Last week, I went along to a local church’s Christmas play. Usually, it’s just a bit of fun for the children. I expected to hear claims about the True Meaning of Christmas, and was not disappointed (my take).
However, this time the superlatives were out. The Christmas story was “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. Baby Jesus was “The Greatest Gift Ever Given”. And this was all completely free, with no strings attached.
The (Christian) Greatest Story Ever Told
The Christmas tale, as commonly told, is an odd hybridisation of two competing narratives from Matthew and Luke. There are shepherds, wise men, a stable, some animals, angels singing, well-known carols playing, and of course a very special baby.
However, even though both the source stories are fairly short, it’s still common to leave out less pleasant elements, like the Slaughter of the Innocents and Jesus’ Flight to Egypt. What’s important is not the details of the story, but its message.
And so the tale told in the play was a tale of redemption. God created a wonderful world with lots of lovely plants and animals. And for a time, everything was good. But then the shadow of human selfishness started to creep across the world. And the only way God could address that was by coming to us, turning the world upside down, giving himself as a baby, and showing us how to love unselfishly.
So why do Christians think it’s the greatest story? Part of it is just a sales pitch, of course. Would people stop and listen if they said “This is just one of hundreds of stories in the Bible, but we kinda like it”?
However, I think its claimed greatness boils down to two things:
It’s a true story (unlike all those other better told but fictional stories).
It offers salvation to everyone (unlike other stories which just offer entertainment).
Personally, I reject both of those claims. I’ve written at length about the problems I see with the birth narratives, and particularly why I don’t believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I also have serious problems with the salvation on offer - I don’t think it’s as universally applicable as claimed, and it has strings attached that I’m not comfortable with.
For the record, I’m not sure what the Greatest Story Ever Told actually is.
But I’d be inclined to nominate the continuing story of how humanity has risen to control and dominate the world and perform miracles that even the gods were unable to. And I quite like the way Yuval Harari Noah tells that story in Sapiens and Homo Deus.
In my opinion, the contrast with the Christian tale is marked. There’s no God, no Garden of Eden, no sin, and no need for a saviour to come from outside and redeem us broken humans.
The tale of humanity is a mighty tale with many sub-plots, many actors, and many stories. It’s not a simple tale of progress - there have certainly been set-backs, and there is no guarantee of a happy ending. We can’t even necessarily agree what a happy ending looks like.
However, what it gives us is control of our own destiny and freedom to make our own choices. We get to choose what we value and work towards it. And, unlike the vision of future bliss offered by the New Testament, we can actually see the results now.
Christmas and gift-giving
The play started with a reference to the consumerist view of Christmas: It’s all about receiving presents and eating lots of food, and it can be a real strain on the budgets of some families. And I can agree that this has problems, and time with family and friends is probably more important than expensive gifts and food.
However, this was just there to provide a link to “the greatest gift”. Gifts were said to be given “in memory of the greatest gift ever”. They even slipped in the dreaded proof text “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (exactly what the children wanted to hear!)
In baby Jesus, we were supposed to see a radical challenge to the values of the world, turning everything on its head. We were supposed to see the importance of the weak and the undervalued. In place of wars and hatred and division and anxiety and meaninglessness, we were supposed to see peace and love and hope and purpose for our lives.
Christians have no monopoly on these concepts
To hear them talking, one would think that baby Jesus was the only way to unlock these concepts. All we needed to do was to pray to God and listen to the Christmas story, and suddenly we would be changed people. God’s oh-so-great love would have
improved another life claimed another victim.
Maybe the Christmas story does remind some people to think about peace and good will to all men and then act on it. But it’s certainly not the only thing that does.
In offering hope and purpose for this life, Christianity is not unique. Nor, for that matter, is it unique in offering the hope of a super-special after-life.
When talking about improving this life, the one we can see right now, the Christmas story just feels so unnecessary. We are quite capable of loving each other without baby Jesus. We are quite capable of backing the under-dog without seeing God incarnate in a poor, helpless baby in a manger. We are quite capable of finding our own reasons to hope, and things that give us meaning and purpose.
Humanity may be all we have - but it is enough.
