This is a little ‘omnibus’ edition of the Alternative Advent posts from this week. One of them is slightly edited from the one that went out by email. If you wish to receive future emails, sign up here.

The birth of the New Mexican Whiptail

One of the things that’s hard to believe about the Christmas story (their names are legion, for they are many) is, as I said last week, the idea of a virgin birth. For many reasons I don’t personally see that as a deal breaker, but I know lots of people do. So for those people, the objection ‘but that’s not how reproduction works’ is something of an issue. Hence the recourse to the language of miracles. But is it really so absurd to think that a baby could be born without any male (ahem) ‘involvement’?

If you think so, then perhaps you should take it up with a New Mexico Whiptail lizard, or a Aspidoscelis neomexicanus as they are known to ancient Romans. And presumably some scientists. The New Mexico Whiptails have dispensed with males altogether, and reproduce by means of ‘parthenogenesis’ – and they’re not the only ones. Parthenogenesis means (to my lay person’s brain) reproduction by means of an unfertilized egg. A variety of small creatures reproduce in this way, which at least saves them from the hassle of arguing about whose turn it is to feed the baby. (I know). Apparently even some birds can reproduce parthenogenically, extraordinary stuff! Or from their perspective: ordinary stuff!

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus was conceived parthenogenically, and I don’t think anyone else is either, but there are a couple of points I think are interesting to consider here. Firstly, we (I) are (am) prone to generalising ideas about what is possible, and what’s impossible. I may not believe in miracles, but that doesn’t mean that I’m right, nor that there may not be some very good reasons to believe in them. Our beliefs are formed, in part, through our experiences – these go to form the way we see the world too, which is what shapes our beliefs. We must remain alert to that, and I think we should also be open to having our minds changed too. Second thing that I think is interesting here is gender – a hot topic these days I know, and one which I’m not terrifically well qualified to pontificate on. But I think it’s interesting to consider how we understand what a ‘male’ and a ‘female’ are – and whether, in a world where single sex reproduction is certainly feasible in certain contexts, we need to be more thoughtful about how we characterise these ideas. What are the best arguments you’ve heard against some of the beliefs that you hold dear? How have your experiences shaped the way you understand gender?

The birth of Romulus and Remus

Do you remember Mars, the miraculously born god of war? It turns out that he wasn’t a nice guy. Shocker. There’s no sugar coating it, the mythical conception of the twins Romulus and Remus is not an altogether happy story, it involves Mars raping the vestal virgin (consecrated celibate priestess of the goddess Vesta) Rhea Silvia who then fell pregnant with twin boys. Because the babies were considered a threat to the rule of Rhea Silvia’s father, king Numitor, they were supposed to be taken away and killed, but instead they were set afloat on a river (bear that detail in mind, there are certain ideas which crop up in more than one ancient myth) they washed up on a river bank and were cared for by a she-wolf who cared for and suckled the infants. Anyway, after a spell of living as adopted wolf cubs, they were found and adopted by a shepherd. Ultimately they grew up to be shepherds too. Keeping that floating down the river thing in mind, is anyone spotting any parallels with any other old story they happen to know?

Having somehow managed to survive what it would be reasonable to describe as some ‘adverse childhood experiences’ the twins went on – through some more dramatic (of course) circumstances – to found the city of Rome that would go on to be a seat of imperial power. That’s right – it’s another origin story. Whodathunkit.

That there are common trends in miracle birth stories and origin stories is perhaps not so very surprising. Stories have templates, and it is helpful to be able to demonstrate why one particular hero fits meets certain requirements expected of such figures. Saying that something is mythical, though, is not the same as saying it’s not true. There are categories of truth that transcend simple ideas of what is ‘factual’ or what is ‘fictional’. Is a great work of literature somehow less truthful than a washing machine manual? Or is it simply able to convey a different kind of truth? You might like to think about these things: What does myth mean to you? Why do we sometimes prioritise one form of truth above others? What would it mean to ‘believe’ the story about Romulus and Remus?

The birth of Kamala and Amala   

There’s more than one kind of miracle baby. There are those who are born to virgins or to women who can’t medically conceive, that’s one type. But then there are also those babies who, having been born naturally enough become miracle babies in another way. For instance, the so called ‘feral children’. Yesterday we thought about the story of Romulus and Remus, who were raised by wolves. Pretty wild. But in the millennia since there have been other stories of human children raised by wolves, and by other animals. On the one hand, wow, but on the other… yikes.

The classic story of this sort is that of Kamala and Amala two little Bengali girls who were ‘found’ by Rev Joseph Singh, the rector of an orphanage. Rev Singh said he found the girls in a wolf’s den, and that although they were human, they continued to act as though they were wolves for the remainder of their lives. Walked around on all fours, ate raw meat, that sort of thing. The trouble with the story is that it relies entirely on the report that Rev Singh wrote in his ‘diary’, which on further examination turned out not to be entirely authentic. Similarly a photograph of the girls has been dated to several years after the girls died.

