So there we were in Bible study today at the local cafe, the same way we are every week. This week we were looking at the readings for our Christmas Eve service, particularly the gospel narrative of Jesus' birth from Luke 2. We were all talking about what it must have been like for the shepherds, wandering around Bethlehem in the dark, looking for that one stable where Jesus was born out of the many nooks and crannies likely available in a little hill town like Bethlehem. No streetlights. Nothing but the stars and the occasional household fire. Then one of the members of the Bible study said, "I always figured the star led the shepherds to where Jesus was."
"Actually," I said, "the star doesn't appear in Luke's version of the birth of Jesus. That's Matthew, and the star only guides the Magi to Jesus." And then I started laying out the many small idiosyncrasies between the gospel narratives about Jesus and how they all look at him differently. Meanwhile I watched these people I love grow more and more nervous about what I was saying (at least, that's how it looked to me).
There are times when I genuinely envy our brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to a less critical view of scripture, particularly in terms of historic and literary criticism. There are times when, as a pastor who wants his people to think about God's word and our faith, I feel like the history teacher who has to blow up cherished childhood beliefs so that students can really learn what happened, so far as we know. I feel like the pastoral equivalent of the guy who reveals Columbus' greed and xenophobia, the treachery of the U.S. government in its dealings with the tribal population, the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a deist slaveowner and not a Christian who believed in racial equality.
It can be a lot to harmonize sometimes. I believe there is good in telling the core stories of the faith, even when they seem to contradict each other. Just this past Sunday we did our Christmas program, which featured shepherds and Magi worshiping Jesus. True, they weren't on the stage at the same time, but they were there. The core stories are still important, particularly for kids who don't have the maturity to make peace with conflicting historical narratives and the faith that tells them this is still God's story, even with all its fractures and problems.
I'm finishing up Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which exposes even more of the problems than I originally knew (although his citations leave a lot to be desired). Maybe that's what's gotten me thinking along these lines today. Yet even Aslan, a Muslim recovering from a brief foray into fundamentalist Christianity, acknowledges that something different happened with Jesus of Nazareth. There were plenty of "Messiah" figures in Jesus' time. You could almost imagine something like the scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian where Brian falls into a row of "prophets" preaching along the street in Jerusalem. Something was different ab out Jesus, and whatever that something was, it was enough to overcome a multitude of conflicting factors and keep the name of Jesus of Nazareth alive when others faded into the annals of history. Aslan says it's a matter of faith, in the end. I agree.
It is that faith that drives me to continue to lead with fear and trembling, aware that there are all sorts of questions I cannot answer without calling into question some of our most cherished beliefs about the Bible and how God speaks through scripture. It is that faith that will allow me to believe that a child was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, that he was God made incarnate in human flesh, that he lived and walked among us, that he was crucified because he challenged our way of thinking about God and life and faith, and that he was raised from the dead and promises us the same. The details beyond this core are not for me to confirm or deny - what matters is that God is Jesus and Jesus is God, Emmanuel, and in him we all have life whether we get the historic facts right nor not. Faith, fear, and trembling, this Advent it appears I have plenty of all three.