Thursday, December 20, 2007

London Telegraph: Rowan Williams says Nativity is nothing but a legend

Woke up this morning to hearing Fred Grandy (former congressman, former Gopher, currently Episcopalian) on WMAL Radio talking about this:

Dr Rowan Williams has claimed there was little evidence that the Magi even existed and there was certainly nothing to prove there were three of them or that they were kings.

Dr Williams argued that the traditional Christmas story was nothing but a 'legend.'

He said the only reference to the wise men from the East was in Matthew's gospel and the details were very vague.

Dr Williams said: "Matthew's gospel says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that's all we're really told. It works quite well as legend."

The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story, adding that there were probably no asses or oxen in the stable.

He argued that Christmas cards which showed the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus, flanked by shepherds and wise men, were misleading. As for the scenes that depicted snow falling in Bethlehem, the Archbishop said the chance of this was "very unlikely".

In a final blow to the traditional nativity story, Dr Williams concluded that Jesus was probably not born in December at all. He said: "Christmas was when it was because it fitted well with the winter festival."
Now this is a classic example by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the sort of musings of someone who is at home in academia, but probably has no idea what it's like to stand at the door of the church after services and listen to the laity stream out, shaking your hand while offering weak smiles of bewilderment before marching off to find the senior warden to learn how long it will be before you are sacked.

Why should academics fear the laity? Academics are free to speculate all they wish and who will dare challenge them but the brow-furled evangelical seminarian who has to decide whether to write the final paper with footnotes or give in and go for the A. But a rector who has to stand out in the cold shaking the hands of his congregation will get a word or two of instant response. Rectors learn after a while to keep such speculation out of the pulpit - or else they run for General Convention Deputy.

Read the full interview here.

One starts to wonder if Rowan Williams' staff is now trying to get rid of him.

LATER: Or maybe he was really talking about the Three Wise Guys:


Ann said...

I think if you read the actual interview you will find that once again the Telegraph is trying to tear down the ABC.
Read it here or listen to the whole thing here.
The ABC is talking about the legend that has grown up around the Magi and the actual Gospel of Matthew.

Unknown said...

One of the problems here is just completely bad staffing.

I have to wonder what side of stupid Rowan Williams staff woke up on.

There are places, signficant places where one has theological discussions about what is the biblical understanding of the Magi (I think in the Church calendar we don't actually recognize the Magi until in January, if I remember correctly). It's always worth having signficant discussion about references in scripture and engaging in exegesis of the text and the cultural implications to the societies that engage in traditional observances of biblical events. I can spout it out with the best of them.

But you do not - do not - as a staff member permit a theologian of any stripe to debunk deeply held traditions (especially when you are the Guy In Charge) as little children are in Nativity Plays all over the world.

By now Rowan Williams' staff must know him and know that he might be inclined to engage in this type of conversation days away from Christmas. If he wants to hold a seminar at Cambridge and discuss the theological implications of a visit from a mythical magi, perhaps in the Spring, he should go right ahead and do it.

But to make statements like these to the Telegraph days away from Christmas - and a staff who would encourage such statements - is, I'm sorry, a grand illustration of the HHHB #2.

To wake up this morning to a call in talk radio show to hear a former actor of Love Boat and now retired US Congressman-turned-morning radio host making fun of the Archbishop of Canterbury was not a great way to start the day.

But I'm sure Jack Spong loved it.


Andy said...

Agreed Double-Bee...

Discussing this among seminarians or maturing believers or students of scripture is one thing, but to throw out red meat to an overtly secular press is just ill-thought.

Creches, and other icons of the western celebration of Christmas are in and of themselves, nonscriptural. If they don't fly in the face of orthodox Christian teachng, they should be left alone.


Craig G said...

Let's see now -- with every household that faithfully attends CoE services on Sunday (no, not "both of them", smart alec!) featuring a crèche prominently in their Christmas decorations, and Hallmark making a fortune off crèche-themed cards, the ABC's popularity just took a real nosedive, his natural resemblance to Santa Claus and Welsh charm notwithstanding.

I really think someone in the ACO was trying to get even for his Advent Letter...

Anonymous said...

This is news about news. ++Williams said nothing wrong and nothing offensive. What he said was taken and purposefully manipulated by reporters.

If we want to cast blame, let us blame the media, not the Archbishop.


