Giles Fraser writes a regular column in the British newspaper, the Guardian. Giles is an Anglican priest, and known for his liberal/inclusive views. He wrote his PhD on Nietzsche.
Until 2011 he was on a well-trod career path into the Anglican hierarchy. After a curacy and a chaplaincy/lecturing post at Oxford, he was rector of Putney [an upwardly-mobile suburb], and then a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London’s financial centre.
Then in October 2011 Occupy London based their protest outside St Paul's. Giles said that he was happy for people to "exercise their right to protest peacefully" outside the cathedral. Fraser resigned when the chapter [read ‘Parish Council’] of the Cathedral decided to use force to remove the protesters.
Giles found himself on the one hand a hero – a man with a conscience who stood with those opposed to greed. He was offered numerous speaking and writing opportunities and two [secular] universities offered him honorary doctorates.
On the other hand he was, at short notice, offered and accepted a parish not dissimilar to the one in the TV show “Rev.[i]” – an urban, financially deprived, backwater. It seemed the establishment was reproving one of its errant children.
On Christmas Eve this year, Giles wrote his weekly Guardian column on the subject of Mary.[ii] Giles was critical of the myth of the virgin conception, and its portrayal [betrayal?] of Mary as pure and spotless – untainted by the ‘sin’ of sex.
The problem with this portrayal, Giles pointed out, is that the early Jesus movement refuted the familiar distinction between pure and impure. Jesus was born among impure animals and dirt. From lepers to prostitutes to bleeding women, he deliberately associated with the ritually unclean. He spent most of his ministry tearing down barriers between pure and impure – not least, those of the Temple – that separated the “ungodly” from God.
In the theological world that Giles and I inhabit this is not a new thought. Bill Countryman wrote in 1988 a scholarly thesis on the New Testament and purity, titled Dirt, Greed, and Sex.
In the Guardian Giles writes:
“In Christianity, purity is abolished. Indeed, the core idea that the all-perfect God almighty might actually steep so low as to be born as a bleeding, defecating human being would have been regarded by all previously orthodox believers – both Greek and Jew – as disgusting. But this is the central insight of Christianity: that in the person of Jesus, there is no contradiction between being fully human and fully divine. Or, in other words, God is perfectly at home in a human life, with all its ritualistic mess, from blood to semen.”
Which is why, Giles concludes, the “pure virgin” tradition runs totally against the grain. The problem is not just basic biology: it doesn’t add up theologically.
Of course the cult of Mary’s virginity has played, and continues to play, a large role in the religious imagination of many Christians. Her womb became a new Temple, a pure place for God to reside. This pure/impure dichotomy supported those who labelled sex as ‘dirty’, and women’s sexuality similarly. The ideal woman was an oxymoronic virgin mother.
Outside the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, the virgin conception plays no further part in the New Testament. St Paul makes no mention of it. And most scholars agree that virgin is probably a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman.[iii] This is not to say that Mary was not an influential and spirited leader in the early Jesus’ movement.
Well, not surprisingly, Giles’ Guardian article unleashed a storm of protest from both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Fr Dwight Longenecker, writing in Patheos,[iv] accuses Giles of calling the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘just another teen fornicator’. Polemics aside, serious scholarship aside [Dwight dates the infancy narratives pre-65!], this author sums up his objections by saying:
“If Mary was not a virgin then she conceived Jesus through natural means. If that is true then some fellow–maybe Joseph–maybe who knows–is Jesus’ father, and if some one night stand stud is Jesus’ father then God is not his father, and if God is not his father, then he’s not God’s Son and if he’s not God’s son, then the whole doctrine of the incarnation is false too”.
Ignoring Dwight’s hang-ups about sex, I find the logic intriguing. It’s as if the proclamation that ‘God was in Christ’ [the incarnation] needs some non-human chromosomes. St Paul, on the other hand, believed that the primary manifestation/revelation of the truth that ‘God was in Christ’ was not something that happened at Jesus’ conception, but the wisdom-come-foolishness of the cross. Indeed I would say that Dwight’s logic not only makes Jesus into a hybrid alien, but detracts from the cross.