In this story we find lots of interesting things – in the first place in all the ‘feral child’ stories that I’ve ever heard there’s usually an issue of neglect. There are parents who have left their babies to fend for themselves along with the animals of the household for instance. Or children who have been abandoned somehow and cared for by animals like dogs or monkeys. Often these kids have physical or mental developmental problems, potentially a factor in their abandonment in the first place. I’ve personally known children who have experienced the kind of neglect that leads them to be, if not feral, almost entirely uncommunicative with adults. I’ve known kids who would forage food from bins too, and others who would resist being touched – for good reason. Whether or not Kamala and Amala were really raised by wolves, and on balance they probably weren’t, there’s something in this idea of the feral child which asks deep questions about the way children are to be understood and treated when they aren’t “normal”. What is normality? Should it surprise us that animals might be more accepting of a human child than it’s own parents? Are there social structures that we’ve all basically agreed to which impose ideas of ‘normality’ on our children that don’t account for their individuality or uniqueness?

The birth of an alleged scam

In 2004 the Kenyan authorities began the task of trying to extradite ‘Archbishop’ Gilbert Deya who had emigrated to the UK where his thriving brand of evangelical Christian ministry continues today. Several years later, and after some serious legal battling, Deya was removed to Kenya to face trial for child trafficking. Today the trial is ongoing, having been severely delayed by Covid-19 and by various challenges from Deya’s legal team. In the meantime the Archbishop’s estranged wife has been imprisoned for her part in the scheme, which Deya has since blamed on her. As you do.

So what was the alleged crime? Part of Deya’s UK ministry involved the prayer for miracle babies, for women who were unable to conceive. For these miracle babies to be conceived the women had to fly to Kenya where, after prayer and eating certain herbs they would be taken to a ‘clinic’ where – miraculously – they would be delivered of a baby. One woman reportedly had three miracle babies in a year. As part of the investigation into the scheme twenty babies were taken from their ‘mothers’ after being found to have no biological links with them. The real mothers weren’t identified. Tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. A British judge said congregation members were “deceived” by Deya, adding that he was motivated by “the most base of human avarices: financial greed”. One of his adverts said: ‘send your donation and expect your miracle’.

There is no doubting the deep agony that people go through when conception is difficult or impossible. It’s a tale as old and as tragic as time itself. That some people have sought to turn this agony into a fundraising opportunity is unspeakable, but has heritage. Recourse to prayer for a miracle is a natural enough reaction for anyone going through a great difficulty – I’ve done it, I can’t even rule out doing it again even though, personally, I don’t actually believe in miracles. When confronted by reporters Deya claimed: “things of God cannot be explained by human beings…” Oh really. How convenient Gilbert. Do you think that there are such mysteries? Do you have any examples of things you can’t explain? Whether or not you believe in a God, or a god, do you think there are things which defy rationality? Does it even matter?

The birth of a monster

The story of how Mary Shelley came to write what was (probably) the world’s first science fiction novel ‘Frankenstein’ is almost as famous as the story itself. Holed up on the shores of Lake Geneva in a time of a global Cholera pandemic, Mary Shelley (only 19 at the time) her lover Percy Shelley, the dissolute Lord Byron and his doctor Polidori along with a few others eventually stopped discussing death and politics long enough to have a scary story writing competition. Polidori came up with Vampyre, thereby spawning a gazillion myths of his own, and Mary created the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster.

Frankenstein’s monster is not a miracle birth as such, because he’s no baby – not physically anyway. But in bringing together various body parts and then animating this newly assembled body with the exciting new technology of the time: electricity (the first electric motor would be invented a couple of years later, and Edison’s lightbulb was still some way off) Mary Shelley was asking what the creation of life was all about. It doesn’t take a genius to draw parallels between the description of Victor Frankenstein “my cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement” and popular imagery of the genius computer programmer hunched over a terminal developing an artificial intelligence – the exciting new technology of our own time.

There are some miracle baby stories which are clearly questions about what it means to create life – after all, the whole ‘concept’ of conception is an extraordinary one, perhaps we’re too used to it to be surprised at the idea of a baby taking shape in the way it does. It is natural, perhaps, that some people will find themselves continuing to ask about the potential for technology to give us the powers once reserved for God – the power to create life. How do you feel about the possibilities of artificial intelligence? Is it something which worries you, or are you excited by it? I’ve argued elsewhere that Frankenstein’s monster fits in a pattern of ‘green men’ – iconic depictions of ways that we can explain how humans came to exist. Can you think of other types of ‘green man’ images which might have something to do with ideas about the origin of human life?

I write an ‘Alternative Advent’ email series every year, this year I’m going to post the text of the emails here two or three at a time, in case you miss any or simply don’t want to sign up. If you want future emails in your inbox, you should go here.

