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Why We Should Not Portray Jesus’ Birth as Something Cute and Cosy
by Greg Boyd, originally published on his blog and in the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, Volume #28 No.21, December 3, 2006.
Few things capture the spirit of Christmas better than a traditional nativity scene for many people. The star shines down on the serene baby Jesus, sleeping in a nice little manger with golden straw spilling out from the edges. He’s surrounded by Mary, Joseph, three wise men and several shepherds. They are all radiantly peaceful as they gaze in wonder at the newborn Christ child. Even the animals lying in their nice clean hay seem almost Spirit-filled as they look serenely upon the infant Savior. As the song goes, even when the cattle start lowing and the poor baby wakes, the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. It’s a cute, quaint scene, capturing the spirit of a cute, quaint holiday.
Now, I don’t mean to be a scrooge, and I’m not suggesting there’s anything heretical about this cute, quaint scene. I’m all for tradition – our family sets up a nativity every year. On the other hand, I think it’s important to realize that this scene is not completely accurate.
Try to imagine for a moment how things most likely unfolded the night Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph were probably teenagers when they traveled to Bethlehem, for in first century Jewish culture girls were usually engaged around the age of 12 or 13 and boys around 16 or 17. The two were undoubtedly exhausted from their long journey when they arrived at the inn, but all the rooms were taken. The two decided to bed down with the animals in the inn’s stable, which must have been an act of utter desperation (was Mary beginning to have contractions?). They really had no choice, since the possibility of Mary giving birth in public was (especially in first century Jewish culture) completely unthinkable.
Plus, an early church tradition tells us that the stable was a cave, a suggestion many scholars find plausible. So the young, unwed mother and her fiancé make their way to this cave, which was probably animal-packed if the inn was full. We should probably imagine these two exhausted and desperate teenagers squeezing past livestock, stepping over animal droppings, making their way to a corner of an unventilated, smelly, dimly lit cave so Mary can have her baby with some degree of privacy.
Suddenly the manger scene is beginning to look a bit less cute and quaint.
Now try to imagine what the actual process of giving birth might have been like. Even with the best preparation and medical assistance, the birthing process is painful, “messy” and, at times, terrifying. Yet, Mary and Joseph would have had little preparation, and likely no medical assistance. They were alone.
When the child was born, they placed him in a manger – which in this context can only refer to a trough the animals ate or drank from. This certainly couldn’t have been their first choice! It’s hard to imagine anyone remaining calm and serene given these circumstances.
If even half of these assumptions are accurate, they suggest a nativity scene that was much less cute and quaint than what we traditionally picture. We should imagine two desperate, exhausted teenagers passed out on bloody, manure-filled hay in a crowded, smelly, dark cave while their baby sleeps – and sometimes wails – in a slimy feeding trough. The original audiences of the Gospels would probably have imagined something like this, and it would have shocked them. I believe this is a central point of the story.
Our God uses his almighty power to dive into the worst this world has to offer. He dives into the shame of an unwed Jewish mother. He dives into the rejection of an already-full inn and the darkness, odor and inconvenience of an overcrowded stable. He dives into the desperation and fear of a young, ostracized couple. He dives into our humanity; and not humanity at our best, but humanity at our worst. He’s not a God who gravitates toward the cute and the quaint, but a God who immerses himself in our mess, our manure, our pain, our fear, our sin and our shame.
He is a God who takes on himself everything that is shockingly ugly and redeems it all – and by doing so, he reveals himself to be a God who’s shockingly loving and beautiful.
This Christmas if you set up a nativity scene, don’t worry too much about what it looks like. There’s a place for tradition, and I doubt many stores sell “realistic” manure-filled caves to put on your end table! But remember that our God isn’t cute and quaint. He is a God who’s beautiful because he takes on our shocking ugliness and lovingly transforms us.
And I’ll take that Christmas story over cute and quaint any day.
Greg Boyd on Casting Out Demons
So I was listening to the Woodland Hills Podcast the other day where pastor Greg Boyd was speaking on spiritual warfare and delivering demonized people, and he shared a testimony about an exorcism that blew me away. “Wow”, I thought, “that was an awesome testimony!”
