Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Born of a Virgin?"

Part of my seasonal reading included a book by Andrew T. Lincoln, entitled, Born of a Virgin?, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans in 2013.  Lincoln is a Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Gloucestershire, and the author of commentaries on Ephesians, Colossians, and the Gospel of John.  Perhaps the title should have alerted me that reading it would also form part of my seasonal literary masochism, but I couldn’t resist.  After all, the glowing endorsements adorning the back cover promised that it was “a groundbreaking book that arrives like a breath of fresh air and allows us to see the familiar with new eyes”.  It turns out that the air wasn’t all that fresh after all, but breathed the same old stale atmosphere of theological liberalism that I had been inhaling all throughout my distant college days.
            There were some good bits that didn’t give me gas.  I especially enjoyed his description and deconstruction of J.D. Tabor’s claim to have “solved” once and for all “the Mystery of Pantera”—i.e. the idea that Jesus’ biological father was a Roman soldier named Pantera who was once stationed in Palestine in the first century and who died and was buried in Germany.  Lincoln demonstrates that Tabor’s dates don’t add up, and that the soldier Pantera would have been either a newborn or no more than ten-years old when he allegedly fathered Mary’s child.  But most of Lincoln’s work left me alternately exasperated or simply wondering why a man as intelligent as Lincoln clearly was would write such stuff.
            His main thesis is that the New Testament contains not only assertions of Christ’s virginal conception, but also another view of Christ’s birth as the fruit of a non-virginal conception.  He finds evidence for this other view in the frequent description of Jesus as “of the seed of David” (e.g. Romans 1:3), which he insists on regarding as evidence that this was intended as a description of the physical means of Christ’s conception—i.e. that it involved the use of Joseph’s sperm.  He further highlights Peter’s description of Jesus as “of the fruit of [David’s] loins in Acts 2:30 as proof that Peter (or perhaps Luke) regarded Jesus as the biological fruit of the loins of David’s descendent Joseph.  He further cites descriptions of Mary and Joseph as “His parents” (Luke 2:41) and of Jesus as “the son of Joseph” (e.g. John 1:45) as examples of an ancient tradition of Jesus’ non-virginal conception. 
He is aware of course that Luke offers a tradition of Christ’s virginal conception in his first two chapters, but contends that Luke leaves the two mutually-contradictory views standing side by side in his Gospel.  For Lincoln, Luke “holds with the earliest Christian formulations that Jesus was of the seed of David and Joseph’s son, but [Luke] also holds that in the light of his resurrection Joseph’s son was vindicated as God’s Son.  To stress that conviction he includes an annunciation story in which the conception of this Son of God is narrated in a fashion similar to that of other figures in the ancient world who were thought to be sons of gods, omitting any participation on the part of a human male.”  This, Lincoln says, was simply one of the “literary conventions of ancient biography”.  In other words, Luke didn’t believe that Christ was virginally conceived, but included the annunciation story of a virginal conception as a way of making a non-historical theological point.  It was just Luke’s bad luck that everyone ever afterward insisted on reading the annunciation as containing the same kind of history as found in the rest of his Gospel.   
But of course Luke himself sets us up for such a literal, historical, and non-legendary reading of his first two chapters.  Luke’s Gospel does not begin with the annunciations to Zachariah and Mary, but with a clear statement that he had researched the whole story and was grounding his narrative upon the testimony of eye-witnesses.  Thus Luke’s Gospel begins:  Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”  It is of a piece with Luke’s famous historical carefulness found in Acts (such as his designation that the rulers of Thessalonica had the title “politarch”). 