I suppose we’re all used to the Christmas story now, if you live in the UK then by the time you’re an adult you’re likely to have heard it dozens of times, hundreds perhaps. This familiarity leaves us almost immune to the bizarre and jarring details of the story. For a start we tend to combine the different gospel accounts to make one story, ignoring the fact that they are quite different – contradictory even. They are certainly written with different audiences in mind, so it’s reasonable to think that the writers are trying to make different points.

To tell the truth the whole of Christmas is pretty weird, long-time subscribers will know that I’ve tended to call it absurd. We celebrate it by bringing a tree into our house, for pity’s sake. Then, because of course trees themselves are famously ‘a bit plain’ we chuck a load of shiny things on them, sometimes we even put an angel on the top, or a fairy, which seems like an uncomfortable thing when you think about it.

One of the weird or absurd aspects of the Christmas story is the whole thing of Jesus’ miraculous birth. It has become an article of faith for certain strands of Christianity which won’t brook any talk of the Christ having been born by natural means. So the miraculous birth is a key part of the tradition of Christmas weirdness. Even a claim to uniqueness in certain quarters. But there are many stories of miraculous births or miracle children from around the world. Over the period of Advent I’m going to tell a short version of a handful of them. It’s an Advent-ure that will take us around the world and across long spells of time. Think of it as one of the less exciting Doctor Who episodes, one where the Doctor just goes around hearing about miracle births over and over again and wondering what they can tell us about our contemporary world. Because there is something, perhaps more than one thing, that we can take from it all. But there’s no Daleks. I’ll try and finish each day with a thing or two to think about or talk about with… I dunno, whoever you talk to – so for today: What does the idea of the virgin birth mean to you? How important do you think it is for Christians (no assumptions from me about whether you are one or not) to believe in the ‘reality’ of a virgin birth?

The birth of Qi

It’s quite common for a people group to have a founding myth – a story that tells them about themselves, why they are here, and how they are fundamentally different to other people. These stories need to have an origin point, where did we all come from? If you’re particularly unfortunate you may have read something I wrote about this on the subject of Green Men. I might return to Green Men later in this series, you never know your luck. Anyway, there are other creation myths, like the story of the birth of Hou Ji.

Hou Ji’s mother was Jiang Yuan, a consort of an Emperor called Ku. This was in what is now China by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed. The story dates back to around about 2400 BCE. Ish. According to the hymn ‘Birth of our people’ the virgin Jiang Yuan ‘trod in a toe-print’ made by God and became pregnant as a consequence. It was one of ‘those births’ “no bursting, nor rending, no injury, no hurt…” Hou Ji is also known as Qi, which, I understand, also means ‘abandoned’. This makes sense in the context of the hymn which also tells us that the miracle baby was cared for by sheep and oxen, and then visited by kindly wood cutters. Hmmm… sounds a bit familiar. Eventually he grew up to be a miracle worker. Pretty cool, but haven’t I heard this story somewhere else?

Hou Ji is understood both to be of the lineage of the Yellow Emperor, aka Huangdi Neijing a mytho-historical figure (in other words he is probably partly historic, partly mythological, like… I dunno, King David?) And he was also a divine figure. Again, not an altogether unfamiliar idea to those of us who have read other stories of miracle births perhaps. It makes you think though… What do you think when you hear stories like this which don’t belong to your tradition? How do the sacred stories of other cultures fit into your understanding of the way that the world works? What other founding myths do you know?

The birth of Mars

Second only to Jupiter in the Roman Pantheon is Mars, the god of chocolate. No! The god of war! Except he wasn’t always the god of war, but we’ll come back to that. Mars’ mum was Juno, the queen of the gods of course, anyway, one day Juno was touched by a magic plant (could happen to anyone) and ended up giving birth to Mars. It’s an everyday tale of divine folk.

In case you’re a bit rusty on your Roman gods, Juno was the daughter of Saturn and the wife of Jupiter. The top female deity really. She was also the protector of Rome, so pretty hardcore you might say. But Juno is a complex figure, which is the least you’d expect of a deity really, and like all these gods of classical antiquity it is what she represents that is important. Ultimately Juno is the god of fertility, in our culture fertility has become a privatised thing I suppose, but then of course it was much more of a social concern, because fertility was about wealth. Juno then is the god, or goddess, of wealth. Her first born, Mars, was conceived by a plant and therefore was the god of crops and harvests. I perceive a link…

But as time wore on Roman wealth became about something more martial than planting beans and such. It was about empire, and with that move, Mars changed role too, becoming the god of war. Juno is pretty fierce too by the way. What purpose do these deities serve in the Roman world? They stand for the things that society holds dear – the fertility of humans, animals and plants, the protection of a people, and the ability to take stuff from others by force. These gods aren’t just strange deities that sit on a mountain top, they embody the values of the cultures who worshipped them. When or how are we guilty too of making gods in our own image? How do our concepts of what is ultimately important change through our lives? What is your instinctive reaction to the idea of those classical gods?