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Resurrection in Jewish and Christian Thought

The notion that humans who have died can be resurrected by God is found in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, and al...

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Lessons of 2020

A friend sent me an article today entitled "1,273 People Share Their Best Life Lessons from 2020." And, as this is the last day of what has been widely acknowledged as a very rough year, it seemed appropriate to me to share a little bit of my own personal inventory for 2020.

Whatever one believes about God's involvement in (or detachment from) the events of 2020, most of us could probably come to some agreement that such an extraordinary time is ripe for gleaning a few life lessons from such a period. At any rate, the year just past has been such a time for me.

However, before proceeding, I wish to clarify what I mean by "life lessons." I'm talking about wisdom, insights and self-awareness gleaned from my experiences of 2020 that will make me a better person going forward, and I don't mean to suggest that many of these "life lessons" are new revelations (most of them have merely served to underscore/reinforce things that I already knew on some level). Having said all of that, what are the life lessons that I'm taking with me from the year ending in less than two hours?

I have been reminded of just how little control we exert over events and the world around us - of the very limited nature of our own personal resources. I'm reminded of how fragile this life of ours really is - of how susceptible we all are to disaster. It has brought into sharp focus for me how quickly things/people which/whom we take for granted can be lost or whisked away. Hence, I believe that I will be more appreciative and thankful for those things and people in 2021 (absence does make the heart grow fonder).

And, although it would seem to contradict the points just made, 2020 has also reminded me about just how resilient and tenacious we humans really are. God has given us an enormous capacity to improvise, heal and bounce back (what doesn't kill us really does make us stronger). And, finally, 2020 has taught me what a truly valuable commodity empathy for our fellow humans really is - In fact, the ability to try to see what other people see and feel what other folks feel is priceless!

Anyway, that's a few of the things that I'm taking away from 2020. What about you? Any life lessons you'd like to share in the comments section (remember posts and comments are shared with the hope that they may be of use to someone else)? At any rate, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish my readers a Happy New Year with God's blessings in the year ahead!   

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

God and Willful Ignorance

Banned by HWA recently posted some commentary on a video produced by Dave Pack which purports to definitively answer the question: Does God Exist? In fact, Mr. Pack's video is only one of many offerings from the ACOG's on this topic - The founder of the movement, Herbert W Armstrong was the first of this tribe to discourse on the subject.

The problem with these offerings is that they almost always rely on false science - bits and pieces of real science which ignore anything that might contradict the point they are trying to make. This is often called confirmation bias in the real world. What is confirmation bias? According to Psychology Today, "Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions."

This phenomenon is closely related to the concept of willful ignorance. In defining the term, Urban Dictionary tells us: "The practice or act of intentional and blatant avoidance, disregard or disagreement with facts, empirical evidence and well-founded arguments because they oppose or contradict your own existing personal beliefs. This practice is most commonly found in the political or religious ideologies of 'conservative' Americans. Many times it is practiced due to laziness--people not wanting to have to do the work to rethink their opinions, the fear of the unknown, the fear of being wrong, or sometimes simply close-mindedness." In this connection, it is interesting to note that the author of the Second Epistle of Peter denigrated those who are "willingly" ignorant (see II Peter 3:5).

However, this kind of ignorance is not the exclusive property of Armstrongites or Christians in general. Unfortunately, it also very often afflicts the atheists and intellectuals who are fond of pointing out the cognitive dissonance and outright hypocrisy of their religious counterparts! Very often, these folks ridicule or dismiss the concept of FAITH (which should be the real basis of the true Christian's belief in things Divine).

