Wise Men at the Birth: David Brown on Christmas Traditions

Present-day Christianity, it seems to me, will go badly wrong, if it attempts an unmediated dialogue with the biblical text rather than recognizing also the intervening history that has helped shape its present perception of the text’s meaning…[S]o far from Christianity being undermined by post-biblical developments in its self-understanding, it has been hugely enriched by them.

–David Brown. Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change (2000)

     As with many treatises on the topic of hermeneutic methods, this book situates itself somewhere between Enlightenment modernist prejudices against rootedness and postmodern arbitrary readings as though there was no reference point beyond the text (‘il n’y a pas de hors texte’). As Brown points out, the first seems preoccupied with mathematical models of truth, while the latter is “crucially dependent on what it rejects.” Both perspectives contain some truth. The strength of postmodern approaches lies in that they understand that “narratives succeed by conveying significance and values rather than by one to one correspondence with historical fact.”  On the other hand, Brown seems slightly more sympathetic to what might be called a ‘soft Enlightenment’ approach.

There is no easy way of meshing the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ into an historical metanarrative that is entirely shared by popular culture, but that does not mean that Christians cannot go part of the way … Close attention to original context can uncover open trajectories as it were, pressure points that almost demand further development.

Brown_Traidition_Imagination     Much of Brown’s discussion in the early chapters of the book is devoted to determining the positive contributions and subtle inadequacies of various philosophers and theologians who have each proposed a hermeneutical method: Bultmann, Ricoeur, Gadamer, Lonergan, Frei. At the risk of oversimplification, each of these, despite much of value, has an inadequate understanding of the interplay between history, tradition, and context. Equally important is Brown’s insistence that we cannot return to pre-critical methods of seeking the ‘spiritual’ or allegorical meaning of the text. We must remain committed to both the original context of scripture and the experiences of our own context while seeking to reason through the way in which tradition remains at the center of this relationship. In what follows, and in keeping with the season, I want to highlight the chapter on our modern celebration of Christmas to illustrate this.

Our contemporary Christmas traditions go well beyond the biblical texts. To use a favorite term of Walter Brueggemann, we should take seriously our ‘reimagining‘ of the text. After all, the biblical tradition itself does this. Why shouldn’t we expect the process of revelation to continue through dialogue and interpretation in new contexts? As many have pointed out, Judaism has done this for centuries.

The reason why narratives retain their power in different circumstances is because readers give new prominence to hitherto neglected aspects of the text or because they resolve to tell the story in a new way.

Most Christians are aware of how often artistic depictions of the events associated birth of Jesus take a number of liberties. We are not disturbed by ships sailing into Bethlehem because we recognize that the artist is attempting to convey something other than pure historical truth. Brown is quite straightforward in saying that,

… rewriting succeeds better than does Scripture itself, and in that I include both its effectiveness as narrative and, more importantly, its claims to truth.

Various depictions in song, poetry, painting, and exposition have continued the process began by the gospel writers of rewriting and improving upon the story of Jesus’ birth. For example, we have traditions begun in the middle ages that focus on the child in the crib as an individual person with a kind of awkward sentimentality towards the infant that the original authors would have found foreign — loving, gazing, kissing, laughing — but which are now a part of our consciousness as exemplified in our Christmas songs. Brown gives verse 4 of Frances Alexander’s hymn ‘Once in royal David’s city’ (1848) as an example:

For he is our childhood’s pattern
Day by day like us he grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.

As with many households in the U.S., our family begins decorating right after Thanksgiving and the display of the creche on a bookshelf along with the retelling of the story is something our children look forward to. My father-in-law built a wooden structure for the set which includes the Magi, some shepherds, and a few animals. Once upon a time, we would take care to try present the ‘history’ accurately by moving the Magi further away from the creche to sequence the events. But perhaps this is a failure to understand the very nature of these stories? What is biblical history anyway but the complex interaction of past events, the original context of the writers, and the long trail of that text’s interpretation through the centuries?

Matthew’s story of the Magi appears to have been related to the fulfillment of pagan astrological longings in the child. Later, this idea drops into the background as they become ‘kings’, representatives of the known world, and the child the ‘desire of all nations’. We continue to see these figures as relevant in different ways depending on the culture and time we live in.

In our own day the imagery of kings may not seem particularly appropriate. Yet Christmas cards of the kings far outnumber sales of the shepherds’ adoration. Might this not be because, however remote experience of kingship might be from most people, it can still perform its essential role of hinting at the possibility of the transformation of all values in a way that the shepherds cannot? Ultimate worth, it is implied, does not in the end lie with power as the world now assesses it.

So, go ahead. Put the Wise Men in the manger. Have the angels speak Latin or Latvian. Dream about the inspiration for eco-theology provided by the presence of the animals. A theologically informed imagination in the context of community and tradition has tremendous latitude.

[M]y objective has been a simple one: to challenge the common assumption that the power of revelation is necessarily undermined if external material from the surrounding culture is used to illuminate or even to rewrite its story. That can happen, but need not if due care is taken to integrate what appeals to the pagan or secular imagination into an appropriate underlying Christian framework [emphasis mine]… [F]ar from the Church being embarrassed by the ‘legendary’ material which has accrued to contemporary celebrations of Christmas, this sometimes deserves to be seen not merely as illuminating but even as corrective of the original biblical narrative.