20 December 2007

The Archbishop of Canterbury has a large festive beard, in which robins can nest...

I've never listened to Simon Mayo's radio show, but intrigued by a piece yesterday on Ruth Gledhill's religion blog on the Times website I tuned in last night to hear his discussions with Ricky Gervais and the Archbishop of Canterbury, not least for the curious bit where his two guests overlapped with each other. The entirety of the Gervais piece can be downloaded as a podcast, but if you want to listen to the bit where it's just Simon Mayo and Rowan Williams talking you should get your skates on, as it will only stay online for a few more days.

Both parts of the discussion are well worth listening to, and it's a terrible shame that Gledhill and other journalists have been rather mischievously misrepresented what Dr Williams has said about the Christmas story. And, predictably enough, people haven't actually listened to the interview or read anything sensible* on the topic, instead reacting purely to the reports. In the almost certainly vain hope of stemming this probably rather small tide of nonsense, and annoyingly oblivious to the Telegraph having done the same thing, I typed up the relevant part of the interview.
SM: We can talk more on that - I’m sure you’d love to - later on, but we’ll talk about Christmas first of all! It comes around every year, this story about how we’re not being Christian enough, or people don’t know where Bethlehem is, or people have never heard of Mary and so on, so that this is almost like a tradition of Christmas, isn’t it, really? But I wonder if people have got a traditional religious Christmas card in front of them, I just want to go through it, Archbishop, to find out how much of it you think is true and crucial to believing in Christmas, so let’s start with - we’ve got the Baby Jesus in a a manger. Historically and factually true?

RW: I should think so. The Gospel tells us he was born outside the main house, probably because it was overcrowded, because of pilgrimage time or census time, whatever. Yeah, he’s born in poor circumstances, slightly out of the ordinary.

SM: The Virgin Mary next door to him?

RW: We know his mother’s name was Mary, that’s one of the things all the gospels agree about, and the two gospels that tell the story have the story of the Virgin Birth, and that’s something I’m committed to as part of what I’ve inherited.

SM: You were a prominent part of a Spectator survey - the current issue - which carried the headline ‘Do You believe in the Virgin Birth?’ There are some people in this survey who would say they were Christian, who don’t have a problem if you don’t believe in the Virgin Birth. How important is it to believe in that bit?

RW: I don’t want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they can, you know, be signed up, but I think quite a few people would say that as time goes on they get a deeper sense of what the Virgin Birth is about. I would say that of myself, that thirty years ago I might have said I wasn’t too fussed about it, now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story.

SM: Christopher Hitchens in that, amongst many others, makes the point that isn’t the translation for ‘young woman’ rather than ‘virgin’ - does it have to be seen as ‘virgin’? Might it be a mistranslation?

RW: Oh that’s - it is - well- What’s happening there is that one of the gospels quotes a prophecy that a virgin will conceive a child. Now the original Hebrew doesn’t have the word ‘virgin’, it’s just a young woman. But that’s the prophecy from the Old Testament that’s quoted in support of story which is in any case about a birth without a human father. So it’s not that it rests on a mistranslation - Saint Matthew has gone to his Greek version of the Bible, said ‘Oh! The Virgin! That sounds like the story I know!’ and put it in.

SM: Right, so we’ve got the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Joseph?

RW: Yeah. Again, the gospels are pretty consistent. That’s his father’s name.

SM: So we’re padding out now. Shepherds, there with their sheep and with the oxes and asses?

RW: Pass on the oxes and asses, they don’t figure very strongly in the gospels. So I can live without the ox and asses.

SM: And the wise men, with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, with one of the wise men being black and the other two being white, for some reason?

RW: Well, Matthew’s gospel doesn’t tell us there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us where they came from. It says they’re astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That’s all we’re really told, so, yeah, the Three Kings with the one from Africa - that’s legend. It works quite well as legend, so I suppose that’s possible.

SM: But would they have been there?

RW: Not with the shepherds, they wouldn’t!

SM: Right, so if I’ve got on my card the kings -

RW: If you’ve got on your card the shepherds on one side and the three kings on the other, there’s a bit of conflation going on.

SM: And pulling back further: snow on the ground?

RW: Very unlikely, I think. It can be pretty damn cold in Bethlehem at this time of year, but then we don’t know that it was this time of year, because again, the gospels don’t tell us what time of year it was. Christmas is the time of year it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival.