Of course, regular readers will know that I am biased - by personal experience. As a believer, I was told that God had created me, and that gave me a very special destiny and purpose. And I believed it for many years - but I was still unable to be confident that I was truly following God’s will or even seeing signs of his existence.
It became very difficult finding peace and hope when I was struggling to reconcile the Bible I grew up with with the reality I saw around me. I found peace when I gave up that struggle, and when I searched for purpose and meaning I found it in trying to understand and experience reality.
In some ways I miss the utopian vision of a world magically transformed to be perfect - but I had no reason to believe it would ever happen. Now I am able to try and improve things, and to see the effect of my actions. Reality may be all we have, but it too is enough.
Blood sacrifice? Really, God?
There’s a dark side to this gift that the play I went to completely ignored. In particular, they tiptoed lightly over the fact that baby Jesus wasn’t the end-point. Jesus wasn’t just meant to “show us a better way of living” - he was meant to die. And that death was meant to be a completion of the animal sacrifice prescribed in the Mosaic Law, and essential to his saving work.
I categorically reject the idea of blood sacrifice forming part of the greatest gift ever.
I don’t think believers realise quite how odd this message sounds. Christian theology makes much of God becoming man, identifying with us, truly understanding our weaknesses and infirmities, and then showing us a better way. That was actually a reason I believed Jesus wasn’t divine, because I didn’t think he could fully identify with us if he was God as well.
However, now that leaves me with questions: Why wasn’t that enough? Once God had realised how tough it was for us, and once he had shown us a better way, why did he still need to die? What was special about that death?
The way I’ve usually heard it described had something to do with God’s justice. Since he could not relax those standards of justice, he needed some way to satisfy them, and a perfect blood sacrifice was the only way. To a non-believer, this makes God, the supposedly all-powerful universe creator, sound like his hands are tied. It also makes it sound like he’s using a special trick as a workaround for the standards that he himself created - and then taking credit for that workaround.
The other thing I find odd about this standard is that it makes God sound like the selfish one. God set the standard up front, and chose to punish humans because they didn’t (and possibly couldn’t) follow it. And now we’re supposed to believe that if he punishes himself it’s suddenly all OK. From my perspective, it’s God insisting on humans following his standards that’s the problem, not human selfishness.
However, even if we accept that God is entitled to set such standards (I don’t), the notion of salvation coming from outside humanity remains problematic. Yes, Jesus may have been human - but it is made perfectly clear that no other, “normal” human could have done what he did.
This leaves the picture of God creating humans apparently incapable of meeting his standards, blaming them for that, finding a workaround to satisfy himself, and then expecting to be praised for finding that workaround rather than being criticised for causing the original problem. When we add in the fact that the workaround, blood sacrifice, is something our enlightened age generally considers barbaric, it shouldn’t be surprising that us unbelievers are mystified.
The gift of guilt
Like “the greatest story”, calling it “the greatest gift” is useful marketing. Christians expect that everyone should want it, and in fact that deep down everyone really needs it. And thus begins the bait-and-switch: This gift is so great that we don’t really deserve it. Instead, we’re supposed to feel guilt at how much God gave for us.
Here, the blood sacrifice comes in again. We are told that Jesus gave his life for us. We are told to look at everything he suffered so that we could have life. We are meant to feel guilt that Jesus had to die because we didn’t meet God’s arbitrary standards, and that guilt is meant to control us.
However, I think the reality is very different. If there was a person called Jesus who died on the cross, that was his choice. It doesn’t matter whether he was a god-man or just an ordinary man, nor does it matter whether he had a specific goal to save humanity or not. He made his choices in life, and now we need to be free to make ours.
We didn’t ask him to die on the cross. We didn’t even ask to be created, let alone to be created by a creator who would later judge us hopelessly warped and in need of salvation. Nor do we understand how this particular sacrifice saves us.
Guilt can be a useful control mechanism, but in this case it need have no hold over us. We have literally nothing to be guilty about. I reject any worldview which suggests the mere act of being human is a crime, and that is what this boils down to.
The gift that buys control
After the play, there was a post-play summing up by (I assume) the pastor. And the thing that stood out to me most was her saying “He doesn’t expect any gift from you. There’s nothing you can give him, because he’s given everything to you freely”.
