Virgins, anger and prickly motivation.....
An email discussion group of which I am a part has had some comment on a recent report that 25% of Church of England Clergy in the UK do not believe the virgin birth literally happened. One of the posters to the list said:
I'm amazed that it is only 25%. I would suggest that in the UCA at least 75% of clergy would not subscribe to a literal virgin birth (or was it conception) belief if they were pressed.
A day or two later came this post:
I would not call myself 'Fundamentalist' or even 'literal' about the Bible. However, there are some things that I would ascribe to because, to me they must be taken seriously (or at least 'on faith') or there is a fundamental (lower case 'f') breakdown of the basis of our faith.
e.g. virgin conception/birth: In these days when there are miraculous conceptions by even 'good church girls' it is easy for anyone to say "Oh, yeah!!" rather than believe that God's "inspiration" was directly involved.
Either (a) Jesus was/is God or 'of God' because of how he was conceived, or (b) he was a bastard son of a slut who then created a lie of a tale to protect her reputation, and that tale has been perpetuated by some 1st Century writers and has resulted in a specious cult.
Now, I hastily go on the say that this woman, Mary, was almost certainly illiterate. However, I will concede that Joseph may have had some literacy. Yet, I can not imagine that, even with the incredible personal, moral, and theological importance of the time, that Mary could either have recalled for Luke (or, correctly, Luke's source) what each person/angel said years before or that she had dictated it and kept the verbatim record all those
years. In other words, there is literature here, too. [I am also unable to check the critiques for a time-line of when certain parts of Luke are believed to have been written into the account. However, I seem to recall that there is some thinking that the 'Magnificat' was a later confection.]
I guess that this is where I divide from the Fundies; and, it further defines me firmly as Protestant, and also who finds the word 'catholic' in the creed so much of an anachronism because of its modern "Roman Catholic" connotations.
So, for the truly literalist/Fundamental then surely there is a great deal to be wrung out of seemingly innocuous passages such as Romans 12:1-2 .
With a feeling that this might be yet more bathos...
Something about this post really offended me. I wrote back:
"he was a bastard son of a slut who then created a lie of a tale to protect her reputation,"
OK, more frank language....
is this what you will call your daughter if she doesn't happen to be married first?
One of my friends on the list wrote off-list saying: Wow! You should have seen what that last E-mail of the ****'* and yours did to the mood watch option in Eudora (the one that searches for potentially offensive words in a message).
Eudora betrays us.... the violence and connection and emotion around this subject can even be detected by a machine!
On reflection, I was angry at the use of the word slut. Why is a woman who is not married, but has a child, a slut? Historically, marriage was a device used by our culture to guarantee the lines of succession and the inheritance of property of the rich! The poor didn't get married. Marriage had little or nothing to do with chastity, faithfulness, love, devotion, or good parenting. I once heard of an Anglican priest who, with that special mix of theological wisdom and insensitivity that is the preserve of we clergy, forced couples to sign the registry outside the church, because those government forms have nothing to do with the covenant of marriage. He is very right, albeit very wrong in what he does to young couples.
And so I sent my barbed reply back to the list. It was fair enough in a sense... I doubt if any women are really sluts... the word requires such a lack of compassion about what might be driving the wounded or broken lives we label as sluttish that it disqualifies itself from any right to comment on those human beings. But to be honest, I was really just as offended by the theology of the virgin birth that was presented.
On re-reading I see **** allows that some things, e.g. the Magnificat, might be a "later confection." Even this movement away form literalism is problematic. The Magnificat a confection! Surely it is a very serious theological statement about God's power in the world and God's push to justice for all. But basically, despite that, even if there is some "literature" there he sees the Virgin Birth as necessary. If it did not happen then Jesus is not God or "of God". It's like the serious stuff, the Magnificat, is made subordinate to some primitive biological proof!
