Tonight and tomorrow, amid candlelight and carols, more than 150 million Americans will mark one of the great feasts of the Christian faith: the moment in time and space when the divine took human form -- when, as St. John wrote, "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth."
The celebrations cap a season in which the usual culture warriors have gone through their predictable maneuvers. On the left, liberals applaud salespeople who say "Happy Holidays," school choirs that drop religious music and local governments that ban Nativity scenes. On the right, traditionalists relish lashing out at such "attacks on Christmas." These annual clashes, however, obscure a larger contest: between literalism and a more historical view of faith.
The secular dismissal of the sacred and the conservative insistence on the inerrancy of the Bible both bear a measure of responsibility for the sense of a divide in the America of 2004. We would all be better off, I think, if the religious were to acknowledge that there is room for debate and doubt, and if the nonreligious accepted the idea that faith is not fanciful. And perhaps the road to this common ground should begin in Bethlehem, beneath a star that shines brightly for so many of us.
By any measure, we are an overwhelmingly religious nation. According to a Newsweek poll this month, nearly 90 percent of American adults say they are believers, and 84 percent consider themselves Christians. Fifty-five percent of those polled believe that every word of the Bible is literally accurate (83 percent of evangelicals hold this view); 79 percent say the virgin birth is historically accurate, and 67 percent accept as fact the Christmas story related in the New Testament -- shepherds, angels, stars and stable.
I am a believer -- a moderate, churchgoing Episcopalian -- and I suspect more than a few people share my discomfort with both evangelical and unbelieving extremists. Like most things in life, faith tends to become increasingly complicated the more you contemplate it.
And so approaching the mysteries of Christianity -- or of any religious tradition -- with a healthy respect and a heart and mind open to the miraculous seems the wisest course. Was Jesus, as Christians say in the Nicene Creed, in fact "incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary"? Only the foolish or the conceited would discount the possibility of miracles; as Hamlet said, "There are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But faith and reason need not be constantly at war; one can believe in the truth of the Bible without taking everything in it as literally, factually accurate.
As moving as the Christmas story is, the apostles' belief in Jesus began with the cross and the empty tomb rather than with the crèche. Of the four canonical gospels, only Matthew and Luke offer an account of Jesus's earthly origins. The earliest Christians -- most of them Jews who believed Jesus was the long-promised Davidic Messiah who was to usher in a golden, apocalyptic age for Israel -- were shaped by the terror and triumph of the Passion and Resurrection. Jesus himself had signaled that his final return was at hand, saying that "there are some standing here who shall not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."
As the years rolled by, however, and Jesus did not return, his followers made the case for Christ in the Gospels. The target audiences: Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and gentiles in the Roman Empire. Matthew and Luke chose to recount Jesus's birth; it is impossible for us now to know which elements are historical as well as theological.
From the miraculous conception to the visitation of the wise men, virtually all the iconic nativity details either fit within established Jewish tradition (the Old Testament is full of surprising births ordained by God) or were familiar features of pagan tales of the origins of great figures.
Matthew leans heavily on ancient suggestions about the Messiah, often writing that something "was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet." A telling example: For Jews, it was essential that the Messiah come from Bethlehem, but Jesus was a Nazarene.
What to do? Matthew simply puts Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, then moves them to Nazareth after a dramatic flight to Egypt rescues Jesus from a Herod-ordered massacre of the innocents -- a massacre for which there is no historical evidence. In Luke's account, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but go to Bethlehem to answer a census ordered by Caesar Augustus -- a global census for which there is no historical evidence that fits Luke's chronology.
Both evangelists, though, are making larger points than simple biographical ones. The Herodian slaughter evokes the pharoah's massacre of Jewish children at the time of the birth of Moses. And Luke may have depicted the holy family as obedient to Caesar's decree to make the cause of Jesus (who had, after all, been executed for sedition) more palatable to loyal Romans.
To point out the possibly legendary nature of parts of the nativity stories is not to question the reality of Jesus or the truth of the Christian story and message. Like the cross, the crèche invites us to make a leap of faith from the sin and disappointment of this life to one in which God promises to "make all things new." Until that hour, for the faithful, one truth stands inviolate: Heralded by an angelic host, hope was born in Bethlehem.
The writer is managing editor of Newsweek.