And most students of the Bible know that the best definition of faith is found in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. As with many things biblical, however, the flowery old King James English sometimes gets in the way of comprehending the real import of what is being said. Please allow me to paraphrase those critical first three verses of the chapter: "Faith demonstrates the reality which underscores our hope - it is our EVIDENCE for the things that we cannot perceive or evaluate by the exercising of our human senses. Our forbearers shined through the expression of their faith (and we should not devalue their contributions to our understanding of these things). Faith is our tool for understanding that God created everything out of things which are also not readily perceived through our five human senses - it allows us to conclude that God is the source of all things without having all of the physical evidence at our disposal to reach that conclusion based entirely on our own observations." (see Hebrews 11:1-3)

It makes me sad when folks attempt to negate or dismiss things which they don't understand (and don't demonstrate any inclination/desire/willingness to understand). Unfortunately, most of us reach conclusions about things based on varying degrees of research and consideration (often little to none), and then we are finished with it. We have proven our belief(s) to our satisfaction, and everyone else be damned! The problem with this should be obvious to everyone. When we are no longer willing to explore and learn, when we close ourselves off to the possibility that others may be right (and we may be wrong), we have taken the path of willful ignorance. Is it really so terrifying to admit that we don't know something? Is God finite or infinite? Is God contained? Is God finished? What is the origin of our ability to learn? Can God learn? Can God grow? Is ignorance bliss? What do you think?


Saturday, December 19, 2020

Nationalism is incompatible with Christianity

Merriam-Webster defines nationalism as "loyalty and devotion to a nation." How is that different from patriotism? According to most sources, the difference is one of degree/intensity. Again, Merriam-Webster tells us that nationalism implies "exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups." see https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism Unlike patriotism, nationalism tends to exclude others/foreigners and has been known to cause conflict with other nations. Nationalism is the antithesis of having a globalist or cosmopolitan outlook - it is more parochial, inward looking and self-interested. And, contrary to what is currently being preached in many pulpits, nationalism cannot be reconciled with the teachings of New Testament Christianity!

When Jesus Christ was standing before the Roman Governor of Judaea accused of trying to overthrow Caesar's government, he said: "My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world." (John 18:36) In other words, the Kingdom of God (the focus of his message and the goal of his followers) was not a part of this world or any of the nations which comprised it.

Moreover, this notion of Christ and his followers NOT being a part of this world or its nations runs deep within the writings of the New Testament canon. Paul wrote to the saints at Philippi: "For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior." (Philippians 3:18-20)

Likewise, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews elaborated on this same concept. After citing the righteous examples of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, the author wrote that "All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:13-16) 

Thus, while it is possible for a Christian to also be a citizen of one of this world's nations, the New Testament teaches that true Christians have a higher loyalty - a loyalty to Christ's Kingdom - a loyalty that transcends any earthly citizenship. Christians obviously exist in this world, but it is also apparent that Christ didn't intend for his followers to immerse themselves in it (see John 17:15-21).

Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with loving one's country and being loyal to it. However, we should all be able to see that viewing our brothers and sisters in Christ who happen to hail from other nations as inferior or aliens is inconsistent with the principles outlined above (and with Christ's commandment to love them). If one is completely devoted to the cause and interests of one nation over all others, that person has effectively separated themselves from the body of Christ and the Kingdom of God. After all, it is also a basic tenet of the Christian religion that a person cannot effectively serve two masters (see Matthew 6:24).

And, finally, we must never forget that the prayer which Jesus modeled for his followers explicitly implores "May your kingdom come soon" (see Matthew 6:10). Hence, when we really ponder these things, we realize that it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that true Christians are supposed to be praying every day for the overthrow and replacement of the nation in which they currently reside!

Yes, nationalism is a seductive concept, and many Christians have been enticed into adopting it. Nevertheless, as with all of the other "isms" that we could name, it is not really consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ or his apostles. Indeed, when we examine the Judeo-Christian Scriptures with an open mind, we are forced to conclude that the very concept of nationalism represents the antithesis of basic Christian theology!


Sunday, December 13, 2020

Armstrongism: The Diametric Opposite of Christ’s Teachings

Central to the teachings of Herbert Armstrong and his followers is the notion that the teachings of “Traditional Christianity” bear little or no resemblance to the teachings of Jesus Christ. In fact, in what many consider to be one of his most important books Tomorrow…What It Will Be Like, Mr. Armstrong wrote: “Reluctant though we are to recognize it, we find the established religious organizations which profess the name of Jesus Christ teaching the diametric opposite of His teachings-condemning the customs He practiced - following, instead, the pagan customs He condemned!” (page 21)

But what about Herbie’s teachings? How do Herbert Armstrong’s teachings compare to those of Jesus Christ?

Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God taught and practiced a hierarchical form of church government. In a memorial edition of the The Good News magazine which appeared shortly after the founder’s death, “The basic doctrine” was summarized: “God's government in His Church is a theocracy, with Christ at the helm and God's chosen ministers fulfilling responsibilities under Christ in the form of a pyramidal hierarchy. It is a government of faith, in which the leaders submit their wills to Christ and the members trust God to administer His Church through those leaders.” (page 28, May 1986 edition, Government in God’s Church)

Jesus Christ, however, taught that his followers should follow a model of government based on service to others. He taught: Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God taught and practiced the disfellowshipping of erring members. In the Pastor General’s Report of 12 June 1981, Robert Fahey clarified Mr. Armstrong’s position on the excommunication of problem members. He wrote: “Those who sow discord, cause division, speak evil of Church leadership, are contentious, or in any way try to pull God's people away from His Church, should be disfellowshipped. These are the ones we need to protect the flock from regardless of previous status. They may have to be publicly marked. They want us to be - of them--out of God's Church!” (page 1)

Jesus Christ, however, taught the religious leaders of his day that a good shepherd seeks that which has strayed away. He said: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7) He also taught his disciples the “Parable of the Tares.” Christ said: “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:24-30)

The Worldwide Church of God taught that everyone should tithe (give ten percent of one’s income) to the Church, and that this ensured complete equality (rich or poor) in what each individual contributed to the church. In the January 1982 edition of The Plain Truth magazine, an article entitled “There Is A Better Way” by Clayton Steep touted the equity of the tithing system. He wrote: “everyone would pay taxes at the same rate-l0 percent. Everyone would be in the same bracket. Those who have enough initiative and resourcefulness to become ' prosperous would not be penalized for their industriousness. (God doesn't penalize the prosperous tither. But humans do penalize those who honestly prosper.) No matter how much money a family made, they would still owe only 10 percent.” (page 16)

In the Gospel of Mark, however, we learn that Jesus had a different perspective on giving. We read there that: “Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.” (Mark 12:41-44)

The Worldwide Church of God taught that God’s TRUE Church could be positively identified by finding the one that taught the correct doctrines. In their booklet Where Is God’s True Church Today?, Brian Knowles stated: “The Church of God, then, must be a Sabbath-keeping Church with the correct name. It must keep all ten of the Ten Commandments and live by every word of God - not rejecting part of the Bible. It is God's Church because it collectively possesses the Holy Spirit. It preaches the true gospel of the coming government of God, bearing the good fruit of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the identification of God’s Church was based on its understanding of certain doctrinal “truths.”

Jesus Christ taught that his true disciples/followers could be easily identified by the possession of one trait. He told his disciples: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35) Now, I ask: Does lording it over the membership, disfellowshipping those who step out of line, failing to appreciate real sacrifice in giving and demanding an understanding of certain “truths” sound like a proper demonstration of love for one another to you?

Who was/is teaching the diametric opposite of what Christ taught? When we compare just a few of Armstrong’s teachings to those of Jesus Christ, we are forced to reach the conclusion that Herbert Armstrong was engaged in a little bit of “the pot calling the kettle black.”

**All of the writings of the Worldwide Church referenced in this post can be found at The Herbert W Armstrong Searchable Library

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Political Church of God International

Over the last ten years, the Church of God International has evolved into a very political and highly partisan organization. During that period, Pastor Bill Watson has pushed that organization to adopt a radical right-wing agenda and a message that supports Republicans in general and Donald Trump in particular. In more recent times, Watson and his allies (Adrian Davis and Tony Buchert) have cast aside any pretense of objectivity or neutrality. And, if there are any voices left within that culture who disagree with Watson’s message, they have been effectively silenced and/or rendered powerless to stop it.