How bizarre. Why should God need a virgin birth for Jesus to be 'of God.' Why is the Lord of the Universe bound to the use of such a crude 'paternity'. Does being 'of God' require such a naïve biological progenitory connection? Mark's Gospel (the first gospel) didn't need that, but was pure adoptionist. Have we gone backwards in binding ourselves to a literal virgin birth as a key plank of faith?
And what of the fact that the virgin birth is a common device of ancient religions to assign or indicate divinity to the hero? Are we not confusing the genre and cadences of early religions with biological literal fact?
What also of our modern sensibilities about a virgin birth with God as the 'father?' Not the overwhelming difficulties of biology or the model of an interventionist God this raises, but the issue of God taking it upon himself to father a child, giving the woman no choice... he just sends down an emissary to tell her its going to happen. If you or I did that it would be called one thing... rape! To suggest God raped Mary is repugnant to Christians... and often dismissed as a lack of theological subtlety and insight on the part of feminist (or some other -ist) extremities. But rape is exactly what happens. The male with all the power dictates to female that she will be pregnant... it's not that far removed from the frequent rape of human women by the Greek Gods which we have no trouble recognising because they are not on our Gods. Because this rape is going to 'save all men,' does that make it less of a rape. Because Mary submits... behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord' did she have a choice... does that make it less of a rape? It's what the kitchen maids in a Gosford Park often had to do as well.... submit to the Lord.
"Either (a) Jesus was/is God or 'of God' because of how he was conceived,
or (b) he was a bastard son of a slut who then created a lie of a tale to protect her reputation...." So many Christians pin the idea that being of God needs a biological virgin birth to escape the problems its not being there seems to cause. And yet does not insistence on virgin birth as a literal thing not cause more problems? Why can we not simply admit to the fact that it is a literary device, midrashic etc, that spoke a message to its times. And the message is that this Jesus is of God. Why can we not say that without insisting on a biological phenomenon which is foolish, and makes God less than God? Why do we insist on the truth of an unlikely phenomenon using special pleading that we would never use in any other discipline, and make this a key plank of our theology?
Why is it a prickly issue of such heat?
At Christmas dinner I told my father and father-in-law how the backyard in our new house is growing the richest crop of caltrop I have ever seen. They both laughed about how I would be digging it out for seven years yet, and more if I let any get to seed. Imagine this conversation: Auntie Myrtle, the acknowledged green thumb of the whole wider family begins to eulogise on the period of seven years... how odd it is that for so many weeds it is seven years that they last. And yours truly is stupid enough to suggest that maybe it's just a figure of speech.
She bristles like a caltrop. Figure of speech... what exactly do I mean by that? The hostility is almost audibly coming to the boil. I say, "Well, who ever did a study on all these species and their seed survival? Seven years is just a way of saying a long time. Every farmer knows that if you treat your seed wrong it will be finished in a year, not seven. And they find seed 3,000 years old in the pyramids that germinates... it's just a way of saying that if you let it seed you'll have caltrop around for years."
The other aunties have a hard time calming her down and stopping a walkout. My wife gives me the "Here goes Mr. Sensitive again" look, and I wonder why Myrtle has got such a prickle in her boot. I mean, it's so obvious that the seven years thing is just a figure of speech. And it is also dead right, let the stuff seed and you'll pay for years... but it's not a literal truth.
It's just like the virgin birth. We go from conversation to all out war in about 35 seconds! And the reasons are essentially the same. The Auntie Myrtles of the world exist on their gardening prowess. To challenge its basis in fact, even over "bloody caltrop" is to begin to erode their foundation. How much more so with the Virgin Birth and our Christian faith! We are all party to this. I reacted to the post about the virgin birth before I even read it all. It challenges my being and my foundations... to be a Christian according to some, is accede to a primitive and utterly unbelievable world view. it's the only way to be Christian. I am not sure the writer was actually saying that's what I have to do... but I was on the defensive just as quick as an Auntie Myrtle. I am reminded of a verse from Galatians... this is serious stuff we are talking about... For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)