When referring to biblical passages describing different events, one of my college religion professors differentiated between true stories and truth stories.
By this, of course, he meant the incidents highlighted in the Bible because they actually happened as opposed to those told for the sake of conveying a certain truth. The latter category of stories didnt necessarily occur; in fact, its more likely they didnt. Their value is less in being actual history as it is in the godly wisdom they communicate.
And the Bibles real power is its ability to convey a great many truths through stories. Its a questionable history book and a lousy science manual, but the Bible spins more than its share of tales with profound lessons.
No biblical story has captured the worlds imagination quite like the birth narrative of Jesus. From an unexplainable pregnancy to the humble birth of a king, this story has it all.
This tale inaugurated what we celebrate as Christmas, and no holiday has generated as many wonderful stories of its own. The timeless message of peace on Earth, good will toward men, retold in countless ways, is essential to Christmas because of the occasions central claim: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us) (Matt. 1:23, English Standard Version).
The notion of a literal intervention into human affairs by the creator of the universe meant, to say the least, we better mind ourselves. We wouldnt want to run into this guy while displaying a bad attitude.
The issue, then, becomes one of how reliable the Christmas narrative is: Should we classify it as a true story or a truth story?
Few people appreciated how deeply moving myths could be than did C.S. Lewis, who excelled as an author in this area. His Chronicles of Narnia series is still considered the standard in classic storytelling.
And Lewis approached the biblical account of Jesus birth, ministry, death and resurrection as myths. He understood that myths helped people connect with events unimaginable:
In the enjoyment of a great myth, we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction, he wrote. When we translate we get abstraction or, rather, dozens of abstractions. What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level. Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise, which become truths down here in the valley
As shown in the title of the essay from which these comments came, Myth Became Fact, Lewis accepted the biblical stories of Jesus life as myths, but myths that he said had become true. In this way he could wed his love for tales of fantasy that stir human creativity with his conviction of the truth of the Christmas assertion, God with us.
Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth, which is also a fact, Lewis wrote. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.
Ive long admired Lewis as a scholar, writer, theologian and philosopher. He possessed one of the truly brilliant minds of the 20th century, and I would have loved the opportunity to pick that mind sometime while sharing either a tea or a pint!
But where I once accepted Lewiss Myth Became Fact argument, my religious skepticism has compelled me to change course. Too many other facts have gotten in the way of this myth for it to be recorded history.
Regardless, I find the Christmas story a myth worth believing in, even if I dont believe it. Thats because truth stories are as valuable sometimes even more so than true stories. They teach us something meaningful about ourselves.
Back when I was a religious believer, I once was a member of a Quaker congregation. One of the principles espoused by Quakers fits in nicely with the Christmas theme of the word made flesh.
Quakers believe that the presence of God exists inside every human; they call this the inner light. It is this light burning within us that guides our actions toward the divine. Therefore, we see God in human form not just in the person of Jesus but in every soul with whom we interact.
Well, thats about as Christmasy as it gets! The message from the Nativity narrative speaks to our deepest longing: to feel connected to others in this world. And with its emphasis on love, compassion and mercy, it gives us the ideal formula for doing so:
Treat everyone you meet like he or she literally had a godly nature. It doesnt matter in the end if the account of Jesus birth is a true story or a truth story. Because the miracle of Christmas is that when we reflect on the reality of God with us, human and divine are all the same.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.