Is the Nativity story turning into Myth?

I am not sure why I have thought more about Nativity plays this year, but I have. Perhaps it has something to do with my daughter playing Mary in her nursery’s Nativity Play. The nursery is a secular company and while there may be Christians among the staff, no one has been overtly Christian (this is NOT to say they are bad people – they are phenomenal nursery workers and April and I couldn’t be happier with how they have worked with our daughter). But the point is, I grew up in a supposedly much more religious environment in the southern United States and our Christmas plays were Santa Claus and reindeer.

Here, it simply seems to be part of the culture that children put on Nativity plays. It’s the ‘story of Christmas’. I’ve been thinking about it and have come to compare it to the way Americans tell the story of Thanksgiving. Whatever other claimants have to the original Thanksgiving, the one that has taken the spotlight is the one where the Native Americans (called ‘Indians’ when I was growing up) help the Pilgrims survive in the new world and in turn the Pilgrims invite the Native Americans for a big feast. This story has little to do with how Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, and whatever happened at the feast the Native Americans got the short end of the stick (to put it mildly) in later events with the abhorrent way we have treated them. Today, it is whitewashed in sentimentality and played over and over in school plays.

This is what I believe is happening to the Christmas story. All the power has been drained out of the story and we have left a kind of, ‘this is how it all began’ story, though what we do today has little resemblance to what that was about. Of course, I don’t think that we need secular institutions to do this for us. The church has been doing a great job on it’s own. Over at connexions, Kim Fabricius has posted a fantastic post calling us to boycott Nativity plays. He writes:

Because the children in Nativity Plays are corrupting our grown-ups. Parents and relatives watch little Johnny with a towel over his head, and little Billy in his dressing gown carrying a shoe box … and … Mary cuddling a dumb doll, and they go, “Ah, isn’t it sweet!”, as they take their photographs for the family album. But the Christmas story isn’t sweet! It is bitter – very bitter. The crib and the cross are cut from the same wood.

Kim starts a good discussion on the ‘company line’ of the church, i.e., nativity plays are an important form of evangelism because they reach people outside the church. The question is, with what? Does it call people to rethink what God does or is it now just part of the story we hear this time of year and give little thought to it (much like Americans and the ‘First Thanksgiving’ stories)? And, does it give a false sense of what the gospel is to those who come to church already and think ‘this is what the gospel is’?

I admit I do appreciate the nativity play more this year with Savannah. She has learned a basic story, partly through practising her play and April and I will  work with it as she grows up. But still, I find it bit of a hindrance, smacked dab in the middle of Advent with a ‘once upon a time’ feeling. I know this amounts to heresy in many churches where the nativity play has such a revered place in December, but we need to think differently about it and what are we saying (and stop hiding behind the argument that this is outreach). The question is how to pull the Nativity back from the borders of a fairy tale and get people to think through why this story would make a mad king kill every child in Bethlehem; why it was scandalous for a teenager to be pregnant; why shepherds were strange invites. If the Christmas story is going to change the world, cute simply isn’t enough.

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7 thoughts on “Is the Nativity story turning into Myth?

  1. Interesting post Will, we turned the traditional Nativity on its head by having a family cafe style event where the actors were the adults and there was space for genuine testimony. The children and their families made Christmas mobiles while the actors moved from table to table and told their story. Many including the cast found it deeply moving.

    Yes there was dressing up, but it was not a cute rendition, when we got to the bringing of gifts by the Magi everyone was invited to respond by bringing a gift for the women and children’s shelter locally.

    I think we will do it again.

  2. Thank you Sally. Yes, I read your post about the Nativity you did and thought how wonderful and I couldn’t help but be a little sad about how many churches might be unwilling to try something like that because it’s not part of ‘what we’ve always done’. Many simply want the experience of having a traditional Nativity play and stop there (because, I suspect, it makes us feel good). I have become very gunshy about changing the traditional events after trying to change the carol service a few years ago.

  3. It really is tough changing things isn’t it, like you I think there is a lot of sentimentality about and that robs the story of its power. And it is difficult, my eldest daughter is 26, but I still remember her “playing” Mary at a pre-school Nativity… mixed emotions for sure.
    I think Kim is right, if we see the story in a sweet sugary light only then we are corrupting it…

    What to do???

  4. That’s the question, Sally. I’m not all together sure! I am wondering if it means doing Advent differently. I have always been one of those who want to keep Advent themes on Advent themes, but it may mean talking about Christmas themes with the Congregation before Nativity plays and Carol services set in. I think we have to re-imagine it with the grown-ups and draw it away from the ‘Christmas is for children’ motif. We need to think of something!

  5. Pingback: A New Nativity Play « Ramblings from Red Rose

  6. A bit late to come in on the conversation here – but wholeheartedly agree with sentiments. I was becoming more and more agitated this year that the story I had most opportunity to tell to people outside the church seemed inevitably presented in a way which seemed to portray us as people of the “fairytale” who are ready to believe ten impossible things before breakfast for no apparent reason at all – since the stories are separated from their theological context. It made me itch to stage an event next December entitled “now you’ve seen the nativity play, come and explore what the stor(ies) mean” but I think people would be too busy doing traditional stuff to come. One option which we did in this Circuit last year is to celebrate the incarnation at a Circuit service in the Summer – a proper opportunity to explore the issues free from the trappings of the season.

  7. Rachel, you’re never too late! Thank you for your comment. I understand the ‘agitation and the ‘itch’ you’re feeling all too well. I like the idea of an exploration of the incarnation in the middle of the summer and your idea of ‘OK, now let’s talk about what all that really meant!’ sessions!

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