I asked him on Twitter if I could share that piece of the sermon on my YouTube channel to which he kindly responded “No problem Micael. We own NOTHING. So give away freely!!”
After discussing how he sometimes is ridiculed for taking the existence of satan seriously, even though it makes no sense why a Christian shouldn’t acknowledge the existence of satan and demons, Boyd shares how two girls once manifested demonic activity after he had rebuked satan at a church meeting. One of them grabbed him with surprising strength, rolled her left eye counter-clockwise three times and tossed him away from her. Thankfully, both of the girls were delivered and joined the church.
Also, check out Boyd’s excellent post on the existence of a spiritual realm.
Book Release: A Living Alternative
I am a MennoNerd, and we MennoNerds have just published a book! It’s called A Living Alternative and is about Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom world. Listen to what Christian activist Shane Claiborne has to say about it:
The world is poised to receive the wisdom of the Anabaptists. We are fat with consumerism. We are tired of war. We are hungry for community. We need an excuse to slow down, turn off the noise, and simplify our lives again. For many of us, progress has also meant disgress. This chorus of wise voices will stir you to imagine what it means to be the peculiar people of God in the 21st century.
Jesus Feminist Sarah Bessey says:
Even though I’m not an Anabaptist by chosen label or tradition, I found so much richness and truth in this book. Deep, challenging, prophetic and conversation-starting, I loved A Living Alternative. If you’ve wondered what your life would look like if you really lived like Jesus, this book will give you an accesible theological foundation for the practical living out of your discipleship particularly in a post-Christian context.
And hipster pastor, apologist and fellow MennoNerd Greg Boyd says:
In this splendid collection of essays readers will find a wonderfully diverse group of people wrestling with an amazingly diverse set of issues sorrounding what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in a post-Christendom world. Perhaps even more importantly, in each of these essays readers will sense the refreshing vibrancy and beauty of the kingdom vision that has captured the imaginations of these authros, and this can’t help but pull readers further into this vision. So, whether you already identify with this kingdom movement or don’t yet know what I’m even talking about, I’d like to challenge you to thoroughly digest this book!
Sounds good, right? My chapter is about combining signs and wonders with peace and justice, Deborah-Ruth Ferber covers singleness, Drew Hart writes about anablacktivism, and so on. You can get the book at American Amazon or British Amazon if you’re interested, and my dear Swedish countrymen and -women can get it on Adlibris. Peace out!
Greg Boyd: Do All Roads Lead to God?
Pastor, author and MennoNerd blogger Greg Boyd has written an excellent piece on his ReKnew website that really brings up the sharp apologist in him. I deliberately share his whole text here because we believers have all things in common:
First, if it’s really true that Jesus is the way to Father and that no one comes to the Father except through him, (Jn 14:6) then it seems that no other religious leader or religious doctrine can bring us to the Father. “The” is a definite article, and it implies singularity. “A dog” could refer to one of any number of dogs. But “the dog” can only refer to one particular dog. If Jesus is the Lord and Savior and the way to the Father, he’s the only one there is.
This isn’t what most people in our relativistic, post-modern age want to hear. I, on occasion, give talks or participate in debates on secular university campuses around the country on issues related to the historical Jesus. Whenever I stand by the claim that Jesus is the only way to God I am confronted with a certain amount of hostility. To think there’s only one way to God, I am often told, is arrogant, ignorant, intolerant and dangerous. Everyone knows these days that there are many ways to God, at least for people who are sincere in what they believe.
What’s odd is that no one has ever been able to provide me with cogent arguments defending this position. When I’ve asked for some, as often as not people have simply stared at me in disbelief, offended at the suggestion that truths this obvious would need supporting arguments.
Always beware when any of your beliefs are so “obviously true” you think they don’t need supporting evidence or arguments. This the way brainwashed people think!
