John Grisham’s novel Skipping Christmas got me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. It was the same with Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, which evoked such uncontrolled laughter that many in the New Year’s Day crowd at the Nassau airport were staring at me like I was insane. Some in my family whispered for me to please get ahold of myself.
We seem to be uncomfortable when we are outside observers of the far ends of emotions — whether crying, laughing, raging or being confused. “Shhhhhh. People are watching.”
In Skipping Christmas (which inspired the movie Christmas with the Kranks), the main character has grown weary of the holiday rigors like decorating the house. Since his daughter isn’t going to be home for Christmas, he decides to skip the discomforts and head to the Caribbean. This gets under the skin of neighbors who don’t want bland landscape marring their Christmas utopia.
So, we have a contrast. The manner of Luther Krank’s absence marred the holidays for his neighbors. The manner of Brad Bull’s presence at the Gate 3 waiting area in the Nassau airport made some travelers feel uncomfortable. (Hey, I had just graduated from seminary, and my parents’ gifting me the trip came with certain rights to let my hair down.)
Now, let’s allow the Ghost of Christmas Past to take us to a not-too-distant past. Some friends invited me to a Christmas Eve candlelight service at a humungous urban church. The massive in-person crowd was surely dwarfed by the TV audience.
There was, of course, a series of Scripture readings. Looking at the program, I recognized the Hebrew Scripture passage that would describe the sin of the world that requires a Savior. Genesis 3 describes Adam and Eve sinning and running in shame to hide from God. God finds them and declares the consequence of their sin.
“They weren’t skipping some long boring passage in between the key points. They were skipping just one verse.”
However, in the printed bulletin, I noticed the reader would be delivering “Genesis 3:1-15;17-20.” Did you catch it? They weren’t skipping some long boring passage in between the key points. They were skipping just one verse. Now, to a faith-pursuing, knowledge-hungry, stubborn person like me, that was like putting up a sign that said, “Don’t look through this hole in the wall.” I wondered, “What the dickens does verse 16 say?”
I pulled out my phone and opened my Bible app. The other sheep in this flock might simply listen to the voice of the reader. They might look only at the text printed on the jumbo screens on either side of the massive choir loft. But this stubborn donkey wanted to know what verse 16 did to be put in timeout.
I read the verse. Oh. Oh yeah.
Let’s come back to that. First, let’s look at what comes immediately before and after Genesis 3:16.
The narrator — using the “all-knowing” literary voice — says the Lord is telling the consequences for the disobedient behavior of eating fruit clearly marked as radioactive after the nuclear fission of creation. Verses 14-15 report the condemnation of the serpent for prompting the disobedience:
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Verses 17-18 report the consequences to the man:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
So, for giving in to temptation, the man is going to have to work hard. That’s bleak, but it was included in the reading. So, what about the woman? What was so bad that verse 16 was omitted? Well, here it is:
To the woman he said, “I will make your pangs in childbirth exceedingly great; in pain you shall bring forth children, ….
Let’s stop there a smidge. Hard work is one thing. Some people actually like it. However, it seems pretty gnarly to suggest one woman’s sin leads to God punishing all women with having “exceedingly great” pain in childbirth. But we’re here on Christmas Eve, celebrating Mary giving birth in a barn. Wouldn’t this verse call to mind Mary’s pain in delivering the world’s Savior? Yes, but wait. There’s more punishment annunciated to women in verse 16.
“… yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
Ouch. That verse was just too uncomfortable to say out loud.
Of course, plenty of super-traditionalist churches absolutely read that verse out loud. They use it like a cattle prod to put women in what such churches see as women’s proper place: Guilt, shame and subservience.
These represent two of three basic ways of dealing with Scripture. Super-traditionalist churches feel uncomfortable with the absence of verse 16. They use Scripture in an aggressive/authoritarian manner. By contrast, churches that feel uncomfortable with the presence of verse 16 and merely skip the uncomfortable verse are being passive; they sweep it under the rug.
After the service, on our way to a late dinner, I asked a college student in our group if he noticed verse 16 had been omitted. He had not. I suggested he read verses 14-18 and then share his hypothesis for the omission.
After reading, the student said, “Eeeesh. Verse 16 sounds misogynistic and makes women sound inferior.” (Mmm. Hey, Churches-that-Read-Problematic-Passages-Without-Contextualizing: People are watching.)
All of us then talked about a healthier third alternative to aggressive or passive ways of encountering Scripture: an assertive approach. This approach is complicated to use during an individual Scripture reading. It requires long-running nurture. However, if we’re going to use complex passages, we must take at least a moment to put them in context.
