dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

The Nativity and Native Eyes

There is no way Mary gave birth alone and Joseph cut the cord and delivered the placenta.
— Marilyn, Communicating.Across.Boundaries blog

I believe human understanding of most any kind is, essentially, a limited and necessarily fragile thing composed of numerous and diverse sources of knowledge. Not to put too much of a philosophical deconstructionist bent on it (it is Christmas, after all, and the mind is already over-stimulated by ducks), but the point is: the supposed knowing that precedes understanding is always a dynamic and textured composition. Put another way: it is hard to know what we have come to understand.

This inescapable reality—which is especially conditioned by our cultural story—is on full display, annually, as Christians attempt to see, celebrate and proclaim the manger scene at Bethlehem.

Recently, my wife Amie passed along a wonderfully interesting blog post by Rachel Pieh Jones. It briefly re-examines the Nativity narrative through Eastern eyes, which means, naturally, it might actually—gasp!—confront what we have come to know and understand—through a decidedly Western lens—about particular elements in the overall story. For example:

Was the so-called "inn" in Bethlehem—where Joseph and Mary eventually found themselves—a public accommodations sort of place? Or was it an upper guest room in a private residence, which, because it was already full, meant Joseph and Mary had to stay in a living room which also gave animals access overnight? Was Mary alone and out-in-the-cold, literally and figuratively, when she gave birth to Jesus? Or was she surrounded by the expected hospitality and relational warmth of extended relatives, including many women and midwives?

The nativity set of my youth, circa 1976.

Jones' post is certainly not intended to spoil anyone's merry little Christmas, be it celebrated in the West or in the East. But she does well to nudge our Western-influenced readings and interpretations of the biblical story toward Eastern (Middle Eastern) considerations.

There is no text without context, as the saying goes. And I appreciate these thoughtfully engaged considerations. Because the Eastern orientation, given the text and context, must have a distinct bearing on how Christians everywhere see, celebrate and proclaim the most mysterious of all mysteries: how the Lord of all needed breast milk and human warmth to survive.

For her part, Jones is indebted to the scholarship of Kenneth E. Bailey, whose 2008 book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels is now officially on my Christmas wish list, however last-minute. Again, here is the post by Jones. See what you think, and then think what you see.