Monday, 23 December 2013

A Historian Reflects upon the Christmas Stories



In the middle decades of the Twentieth Century there was a lot of time devoted to arguments between science and religion. They were still going on when I was at school. Now it seems like a lot of time wasted. For it now seems obvious, to me at any rate, that there can be no conflict between good science and good religion because they deal with entirely different aspects of the human experience. They use different methods and ask entirely different questions. Many of my religious friends are eminent scientists and find this no problem at all. The problems start when attempts are made to use the approaches of religion to tackle scientific questions, and vice versa; but there is no requirement to do this.

What is not always so well understood is that exactly the same point applies to religion and history. The job of academic historians is to find and analyse evidence in an effort (doomed never to be unchallengeably successful) to find out exactly what was going on in the past. The job of history teachers like me is to try to communicate the findings of the scholars to the general public, especially to the young.

Where some religious people come unstuck, and many critics of religion, is they try to apply the methods and standards and questions of History as a discipline to religious stories.

Very few of the stories in the Bible (a great library of stories, poems, philosophy and so on) were produced by writers who had any intention of thinking or writing like modern historians. Every one knows that one of Jesus’s main teaching methods was to tell stories, and in this he was in a long tradition. The stories of Jonah, and of Job, for example, are as much stories as the story of the Good Samaritan and (at last I come to my main point) none the worse for it. For a story can contain as many truths, and matter for life-enhancing thought, as any piece of history.

“Othello” for example says a huge amount about the impact of jealousy on love. Young people probably get more truths, and ideas to discuss, about love and marriage and about the role of women in society from “Pride and Prejudice” than from any other single book. “Richard III”, as we all know, is not good history. But it contains all sorts of thought-provoking truths about the court as jungle.

And it is stories that are one of the main types of religious writing. The very earliest religion we know about consisted of human beings making up stories to try and explain the world and to tackle the big questions that the methods of science and history could not answer.

So, this Christmas, do not worry about whether there “really” were angels, or where the Wise Men “really” came from, or whether Mary “really” was a virgin. Listen to the stories, enjoy the stories and think about the stories. They are full of food for thought, and great truths.

Here are two that strike me.

Herod may or may not have ordered the Massacre of the Innocents exactly as described. But the story contains a great truth, which is that killing innocent people for the sake of public security is something that governments do. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid it – consider the bombing of cities during the Second World War - but it is a terrible evil. Herod is not a comic pantomime villain, nor a one-off cruel king, but a character to provoke thought in all rulers who wield authority over security forces.


Then there are those intellectuals searching for God – the “Wise Men”. And where do they find God? In a new-born baby, child of refugees, in an out-house. As Evelyn Waugh, among others, has pointed out, the Magi arrived late, misunderstood what was going on and inadvertently provoked the Massacre of the Innocents. Plenty of great truths and life-enhancing reflection for all would-be intellectuals in that story.

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