SM: Just as a side issue, on the kings and the wise men, do you have a problem with astrologers being seen as wise men? There would be many people in your church who would think ‘Actually, astrology’s bunk and should be exposed as bunk, and the idea of saying they’re wise is somewhat farcical.’

RW: Well, I’m inclined to agree that astrology’s bunk, but you’re dealing there with a world in which people watched the stars to get a heads up on significant matters, and astrologers were, you know, quite a growth industry. They were people who were respected, who had a kind of professional, technical skill, and were respected as such. The thing is here, of course, what’s the skill all about? Well it’s all bringing them to Jesus. It’s not about fortune telling or telling the future, it’s about a skill at watching the Universe which leads them inexorably to this event. So I don’t think it’s a justification of astrology.

SM: Okay, so if we’re pulling back even further then, is there a star above the place where the child is?

RW: Don’t know. I mean, Matthew talks about the star rising, the star standing still, but we know stars don’t behave quite like that. That the wise men should have seen something which triggered a recognition that something significant was going on, some constellation or star in the sky - there are various scientific theories about what it might have been around that time - and they followed that track, that makes sense to me.

You'd really be determined to damn the poor man to find anything offensive in this. If you read it and then look at the reports you'll see that the Ruth Gledhill rather ambiguously cites him as claiming the visit of the Three Wise Men as nothing but a legend whereas his point was merely that the number and ethnicity of the wise men are matters of legend, while the Australian and the Telegraph omit a crucial sentence in quoting Dr Williams on the Magi in order to create the false impression that he had claimed the entire tale of the visit of the Magi was a fabrication.

Certainly what cannot be claimed based on this is that he described the Nativity in any sense as a legend. Rather -- and this is the case for the whole interview, not merely this five-minute segment -- he answers all questions put to him with honesty and integrity, inoffensively making the case for an intellectually credible Christianity. Granted, he could perhaps have mentioned Herodotus and Strabo referring to the magi as a Persian priestly class and the possibility that the timing of our Christmas celebrations might not be based upon a previous Roman festival, and perhaps also Isaiah's reference to the ox and ass, but doing so might have complicated things too much.

It's spectacularly unfair to present the interview as an own goal on the Archbishop's part. If the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion can't talk about Christmas at this time of year, when should he talk about it?


It's worth bearing in mind, too, that the Archbishop is speaking to a British audience, and his remarks certainly shouldn't be viewed in light of culture wars in other countries. In Britain the main problem for the churches is that people simply don't care about religion, as I've said before, and that they're almost completely ignorant of the fundamentals of the Faith.

To put that point into context, there's something almost unreal about the fact that Simon Mayo is asking the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss the historical plausibility of the typical nativity scene as represented on Christmas cards. Why? Well, nativity scenes aren't all that common on English Christmas cards. I've received six cards from friends in England so far, not one of which has a religious theme, and I think that's pretty representative: a couple of years back I noted that in my local newsagents in Fallowfield there were over a hundred distinct Christmas cards there, and yet there wasn't a religious image in sight.

And before anyone gets shirty, no, the shop wasn't run by Muslims. Unless you specifically go to a church or a religious shop -- a CTS one or Wesley Owen if you're in Manchester, probably depending on your denomination, or St Paul's if you're in London -- then you'll be hard pressed to find Christmas cards with a religious theme.

I'm not happy with other Catholics sneering at the Archbishop over this; it's beneath us, and besides, would it have been better if he'd lied?
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* Albeit with a misleading headline. Do journalists not have any say in the headlines bestowed on their columns?

1 comment:

Martin said...

Attempting a segue between this post and the last one... I'm reminded of Pratchett's observation that "All tribal myths are true, for a given value of 'true'." As a soi-disant Anglican agnostic (like most of Dr Williams' congregation) I have to say that one of the things that drove me away from religion was the fact that, to buy in to the love-thy-neighbour and meek-inherit-earth material, you had to take on board the literality of virgin birth, resurrection after bodily death and other such as part of the package. I'm encouraged to see the Archbishop's stance represented as anti- the 'literal' truth of the biblical nativity (however that's been misrepresented), and especially amused that he has done so precisely by a *literal* close reading of Biblical passages!