At this holiday season we have another chance to take a deeper look into story. What is it exactly, this peculiar arrangement of words that conjures up images in our minds, sweeps us away into other times and places, to places that never were nor likely will ever be?
Take the story of The Nativity, for example. It is the founding narrative of one of the two competing traditions behind our present-day Christmas holiday. Where is the truth in this story – which is really two distinct stories told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?
Matthew’s version includes a heavenly star and oriental court astrologers who visit Mary and Jesus at their Bethlehem home address. There’s the maniacal and jealous King Herod who orders all males under two years old murdered, in his effort to eliminate this contender to the throne. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem and eventually to Egypt until wicked King Herod dies. When the coast is clear, the First Family moves to Nazareth where Jesus will spend his youth.
Luke’s version has Joseph taking his pregnant wife, Mary, from Nazareth to his ancestral home town of Bethlehem for tax enrollment. Upon arriving the couple discovers that every hotel room is booked, and thus is forced to stay the night in an animal shack behind the inn. There Mary goes into labor and delivers Jesus. Meanwhile, an angelic choir announces to shepherds in their fields that a savior has been born in Bethlehem. They go with haste and find the First Family in the stable, just as foretold.
There are some obvious inconsistencies between these two Nativity stories – maybe you caught them.
Joseph and Mary begin in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem in Luke’s version, whereas they end up there after starting in Bethlehem in Matthew’s. Luke’s shepherds visit Jesus in an animal stable, while Matthew’s astrologers find him in a “house.” Obviously one has to be right. If you had been there, what would you have seen with your own eyes?
Before you answer, let’s note that Luke’s shepherds are probably hired hands or day laborers, down in the socioeconomic mucky bottom. They aren’t businessmen, artisans or merchants. They represent the class just barely inside the definition of class, and definitely outside of having any political clout.
Matthew’s court astrologers, on the other hand, are pretty high up on the social ladder. They may be outsiders but they come with wealth and power. Still they leave their country and kingdom in search of the “king of the Jews,” and when they find him they lay their offerings at his feet.
So did it happen just that way? But which way?
In their effort to merge these different storylines into a single coherent narrative, commentators have suggested that Matthew’s events actually took place after Luke’s – maybe as many as two years later. That accounts for Herod’s massacre of two-year-old males and gives the First Family time to get from the stable into a bona fide residence. The astrologers and shepherds never met each other, which means that our crowded manger scenes on postcards and storybooks are an historical inaccuracy.
But it’s not necessary to merge these two narratives. They are inconsistent only if your assumption is that the truth is somehow outside the stories, in the facts of history and what must have “actually happened.”
This question of which Gospel Nativity story is true – and the question of truth in story generally – cannot be answered by jumping out of the story and looking for facts to back it up. Actually, this scramble for historical evidence and the sworn testimony of eye witnesses is a very late development. It became urgent and pressing once the spell was broken.
What spell? The spell that any great story puts on the mind of whomever is willing to “go under” its entrancing power. You can’t keep interrupting the narrative with ejaculations of “Did that really happen?” and “Is that literally how it went?” Follow the example of a young child: Once upon a time carries the imagination into another world – that is to say, into a different narrative construct from the one you’re in right now.
Don’t sweat it. You’re just leaving one spell for another. You’ll be back in no time at all. For now, simply relax, close your eyes and listen …
Luke’s Nativity introduces you to the start of a world revolution, where an insurgent savior is born into poverty. The good news (gospel) of his arrival is first announced to shepherds “living in the fields,” outside and away from the power-centers of wealth, politics and religion. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel – if you are patient enough for the whole story – continues to fill out this character who comes to level the playing field, to challenge the high and mighty, and pull the hopeless poor to their feet. Luke’s Jesus is the prince of a new kingdom, and you are invited in.
Matthew’s Nativity invites you to a revolution as well, but his messiah is fashioned on the model of Moses, the great liberator who saved his people from bondage in Egypt. In order to solidify this association, Matthew arranges for Jesus to be in Egypt (hiding from Herod) and be granted a safe exodus into the new “promised land” of Nazareth. Matthew’s story overall is about the world significance of this New Liberator, represented in a heavenly star high above and foreign magistrates from far away. Apparently no one alive “under heaven” is excluded from this very good news, not even you.
Coming back to the burning question, what can be said about the “truth” of these stories?
The Nativity stories are not true because they accurately relate how things actually went down. They were not composed as an effort to piece together evidence in a factually reliable report. We can safely make this generalization about all true stories. They are true to the degree they are successful in bringing about a transformation of consciousness, orienting the spell-bound audience to reality with a new set of values and expectations. If the story changes you, then it’s true.
But if it can’t change you, simply because you refuse to “go under” and get “caught up” in its alternative fantasy, then it’s “only a story” or “just a myth.” You might as well set it down and get on with your life, such as it is.