Unknown said...

Selah, perhaps the recommendation that you are giving is the sort of recommendation being given to Rowan. It depends on who your audience is. Perhaps Rowan is appealling to that Spong-Majority that will just love this. But for the Regular Joe the timing is terrible and it seems to me its a staff issue. Heads need to roll at Lambeth or someone else's head is going to roll. I write this for Rowan's sake. I like him very much. I wouldn't get all worked up about it if I didn't.


Anonymous said...

One should not be surprised that some would question the ABC's leadership. How dare he put a question of authenticity to the fabric of a story that began in two distinct cities, has been wrapped in legends for millenia, and has become the claptrap of the me first generation.

To challenge the ABC's honest telling of the story's beginnings is to defy all common sense and the integrity of our faith.

Some folks prefer Alice in Wonderland to a mature faith experience. I can only wish them a the best for their journey, not of faith, but of fiction. After all, the Canterbury Tales may be preferable to Canterbury's honesty in exploring the historical basis for our celebration of the Saviour's coming into the World.

Kevin said...

Wow Anon! You sure are bold to make such statements. To claim someone could believe tradition is on a journey of fiction!

I have my personal view from studying this subject, in some ways they may not be so far from yours in that I'm not so wedded to the traditional take, however I could not be farther from you in your response.

Yikes, to claim one is outside of faith for disagreeing on this section of Matthew is way over the top. I don't know what you mean by "a mature faith experience" but I honestly don't think I want to know for it seems to be contrary to some other area of Scripture (the essence of 1 Cor 8 might be a good place to start talking about the duties of the "mature").

TK+ said...

Saw this earlier on StandFirm . . . I concur with those who say that ++Rowan said nothing actually wrong, just that it was botched by the media. This is a case in point of why my bishop--along with probably some others--makes a policy of not talking to the media, unless its somebody he already knows will get the story right (and even then its rare). If not for the botched reporting (or might we say, slanted) the whole story would be more or less on par with "ABC points out that St. Nick was actually a charitable bishop in ancient Asia Minor, not a jolly man in a red suit with reindeer." It could even be a pastoral attempt to get people in touch with the gritty reality of the Incarnation, rather than the rather sentimentalized portrayals against which most of his criticisms seem to be aimed.

And, just for the record, the one time I actually encountered the ABC it was because he stayed around after evensong at Canterbury Cathedral to greet people.

Anonymous said...

"every household that faithfully attends CoE" is perhaps a public audience worth being wary of.

But, Craig, one must actually consider a much larger audience: That would be every household that faithfully attends CoE at Christmas and Easter.

(from the Briar Patch)

Unknown said...

Let me see if I can explain this better. Since this is a "cafe" it's clear that we love to discuss over coffee and chai and Butterbeer and at times Firewhiskey. We like to engage in robust discussions, as long as we don't start throwing cream pies. With that in mind, we do enjoy discussing the very topic even that was brought up in the Telegraph article. Sitting in a cafe with a mug of hot chai in front of a roaring fire is a great place to have deep theological and even political discussions, as well as conversing about literature, music, and the theatre. There is certainly a place for that. This is one of those places.

But a few days before Christmas is not the time to bring up areas of scriptural controversy, especially - and I say this emphatically - when the majority of the readers of the Telegraph as well as the majority of the readers of the Drudge Report (and therefore, the majority of the readers of the major American media outlets - I just got off the phone with a friend in Fremont, CA and he knew all about it as well - and he's Presbyterian!) do not know the Bible. Let's say that again - they don't know the Bible.

They don't know which bits are accepted and which bits some challenge and which bits some people like and which bits some people don't like. They don't know which bits might be only mentioned once and which bits are mentioned many many times, or which bits are recorded in Luke and no where else. They aren't going to do that.

So the entire conversation is skewed because the majority of the audience has no idea what the Bible says or doesn't say (they think the Bible says "to unto others as you want them to do unto you" and many phrases attributed to Ben Franklin, for goodness sake). They are biblically illiterate.

So enter the Archbishop of Canterbury. When the Archbishop of Canterbury begins to wax lyrical about the bits he finds hard to swallow or the bits he just accepts because, well, they are part of the big package (aka, the Virgin Birth), well the casual reader of the newspaper isn't going to know the difference. What they are going to hear is this:




I don't fault the media - the interview itself is so badly thought-through and managed. What is the point? Why is the goal of Canterbury to give an interview to the London Telegraph days after he releases his Advent Letter and is watching the Anglican Communion explode? He wants to put on his academic seminary hat and discuss the finer points of Magi and their Myrrh. Why?

