are so mired in the internal questions of the past that they can neither address what Christian belief might look like at present (or even the last hundred years or so), nor listen to the more flexible and gracious wisdom of those with a few years and more learning behind them.

The second is that the “virgin birth” is a major sticking point for some who would like to know more about Christianity, but who think of this as a gross scientific stupidity, and who do not wish to have to assent to stupidity to be a part of any group. I have always had a great deal sympathy for this, and in fact the inability to assent to stupidity (in my case, it was evolution versus six-day creation) was one of several reasons I left the church in my late teens and did not return for a dozen years. Just telling people “if you want to be Christian, you have to believe this $#!+” is hardly “good news”.

It’s possibly worse news for the churches and clerics who try to force this, than it is for anyone who might be giving Christianity some serious consideration.

Drawing hard lines based on what was decided more than a thousand years ago, and telling people this is what they must believe now, and disrespecting the human need to think, question, offer varied and sometimes apparently contradictory answers, is not (I think) the best way to preserve and advance Christian belief.

Christianity is a religion grounded in mystery. But it should not require assent to stupidity.

4 thoughts on “Unhelpful Literalism (More problematic Biblical imagery)

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