These words in Luke 1:1-4 are not the words of someone who is about to treat his readers to a series of concocted legends, “the literary conventions of ancient biography” and then switch back to sober and precise historical reportage with nary a clue that the reader had moved from legend to history, from the heavenly realms of the gods to Palestine in fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:1).  If Luke offered chapters 3-24 as history, we may be sure he intended us to regard chapters 1-2 in the same way.  Lincoln, not surprisingly, finds in the ending of Luke’s Gospel evidence that Luke did not intend to offer history, for Lincoln regards the story of Christ’s Ascension as simply another borrowing from the legends of the gods and ancient worthies such as Romulus.  (Wait for Lincoln’s next book, possibly to be entitled, Ascended into Heaven?)  It seems as if any parallel with pagan mythology can serve to undermine the historicity of Luke’s narrative, despite his plain assertion that he was offering sober history so that “you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
            Of course Lincoln’s whole thesis falls to the ground if Luke did not in fact hold with formulation that Jesus was Joseph’s physical son, and if references to Mary and Joseph as “His parents” were simply the usual way of describing the couple who were raising him, something no more significant than a couple describing their adopted child as their own son or daughter.  It is, I submit, pedantic and perverse to insist that the Messianic title “son of David” or “of the seed of David” must refer to the physical mechanism of generation.  In the first century the Messianic issue was not physical sperm, but legal right to claim participation in the covenant God made to David.  That is why Matthew, who is emphatic that Joseph was not the father of Jesus (Matthew 1:18), was also equally emphatic that he was the “son of David”, sharing Davidic lineage (Matthew 1:20).  Sperm was not the issue; legal lineage was.
            It is when Lincoln expounded at length an alternative non-virginal interpretation of Matthew that I really began to reach for the Gaviscon.  He acknowledged that the “traditional” interpretation of Mary conceiving virginally was one possible way to read the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  But he offered another possible interpretation as well.  In this alternate interpretation, the phrase “found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” did not mean that the Holy Spirit alone was responsible for the pregnancy to the exclusion of human agency.  It simply meant that the Holy Spirit was also involved along with the sexual act, and in support of this he cites divine involvement in the pregnancies of Leah, Rachel and Ruth as proof that “divine causality was never understood as excluding the woman’s intercourse with a man”.  In this reading of the text, the angel tells Joseph that although Mary was pregnant through union with another man, Joseph should marry her anyway, since God is going to use the pregnancy for His own redemptive purposes.  Verse 25, which says “Joseph did not know her [i.e. refrained from sex] until she gave birth to a son”, simply showed how Joseph “remains righteous throughout the whole affair.  He behaves precisely how someone concerned to uphold the law strictly should do”.   In this reading, “The angel does not tell [Joseph] he was wrong in thinking that Mary was pregnant by another man; but does tell him that he was wrong in the conclusion he has drawn from this, namely that he should divorce her”.
            It is an extraordinary reading of the text, for a number of reasons.  A careful look at the text reveals that the sole issue in the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy was her chastity and character—i.e. the question of whether or not she had sex with someone else while betrothed to Joseph.  Given this specific context the statement “that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (v. 20) can only mean that she did not in fact have sex with someone else.  It is eisexegetical in the extreme to read into the verse the idea that she was unchaste, but don’t worry about it; God has it under control.  God’s redemptive purpose was not the issue; Mary’s chastity was.  That is the obvious reason for including verse 25:  it shows that Jesus must have been virginally conceived because Joseph did not touch his wife throughout the entirety of the pregnancy.
            There is much more, of course, but dealing with it even inadequately would take us well beyond what is possible in a blog.  Suffice to say that Lincoln finally lets the shoe drop in his final section, entitled “Tradition, critical loyalty and saying the creed”.  In it he acknowledges that “in the context of the tradition Irenaeus and other pre-modern readers rightly assumed that interpretation of Scripture was a corporate project, taking place within the community of the Church”.  Lincoln goes on to claim that such a process of interpretation is still taking place so that all questions are open ones, and we must therefore now reinterpret the creedal formulation that Christ “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” as meaning only that “only God’s sovereign initiative could ultimately explain [Christ’s] life and that this God was wholly present in his fully human life from its inception”.  He acknowledges that “Irenaeus and his pre-modern readers” (do I detect of whiff of disdain?) interpreted the creedal formulation otherwise and as meaning also that Christ had no human biological father, but we now know better.  Accordingly we must reinterpret the creeds in the same way that we reinterpret the Scriptures they summarize, as mere symbols for generalized truths.