Even a casual perusal of that church’s website will demonstrate the pervasiveness of this transformation. Their currently featured Armor of God episode is one by Bill Watson entitled “Make America Great.” See https://www.cgi.org/armor It is interesting to note that this program was recorded in the heyday of the Trump Administration, and now appears again in the wake of Trump’s defeat in November. And Mr. Watson’s message is clear: America was doing really well under Trump and will collapse if he is forced to leave office.

Likewise, among CGI’s most recent sermons posted on their website, Tony Buchert’s “Hostile Takeover” (https://www.cgi.org/weeklysermons?sapurl=LytxNWdtL2xiL21pLyt5NGg5Mzk1P2VtYmVkPXRydWU=) is a simmering rant about political developments since their homespun local Feast of Tabernacles. Pastor Buchert talks about the “inexcusable ignorance” of folks who don’t support Trump’s agenda. He rails against the “ridiculousness” of mask wearing and complains about the infringements on his rights and freedoms. And, although there has been a great deal of discussion in recent days about educating the public about the efficacy of taking the new Covid-19 vaccine, the good pastor makes clear that he doesn’t intend to participate and suggests that everyone should resist mandatory vaccination (a straw man). He even goes on to imply that the primary motivation behind the whole thing is the monetary compensation that “big pharma” is going to receive as a consequence of the push to vaccinate the public (after all, any concern for public health is largely a hoax perpetrated by the mainstream media).

Buchert scoffs at anyone who would dare to contradict Trump’s narrative about election fraud. However, like the president whom he supports, the pastor fails to offer any evidence that Biden’s win was anything other than the consequence of a fair election. Later, Buchert even implies that folks who don’t support Trump are “traitors.” Although he professes not to have reached any personal conclusions about the matter, Buchert suggests that we may be in the process of a “hostile takeover.” He goes on to speculate that God may be chastening America right now, and that Christians should be praying hard for God to intervene and set things to right (help Trump to prevail). Before finishing, he reminds his audience that Satan attempted a coup d’état (the thought has never crossed his mind that this might be what Trump is attempting to do). He concludes by making fun of the office of President-elect.

To be sure, these folks quote a lot of scriptures, but they always employ them to buttress whatever political argument they happen to be making at the time. Watson and his allies are convinced that the United States is modern Israel. They are also convinced that Trump and Republicans represent “traditional Christian values” and are the only thing standing between them and godless socialism. Hence, although their messages are clearly a reflection of the lens through which they see current affairs, we should also be aware of the fact that a majority of folks (even other supporters of Trump) view the CGI lens/perspective as being DISTORTED! Thus, while their messages may make them and their supporters feel good, they have doomed the Church of God International to be perceived by a large slice of the American public as a collection of Trumpist, right-wing nut jobs. For a Christian Church that is ostensibly trying to proclaim Christ’s gospel to the world, that’s probably not a great image to present.

 

Lonnie Hendrix  

Friday, December 4, 2020

THE PLAIN TRUTH ABOUT CHRISTMAS TREES AND SANTA CLAUS

In his infamous booklet The Plain Truth About Christmas, Herbert Armstrong wrote about Nimrod: "From many ancient writings, considerable is learned of this man, who started the great organized worldly apostacy from God that has dominated this world until now. Nimrod was so evil, it is said he married his own mother, whose name was Semiramis. After Nimrod's untimely death, his so-called mother-wife, Semiramis, propagated the evil doctrine of the survival of Nimrod as a spirit being. She claimed a full-grown evergreen tree sprang overnight from a dead tree stump, which symbolized the springing forth unto new life of the dead Nimrod. On each anniversary of his birth, she claimed, Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. December 25th was the birthday of Nimrod. This is the real origin of the Christmas tree." see The Plain Truth About Christmas

Is this true? Did two of the most important "secular" symbols of our modern observance of the Christmas holiday originate in the ancient and pagan religious system created by Nimrod and Semiramis? What does history tell us about the origins of these symbols?