A conservative Protestant contribution to this debate was made by Dr Ian Paul writing in Premier Christianity.[v] Ian is more worried about Giles’ deconstruction of ‘purity’. He asserts that “what separates Christianity from other religions is not the abolition of purity, but accessibility to purity made available not by our own effort or religious activity, but by the gift of God’s grace.” Ian has a ‘dirty/clean’ philosophy, with cleanliness [for those who believe] coming through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Although Dr Paul’s scholarship is seriously wanting [he accredits for example the authorship of I Timothy to Paul!], he highlights John 8:41. This is a text where opponents of Jesus declare: “We were not born of fornication” – implying that Jesus was. Ian thinks this is evidence for the reliability of the Virgin Birth tradition; whereas I think it is evidence only that Jesus’ conception was perceived as unusual, for example conceived out of wedlock consensually or non-consensually.[vi]
As you might imagine in both the press and social media there has been considerable debate around these issues.
The more I listen to such arguments – and you will remember that I have been in the midst of Mary debates before – there seems to be a fundamental clash between two different theological worldviews, particularly around historicity, miracle, salvation, and sin.
The theological world I inhabit sees the Christmas stories as fictitious accounts designed to introduce the radical nature of the adult Jesus. They contrast the Lord and Saviour Caesar with the anomaly of a new ‘lord’ and ‘saviour’ born illegitimate in a squalid barn. At Bethlehem low-life shepherds and heathen travellers are welcome while the powerful and the priests aren’t. The stories introduce the topsy-turvy way of God, where the outsiders are invited in and the insiders ushered out.
However there is another theological world, evident in Dwight’s and Ian’s writings that see the Christmas stories as factual accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth. They think that a camera would have recorded it just as it’s written. And the paramount miracle is Jesus’ conception 9 months before. Although no one wants to talk details, Mary ‘miraculously’ conceived without the aid of a human male. Indeed in Roman Catholic theology [reflecting 1st century science] the sperm and egg were both divine and were planted in Mary by supernatural agency. The purpose of the Christmas stories, according to this view, is to introduce the miracle-working God and God’s miracle-working divine Son, for between the two of them they will bring salvation to humans.
If historicity is the first difference between these two theological worldviews then salvation is the next. For Christians like me, salvation is about wholeness/health for individuals and their communities. Salvation comes about through the sharing of love and the building of peace and justice. It is something that happens in this place, on this planet. The words ‘love’, ‘peace’, and ‘justice’ are exemplified and explained by the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ death and his disciples’ experience of resurrection are simply part of that life and teaching. Jesus’ death was a consequence of the offensive nature of his praxis, and his resurrection a symbolic vindication.
This other theological world has quite a different understanding of salvation. Salvation happens through a miraculous divine event [the death and resurrection of Jesus], that offered and continues to offer [for those who believe] forgiveness of sin, and the satiation of God’s alleged need for retributive justice. Belief is really important – more important than behaviour – for it is by believing in this salvation schema that individuals are saved. Salvation affects individuals for eternity. This view of salvation would see love, peace, and justice simply as means towards the more important end of saving souls. As one Christmas billboard on an Auckland church put it: “Jesus born 2 die 4 u”.
‘Sin’ is a key word in this understanding. That’s why Jesus allegedly had to die. Everyone has to be a sinner in order to assert that Jesus died for you. And that’s why Jesus, according to some, has to have divine chromosomes [read ‘be born of a virgin’] so that he can be called sinless. Giles’ comments on Jesus breaking down the barriers between pure and impure, and on the non-virgin conception of Jesus, were therefore seen as a threat to the importance of sin in this understanding of Christianity.
There are of course more than two Christian theological worldviews, and many thinkers try to blend these two I’ve mentioned. Yet there are significant points of difference that in that blending tend to get lost, and when a columnist like Giles Fraser points out some of the difference all manner of argument and name-calling ensues.
I close with Giles’ final paragraph:
“[Mary was] a spirited young woman from Galilee, pregnant and unmarried, she sung about how God would pull down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who your parents are. Early Christians answered the [critics about Jesus’ paternity] in the wrong way. When they charged Jesus with being illegitimate, they should simply have replied: “So what if he was?”
[iii] Isaiah 7:14.