Infertility, divorce, shame, mass murder, astrologers, injustice and doubt: these are a few of the topics that appear in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, but it is unlikely that they will feature in many of the sermons or pageants at our churches during this season of the year.
One would scarcely know how bizarre these narratives are, in fact, by the activities of artists and advertisers, along with plenty of churches, during the Christmas holidays.
Artists will extract portions of the story, tidy them up, set them to pop or hip hop or classical music, then allow radio stations to play it to death. Grocery stores will play it to a second death. Gas stations will complete the cycle by turning the songs into dismissible clichés.
Sermons, for their part, will rehash the stock details of the gospels, with the hope that parishioners will feel the “magic” or “mystery” of Christ’s birth.
Church pageants will trot out the cute kids in bathrobes, a pretty girl will play Mary, while an awkward Joseph remains forgettable, and an angel-child will belt out the good news to shepherd boys dragging their broom-sticks, eyes wandering over to the cookie table, even as the violins reach their sentimental climax.
iPhones will record the whole business for posterity, so that parishioners will remember how cute and sweet the drama was, even if the actual birth narratives are decidedly troubling and incredible.
Advertisers will go after the same exact feelings—”wonder!” “believe!” “cheer!” “for the penguins!” It’s all as if to say: “Come on, cry for the little tiny baby Jesus in his little tiny crib. Then buy our groceries to dry your eyes with.”
In my neighborhood, a blow-up Santa and Frosty will sway in the wind alongside historically anachronistic “three kings,” tilting at awkward angles to the styrofoam crèche. “Christmas in America,” as a phenomenon of civic religion, has regrettably allowed the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke to become all-too familiar and functionally innocuous.
The story of Jesus has no bite. A tame “baby Jesus” makes his annual, heart-warming appearance, and leaves us largely un-bothered and un-changed. Yet when I read the two Gospel accounts, I am struck by how strange these narratives are, unsettling and fantastical at every corner.
Year after year, then, I find myself desperate for the church to confront me with that strangeness. For it is surely through, and not despite, this disturbingly odd manner that the son of God becomes incarnate of the virgin Mary, by the Holy Spirit’s power, and that God performs the work of transforming people’s lives.
God announces the arrival of his beloved son to a people for whom the good news almost immediately turns to bad news or unpredictable news, or simply signals a return to the difficult and tedious condition of their lives.
Things do not turn out as people thought they would.
God offers hope, instead of good cheer, in the face of personal disappointment and systemic evil.
God grants joy, rather than happiness, because joy can account for suffering, while happiness cannot.
God draws his people into a kind love that bears all things, including death and the loss of privileges, so that the faithful might become agents of the kind of shalom that Jesus exhibits in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension.
Is there, then, not a better way forward for churches? Is it not possible for Christians to bear witness to the terrifying yet life-giving news of Christ’s birth? Might the arts play a crucial role in refreshing our imaginations with a vision of peace on earth, the kind of hard-won, hard-edged peace that Jesus himself announces?
All sorts of possibilities can be imagined.
What if a visual artist rendered Elizabeth and Zechariah’s experience of infertility, as a way to open up insight not just for actual experiences of infertility, but also for all sorts of experiences of barrenness?
What if a theater artist wrote a Christmas pageant that highlighted the Middle Eastern and peasant aspects of Christ’s birth?
What if a group of filmmakers made a movie representing the refugee status of Jesus, Joseph and Mary as a way to illumine the refugee crisis in our world?
What if a company of modern dancers cast a light, through the choreography of their bodies, on the experience of shame that the biblical characters experienced?
What if a poet called attention to the extraordinary, though often quiet, activities of the elderly, like Anna and Simeon, to remain faithful to God in this particular season of their life?
What if a musician wrote a song that accented the themes of injustice in the songs of Mary and Zechariah as a way to prepare the congregation for the prayers of the people, for a people who face injustice in their own lives?
What if a worship leader created space for selected members of the congregation to bear witness to the presence of God in the middle of unrelieved experiences of pain?
What if a digital installation depicted a contemporary analog to the shepherds of Jesus’ day, with the social stigma that accompanied their lives?
Or, finally, what if monies were raised to commission a series of sculptures capturing the wild, terrifying nature of angels as they appear in the Scriptures, as a way to counter all the feeble images of angels that populate our television shows and children’s books?
If any number of these things were done, even in simple fashion, might we experience a renewed exposure to the gospel, the good news? Might we experience a transformative encounter with the God of Jesus Christ?
Might such artworks provide us the capacity to live more faithfully in the actual conditions and contexts of our lives? Might they enable the birth narratives of Christ to become fresh again with insight and sharp with tension, for the sake of a new kind of “Christmas in America”?
And might such a Christmas contribute to the healing of our broken world, a world marked by infertility, divorce, doubt, shame, violence, abandonment and strange dreams?
I would certainly hope so. I would certainly pray so.
W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. You can read more from Taylor at his blog, Diary of an Arts Pastor.