The Shortcomings of History
The story of Christmas can't be measured by modern-day yardsticks--science, history, pragmatism. But it is no less true.
BY: Luke Timothy Johnson
Like many who teach the New Testament to university students, I am accustomed to being ignored by the press every season of the year except Easter and Christmas. Then, I receive the inevitable phone calls from the press: "What's new about the resurrection?" "Anything new on Christmas?" What the reporters want to hear about is some new historical discovery, preferably something that calls into the question the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and death. At this time of year the focus is always on the miracle of Jesus' conception and birth. Is there any new research that proves it couldn't have really happened? My answer never varies: "The same thing is new now as when Jesus was born and Jesus was raised," I say, "and that is good news from God." Small wonder that I get fewer such calls every year.
Newspapers sell because they can provide novel variations on the same old themes of a tired world: envy, exploitation, rivalry, oppression, competition, violence, exclusion, murder. Newspapers specialize in identifying concrete problems and revealing concrete secrets. But newspapers do not comprehend mystery.
Indeed, most of us who are readers of newspapers and watchers of television and computer screens--we who live in the modern world with its focus on the concrete and the scientifically and historically verifiable--have lost the sense of mystery as well. Even those among us who want to be religious find ourselves co-opted by the universal pragmatism of commerce, seduced by the shiny and efficient surfaces of efficiency and profit. We find it hard to resist the message of every jingle, every ad, that Christmas is about going to the mall. Commerce is the quintessential trafficker in the concrete and the verifiable: we can hear the coins jingling in our pockets, feel the comfort that economic security gives so many of us.
Christmas, however, is not about fueling the national economy or meeting societal expectations. It is about a mystery so large and yet so quiet that even when it has been revealed--in the Gospels--it cannot be comprehended. Still less can it be measured by the modern-day yardsticks--science, history, pragmatism--that measure the concrete so efficiently, although it is no less real than anything the newspapers report about.
The mystery is simply that God enters humankind and makes it new. The gift-giving that defines Christmas is this very exchange in which God and human beings embrace. The language of history--the concrete data that reporters look for--is inadequate to describe this, for all history can ever do is record the surface of human events. Another kind of language is needed, the language of myth, to express what lies beneath the surface of things, yet is most true. We are accustomed to thinking of myths as fairy tales, fanciful explanations for events devised by primitive people who do not have access to modern science or modern historical methodology. We assume that every myth masks some kernel of concrete reality, when it is in fact the other way around: that underneath the world of the concrete lies another reality that is just as palpable but is only available obliquely, through song and story--like those Gospel tales of Jesus' birth that seem so fanciful yet ring so true. Myth offers another, deeper way of knowing what is real.