            A truly traditional Orthodox approach will recognize this as a denial of the work of the Holy Spirit through the centuries, and as a counsel of despair.  For who can say whether later on some even more enlightened academics will regard Lincoln and his readers as “pre-modern” and suggest that the view that “only God’s sovereign initiative could ultimately explain Christ’s life” also needs to be reinterpreted?  The corporate project of interpreting the Scriptures and formulating the rule of faith has already been accomplished by the community of faith.  The choice is between the fixed faith of the Church throughout history or the ever-shifting conclusions of liberal academics.
Lincoln ends his volume with the bold and defiant words that to insist on a belief in the virginal conception of Christ involves being “totally resistant to serious engagement with biblical and theological scholarship”.  It is not so.  It only means that one prefers the biblical and theological scholarship of the saints which produced the rule of faith and which has guided the Church for two millennia to the scholarship published lately by Wm. B. Eerdmans today.  I value contemporary scholarship, but I know which of the two to choose when disagreement arises.  But at the end of the day it is not about what I or anyone else thinks, but about how Christ regards him and what Lincoln will say when he finally meets His Mother, the Queen of Heaven.  I suspect from what I have read in Born of a Virgin? that, in the words ascribed to a lesser monarch, she will not be amused.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Charlie Brown and the Lonely Walk of Faith

If you are at all like me, it is not Christmas until you have seen the holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has been shown seasonally every year since it first appeared in 1965.  I have watched it faithfully every year since I can remember, and have the whole wonderful thing more or less memorized by heart.  Who can forget Charlie Brown taking his seat at Lucy’s outdoor doctor’s office (the sign announcing “The Doctor is Real In”), or his complaining to Linus that he feels depressed every Christmas season?  Or who can forget Snoopy doing his famous dance of joy on the top of Schroeder’s piano, or Charlie Brown and Linus going to look for a tree for their Christmas pageant and finding in the middle of a forest of large pink metallic trees a pathetic little tree which just needed a little love?  Or Linus’ spot-lit soliloquy, wherein he quotes the Gospel of Luke for a then unprecedented forty-five seconds on national television?  The images and dialogue have become imbedded in North American culture to the point that they are instantly recognizable, even when affectionately satirized on The Simpsons.
         The point of the story of course revolves around the need to transcend the materialism of the Christmas season by returning to “what Christmas is all about”.  Charlie Brown’s agonized and poignant cry asking that question showed that he had no clue what Christmas was all about.  It was Linus, his friend and the voice of creator Charles Schulz, that provided the answer to his question and the antidote to the materialism of his friends.  Linus’ forty-five second reading of the Nativity story from Luke’s Gospel not only made television history.  It also brought the Gospel to the open and trembling heart of Charlie Brown.
          So far, so good.  When I watched the show this year, it was exactly like every other blessed year before.  Charlie Brown and Linus had brought to their pageant the pathetic little tree which seemed to be dying before the eyes of all.  He had clearly failed in his assigned task, revealing that he had no appreciation for the commercialism so dear to everyone else waiting for him to return with a big, splendid, pink tree.  When he returned with the little tree everyone laughed at him, mocking him, disdaining him, making him feel even more of a failure and outcast than he already was.  He cried out, asking whether anybody could tell him what Christmas was all about, and Linus answered by reciting from the Gospel of Luke.  Then Charlie Brown got the true meaning of Christmas.  He had his epiphany, his conversion.  A Methodist might say that his heart was strangely warmed.  That was when I saw it, something I had never noticed before—Charlie Brown picked up his little tree and walked out steadily and unashamed before the rest of the wordless and wondering crowd.  He no longer cared what they thought, or whether they disdained him.  His moment of illumination raised him above such cares.  The fear of man bringeth a snare, the Scripture says, but his new faith made Charlie Brown immune to such snares.  He was prepared to walk in that faith alone, even if no one else followed.
