It’s December, and we have entered the season of narrative. Around the globe, adorable children in Sunday School classrooms are presenting nativity pageants in hundreds of different languages. They don headgear cut from bedsheets and cardboard-and-aluminum angels’ wings. Nervous but excited, they anxiously watch for their pageant directors’ cues . . . and then, when signaled, relish their first tastes of dramatic glory as they make their grand entrances in front of audiences filled with loving (grand-)parental paparazzi.
Charming childrens’ pageants notwithstanding, the amazing birth narrative at the center of the Christmas story is a bit more complex than most “tell me about the day you were born” reminiscences. Collectively, the gospels of Luke and Matthew recount the story of a controversial infant who—after being born in a stable (Luke 2:1-20) and fleeing to Egypt with his refugee parents in order to avoid being murdered by a king (Matthew 1:18 – 2:23)— grows up to become one of history’s most significant agents of cultural, moral, political, and spiritual change.
Some people think that the story of Jesus’s birth is historically accurate. Others interpret it as a fictional narrative that points to larger, overarching truths. And a third group of people believes that it is pure hokum. In one sense, the story’s veracity (or lack thereof) ultimately matters very little, for history shows that the narrative of Jesus has rung true enough, for sufficient numbers of people, to have survived for over two thousand years. Despite its strangeness and unbelievable elements, it has achieved a goal that has eluded myriad other ideas: namely, it has not died out. And so Jesus’s birth story is retold and reenacted, year after year, in Christian faith communities all over the world. In the midst of a rapidly changing religious landscape, it represents stability and continuity for millions of people.
Still, filled as it is with so many unlikely coincidences and adventurous near-escapes, the Christmas story practically begs to be doubted—especially when one reads it through the lenses of modern science and rationality. (Matthew 1:18’s virgin birth? Hmmm.) But even as it offers fodder for critical analysis by atheists, the Christmas tale deserves to be taken seriously. Like other miraculous birth narratives, which are well represented in the world’s religious and historical texts, the Christmas story is important—not only for what it may tell us about a short wrinkle in Ancient Near Eastern time, but also for what it teaches us about ourselves.
You don’t need to believe that Jesus’s birth narrative is factually true in order to find meaning and emotional satisfaction in it. You don’t need to believe in angels appearing before shepherds or an extra-bright guiding star for the story to speak to you. All you need to believe in is hope. For at its core, that’s what Jesus’s birth narrative is—a story of hope. Consider the basic narrative elements of the tale: an infant (Jesus), nature (the star), generosity (the wise men’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh), and loving parents (Mary and Joseph). Together, they create a tableau filled with hope, edged with a provocative sense of mystery. We may know what will happen next, what will happen in the end, but even the most cynical among us come to the story each year with a renewed sense of expectation and possibility.
Given all of its promise, the Christmas narrative is understandably cherished. And this year, it may be more important than ever—in part because it’s not the only narrative out there. This Christmastide, there are plenty of other stories competing for our attention.
After all, it is political season. Which means that we are subjected, on a daily basis, to disconcerting, problematic narratives. Donald Trump’s narratives of danger and national decline. Hillary Clinton’s narratives about Benghazi-related emails. Ted Cruz’s narratives associating violent criminals with Democrats. Carly Fiorina’s narratives about abortion and Planned Parenthood. Marco Rubio’s narratives connecting no-fly lists and gun control. Bernie Sanders’s narratives linking climate change to terrorism.
Depressing, all. Is it any wonder that so many voters are worried, hostile, and angry, given the dismal words that come out of our politicians’ mouths? Even more troubling is the fact that we are upset in so many divergent ways; as a nation, we aren’t even unified in our distress. Hyperbolic, over-heated political rhetoric has divided the nation and sowed seeds of fundamental distrust . . . and those seeds are now bearing fruit, as people occupying different places on the political spectrum weave the same circumstances and facts into vastly different narrative strands, which then, in turn, promote further polarization.
