Christmas stories in the Bible have a message – and it is neither the commodified story of contemporary culture, nor is is the cutesy baby in a stable nativity scene. It’s a story of political subversion and social reversal, set in a particular time and place.

Humans are excellent pattern recognisers. Generally speaking.

It helps though, when we have a cue letting us know what sort of pattern to expect. Many patterns are cultural, they use recognisable signs and signifiers which make sense to those immersed in the culture they are developed in. Looking at unfamiliar signs is difficult when we aren’t immersed in a culture.

When we are overfamiliar with dumbed down versions of stories we have a double problem: we feel as though we know the story, but our knowledge is entirely out of context.

One of the key and most obvious patterns in the gospels, is that of reversals. And this is firmly established in the Christmas narratives: the virgin is pregnant, the night sky invades the day time, the king is a pauper, God is a human baby, the outcasts are welcome. The writers of these stories made these reversals deliberately, pointedly, to overturn expectations and set off a narrative of an upside down way of seeing the world.

To understand the meaning (or one of the meanings) of this pattern, we have to consider the culture of the time in which they were written. What would it mean for things to be upside down?

These stories are set at a particular time, a really important time. It was in 6 CE that Judea, Samaria and Edom became the Roman province of Judea. Roman Judea was substantially larger than it’s predecessor state had been, with an eastern border which stretched as far as contemporary Jordan and even encompassed Damascus (hence Saul/Paul and his dual citizenship). It was an important part of the Roman Empire, and its good governance was key to Roman security.

One of the key groups in maintaining this order, were a cadre of Jewish leaders known as the Pharisees. When people talk of the Pharisees in churches, they will often make much of a particular type of ancient Jewish theology, and set Jesus up in opposition to that. This way of thinking misses the obvious: the Pharisees were effectively working for the Romans. They were crushing dissent and trouble because of a political need. The theology of the Pharisees is relevant, but its particular relevance is that it was far more in line with Roman theology than their rivals the Sadducees, not that they were stuck up or full of their own self importance.

Behind all of this was a corrupt priesthood – run by a figure called Annas, who was high priest in Jerusalem between 6 and 15 CE until he was deposed, but whose family continued in the role. Think: mafia. Think: contemporary despotic regime of your choice.

So this is the context – the time that was being written about, and the time in which it was being written. A puppet state, run by a corrupted priesthood, enforced by violence. And what are the writers talking about? Reversal. Reversal of everything. And if I were to ascribe a ‘meaning’ to Christmas, perhaps that would be it. It is a scene setter for the ‘ministry of reversal’ that the Jesus movement comes to embody. Tables are literally turned. The dead are brought back to life (we must talk about Lazarus some other time).

And in the midst of this – a whole host of reversed rituals, baptism, the reversal of the Roman military Sacramentum, and the core Christian rite, the shared meal: a subversion of the Roman banquet. Everything is overturned, everything is lampooned. Its incredibly subversive – social and political dynamite.

Perhaps the point is that the only way this all makes sense, is if you stand it on it’s head. Which is why I’m so keen, on an #alternativeadvent.



end_is_nighThere’s a thread that runs through much of the Old Testament, which sees conflict between the perspective of the prophet, and the perspective of the king.

Prophets and kings were basically two sides of the same coin, they had a kind of symbiosis. And they both had much to fear from the other too: mainly death, of one sort or another.

Whereas kings represented the rule of earthly law, and were all about gathering power and wealth,  prophets on the other hand lived a marginal existence, eschewed power and privilege, and spoke instead of the primacy of God’s law, and of the ultimate rule of justice. There was little profit in being a prophet.

When it comes to the considering the archetypal prophet, certainly the one that looms  largest over the Hebrew identity, is Moses. He is the one who, according to the Exodus story, ushers the Israelites out of Egypt, through the desert and on to the promised land. Matthew of course draws a number of direct parallels between the hero figure of Moses, and the new hero: Jesus. Matthew is depicting Jesus as the new Moses. (Miraculous birth, divinely appointed role, comes out of Egypt, water miracles, feeding miracles, goes up a mountain to deliver God’s rules, etc.)

