O Little Allegory of Bethlehem?

[In this post I wonder out loud about some basic fundamentals of the nature of our belief.  Two weeks ago I wrote Praying and Practicing the Faith, in which I questioned what I really believe about the power and purpose of prayer.  Not quite a year ago I wrote Believing in Something Real, in which I explored prayer and the radical reality of God in whom I profess to have faith.]

Saturday’s Washington Post carried an Associated Press article entitled Seeking a Star in the East.
It tells of the research of Notre Dame astronomer Grant Mathews who
posits that the star described in the Gospel of Matthew was actually an
alignment of planets in the constellation Aires.  Mathews believes
(quoting the article)

the wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers who would have recognized
the planetary alignment in Aries as a sign that a powerful leader was

"In fact, it would have even meant that [the leader was] destined to
die at an appointed time, which of course would have been significant
for the Christ child and may have been why they brought myrrh, which
was an embalming fluid," Mathews said.

is interesting, and makes for some intriguing speculation.  And we’ve
heard scientific explanations before in relation to the flood, Sodom
and Gomorrah, Jesus’ walk on water, and more.  But does it matter?

The article lacked any comment from religious leaders on the
relevance of attempts by researchers to scientifically verify stories
of faith.  For me, science neither proves nor disproves religion.  I
think there is much shared by religion and science, and there is much
in science to which we people of faith should pay our attention.  But I
couldn’t give a rat’s rear end what scientists say about Biblical
stories.  If Biblical stories are somehow proved, does that give more
credence to our faith?  If Biblical stories are somehow disproved, does
that detract from my faith?  The scientific explanation of Biblical
stories is, at best, an interesting parlor game and nothing else.  So,
what do I believe about that star?

In liberal protestantism it is fashionable to talk of the Christian "myths" and be more interested in the meaning
of a story rather than to be concerned with its literal veracity.  We
don’t care if the star of Bethlehem was a real star as much as we care
about the light of Christ to which it points.  We don’t care if
Creation actually took place in six days, and on the seventh
day God rested.  Rather, we ask what that story tells us about our
relationship with God.  And I generally go along with this allegorical
interpretation of Scripture, for surely our holy book was not written
with attention to modern notions of scientific or historical accuracy, but rather to
tell a story of a people’s encounter with God.

But if we interpret our holy book as a series of stories of a
people’s encounter with God, when does allegory end and reality begin?
Is the whole darn book just a series of allegories?  Do we really
believe that Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, or is that an
allegory?  Do we really believe that Jesus multiplied the loaves
and fishes?  And what about the Big Enchilada, the resurrection itself?  Is
Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension another allegory, a la the
six-day Creation story, or do we really believe that the God-with-us
suffered and died, was buried, and rose from the dead a few days
later?  Where do we draw the line between allegory and reality?

I’ve been inclined to profess ignorance about the historical or
scientific veracity of most of the Biblical stories, choosing to focus
on the allegorical value of those stories rather than argue for their
literal interpretation.  And truly I continue to read Scripture that
way.  But I’m concerned about a slippery slope that turns miracles into
allegories and power into parables.  Does this not turn us away from
belief in an incarnated God who truly came and continues to come to be
with us, a God who is really and radically present in the person of
Christ?  We profess to believe in an incredibly tangible God, an
incredibly real God who is Emmanuel, God with us, a God who comes to us
in Word and Sacrament, and who promises to show up in the least
expected of places of our lives and world. 

Stories and allegories are good, really good.  But at some point,
our God and our faith ain’t allegory any more.  It’s reality.  In this
season of the Incarnation I’ll be pondering anew the radical and real
experiences of the witnesses to
the Incarnation: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds . . . saints of all ages . . . and me.  In what ways have I witnessed the Incarnated God in my life?  This is the season to ask such a question.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “O Little Allegory of Bethlehem?