A Defense for Penal Substitution
So the kids I like to play with tend to reject the doctrine of penal substitution, the idea that Jesus took the punishment for our sins in order to satisfy the wrath of God. A recent article on the Sojourners website gives a good example of this:
Essentially, the cross is explained exclusively in legal terms. You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free as he awaits the “end times” when he’ll finally get to let the bodies hit the floor and feel good about himself.
It’s actually quite twisted when you break it down. Jesus protects us from God? Or, if you accept the inspiration of Scripture (which I 100 percent do), it gets even more uncomfortable when you see Jesus say things like: “If you have seen me, you have seen the father, for we are one,” or in Hebrews, when it is stated that Jesus is the “exact representation of God’s being.”
Accepting both the inspiration of Scripture and the penal substitution theory of the atonement, one could actually say that Jesus died to protect us from Jesus.
Which is quite silly, really — from one aspect this makes God look schizophrenic, and on the other, it makes the cross look like a bad case of domestic violence — something I personally find offensive.
With hardly any Scriptural quotations at all, Benjamin Corey goes on claiming that penal substitution is responsible for the capital punishment and crual legal system of the United States, and like many other critics of the penal substitution theology he claims that the idea was founded by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and that no Christian believed in it in the first millenia of the church.
Allow me to disagree.
Why Evangelicals Accuse Obama for Being Muslim, and Dismiss that Romney is a Mormon
In his excellent book The Myth of a Christian Nation, Greg Boyd clearly shows that neither the US nor any other state can be Christian:
As we have noted, many Christians believe that America is, or at least once was, a Christian nation. We have argued that this notion is inaccurate for the simple reason that Christian means “Christlike”, and there never was a time when America as a nation has acted Christlike. Indeed, we have argued that it’s impossible for any version of the kingdom of the world to be Christlike for the simple reason that they participate in a system of dominion that necessarily places its trust in the power of the sword.
I totally agree. The church and the state should be seperate since the Kingdom of God is “not of this world”, the cross cannot partner with the tank. No Christian values can be enforced on people because enforcement is contrary to Christian behaviour. Jesus said that unlike political rulers, Christians should be servants instead of exercising authority. (Mt 20:25-28).
Thus, a Christian president is not necessarily a better president than a non-Christian. Rather, a Christian plumber is a better Christian than a Christian president. This is why I don’t see the victory of the Christian Barack Obama over the Mormon Mitt Romney as a giant triumph for the Kingdom of God or something like that. But I know that many American Christians think that church and state should be married and that God’s will is that the US should be a Christian nation. Thus, it is striking how many of them supported Mitt Romney in this election.
When Obama won the 2008 elections, lots of evangelicals tried to “prove” that he was a Muslim. Unlike the citizenship conspiracy theories, the Muslim accusation didn’t try to disprove the president juridically but morally – the underlying assumption was that a Muslim president is a bad president, who is unable to support Christian values (some even argued that he would implement sharia laws). Needless to say, the arguments for the Muslim Obama are horribly bad since he’s been a practioning Christian all his life, but still 20% of Americans believed it in the end of 2008.
The Supernatural and Political Kingdom of God
I’ve written a lot about how inspired I am by the life and teaching of John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement. The Kingdom of God was the most central concept in his theology, just as it also was the most central concept in the teachings of Jesus. And what Wimber showed quite clearly was that the Kingdom cannot by any means be separated from signs and wonders.
The reason for this is that miracles manifest power. When God does impossible things like raising the dead or multiplying food, it becomes evident that He is an almighty King, and that He alone can save us from sin and death. Therefore, it is not surprising that the gospels tell us how Jesus and the disciples preached about the Kingdom and healed the sick at the same time (Mt 4:23, Lk 9:2). “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.” (1 Cor 4:20)
Wimber’s teaching got a huge impact. The Kingdom of God is central not only in the Vineyard but also in other Charismatic movements like New Wine, Bethel Church and Global Awakening. However, I’m afraid that they have missed a very important aspect of the Kingdom that is quite evident in the Scriptures. The Kingdom of God is of course also a political term, with political consequences in our lives.