Sunday, December 17, 2006

Let’s Try The Christmas Narrative The Way It Must Have Been.

And watch the "christian" right go nuclear.

Posted by olvlzl.

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece about Andres Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ. To come clean, it was a defense of it. The piece went into quite a lot of detail about the meaning and use of religious imagery and how the casual and dishonest use of the cross, an instrument of one of the more brutal forms of widely used state terror ever devised, ignored the fact that people were killed with it. Reading it over, I had to conclude that the piece was dishonest in itself and so didn't post it. Having seen Serrano's other work I don’t really believe that was what he intended. Given that* I have to believe he made the photo to create a sensational splash, which it did.

But the issue of religious imagery is particularly important this time of year, what with FOX’s phony “war on Christmas” promotion and the annual fight over government sponsored religious displays. The issue is what the two Nativity stories found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke really say and if they have any effect on the daily life of believers.

I won’t deal with the virgin birth part of it, the part that usually gets the most attention because, well, as a New Englander that kind of thing always struck me as being none of my business. What Mary was doing was her own affair and, given the rest of the gospels, not particularly important. Besides, there isn’t any way to know what really happened.

In the stories, Jesus was born to parents of almost the lowest class. They were so low that both of the Evanglilists had to explain that they came of good families that somehow ended up in hear destitution. Mary apparently was the object of cheap gossip. Joseph was a carpenter or stone worker, and I don’t mean a union carpenter with benefits. She would have stood a good chance of being killed for dishonoring her family if Joseph had wanted to be a creep about it, which we are told he wasn’t. Apparently he was a nice guy who didn’t hold a grudge. Maybe the entire history of Christianity hinges on his not having been a macho jerk.

Somehow the couple found themselves in a distant town when the baby was born, so they were, in effect, homeless. They didn’t have the money to get a room anywhere so the baby was born in a barn of some kind.

Consider what the people who originally read the narratives knew about living with large animals in a crowded town. It means, most obviously, that the baby was born among manure and urine and a nightmare of flies and gnats. The original members of the Jesus movement would have known this. Even one cow or donkey can produce quite a bit of both in one day, anyone who has cleaned a barn could appreciate what that was like. Even a well kept barn is unpleasantly redolent. . And the likelihood was that in a town the barn would have held at least several large animals and few barns are well kept, even now. There were no tractor driven sidebars or hay bailers so bedding and fodder would have been at a premium. They would have been hard put to find clean hay to put in the manger. Have I mentionted that the best kept barn is thick with flies? Having cleaned barns, those flies are what really gets to me.

What was done to the plastic model in Piss Christ is nothing compared to this part of the story, nothing. Giving birth to a baby in a barn. And there isn’t any mention of an attendant. They were on their own. A carpenter who might well have never even seen an animal being born and a woman who would have been in her early to mid-teens. They must have been scared as hell.

The shepherds who Luke tells us were the first devotees to Jesus would not have been much higher on the social scale or likely much cleaner and they didn’t arrive in time to give any advice about the birth. All concerned would have been seen as the lowest of the low.

So, we have the only begotten son of God born in these conditions. And it gets worse. In the first mention of upper class people, pagans, the Magi, pagan astrologers, not the kings of orient were, came to worship Jesus and inadvertently set off a pogrom. Herod, himself, put a contract out on the baby and the family had to flee, becoming aliens in a foreign country**. You can imagine that Joseph would have had a hard time finding work, a casual laborer for at least a while. He might have stood on a street waiting to be hired as day labor. Who knows what other hardships they endured as aliens?

These people were not the figures in the creches, they were more likely to look like the really hard cases found on the street today. The original members of the Jesus movement in the middle east would have known this. How would a realistic depiction play with the FOX and ETWN cultists? It’s a question but you know as well as I do, a realistic view of the story would set off another war on Christmas, this time the suppression would be all from that side. The same people don't seem to have gained any respect for the dregs of society, the class that produced the baby they pretend to worship.

* The flagrantly sensational and gruesome photos of brutalized corpses and the rather gross pictures featuring mixed body fluids, for example.

** John Harbison's "The Flight Into Egypt" is one of the rare pieces of music dealing with this part of the story. As I remember he wrote it during the time when the Reagan administration was pursuing illegal immegrants from the homicidal, fascist regimes he was supporting in Central America. A fine recording of it is on New World Records 80395-2.