This frustrated me a lot, because I could immediately think of counter-examples:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.Romans 12:1 (ESV)
[You, having] been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.Romans 6:18 (ESV)
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.1 Corinthians 6:19 - 20 (ESV)
[To] be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.1 Peter 2:5 (ESV)
Looking at those verses, it’s not just a small gift that was expected - we were supposed to be sacrificing ourselves. We were become slaves of righteousness. The “free gift” we had been given was actually the price that bought our bodies. We were appointed as priests, and our very job was to offer sacrifices to God. In everything, we were supposed to put God first.
I’m going to do the pastor the courtesy of assuming that she believed what she said when she said it, like I did when I was a believer and lay preacher. However, while it may sound appealing, it ends up a bait-and-switch.
Objectively speaking, it is clear that as a believer I gave up many things, and was expected to be willing to give up everything. And the reason why I gave up those things was the guilt at how much Jesus had suffered for my sins, and the hope of a brighter and better future beyond the grave.
I think Victor Hugo in Les Miserables is far more accurate:
The taking of the veil or the frock is a suicide recompensed by eternity.
Here he is talking particularly about women entering a convent, but I think it sounds exactly like the bargain I signed up for. And it’s backed up by the verses above: If giving up all control of our bodies and our lives is not suicide, what is it?
I think this casts the gift in a new light. Really, it is not a gift, but an investment in world domination at bargain basement prices. One short lifetime spent as a human, a few hours of pain on a cross, and a few days dead, and suddenly Jesus can assert control over all humanity. And we are supposed to be grateful for this?
The play went back to Eden, so I will too. God wanted control over humanity, so he imposed unjust standards on humans, and then claimed it was their fault when they didn’t meet them. And yet it seems he created them so that they couldn’t do anything but fall into slavery to sin.
And now somehow providing the perfect blood sacrifice fixes everything and gives him the moral high ground again. We are supposed to be so overjoyed that we will rush to sign up for the slavery that he failed to accomplish in Eden. This is not generous - it is obscene.
A Trojan Horse
After the play I went out hiking in the Dandenong Ranges, and vented my frustration. I expected claims about the True Meaning of Christmas. I could recognise the hyperbole in the Greatest Story and the Greatest Gift and ignore it as a sales spiel. But, as someone who damn near broke myself trying to serve God in the way the Bible prescribed, saying that the gift was a free gift and God didn’t expect anything of us was a bridge too far.
I no longer have any reason to believe God exists. But, if he did, I think he should be opposed. More than anything else, this gift now reminds me of the Trojan Horse - it is meant to look appealing, but there are hidden dangers within. The gift gives the giver complete control, while the receiver loses everything.
The actual greatest gift
As with “the greatest story”, I’m not sure what the greatest gift is. But I guess just the fact that we are alive and able to experience this world is a gift. And, as with the story of humanity, the contrast with the Christian version is marked.
We have the ability to interact with the world and with each other. We have the ability to change and hopefully improve the world. We are neither slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness, but free agents in our own right. We can find the things we value and find our own meaning. We are not broken from birth, and don’t need to measure ourselves against someone else’s arbitrary standards of perfection. We can accept ourselves as we are - flawed, but capable, and able to improve. We can recognise that we are all that we have, and that this life is all that we have, but it is enough.
Perhaps to believers some of my critiques seem misguided or even petty. But to me they aren’t just minor quibbles - they show a fundamental difference in worldview.
What role do we expect humanity to play in the universe? Are we someone else’s creation and play-thing? Do we have to find meaning in someone else’s purpose and divine plan? Does humanity need a cosmic saviour? Or should we take the responsibility (and privilege) of addressing our own problems and controlling our own destiny?
Personally, I see the retreat of the gods. I see a world without gods, and I see that it is a better world. And that includes a world without the oh-so-loving Christian god with his oh-so-wonderful gift of salvation.
I’m not confident that humanity will make a better world, but I think we need to try. After all, we are all that we have. And if that can give us peace and love and hope and meaning and purpose and all those other good things along the way, so much the better.