          This is the way it has always been, and Christian hymnography has recognized and celebrated it.  The moment we decide for Christ, we are prepared to follow Him regardless of the shame it brings.  The evangelical hymn sings, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.  Though none go with me, still I will follow, no turning back, no turning back.”  Our own Octoechos says the same thing:  “You were held by lawless men, O Christ, but You are my God, and I am not ashamed; You were smitten on the cheek, but I do not deny You; You were nailed to the cross and I do not conceal it.”  Faith allows us to stand for Christ crucified, even if it means standing alone.  We can take up the tree, the tree of the Cross, and calmly walk past those who deride us.
          I noticed one other thing from that story:  the crowd that once derided Charlie Brown as a fool (“Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown!  What kind of a tree is that?”) afterward themselves came to comfort him.  Charlie Brown took the tree home and tried to decorate it himself.  He placed a single decoration on its little branch, which bent over with its weight.  He thought, “I’ve killed it.  Oh!  Everything I touch gets ruined!” and he walked away in despair.  It was then that his friends who followed him came to the rescue.  “Charlie Brown is a block-head, but he did get a nice tree,” they said, and repaired and decorated the tree themselves so that when Charlie Brown returned, he found the tree a fully decorated and splendid.  All joined together in unity, singing “Hark the herald angels sing” as the final credits rolled.  This was, in fact, an image of the Church:  when one of us fails and falls, the rest are called to gather round and help heal the hurt. (Fanciful?  Maybe.  But for what it’s worth, count the people decorating the tree:  there are twelve of them.)  We need one another, and can only sing together to God once forgiveness and unity have been restored.  I don’t imagine that Charles Schulz was trying to make a theological statement about faith or ecclesiology with his hastily-prepared seasonal offering.  But Schulz was a Christian, and so wrote from his own experience of Christ.  That involved writing theology, whether he knew it consciously or not.
          Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas never disappoints.  Good ol’ Linus always comes through, and brings a revelation to Charlie Brown.  This year the Peanuts gang brought a revelation to those of us living in a militantly post-Christian world.  That world may laugh and deride us if it wishes.  We can walk the lonely walk of faith alone if we have to. We know what Christmas is all about.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Just Imagine, John Lennon

In the world’s hagiology, it seems that untimely demise bestows a scent of secular sanctity, that those who die before their time are endowed with the status of saints. Take for example the untimely death of Princess Diana. Despite some remarkably unfortunate life choices (such as Dodi Fayed), she was instantly hailed as “the people’s princess” after her death in a Paris tunnel and paired with Mother Teresa (since they died within days of each other), some speaking of them walking hand in hand in heaven like two saints. Serious comparison of the lives and choices of both Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, of course, does nothing to lend support to the pairing, nor to the idea of Diana being the sort of saint that Mother Teresa was. But untimely death brings with it an emotional response that often overwhelms moral discernment.
          We see this in the case of John Lennon, who died at the age of 40 in 1980, gunned down as he and Yoko Ono were returning to their New York apartment. He died of his wounds and was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital on December 8 at 11.07 p.m. John Lennon was known for his advocacy of world peace, and became something of a poster boy for its cause. As Wikipedia relates, “Lennon and Ono used their honeymoon as what they termed a ‘Bed-In for Peace’ at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel. At a second Bed-In three months later at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal Lennon wrote and recorded ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Released as a single, it was quickly taken up as an anti-war anthem. In December, they paid for billboards in 10 cities around the world which declared, in the national language, ‘War Is Over! If You Want It’. ”

          It is hard to escape Lennon’s perennial message: every year at the Christmas season we are treated to his rendition of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”on the radio airwaves. It always makes me think of his other perennial favourite, “Imagine”,which opens with the lyric: “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us; above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today. Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Lennon’s disdain for religion is here combined with his generation’s enthusiasm for peace, and the combination has found great resonance in the minds and hearts of many. Lennon’s untimely demise has served to place his life and views beyond the pale of cultural criticism. “Saint John” may not be easily contradicted.