While it is true that many ancient pagans associated evergreen trees with the supernatural and decorated their homes with cuttings from them, it is also clear that the association of evergreen trees with the Christmas holiday is a development of the Christian era. According to History.com, "Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles." see History of Christmas Trees

From The Christian Index, in their article Martin Luther's influence on Christmas traditions, we read: "The Christmas tree, special carols, and presents on December 24th: these much-loved traditions are all linked to Martin Luther. Start with the tree. While walking through snowy woods under a bright starlit sky, the beauty of the scene so moved Luther that he wanted to recreate it at home. So, he cut down a fresh tree, brought it inside, and decorated it with real candles. Or so the story goes. What is known is that The Great Reformer composed the Christmas carol still sung today: “From Heaven above to earth I come, To bear good news to every home.” He also moved the date gifts were given from Saint Nicholas’ Day, December 6th, to Christmas Eve, December 24th."

As for Santa Claus, there is a broad consensus among historical scholars that this character can be traced to a Christian bishop who lived during the Fourth Century. In their article on Saint Nicholas of Myra, New Advent's Catholic Encyclopedia states that "The following places honour him as patron: Greece, Russia, the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily, Lorraine, the Diocese of Liège; many cities in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Belgium; Campen in the Netherlands; Corfu in Greece; Freiburg in Switzerland; and Moscow in Russia. He is patron of mariners, merchants, bakers, travellers, children, etc. His representations in art are as various as his alleged miracles. In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, they have the custom of making him the secret purveyor of gifts to children on 6 December, the day on which the Church celebrates his feast; in the United States and some other countries St. Nicholas has become identified with Santa Claus who distributes gifts to children on Christmas eve."

History.com informs us that this Saint Nicholas was transformed into our modern notion of Santa Claus over many years. In Nate Barksdale's article Who was St. Nicholas?, we read: "By the Middle Ages, Nicholas’ fame had spread to much of Europe, thanks in large part to the dissemination of parts of his skeleton to churches in Italy, where they were venerated as relics. St. Nicholas’ popularity eventually spread to northern Europe, where stories of the monk mingled with Teutonic folktales of elves and sky-chariots. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas took on the Dutch-friendly spelling Sinterklaas. He was depicted as a tall, white-bearded man in red clerical robes who arrived every December 6 on a boat to leave gifts or coal-lumps at children’s homes. Stories of Sinterklaas were likely brought to the New World by Dutch settlers in the Hudson River valley. In his satirical 1809 “History of New-York,” Washington Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a portly Dutchman who flew the skies in a wagon, dropping gifts down chimneys. In 1823 another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, penned the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, which traded the wagon for a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer.” Beginning during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast published the first of a series of popular depictions of a rotund and jolly St. Nicholas. In 1879 Nast was the first to suggest that St. Nicholas lived not in Turkey, Spain or Holland but at the North Pole."

Hence, while the origins of the Chistmas tree and Santa Claus stretch back into antiquity, they clearly belong to the Christian era and are associated with real people who were Christians. Thus, the narrative that Nimrod and Semiramis were the sources for our modern notions of these Christmas symbols is not supported by the historical evidence. The rejection of the Christmas tree as pagan because of the beliefs that the ancients associated with evergreen trees is tantamount to refusing to plant or appreciate them because of their former associations with pagan religious practices. In other words, the tree itself can't be tainted because of what some folks who lived a long time ago believed about it. Likewise, Saint Nicholas may not have climbed down any chimneys or road around in a sleigh, but he was held in high esteem by ancient Christians and has inspired many generations of Christians down through the centuries since his death. Nimrod and Nicholas were separated by many centuries and completely different ideologies. We can point out similarities and compare ancient beliefs to our own, but saying something is PAGAN does not necessarily make it so!   