No, I blame the staff. A good staff briefs their boss. A good staff discusses the points that should be raised in such an interview. A good staff warns an Academically-inclined Archbishop to stay focused and not start doing a Christian version of a "There ain't no Santa Clause speach" while (metaphorically, of course) standing in the Santa line with the five children getting the photo at the Mall for Aunt Marge.

There is a time for it (like with a mug of chai in big stuffed chair), but that not in the Telegraph on Dec. 20th. It has the same affect as if you you start raising your voice that there "Ain't No Santa Clause!" while standing in Santa line at the Mall and you are going to have a riot on your hands.

This is bad staffing. Either he isn't listening to his staff or his staff are incompetent - or they set the interview up precisely because they know him well enough to know that he'll step in the doo doo all by himself.

That's my issue because guess what, I like him. But these off-handed lackluster comments about the divinity of Jesus (which is what the Virgin Birth thing is all about after all - is God His Father or was it just a metaphor? Someone get KJS on the line) in the mainstream press don't actually help either.

Matt Drudge is not a theological egghead. He put it up on his site because it was wacky. And that's the issue. Canterbury looks wacked. One can imagine if the Pope woke up tomorrow and said, "and oh by te way, Mary's virginity was a metaphor. Pass the mashed potatoes."

To the regular Christian in the pew, who's children are dressed and ready to go as Magi and Shepherds, the timing shows that Rowan appears to be adrift without his oars.

Who's bright idea was it for Rowan Williams to talk to Sophie and Simon at the Telegraph anyway? Where's Jonathon? Out flyfishing with Stephen Bates?


Kevin said...

BB -- Amen!

Anonymous said...

Interesting that someone as conservative an evangelical as John Richardson disagrees with your views, see

Anonymous said...

The Archbishop did nothing wrong. He said (and isn't it what we all say?) that the Bible say certain things and so those things should be taken with a grain of salt. Nothing wrong with that.

Anonymous said...

that should read: that the Bible did not say certain things, and so those things not in the Bible should be taken with a grain of salt. The Bible doesn't mention snow.

Anonymous said...

Snow in the Bible: 24 occurences (KJV), 20 occurrences (NIV).

White as snow or leprous like snow or white as wool (numerous) e.g. Rev. 1:14.

Psalm 147: [God] sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He spreads snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes.

Anonymous said...

2B, you're on it. Let's have another cup and go on to something else maybe a little more meaningful or important. I prefer firewhiskey.
Blessings, Johnvynwuyp

Anonymous said...

I had another synapse short out whilst posting the above and left out the thought that Shakespeare had a play with a title that fits this story,and I'm not thinking "Lear".
More Blessings,

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see The Three Wise Guys recast with Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe. Ya think?

Andy said...

Curly Joe?! BLASPHEMER...(ROFL):-D
That role could only be played by the ascended stooge master Curly Howard.

God's Peace..

Anonymous said...

Dave Walker says:

Who’s bright idea was it for Rowan Williams to talk to Sophie and Simon at the Telegraph anyway? Where’s Jonathon? Out flyfishing with Stephen Bates?

The interview was with Simon Mayo on Radio 5 which anyone who has read the transcript or listed to the interview would know.

Unknown said...

Alas, what we continue to wonder about is who on Rowan Williams staff had the bright idea to do this interview?

We then wonder why Jonathon Petre - who is the usual guy on the beat - didn't do it. We just sort of wonder.

We recall what it was like to sit front of Jonathon and Stephen Bates of the Guardian (who has sadly stepped away from covering religion) in the news room during the New Orleans House of Bishop's meeting. We were greatly entertained by the daily banter from these two veterans of the Anglican wars. At one point it was suggested that they start their own podcast, featuring their amusing banter. They were both horrified at the thought, relics from the 20th century they might be. And perhaps that is why Simon got the job. But we do wonder where Jonathon is.

And who thought it was a brilliant idea to do it? Perhaps it's Mr. Smith who is out flyfishing.


Poetryman said...

Who made Christopher Hitchens an Arch Bishop and more importantly, why?