           The question may be asked however: what did John Lennon actually know about the true causes of peace and war, and about why nations wage war on one another? More importantly, why are nations sometimes dissuaded from going to war? It is unlikely that anyone was ever dissuaded from their own war-like impulses because John and Yoko famously allowed themselves to be photographed in bed together, or by reading their billboards announcing “War Is Over! If You Want It”. It is also unlikely that abolishing religion and countries would do the trick, for people sharing the same country and possessing no discernible religion still engage in war against others. Of course when this occurs within the same country, it is called not “war”, but “crime”, but the interior war-like impulse is the same nonetheless. War exists in the human heart, and neither bed-ins nor slogans can eliminate it from there. Is there anything that can?
           If John Lennon had been able to truly imagine and think outside the politically correct box of his generation (or perhaps if he had read some Christian theology), he would’ve found that there is something which can remove war from the human heart and allow all the people to live in peace. It is mentioned by St. Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho. In this work St. Justin writes, “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each throughout the whole earth changed our weapons of war—our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks—and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified.” In other words, the religious impulse which Lennon disdained as the cause of war was actually the only thing capable of overcoming it. The secularized scenario that John Lennon bids us “imagine” has never produce the longed for peace, however much some people may have wanted it.
          It is, of course, a bit much to expect that Lennon would have been familiar with the writings of St. Justin Martyr, which is admittedly a bit out of his field. Closer to home for him however is the song “Snoopy’sChristmas”by the Royal Guardsmen, which they performed in 1967 as a follow up hit to their previous popular song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”. In this Christmas song, the Red Baron is about to shoot down Snoopy in a World War I aerial dogfight when he hears the bells ringing from the churches below announcing Christmas Eve. Touched by this and its implications for peace on earth, the Red Baron decides not to shoot down his adversary, but instead forces him to land behind enemy lines. Though Snoopy expected that this was the end, he finds instead the Red Baron wishing him a merry Christmas and offering a holiday toast. The song ends with them both flying off in opposite directions, refusing to fight on Christmas Eve.
          The song is not entirely fanciful. It is based on the historical 1914 Christmas Eve truce. On that evening, German soldiers began to sing Christmas carols and were joined by the “enemy” soldiers singing a few hundred yards away across No Man’s Land. Soon they left their respective trenches and met in the middle, conversing, sharing drinks and cigarettes and personal tokens, and showing each other photos of loved ones left behind. Some even played a game of soccer together. The generals of both sides were emphatically not amused, and several soldiers were later court-marshalled for their part in the camaraderie. You can see why: it is difficult to persuade men to shoot others with whom moments before they were sharing a cigarette and swapping personal tokens. It is difficult to persuade soldiers in the trenches to make other soldiers’ wives into widows and their children fatherless when moments before they had seen pictures of those wives and children. Now, thanks to their common celebration of the birth of Christ, the other soldiers across No Man’s Land were not simply “the enemy” or dehumanized monsters, but simply men like themselves. War had broken out in 1914 when healthy patriotism degenerated into unhealthy and fevered nationalism. Peace broke out all along the front lines shortly afterward in 1914, when men remembered the origin of their Christian Faith and their common love for Christ. Devotion to peace as a political abstraction played no part in this. Devotion to the newborn Saviour did.
          Here is the only real hope for peace and for war being over. True and lasting peace can never come from politics, from bed-ins and slogans, from plans and policies, for man is not fundamentally a political animal, and politics cannot heal the human heart. Man is a spiritual animal, and healing for the human heart can only come from spiritual causes. Only Christ can heal the human heart, and the birth of Christ announces the only hope for all the people living together in peace. St. Justin Martyr knew that. Even the Royal Guardsmen and Snoopy and the Red Baron knew that. John Lennon did not know that. Just imagine if he did.