Skeptics can believe

December 27, 2003

Jean and I are in Canada for the holidays, but still in the thoughts of our landlord’s family back in Yemen. These Muslim believers have nicknamed our little girl Elizabeth “Mariam” or Mary in honour of Jesus’ mother.

That’s interesting, but not a total surprise, since Jesus and Mary are revered by most Muslims, who also agree with the orthodox Christian view of Jesus’ virgin birth.

That’s more than can be said for the Jesus Seminar, a group of so-called scholars who surface every Christmas and Easter to tell us who Jesus really was. With names like Robert Funk and Walter Wink, in recent years these clowns have written off virtually everything the Biblical gospels tell us about Christ.

For example, they argue Jesus could not have fed 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes because, well, that’s not “natural.” I guess Jesus just cued everyone to pull out a bagged lunch from under their cloaks. Funny? Well, Funk actually claims Jesus was more like the first Jewish stand-up comic.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to debunk myths. Like the one that more people commit suicide at Christmas because they’re more disillusioned over life. Studies show suicides actually decrease over the holidays, which I find quite remarkable because the season’s cultural garb does drive some of us mad.

Firstly, of course, Dec. 25 is not Jesus’ literal birthday. It was picked for cultural reasons, similar to the Muslims’ annual Hajj to Mecca, which replaced a seasonal celebration held before Islam was born in the 7th century. And those three kings from the “Orient” who gave Jesus gold, incense and myrrh?

In fact, they likely came from Babylon, modern Iraq, which at that time had a large Jewish community, or from Persia, modern Iran, another home of the priestly caste of Magi. They were not kings, but experts in medicine, religion and astronomy.

Further, the gospels say that Magi, and not necessarily three of them, gave their gifts when Jesus was a young child at his house. That’s likely in Nazareth, not at his Bethlehem manger. I could go on, but the point is we need to let the story tell itself. And like urban legends, any faith needs healthy skepticism.

Novelist John Updike puts it well, noting that “looking at some of our present-day ayatollahs and Fuhrers, the devil is, in fact, the absence of doubt. He’s what pushes people into suicide bombings, into building extermination camps. Doubt may give your dinner a funny taste, but it’s faith that goes out and kills.”

With that said, nobody does well in a culture of unbelief. True, it’s not easy to accept someone’s claims to forgive sin. And men normally don’t rise from the dead. But what’s the difference between that and creating the world from nothing, or parting the Red Sea, or turning water into wine? Is one supernatural event harder than another?

That’s what the Funks and Winks of this world don’t get. Jesus’ actions were never meant to be natural. The question is, are they true? Because, despite the slogan that “we can always find our own private meaning in just the story,” in our hearts, truth matters very much.

And for that, my money goes to bone-diggers like journalist Lee Strobel. An ex-skeptic, this former Chicago crime reporter and author of The Case for Christ, tried to debunk his wife’s newfound faith by doing his own exhaustive investigation into Jesus with various global experts. Problem is, he kept coming across unexpected information.

For example, based on events, some out of the control of Jesus, such as where he was born, mathematician Peter Stoner calculates the odds of anyone but Jesus of Nazareth being the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies as one in a trillion to the power of 13. All Strobel found is that based on empirical evidence of history, literature and science, it’s more reasonable to believe in the orthodox, Biblical Jesus than not to.

That’s why this season has always been less about evidence per se and more about the choice to celebrate or not. Christmas doesn’t ask “Who is Jesus?” It asks “Who are we?”

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December 27, 2003 • Posted in ,
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