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In defence of the nativity play

The nativity story is one of the treasures of our cultural storehouse and it has meaning for us whether you think it’s historical fact or just a myth. Let’s not stop telling it, writes Natasha Moore.

The kid is maybe eight years old. She’s bursting to tell Mum the news.

“We’ve been given our parts in the nativity play!”

Mum exhibits suitable levels of suspense.

“….and I’m the lobster.”

Mum is thrown, for a moment. “The lobster?”

“Yeah!” freckled daughter enthuses.

“In the nativity play?”

“Yeah,” the girl repeats. Then adds, helpfully, “First lobster.”

“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?”

I think this was the moment, sitting with my own mum in a Sydney cinema back at the end of 2003, when I knew I was going to love Love Actually.

I didn’t realise until moving to the UK myself a few years later that this scene could barely be called caricature – that English schoolchildren routinely feature in re-enactments of the Christmas story as everything from badgers or giant raisins to dinosaurs, lightning, aliens (which also receive a cameo in the school concert at the end of Love Actually), and belly dancers.

Even in the UK – world leader in the maintenance of charming and innocuous traditions – there have been rumblings in recent years against the religious associations of the nativity story. In Australia, it’s been some time since shepherds with tea towels on their heads and angels with cardboard wings have been the norm during the Christmas season, at least in public schools.

Expunging the story of the birth of Christ from Christmas is in essence, I suspect, illogical, a strange mix of over-sensitivity and insensitivity. Are people genuinely offended by it, or only ever worried that others might be offended? And does a story, once understood as history and now seen by many as myth, thereby lose its meaning, and whatever wisdom or power it was thought to contain? Do we scrub out the story of Pandora’s box, or of King Arthur and his knights, because we no longer trust them as accounts of historical fact?

I happen to be a Christian, so I do think the story of Mary and Joseph, the stable in Bethlehem, the shepherds and wise men, is true; or, more accurately, I’m Christian because I think it’s true.

And there’s a real sense in which this is an all-or-nothing game: if God really did show up within his own creation at Christmas, then no story in the world carries more meaning than this one. If it’s merely a human invention, however, its message of hope is an illusion.

But if the story is false, we still need to take into account the seismic changes it brought about in Western culture and self-understanding. It is (at the very least) an origin story for the West, and the falling away of Christian belief among a growing number of Westerners doesn’t necessarily make its implications moot.

A couple of examples.

The events at Bethlehem have throughout Western history been taken as a resounding affirmation of the physical: of our bodies, of the material world, of humans as creatures of some importance. If God himself stooped to take on human form and to live and suffer alongside human beings, then who are we to despise what he has decisively honoured?

Everyday, unglamorous life is to be cherished. The human body, with all the damage and indignity it routinely sustains, is to be treated with respect and not distaste. The marginalised, the obscure, the poor and struggling, are equally (and perhaps especially) of value.

Do we still believe this?

The Christmas story is the story of God descended not only to helpless human babyhood, but also to the precariousness of life as a poor, persecuted, even (at his birth) homeless person – about to become a refugee, in fact. And from the words of Jesus himself onwards (“the first will be last”) it’s been interpreted as a paradigm of weakness once and for all triumphing over strength.

Jesus urged his disciples to love their enemies; the New Testament insists that God himself came to die for his, to dissolve evil and hatred with love and self-sacrifice, instead of further hatred and violence.

Direct from this story came the West’s (patchy) traditions of compassion (“suffering with”) for the poor and voiceless, and of non-violence as the most pure and transformative response to enmity.

Do we still see beauty in such ideas?

The nativity story is not a cosy narrative. It’s a confronting, revolutionary and enduringly important one – even for those who think it’s “just” a myth.

The birth of Jesus is a story pregnant with meaning and full of intimations of what it’s like to be human in this mad, gorgeous world.

The philosopher John Gray, himself an atheist, suggests that we ignore such stories to our loss. He writes:

“Myths aren’t relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They’re stories that tell us something about ourselves that can’t be captured in scientific theories … Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.”

A society that tells itself this particular “myth” will imbibe with it a particular sense of human nature, of weakness and power, of the disconnect between somebody’s importance and how humble their origins are.

My own sense is that the depth and counter-intuitiveness of these truths suggest that the Christmas story is much more than simply a repository of human wisdom. That it may be, truly, Emmanuel: God come down to us, as one of us.

But whatever else it is, the birth of Jesus is a story pregnant with meaning – not yet exhausted by nearly two thousand years of retelling – and full of intimations of what it’s like to be human in this mad, gorgeous world.

We might be tempted to add a few lobsters to the original, or a posse of all-singing, all-dancing squirrels. But the Christmas story is one of the treasures of our cultural storehouse, and – like all stories – more powerful as narrative than boiled down to statements of belief about human value or peacemaking. Let’s not stop telling it.

This article first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.