Lest one think, however, that all questionable political narratives are doom-and-gloom affairs that arise out of, and promote, societal discord, remember Ben Carson’s narrative about overcoming childhood violence through spiritual redemption. Or Marco Rubio’s narrative about being raised by immigrant parents who fled Fidel Castro’s regime. Or Carly Fiorina’s narrative about rising up the corporate ladder, from the position of corporate secretary to CEO.
In politics and religion alike, narratives of hope often accompany and counter narratives of fear and despair—especially in anxious times. Got a Cold War on your hands? Call on Ronald Reagan, the eternal optimist! Struggling with a 21st-century War on Terror? Say hello to Donald Trump, who will remind you of how bad things are, just before promising to make everything great again. And you can rest assured that the Republican Party is not the only political organization whose tent is big enough to encompass sunshine as well as rainclouds. Remember how the Democrats nurtured both Jimmy Carter—whose “pessimistic vision” supposedly played a role in Reagan’s victory—and Bill Clinton, who believes that the world is getting better all the time?
Skilled politicians and religious leaders understand that fear is a powerful motivator, but they also know that it is not the only emotion that encourages people to act. Hope, too, possesses tremendous power to inspire action and spur change. Hopeful listeners are empowered listeners. Many people who encounter narratives promising better days, escape from difficult circumstances, and/or personal transformation come to believe that they, too, can create and benefit from uplifting trajectories in their own lives.
In the field of clinical mental health, a mode of treatment called narrative therapy is wholly grounded in the premise that positive narratives create beneficial change. In this type of therapy, the clinician and the client review incidents and circumstances in the client’s life, along with the stories that the client tells him- or herself about them. The theory is that people are subconsciously guided by the “dominant stories” they formulate about themselves and the world. These narratives promote the development of interpretive lenses that shape one’s experiences of self and others—and the lenses sometimes cause distress and suffering. Therefore, over the course of narrative therapy, clinicians seek to help clients: (1) learn healthy, flexible ways of interpreting life events; (2) identify and/or formulate new dominant stories—stories of competency, resiliency, and emotional fitness—that can replace older, more harmful narratives of self; and (3) become aware of the strengths and resiliency they have already exercised but not recognized, because their interpretive lenses were clouded by negative self-perception.
So, it is December before an election year. Which means that it is a season of both religious narratives and political narratives. The question before all of us is this: What sorts of narratives will we choose to embrace?
Certainly, life is chock full of narratives about fear and devastation . . . and we ignore them at our own peril. For the terrible reality is that pain, trauma, and despair stalk—and sometimes overcome—individuals, families, and communities. So we sin when we overlook or deny the world’s hurts by donning artificially rose-colored glasses. But as people of faith and ministers, what additional (alternative?) narratives do we want to promote?
We cannot leave the storytelling to religious leaders and politicians who promote dread and anxiety for their own personal gain. We therefore face a challenge: how will we help others—parishioners, family members, friends, colleagues—identify and build life-giving narratives of strength and resiliency? How will we use religious narratives to foster hope and healing—not only for individuals, but for the world?
Our wisdom traditions offer fantastic jumping-off places for the development of empowering narratives. The month of December alone offers opportunities to recall stories of miraculous light in the aftermath of destruction and an infant named Jesus who escaped a murderous monarch, only to offer a Kingdom of peace to a violent, suffering world. Quite the stories, indeed.
That said, we must not allow hope-filled religious narratives to serve only as simple therapeutic tools that make people feel good, especially when our nation is being torn apart by ugly political storylines that divide us and encourage us to anticipate the worst from our fellow human beings. As faith leaders and people concerned with positive transformation, we must remember that our traditions offer powerful resources with which to challenge fear-mongering narratives that capitalize upon the most problematic impulses of the human soul. In these painful, troublesome days, perhaps we are called upon to engage in a bit of narrative therapy: to help the world remember time-tested religious stories of empowerment and possibility that help us to formulate new narratives of positive, life-giving action.
When taken seriously, our stories—our religious narratives of miraculous births and new beginnings—possess the power to promote the type of hope that can change the world for the better.
The holidays are upon us again. It’s time for a story.