Posted by: smstrouse | December 23, 2010

Taking the Christmas Story Seriously – But Not Literally

About ten years ago, at a December gathering of a women’s clergy support group, someone brought a beautiful Nativity story book. As we passed it around, I found myself growing more and more uncomfortable. Finally I dared to say the unthinkable: “But I don’t believe that this ever really happened.”

They all laughed and said, “Well, neither do we. It’s a story; it’s not literal history.”

I felt like I had at long last been let in on the ‘family secret.’  Nobody believed it.  Except a whole bunch of people sitting in the pews on Christmas Eve. I knew this for a fact because the previous year I had hinted at the possibility that the shepherds, angels, magi, etc. were not historical characters, that the census, journey to Bethlehem, and ‘no room at the inn’ were not actual events. I had just hinted at it, but at least one person found that to be a faith-shaking possibility.  A colleague, after being browbeaten into admitting that he didn’t believe in the virgin birth, actually had the future of his ministry called into question.

What all this began in me was a serious questioning of my integrity as a preacher of the gospel. How could I allow the people in my spiritual care to believe something in a way that I did not? To be honest, my questioning was more about me than them. I needed to work through what it means, borrowing from Marcus Borg, to ‘take the Christmas story seriously but not literally.’  And thankfully, with the help of writers like Borg, John Dominic Crossan and others, I did make peace with the Nativity story. I even began to appreciate and love the ‘truth’ that is there amidst the story. The Epiphany tale of the magi and a star has become especially meaningful to me. Metaphor is so much more powerful that historicity!

Thankfully I now serve a congregation where this kind of inquiry and discussion is not only possible, but expected. But I believe that there are many people out there in the more traditional churches who would welcome being let in on the ‘family secret’ too. I had the wonderful experience of an 80-something woman in my previous congregation, after reading Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong, exclaiming to me, “I wish I’d read this 70 years ago!” What a delight visits with her became after that.

So I’m getting ready to read the story this Christmas Eve. And I’m looking forward to reading it with joy, with faith – and with integrity. I do not take it literally. But as surely as I know there are stars in the sky, I know that I do take it seriously.


  1. Great Post!

    I think that feeling this way is actually liberating in some regards. I just prepared a homily for the Holy Innocents and it was theologically liberating to not be bound to historical accuracy.



  2. […] [2] Susan Strous, “Taking the Christmas Story Seriously – But Not Literally,”… […]


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