For some people these clear comparisons are an example of the way in which Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy, and from a faith standpoint that’s a perfectly valid way to look at it. An alternative, and similarly valid way of looking at this however, is to say that “Matthew” is using the tropes of Moses to develop his portrait of Jesus in a way that shows him to be the new Moses (the new liberator). In other words he uses the Torah as a means of retrospectively foreshadowing Jesus’ story. There’s probably a technical literary term for this, but I don’t know it.

Adding weight to (either) of these two theories/approaches is the way that the same thing happens with Jesus and King David, again the similarities in Matthew’s Gospel are notable (Bethlehem birth, tribe of Judah, ‘Shepherd’ role, wilderness battles, betrayal by trusted friends, and of course significance of the Mount of Olives for both, etc.) This sort of thing doesn’t stop with David and Moses, but they are suitable for illustrating the point. *

The writer of Matthew is, in my opinion something of a master of clever literary devices. (One of the best being the way he portrays the choice of the crowd when it comes to the crucifixion: do they want ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Barabbas’? This is clear word play, bar Abba means ‘son of the father’, so the question is: do they want Jesus, or Jesus son of the father? Sadly this word play has been lost in translations which use newer versions of the Matthew text.)  So my suggestion is that Matthew is using a sophisticated literary device to paint a picture of Jesus as both the new David (important politically too), and the new Moses. And its the Moses bit that’s important here, because what I want to do is get to the idea of Jesus-as-Prophet.

If and when we talk about a prophet today, there tends to be an idea that we are talking about someone who can ‘see’ or ‘predict’ the future, in the sense that a clairvoyant or soothsayer might be said to do. But really the role of the prophet is to speak truth to power, to stand up to the powers that be and announce the word of God. This is the role of Moses. Of course there is a sense of prediction here, but its mainly in the sense of consequences, rather as I might have said to my children when they were younger: ‘don’t do that, or else you’ll hurt yourself.’ (Now they say it to me.)

A prophet then is not really there to say ‘this is what will happen when you die’, or ‘this is when the crops will grow’, the prophet is there to critique the king, particularly when the king slips into injustice, as they more or less all did. The King role is the establishment role, the ‘state’ role, while the prophet is the outsider, the reformer: it’s a deeply political role of course. Depicting Jesus as the new Moses says to the reader that this is Jesus’ role, to critique the action of the state, to lead a reformation, to usher in a whole new way of living. Depicting him as both king and prophet casts him as a Platonic style philosopher king, a vital idea for Matthew’s gentile readers.

* Readers will understand that I don’t necessarily see the figures of either Moses or David as ‘genuine’ historical figures, from my perspective, they are both mythic figures from the Hebrew tradition, who occupy important places in the collective imagination. It’s not whether they ever lived that’s important to me, it’s what people understood about them that matters.  

priestMy post about tipping over the certainty curve created some extra interest this week, after Thinking Anglicans posted posted a link to it on their website.

Some of the thoughtful responses to it, led me to write a little more about the process, rather than going in to the post about silence, which I had planned as the next in this series. That one will come soon.

Before I go into some more detail about the process, I should point out that I don’t mean to suggest that evangelicalism has a monopoly on certainty. All traditions have their elements of certainty, dogma or orthodoxy. However, one of the reasons I pay some particular attention to evangelicalism is a tendency within particular parts of it to prefer total certainty to mystery or doubt. In this post I will refer to a couple of individuals who clearly were not evangelicals.

So another thing to make clear is that the arc or curve that I depict in the original post is a deliberate simplification of the process, I don’t mean to genuinely suggest that there is either a very straightforward line, or that the journey is ‘one way’. Rather the real picture is more complex, and always dynamic.

The best model I have seen for understanding the complexities of this kind of process is called Spiral Dynamics, a very complex piece of work which purports to be an overarching meta narrative that explains human development. As a good GenX postmodern thinker, I’m innately suspicious of such a meta narrative, however, experientially I resonate with the process described by Spiral Dynamics thinkers.

That doesn’t mean though, that I believe there to be no value in the curve model. All of these things are limited, they are deliberate and knowing simplifications of a complex situation. They are visual aids, just as, for instance, parables are story aids to understanding similar things.

