Friday, December 30, 2011

A Tale Of Two Nativities

We all know the Nativity Story.

The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary conceives as a virgin. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for a census. The inn is full, so they stay in a barn. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who then worship baby Jesus. Magi from the East see the star over Bethlehem and attend Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod. Finally, they travel to Nazareth in Galilee.

Nice story, but can you tell me where this complete tale can be found in the Bible? This is a trick question, of course. This whole story does not exist in one place in the Bible. It is, rather, a harmonization of the only two accounts of Jesus' birth, given in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2. You probably knew this. But what you might not realize is how little the two accounts have in common. Let me illustrate. Here is the same passage, but now I've highlighted the text to indicate its source. Passages from Matthew are red, passages from Luke are blue, and overlapping story elements are purple and bolded.

The Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary. Mary conceives as a virgin. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for a census. The inn is full, so they stay in a barn. Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who then worship baby Jesus. Magi from the East see the star over Bethlehem and attend Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod. Finally, they travel to Nazareth in Galilee.

Not very much in common at all. Why the difference? Well, the biggest reason is that Matthew and Luke were written for two different audiences. Luke tends to emphasize Jesus' holiness and his role as a servant. It is fitting, then, that Luke's Jesus would have a humble beginning: born in a barn and worshipped by shepherds. Luke traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Adam, and has him descended of David through his son Nathan. Matthew, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy. Jesus is attended by Kings. His persecution under Herod echoes that of Moses, further emphasized by his flight to Egypt. Matthew traces Jesus' lineage only as far back as Abraham, going through David's successor Solomon. Two distinct lineages, two distinct coherent narratives with contrasting themes.

This begs the question: is it even appropriate to harmonize the stories into one? Personally, I don't think so. Not only do they differ in narrative and tone, but there is one detail that could be read as a direct contradiction. The Magi visit Jesus in a house, but they visit him in Bethlehem, at a time when Jesus and Mary and Joseph were staying in a barn. See, in the Matthean account, there is no mention of Joseph and Mary leaving Galilee. When the narrative has the family return to Israel from Egypt in Matthew 2:22-23, it says that Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Judea (where Bethlehem is) and instead he withdrew to Galilee, to a town called Nazareth. The implication here, according to Matthew, was that Joseph and Mary already lived in Bethlehem. They only moved to Nazareth to avoid Herod's son. Whereas in the Lukan account, Joseph and Mary were Nazarenes who temporarily journeyed to Bethlehem for a census.

So how do we reconcile this? How did we end up with two disparate accounts of Jesus' birth? The key may be in their few similarities. In each story, we see that Jesus is a Nazarene, born in Bethlehem to a virgin who conceived through the Holy Spirit. That is the sum total of their similarities. It may be that those are the only details that the two authors had, and each constructed a birth narrative in keeping with their individual messages. The idea that someone could be from Nazareth and Bethlehem merits some explanation, so each author contrived a way for that to happen.

We certainly have no reason to accept the historicity of either account. There is no record of Luke's census conducted at that time or in that manner. Sending people to their home towns is a pretty ludicrous census-taking method anyway. Historically it makes no sense, but it works as a literary device to give Luke's Holy Servant a humble beginning. Likewise, there is no record of Herod the Great murdering Jewish babies (keep in mind that at this time the Hebrews were not slaves, but Roman subjects). Historically this makes no sense, but it works as a literary device to emphasize Jesus' connection to Judaism. Each author took the sparse details available and worked them into their unique depiction of Jesus' birth.

In a way, the tradition of harmonizing the Nativity into a single account is a bit of a tragedy. Luke's Jesus and Matthew's Jesus (to say nothing of Mark's or John's) are substantially different characters. When we try to blend them, we muddy the individual portraits, blurring the edges as a conceit to make the myriad appear whole. What does that get us? Three Wise Men in a barn--the idea is absurd, and it certainly isn't biblical. But most believers would rather have a single thematically incoherent narrative than a series of cohesive ones that disagree with each other about the unimportant details. At some point, the church decided that there is nothing to be learned from a story that can't be taken at absolute face value, and that is the truly great irony of fundamentalism. In the attempt to preserve the man, you distort the message. Perhaps it is better to think of the Nativity stories as parables. This didn't actually happen, but what can it teach us?

Just something to keep in mind next year when you sit down to watch your child's Christmas Pageant.

Happy Holidays,


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I'm A Horrible Father And That's Okay

I love babies and babies love me; this has been true since I was about ten years old. I've spent my entire adult life looking forward to fatherhood, and it's finally here in the form of my three-week-old son, Malcolm. So, how am I doing?

I'm effing miserable. Sort of. It's complicated. Let me explain.

My Son Doesn't Seem To Like Me Very Much

I love babies and babies love me, but it turns out that the babies that love me aren't newborns. I'm used to babies that can laugh and hold their heads up; newborns are potted plants that need to be watered and repotted every two hours. Mal doesn't interact. Hell, he can barely see and noises just startle him. He is physically incapable of smiling at something that he likes. This is the absolute best I can hope for: that the child will be distracted long enough to not hate life enough to scream about it. When he looks at me, I don't see recognition. When I joke and make goofy faces... I get a blank stare. He is completely unimpressed with me.

Perhaps he's figured out...

I Don't Seem To Like Him Very Much Either

Supposedly when a man has a child, it's the greatest feeling ever. I've heard this from many people, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a vicious lie. There was no instantaneous and overwhelming sense of love. In fact, when Mal was born I was beside myself wondering what was wrong because I had no feelings for him whatsoever. I was exhausted, yes, and my wife was a bit of a wreck so I was trying to help her. Thankfully after a day or so I started to get attached to the little guy, which may be because...