  1. Hi there
    Are you ELCA? I used to be ELCA. Now I’m WELS. The key reason for the move? The WELS gets so much more out of the Bible for taking it more seriously. Really.
    For example, take Jonah. Whenever I heard someone in ELCA (or before it, LCA) talk about Jonah, the main thing I registered was their embarrassment, and the key point I understood was that they really, really wanted to make sure I understood they didn’t take it literally. Only the Neanderthals over in the synods-that-must-not-be-named (obviously reactionary and unintelligent, y’know) would actually believe a thing like that, and here we aren’t unenlightened, reactionary, or unintelligent like they are.
    When I was visiting a WELS church, Jonah came up. They spent all of 10 seconds on the whale / big fish, just like the book itself does, and then moved onto the point: God’s followers are often less forgiving than God is; and the fact that we are bad messengers with corrupt hearts doesn’t actually excuse us from taking the message, which might still do the good for which it is intended.
    That and some other “compare/contrast” moments are why I’m now WELS instead of ELCA. By ELCA standards I suppose I was somewhat conservative; now by WELS standards no doubt I’m somewhat liberal.
    I am absolutely not here to tell you which side of the political Lutheran divide to be on. The above is offered as my story of how I got to be where I am. I have no problem whatsoever taking all of the miracles in the NT as literally historically true. I have doubts in the OT about, say, Balaam’s donkey; it seems out of God’s usual style. I know it’s fashionable in liberal circles to think the Exodus never happened; myself, I think it did.
    From my experience, part of the liberal/conservative divide in the church is that conservatives will generally take anything in the Bible as true whether there is outside supporting evidence or not (or, in the case of creation, despite outside evidence to the contrary on the timeline). Liberals will generally assume anything miraculous is “mythical” or “allegorical”, and even merely-historical items in the Bible such as lists of kings are held suspect unless there is a second source, a confirmation from outside the Bible.
    There are some on the liberal side who put the resurrection basically in the mythical category. Some liberals who yet call themselves Christians have said that the “empty tomb story” was fabricated to “express the resurrection faith” of the followers. There is an ex-ELCA pastor who has moved to more conservative waters who mentioned preaching the resurrection while sincerely hoping no-one in the congregation would ask an opinion on whether the tomb was really empty; the answer (if asked) would have been “no”. How prevalent is this? I couldn’t say. I have no doubt that my own ELCA pastor (back in the day) believed the empty tomb to be historically really empty. I’ve also read public announcements released by the pastor of the nearest ELCA church to me, and I would be very surprised if he believed the resurrection to have been literally, historically true.
    I know we were discussing the literal 6-dayness of creation. I do have my beliefs on that but I have a friend who disagrees with me strongly and has gotten a promise from me that I keep an open mind until I finish some recommended reading. Being bound by a promise in this case, I have to no-comment on that one. My promise doesn’t prevent me from mentioning this much: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. (All Christians believe that much … don’t we?)
    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF

  2. In these times – lines get drawn and fingers are pointed, but I would like to give you some support for what I discern are my similar views about God’s Holy Word.
    I look upon the first 12 chapters of Genesis as specifically allegorical – there are just too many inconsistancies with science and I am both scientist and clergy.
    I do however believe that Abram was a real person and his family and God’s salvation history that begins with Abram’s calling out of Iraq and sent on a journey of which he did not know the ending – that is historical truth to me. There are a few other Old Testament books that remain allegorical to me – but if some would like to see them as historical I have no way of proving or disproving my theory.
    The best quote that I have heard refering to this topic about The Bible – is – “The Bible is not a book about the ages of rocks, but IT IS about the Rock of Ages!”
    So I rejoice in the awesome mystery that we celebrate this Season of Christmas and I leave you with this prayer that I use for Christmas Eve 11:00 pm candlelight worship.
    For the mystery of Thy Holy Incarnation;
    for Thy Holy Nativity;
    for Thy birth in Humility;
    for Thy life on earth; we give Thee thanks.

  3. A comment to let you know that you are not standing on one side of the line by yourself. This one of those topics that people really do use to divide churches. Since I am both scientist and clergy – I have a viewpoint that includes the Bible and physical evidence that is verifiable. I have thought of the first 12 chapters of Genesis as allegory because they contain some inconsistancies that are understood better as the words of Theological significance and not science. I also believe that God really entered our history in the life of Abram who was sent on a journey to a place that God would show him – salvation history lived out the life of generations of his family. Although a couple of other old testament books seem to be parable-like and we do know that Jesus was fond of parables so that maybe there are parables in the Old Testament as well.
    The best quote that I have heard refering to this topic: “The Bible IS about the Rock of Ages, not the ages of rocks.”
    Enjoy the awesome wonder and mystery that surrounds this celebration of the Incarnation.
    I share with you this prayer I use at our 11:00 pm candle-lit service on Christmas Eve.
    For the mystery of Thy Holy Incarnation;
    For Thy Holy Nativity;
    For Thy Birth in Humility;
    For Thy Life on Earth; we give Thee thanks.

  4. An intriguing little article, I always suspected that a significant portion of the OT to be either allegorical or parables.
    Could you list for me the allegories and parables that are in the OT?
    Many thanks.

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