So, speaking of parables, let’s reconsider the curve, in particular the way in which the curve model maps with the parable of the prodigal son. I use this curve a lot, and the curve images I use below also highlight/map in black text, what I believe are the key stages of the way people view God/ultimate concern in a journey of spiritual development.

In this story, the son starts off at the bottom left of the curve, looking up to his father (the God figure) in the knowledge that in him, all needs are met. He is developing in the place of ultimate safety and certainty. Naturally enough though, the son develops, and goes through the difficulties and frustrations, and disillusionment of adolescence. This precipitates something of a crisis – where he believes that life elsewhere would be better than what he has. And in some ways, of course, he is right. He is a child, and he recognises that adulthood is different to what he has now.

prodigal_sonSo in the story, the son leaves home, and becomes physically distant from his father – in a similar way someone may leave the certainty of evangelicalism, or any other dogmatic view of God, and become physically distant from the church. This is the beginning of his period of deconstruction, during which the proto evang-exiter may become arrogant or conceited about his or her journey. ‘I know the way to live, and it’s nothing like the old way…’

But this is not a long term sustainable way of existing. Not for most people anyway. It’s hard, and it’s quite false. There’s a sense of denial about it, and there is a very good chance that this is likely to precipitate another crisis, or series of crises. In this case the son finds himself utterly degraded, and comes to realise he is in a place of paradox. At this stage his desire to be with his father is strong, and he makes a return.

For some ex-vangelicals, ex-Christians or church leavers, there is a return to their home, although like the prodigal son, they are not returning as the same person who left. They are changed. They now, perhaps, have a more rounded, less certain view of the world (it’s not hard and fast, these journeys are not the same for everyone). And their return may not be to the fold of evangelicalism either, rather it may be a return to the church more broadly. Hence you find many ex-vangelicals in the bosom of traditions that embrace a more mysterious or apophatic understanding of God. The paradox stage.

peter1Another example is the disciple Peter (a non evangelical of course), who goes through a similar process to the Prodigal son. In this case, Jesus is the God-figure, the point of ultimate concern. In the first place Peter is dependent upon Jesus, seeing Jesus as the answer to everything. Jesus is all powerful at this stage in their relationship, and Jesus is at his miracle performing best. As things develop, Jesus plays an almost parental role in Peter’s life – he has left his family to follow him. But then crisis hits, and all of a sudden the miracle working Jesus has gone, and a new captive, powerless Jesus has emerged. This throws Peter in to a state of turmoil, and he finds himself denying the master he had followed so closely until now. At the point of Jesus’ death, Peter is at his most distant, entirely removed from Jesus. He is not arrogant at this point, rather he is broken, which demonstrates that everyone walks this path in a unique way. Peter’s re-encounter with Jesus is his experience of the mystery of un-earned grace, and he moves into a place of all pervasive love and acceptance. Does this make him perfect? No. Does it make him totally wise and enlightened? Again no. This illustrates that this is not a simple process as this curve would make it appear, this is not the end of Peter’s story. He goes through a new set of curves, crises, and moves forward. But this curve is quite clear, he tips over the edge of certainty. Mother Teresa

This kind of process accounts for the myriad stories of loss of certainty, and loss of faith, that characterise Christian ministry. The proverbial dark nights of the soul. Mother Teresa (Catholic) is an oft cited example, her doubts were made public after her death, and they demonstrate that she suffered greatly. And of course there are many others who experience the same kind of issues, and whatever tradition they come from, it’s jolly hard.

For the activist, this is a particularly difficult experience, and this is partly why I’m interested in the experience of evangelicals, who are fundamentally, part of an activist tradition. The certainty stages are much more steady ground for the activist, who often needs the reassurance of certainty to provide her/him with energy.

I suppose fundamentally my point is that for all of us, the God we grow up with, needs to die. I don’t really care what tradition you’re from, or what religion, or belief system, or philosophy. That which guided our childhood must, at some point perish, if we are to advance in to spiritual maturity. In each person the process is different, probably unique. In many, perhaps most, it involves a crisis, or series of crises. And, in my experience, inevitably certainty has to die away. It can be the work of a lifetime, and many of us never get there.

If you feel that you are going through a period of deconstruction, you might like to come on a retreat with me to talk about the process. You can express interest here.