I Am Terrified Of Killing My Child

Funny story: last weekend I was visiting with some family and my sister was holding Mal while sitting in the dining room with our mother and some aunts and our grandmother and a cousin. Mal started to fuss and I ran in from the other room to take him. My sister looked up at me and reminded me that nearly every person at the table had given birth to a child and that I needed to calm the hell down. Which was true.

Oh, but it gets worse. I'm kind of a worrier already, but with Mal I find myself inventing things to fret about. Is he eating enough? Is he eating too much? Is he pooping regularly enough? Is he breathing right at this very second? Are his feet too cold? Is his scalp supposed to be that color? Is it a problem that one of his nipples seems to be larger than the other? I would have the pediatrician's emergency phone number memorized if I didn't constantly have my wife telling me that everything's fine and I need to calm the hell down and that I'm doing a good job, which she has to do regularly because...

I Really Suck At This

When Abby and I were planning the family, we always assumed that after she delivered the baby she would hand it off to me. See, my wife is a bit... surly. Even when she was pregnant, her maternal instinct was present, but it was running in a very low gear. But not me! Remember, I love babies and babies love me. Abby worried that she might not bond with the child, but I assured her that she'd be a great mother and I'd be a great father and it would all work out just great. And guess what? Abby's not just a great mother, she's an incredible mother. She's patient with the child in ways she's never been with anyone. And she's really good with him: she's running errands with him, doing laundry, washing dishes. She's doing the chores that I used to do, and all while taking care of a child. Hell, she's even lost all of her pregnancy weight already. I was totally right about her.

I was dead wrong about me. God help me I try, but I get so frustrated. I'm exasperated all the time, I can't soothe the child, I'm forgetting things, I'm shirking my chores. And then I feel guilty because Abby spends the entire day watching the kid and when she hands him off to me for the evening, I can't make him calm down and she has to take him back. I know that the first few months are survival mode, but I feel like I'm the only one struggling to survive. Seriously, there are days when I feel like my sole contribution to this family is my paycheck.

At least I have my hobbies, but not really because...

I Now Suck At Everything Else Too

I have many talents. I write music. I write stories. I write code. Not a whole lot of that has been happening lately. I've been writing music for the kid, and after three weeks I have a song and a half that I haven't memorized yet. I try to hammer out a chapter or two on some story idea in the evening, but I'm constantly losing my flow because I have to stop and feed the kid or change a diaper. My work has almost certainly been suffering. Hell, when a friend comes over, I can't even find anything to talk about other than the baby. I can't even have a beer and an intelligent conversation with my best friend because my brain is stuck in full-on baby mode. The only reason I've had time to read books is because you can hold a Kindle in one hand while feeding the baby in the other.

And it may never get better because...

There Is No Light At The End Of The Tunnel

This may be the hard part, but it's not like it ever gets easy. I still have teenagers to look forward to. Oh, and let's not forget whose son we're talking about here. Abby and I were both grade-school outcasts. My sister was cool. My brother was cool. I was never cool. God, when I think back about younger versions of myself... I was the kid who had emotional problems, who broke into tears on the bus because other kids teased him. I used to stay up nights crying to my mother about the stress of going to school the next day. If Mal turns out to be like me, I get to experience that bit of hell from the perspective of the impotent parent.

Also, I was kind of an annoying kid. The words that came out of my father's mouth most frequently were: "Stop trying to be funny all the time." I was that obnoxious. Remember the annoying kid in the first Might Ducks movie? The "swing batter batter kid"? This kid? He reminded people of me. People told me that I had to go see that movie so I could see the kid that reminded them of me, and he was that obnoxious little puke. So I can't wait to see how much Mal takes after his father.

So Is There Any Good News At All?

Sort of. It's complicated. Let me explain.

Apparently this is all fairly normal. Everybody's different, but apparently it's not that unusual for a new father to lose his mind. And my mind was only sort of tenuously there to begin with. Someday the baby will be the kind of baby that I can entertain and be entertained by. And then I can watch him while Abby super-mom's another newborn (because we are planning to have more than one). And I think there's a corollary to the Dunning-Kruger Effect going on. Maybe the reason I think I'm such a horrible parent is because I have some ridiculously high standards for what constitutes a decent one. Or something.

See, intellectually I know everything's fine, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm a failure as a parent. And then I get to feel guilty about that. Because honestly...

I Have No Excuse To Complain

We're doing great. The baby's fine. Abby's fine. We even still have a social life. We've gone to a dinner party, a family gathering, and a book club meeting, all in the last three weeks. We go out to dinner every once in a while--the child is actually quite good with cars and restaurants. We are in a very stable financial situation and I've got fabulous job security. Let's face it, Abby and I are model parents. If I were to complain about my plight to a random person on the street, that person would be utterly justified in punching me in the face.

Look. I thought I was mentally prepared for parenthood, and I totally wasn't. It's like thinking you're ready to go skydiving because you've gone diving before. I'm figuring this all out as I go, and apparently that's pretty normal as well. So, absent a frame of reference, I can only assume that people are telling me the truth about how I'm doing fine, and the baby's healthy, and everything will be okay. And if I take a few deep breaths, I can stop freaking out, take a look at my son... or a picture, and remind myself that he's here because I wanted him to be here, and that I'm happy with that decision, and that the madness will eventually pass... or at least it will dull a bit. I take a look at my parents, who had three kids and are now sane. Mostly sane. I remind myself that even though I was an annoying kid, since I became an adult my father and I have become rather good friends.

So, I have that to look forward to.