Someone just asked me for a recommendation for a book that would facilitate their deep-dive into the Christmas story and would meet them where they are in their faith journey – which includes deconstructing some of their inherited traditionalist theological assumptions.
I suggested The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. They put the multiple stories that we have come to know as “the Christmas story” into historical context. They acknowledge the historical and cultural distance of these stories from us but also illuminate both the political and personal implications of these stories for us today. They liken the birth narratives to parables – of which the point is not whether they are literally true or false (i.e. whether they really happened in the way described or not). What truly (!) matters is the new reality created or the stimulus for personal and social transformation evoked for and within the audience – the listener and reader.
I use the the term legend to describe the infancy narratives in my own work. Legend works better than myth for the Christmas stories, but it admits these stories or aspects of these stories may well be grounded in time-and-space reality, even if they are not meant to be interpreted literally as having happened precisely as the narratives suggest. I do think it matters, theologically, spiritually, and otherwise, whether these stories really happened in the ways suggested by the narratives – or not (see A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why it Matters) for that argument and those implications. Nonetheless, like a parable, the legends of Jesus’s birth invites us into an alternative way of imagining reality – and provoking reflection to change our own.