There in the car, we discussed that Scripture was written in a historical context and all cultures use stories to make sense of life. The Cherokee creation story — also told from the perspective of a literary “all-knowing” narrator — describes how a water beetle was sent from the heavens to scout out the water-covered planet. (Note the similarity to earth’s watery beginnings described in the Hebrew creation story.) The beetle got tired and carried mud from under the water and built the land. The Greeks, wanting to understand why a small portion of people have both male and female traits, told the story of the part-male-part-female Hermaphroditus, from whence we get the word “hermaphrodite.”
“While in the vernacular myth has come to mean ‘fictitious,’ theologians use it to indicate a story people use to make sense of the world.”
I explained to my college-aged friend that a big division happened between some theologians and laypeople over the use of the word “myth.” While in the vernacular myth has come to mean “fictitious,” theologians use it to indicate a story people use to make sense of the world.
In the car that day, we discussed the paradox that stories are not untrue just because they are fictitious. Allegories are true in a different sense if we consider the distinction between “little-t” truths about facts and “big-T” truths about concepts and experiences.
C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories are fiction, but they engage us deeply in spiritual truths unlike any text by Rudolph Bultmann — although such texts provide us thought-provoking ideas that forge maturation in the heat of contemplation. Rather than the destructive force of dogmatic aggression or the deflating long-term effect of passively ignoring discomfort, if we assertively consider scriptural context and the natural course of human development, we keep Scripture sacred across infinity rather than limiting it to the time it was written. It’s like when I open the cedar chest, pull out pictures my adult children drew in elementary school, take pictures with my phone, and text them to my children. Our relationship changes with time, and all of it is valued.
Reading Genesis anew
Taken in this light, we can see the Genesis creation story as immature humans searching for an explanation of why life is hard. They had a sense that misbehavior led to misfortune; and since childbirth was hard and agriculture was hard, some misbehavior must have caused it. Yet, good news abounds. Despite this immature view of causation reflected in Genesis 1-3, the story does not end there.
“The Genesis account hangs on the cosmic refrigerator to show us where we’ve been and how loved we are even in our immaturity.”
Yes, sin — departure from ultimate Truth — does lead to bad consequences. Some sins are intentional sins of commission, like killing someone or spreading gossip. Some sins are acts of omission. That can be intentional — like not helping someone in need; or it can be unintentional — like ignorantly believing the earth is flat or that women are more responsible for the world’s ills just because men struggle with temptation to have sex with them. In the midst of our ignorance, there is hope that we are loved, just like parents graciously accept their kindergartner’s immature finger painting and proudly display it on the refrigerator. The Genesis account hangs on the cosmic refrigerator to show us where we’ve been and how loved we are even in our immaturity.
Hearing this conversation in the car, the college student said something like this: “It would help people my age to see that such an old book still has something to offer, not in spite of its flawed stories but because of them.” (Mmm. Hey, Churches-that-Sweep-Problematic-Passages-Under-the Rug: People are watching.)
In Genesis 1-3, we have a rather sloppy finger painting of cosmology, sociology and theology — the understandings of the cosmos, human relationships and the nature of God. Yes, there is the sin of indulgence in the forbidden, but the most significant departure from the divine is ignorance. Yet, there is good news. Those ancient people saw hope in the midst of their overt sins of misbehavior and covert sins of ignorance that demeaned both women and men. God loved them and their sloppy finger paintings. A thousand years from now, we surely will look ignorant in both knowledge and behavior, because we are.
However, in the face of our scientific, social and theological ignorance, Luke 2:52 reports hope: “Jesus increased in wisdom, and stature, and in favor with God and people.” And John 3:21 reports Jesus saying to us: “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Even our truth-seeking behavior remains tainted by ignorance, but it is redeemed by God who proudly spotlights our flawed but heartfelt art on the cosmic refrigerator. We see this displayed in Genesis 3. Jesus redeems all in that passage, elevating women from first in sin to first proclaimers of resurrection. Likewise, all of us can be redeemed without being skipped. This gives us cause for Advent yearning and to celebrate a very merry Christmas.
Yes, into the darkness of our ignorance in both knowledge and deeds: Come, Lord Jesus, light of the world.
Brad Bull has served as a minister, university professor and UPS seasonal driver helper. He once described himself as an iconoclast, and the valedictorian he was talking with asked what an iconoclast was. He stuttered, “It’s someone who … is … a … pain in the behind to traditionalists … because he or she is so afraid of joining the masses chanting for Barabbas instead of Jesus.” He is licensed marriage and family therapist in Tennessee and Virginia. His counseling and retreat services can be reached at DrBradBull.com.
Looking beyond ‘fact or fable’ alternatives in the Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke | Opinion by Robert Sellers