It took me a long, long time to come to this place. Let me say that up front. There was a time when my faith depended upon the stories in the Bible to be historical, factual. I no longer believe that to be the case.
But I do believe in the power of the stories. I also believe I can be much edified by the perspective of others. To that end, I offer this long paragraph from Dorothea Soelle's Thinking About God (page 41). Briefly, just before this paragraph, Soelle has been comparing orthodox theology and liberal theology (by which she means specific things, I think, but suffice to say, that'll get us to this paragraph).
But liberation theology with a Latin American stamp is quite different: here the theme of the virgin birth is not superfluous, but is bound up with the struggle for liberation. It is decisive for the liberator to come into the world from among the poor. The majority of people in Latin America are born out of wedlock; many do not know who their father is. The situation of the young woman who is expecting a child without being able to count on protection or help is quite normal. She gets into difficulties; perhaps asks an older friend like Elizabeth for advice; she is afraid of being abandoned, of being punished for infidelity. These are all normal situations which often happen in our society too. They are incorporated into liberation theology like this: Mary is one of us; she gives birth to the light, the liberator, the redeemer. In the gospel of the peasants of Solentiname, the angel who announces the birth to her is regarded as 'subversive': And Mary immediately also becomes subversive in listening to this message. I believe that she already felt as though she were going into the undeground. The birth of a liberator must be kept secret. That is a complete new approach to the story; it is quite different when one thinks from the perspective of the poor, moreover of the poorest, the wives of the poor. In this sense, the story of the virgin birth is not made superfluous by criticism, but understood in a different way. Here liberation theology takes up the orthodox paradigm, but at the same time understands it differently in the framework of this new exegesis, from the poor/for the poor. It no longer conveys hostility to sexuality and domination, but subversion and rebellion. For liberal theology the virgin birth is a stumbling block which is best removed. For liberation theology it is a piece of bread.
Things like the virgin birth are not things I'm willing to argue about. Whether it is a factual or historical event or if it is a mythologizing of Jesus' origins so as to convey in the shorthand of the day who Jesus was---these matters do not absorb my attention. What does catch my attention is that we understand something of what the story tells us about power structures in this world, and even more my attention is caught by the understanding that someone without any power has of these power structures.
From the perspective of the poorest (which is not who I am), the important piece isn't if Mary never "knew" a man. The important piece is that God chose to take flesh within (and hence among) the powerless.
We can look at the story as an example of God's power to create a baby without the benefit of sex, or we can look at the story of the example that God's power comes from weakness, or at least weakness as we tend to understand it.
This is big to me. This is where I lose language. While I can type words around this, I can't say anything that brings into focus the enormity of this---perhaps precisely because I am enormously privileged in my culture.
However this story of a virgin giving birth strikes you, whether you hold to the orthodox view or the liberal view or the liberationist view or some other view that is separate from or an amalgamation of these views---this Christmas season, I invite you think on Soelle's last phrase above.
How is the manger story, for you, in your place, in your circumstance, a piece of bread?
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An addendum: Several weeks ago, I ran into the Reverend Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We got to speaking of the importance of story (and the importance of a liberal arts education so one can hear and interpret story). I think I may have lied to him.
I referenced Dorothee Soelle to him and spoke of her experience working and learning with women in Central and South America. I thought I was referencing the above passage, but I had it incredibly wrong. I thought what I told the bishop was a story from Soelle's Thinking About God, but I cannot find it back. If it was Soelle that I got this from, I'm guessing it was another book. Or else this was my own extrapolation from Soelle's words above. Or I'm just making up stuff. Anyway, what I told the bishop is something I still think is an interesting way of looking at the virgin birth story from the perspective of women who are poor and oppressed not only by their economic status but often further oppressed by the men in their lives. I do not believe this is original with me.
I believe I read somewhere that for poor, uneducated women, the power of the virgin birth story is that they found strength to believe and hope that to bring God into the world, you do not need a man.
Men might bristle at this---and surely men can and do bring God into the world---but for a woman who is forced to have sex, who is forced to bear children, who has no say over her own destiny, it is a subversive and hopeful and exciting thing to think that God (or, if you will, the Reign of God) can come without any of that forced-ness. A woman, an unmarried girl even, can give birth (literally or metaphorically) to someone or something that will change the world.
So this is the other thought I offer on the first day of Christmas: where in your powerlessness can you bring God's Reign into the world? Who is your Elizabeth, who you will consult and share in the secret joy of this birth? How does the Lord magnify your soul?