Idol Chatter

Last month NBC’s “Dateline” did a special attempting to answer questions about the birth of Christ, and tonight another newsmagazine, CBS’s “48 Hours Mysteries” will also examine the veracity of the Christmas story. After taking a sneak peak at tonight’s show, I have to say that CBS’s treatment is a little more controversial than NBC’s, which I’d felt was even-handed if not extremely cautious. As a result, tonight’s primetime analysis of Christ’s birth is destined to raise the hackles of many conservative Christians. While “48 Hours” does touch on some of the same questions “Dateline” did–the discrepancies between the Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus was actually born, etc.–the show devotes most of its coverage, to my surprise, to questioning the virgin birth of Jesus. Regardless of the fact that this aspect of the birth of Christ is a critical tenet of Christianity, I found this news approach odd simply because it is a question that obviously can never be answered factually approximately 2,000 years later.

The show presents several theories about Jesus’ conception. Articulated by scholars, these range from Mary committing adultery to the Gospel writers borrowing from Greek mythology and Old Testament accounts of the life of Moses to create their own version of a miraculous birth. The only dissenting opinion presented in the program is the voice of Professor Ben Witherington, who makes the point that it would be ridiculous to create an implausible story such as an immaculate conception if you were trying to establish an evangelistic religion in which you hoped to convert large numbers of people.

Another scholar, when pressed in an interview, admits that of course there is no way to know for sure what the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were but that obviously “there was something embarrassing or troubling about the birth of Jesus that caused a lot of questions.” For me, as well as many other Christians, this is exactly the point. From a biblical perspective, Jesus’ life from beginning to end was designed to be troubling and surprising, and to bring forth questions from all who encountered him.

In the words of one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Conner, religious dogma “is not a set of rules” but something that can affect us “by guaranteeing a respect for mystery.” So while I certainly don’t agree with many of the points made in the “48 Hours” program, I would still encourage people of all faiths, especially conservative Christians, to watch the show and allow their perceptions to be challenged–and then to come up with their own questions, as they reflect on the mystery of Christ’s birth.

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