Leading Article: Weakness of the Nativity myths

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SEBASTIAN FLYTE in Brideshead Revisited believes in Christmas because of the wise men and the manger and the star: because it is a beautiful thing to believe in, as he tells his sturdier friend Charles Ryder. But Sebastian is also a man who keeps a giant teddy bear in his rooms at Oxford. Few modern Christians are childish in quite that way. But it is an assumption of many of the critics of the Bishop of Durham that even Christians who have abandoned the use of teddy bears rely for comfort on fables; and that to disparage these fables is as heartless as mocking a teddy bear would be.

This is a factual question, open to factual investigation, and the evidence suggests that the Bishop of Durham's doubts about the historical accuracy of Nativity accounts are shared by most churchgoers in this country, just as are his certainties about the meaning of whatever it was that happened. God became incarnate, an approachable human being, not a character in a story. That is what matters; not whether he was attended by wise men or kings.

Yet this is not a wholly comfortable position to hold. To believe that we can always tell truth from myth is arrogant. The two are not opposites: rather, they are linked like soil and vegetation. A myth that is not rooted in truth will wither and crumble to dust, while a truth with no protective canopy of myth may be eroded right away.

Even when grown-up society understands myths to be probably untrue, they still shelter truths of use to all of us, and provide a symbolic language in which true things may be said that are simply inexpressible otherwise. T S Eliot's poem, the Journey of the Magi, says something about the nature of faith that is inaccessible to anyone who does not know the story of the three kings, even though literal belief is unnecessary and probably impossible if the poem is to make its point: 'There was a Birth, certainly,/We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,/But had thought they were different; this Birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us . . . .'

So to the extent that the demythologisers tear away at language, and impoverish the store of allusions available to a culture, they are impoverishing all of us. Even programmatic atheists must agree that the three kings, the massacre of innocents and the child in the manger are all superior myths, expressing richer meanings, than Santa Claus and his helper elves and reindeer. But Christianity has not declined in the west because parents would rather believe in Santa Claus than King Herod. Belief in the mythical trappings of Christianity has diminished because belief in the factual core of the religion had diminished. Christianity does not shrivel because grown-ups tell their children the Nativity story, but think it is a fable; it shrivels when people tell their children the story and believe it is only a fable.

The meaning and implications of what Christians believe happened at Christmas far exceed the carrying capacity of any story, or any set of stories. However, we should not conclude from this that all stories are misleading in which God is seen at work. It may be more misleading still to say nothing. God cannot be described except by analogy, and analogous language is necessarily inaccurate and incomplete. However, some analogies must be better or more accurate than others, otherwise theological debate would be completely impossible. Christians, at least, are required to believe that theological statements have meaning and can be compared against each other.

But theology must be clothed in stories to be effective, just as Christians believe God had to be clothed in humanity to redeem us. The real problem with the fables surrounding the Nativity is not that they are told instead of some unattainable truth but that they have not been told well enough to reach our imaginations today.