Last Christmas, when everyone was putting out their favourite Christmas decorations, I chanced to see an interesting item in a store. It was a Nativity scene. All the traditional details of the Nativity narrative that Christians love and cherish were carefully rendered in this modern-day creche, from the timbers of the stable to the angel on the roof. The nativity scene could be set on a tabletop, and enjoyed in this way as a reminder of the Christmas story. But for true fans of the story, there was more. The creche was fitted with a high-tech digital sound and lights device. At the touch of a button, the soothing, mellow voice of a male narrator suddenly filled the space around the creche with a reverent retelling of the Christmas story, as tiny moving “spotlights” highlighted each character in sequence. It was quite well done, and I’m sure whoever bought it will get a lot of pleasure out of it.
It’s a touching story, this Nativity tale, and it’s one that many people find great comfort in. They can’t imagine Christmas without it. It’s such a great story, with all the bells and whistles of a good Saviour myth: divinely chosen human parents, a virgin mother, mystical signs and portents leading up to the time of birth, a long-prophesied male child from a sacred bloodline who must be whisked away and hidden from evil kings until he comes of age. Why, it’s a story worthy of Harry Potter! Or King Arthur! Or Aragorn son of Arathorn! Or Luke Skywalker! It’s such a terrific, timeless story that it’s no wonder there are two completely different versions of it in the New Testament — one in Matthew, one in Luke. Why stop at one invented Nativity story when you can have two? That way, people can pick and choose what they like, and they can paste the details together in new and creative ways called “blended truth,” and there’s something for everyone, so all people can relate to the story — even the lowly shepherd folk!*
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good tale of intrigue, adventure, and heroism. Plus I think we really need good storytelling. Good stories teach us timeless truths, and help us understand our own lives and our own painful experiences. Stories told through books, visual art, music, plays, film, dance, and performance art are deeply important to the human experience. But stories are stories, and facts are facts, and a lot of damage is caused when the two become interchanged, when story is treated as fact, and fact is treated as story.
We can sometimes recognize situations where story is being treated as fact: we call it propaganda, spin, political manoeuvring, brainwashing, or manipulation. Our history books (and our newspapers) are filled with examples of leaders who’ve used “the big spin” to control political, religious, and economic events.
However, we’re less familiar with examples of fact being treated as story. By this I mean we’re less familiar with examples of individuals who spoke an honest truth and were ignored by their contemporaries until later commentators “took up the cause” and “improved” it to make it more appealing to a wider audience. This process of “improvement” involves the addition of a thick layer of myth to a foundation of fact. An excellent example of this is the way in which Lenin and Trotsky “improved” upon the writings of Marx and Engels to create Russian Communism.
The reality of Jesus’ life and teachings — the actual events, and the actual people — is another instance of fact being turned into story. So many layers of myth, allegory, and invention have been added to a basic foundation of fact that orthodox Western Christianity now resembles a nutritious, single-layered, carrot cake that’s been piled high with three feet of gooey, calorie-laden icing. There’s so much icing, we don’t realize there’s still a cake inside there somewhere. All we can see is the icing. We eat piece after piece of icing, and always feel sick to our stomachs. But if we could get down to the carrot cake, made with wholesome ingredients such as eggs, oil, carrots, unbleached flour, spices, and a little sugar, we’d probably find our spiritual food nourishing instead of nauseating!
Let me ask you a question. A practical question based on realistic observations about realistic human behaviour. Okay . . . you’ve read the tabloid headlines (even when you don’t want to admit it), and you’ve seen the TV interview shows, and you’ve been on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. Over and over again you’ve seen the reports about famous child stars, and their tragic lives as adults. Right? You’ve heard again and again about famous child stars who had everything, but ended up crashing and burning in early adulthood. Famous child stars who’ve been battling addiction disorders since their early teens. Famous child stars who can’t sustain monogamous romantic relationships. Famous child stars who become abusive towards others, and are brought before the courts to answer for their abuse. Famous child stars who become narcissistically self-indulgent, no longer capable of understanding what empathy is.
What turns these talented young actors into narcissistic monsters? Status addiction. They sure as heck weren’t born this way. But these young people, who started out as normal boys and girls, have been told countless times over many years that they’re special, that they’re different, that they’re deserving of fame. They fall prey to status addiction at an early age. Once they’re biologically addicted to status, they’re much more vulnerable — both psychologically and physiologically — to other addictions, such as alcohol and street drugs. It’s no surprise at all that they can’t control their emotions or their choices by the time they’re young adults.
So here’s my question . . . just exactly how do you think a young boy raised from infancy to believe he’s the long-awaited Messiah would escape the fate of these young Hollywood stars? How do you think such a boy would be any different?
Do you think his biology would be different? Do you think his physiology would be different? Do you think his DNA would be different? Do you think he’d be immune to the realities of status addiction? Do you think he’d be invulnerable to the slings and arrows of status anxiety, like some sort of Jewish Achilles, dipped by his semi-divine mother into a baptismal pool of magic river water so he’ll be divinely protected from almost everything real? Do you think he could spend years in a household where he’s treated differently from his brothers and sisters, where he’s trained from birth to fulfill “a special purpose” as Israel’s Messiah, yet somehow not end up becoming a self-entitled, narcissistic, addiction-addled brat? (And, by way of comparison, isn’t it interesting that Homer’s Achilles grows up to become a self-entitled, narcissistic, addiction-addled brat?)
I can think of only one modern example of a person who was raised in such an elitist spiritual environment without losing all his humbleness and courage, and that person is the current Dalai Lama. My hat’s off to him and his teachers because he’s managed to preserve the sanity and compassion he was born with. I can’t in all honesty say that orthodox Western Christian doctrines would be of any use to a boy or girl who genuinely wanted to be close to God.
The reality is that if Jesus had been raised to believe he was the Messiah, he would have been a pretty useless Messiah. He would have ended up “broken,” broken in the way so many other men and women have become broken because they were raised to believe that God had chosen them before birth to become special prophets and leaders. If Jesus’ family had raised him this way, they would have turned him (without meaning to) into a garden-variety spiritual narcissist with serious addiction problems.
This is not the Jesus we see in the Gospel of Mark. Nor is it the family of Jesus we see in the Gospel of Mark.
In the Gospel of Mark, there is no Nativity story at all. In fact, Mark gives only hints to his readers about Jesus’ family of origin, and these hints aren’t very flattering.
Isn’t it interesting that Mark thinks the historical facts about Jesus’ mission speak more loudly to his audience than any myth could?
Ya gotta wonder what Mark knew that Paul didn’t want you to know.
* Although most readers today assume that Luke is referring to sheep herders in Luke 2, there’s good reason to suspect that Luke is alluding to Egyptian rulers — shepherds caring for their people — whose ancient symbols had long been the crook and the flail. If this is true, it means that Luke is showing Egyptian rulers (wise kings) travelling to Bethlehem to offer obeisance to the Christ child, just as Matthew shows the Persian Magi (wise kings) doing the same in Matthew 2.