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Imagery of the Nativity

In modern times, scholars and critics have called into question the veracity and accuracy of the Biblical accounts of Christ's nativity. They have pointed out that similar narratives were extant prior to the birth of Jesus, notable differences and/or inconsistencies in the various gospel accounts of those events, historical/chronological problems, the misuse and misapplication of Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah, and the fact that supernatural or miraculous events can't be verified or replicated by science. And, on the other side, we have the Biblical Fundamentalists/Literalists who insist that everything written in their Scriptures happened exactly as it was recorded there; and the failure to regard those accounts as anything other than completely accurate is blasphemous. However, while both camps work themselves into a lather over the veracity and accuracy of the nativity narratives, the profound meaning behind the imagery in those accounts is largely ignored and/or dismissed.

If we take a moment to actually consider the implications of that imagery, the arguments between scholars and Fundamentalists take on an air of absurdity - an exercise in futility. Were the authors of the Scriptural accounts of the nativity interested in presenting a factually accurate account of Christ's birth? OR Were they interested in portraying an imagery that their intended audiences could appreciate and/or relate to? Were they interested in presenting history and biographical information regarding their subject? OR Were they interested in evoking an imagery of those events which underscored the fact that something fantastic, supernatural and unique had happened? And, if they were more interested in imagery than in reality, what do the kinds of images which they employed in their narratives suggest about what they wanted their audience to glean from them?

Look at the imagery. There is a census for taxation purposes. There is a couple engaged to be married - obscure Jews living under a government subservient to the Roman Empire. The Savior of humankind is born in the normal way. After nine months of pregnancy, Mary delivers a healthy male baby. The baby is laid in a manger. There are shepherds watching over their flocks. The normal and the mundane are exalted. God brings the Messiah into the world as a helpless babe. Why would God choose such a vehicle, such circumstances, to introduce his Messiah to His people and the world? Are the authors trying to tell us that miracles can be found within the ordinary - among the stuff that happens every day?

To be sure, there are also extraordinary elements within the narratives. There are angelic messengers. There is a special star. There are three wise men who present valuable gifts to the baby. The child is said to be the descendant of the ancient Israelite king, David. There is a wicked king interested in destroying the child and preventing the displacement of himself and his dynasty. A virgin gives birth to a baby boy. A man accepts a child that isn't his, and the woman who has given birth to him. Once again, were these elements introduced to exalt the ordinary - to make the ordinary extraordinary? Were these elements introduced to underscore that this baby was special - different from all of the other babies that had ever been born? Did the angels and the star signify God's presence - His involvement and interest in what was happening? Was the Davidic ancestry meant to fulfill the Hebrew prophecy that the Messiah would arise from his line? Was the interest of Herod and the wise men intended to represent the wider interest of humankind in the coming of this child?

The authors of these narratives had been profoundly touched by the ministry of an extraordinary man - Jesus. They believed this man to be the promised Messiah. They wanted to assure his followers of the special nature of the man whom they had chosen to follow and to convince others that they too should be following Jesus. Long before these narratives about his birth had been written, Jesus Christ's life and ministry had inspired the devotion and extreme loyalty of many people and given rise to a movement that had attracted the attention and persecution of the authorities extant at that time. Did these narratives detract from what Jesus had already accomplished? OR Did they serve to exalt/enhance/support what he had accomplished? Do the nativity narratives detract from the mystery and legend of Christ or enhance it? Does the story of the cherry tree detract from the legend of George Washington or enhance it? Does the narrative of Abe Lincoln's log cabin birth add to his mystique or fundamentally alter what the man accomplished as president? Is it really important whether or not Alexander the Great ever said "There are no more worlds to conquer," or is it more important to see that as part of his reality?

And let's consider for just a moment a few of the things that the imagery in these narratives has given rise to over the years. I'm thinking now of things like the song O Holy Night. Consider the lyrics in the first verse:
"O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appears and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees; O hear the Angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born
O night, O Holy night, O night divine!"
Think about the magnificent paintings and sculptures which this narrative has given rise to! I ask again: Does this imagery detract from the narrative about Christ? Is "Peace on earth, Good will toward men" a worthwhile narrative? I think so. What about you?