“The Birth of Jesus” and National Geographic Television:
Professors Professing Profanity to a Generation
of Doubters and Self-Indulgent Dimwits
by Archbishop Chrysostomos
Christmas and Easter, or the Nativity and Pascha, as they are more properly known in the Orthodox Church, occur at different dates than in the West (with infrequent exceptions for Pascha) for those of us who follow the traditional Church (or Old) Calendar. Nonetheless, we, along with Western Christians and those Orthodox who follow the New Calendar, are exposed to the mocking, quasi-scholarly, and often bigoted exposés of Christian belief in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ that inevitably appear, in recent years, on American television during these festal seasons. These insulting, offensive displays of poor taste pander not only to militant atheists and agnostics, but to a generation of believers who are increasingly less educated with regard to their religious traditions and beliefs. This is true not only of Christianity and Judaism, but even of Islam, Buddhism, and other religions that are thought to be more generally integrated into the lives and cultures of those who practice them. Christianity, however, seems to be “fair sport,” for mediocre scholars who, hypocritically professing “objectivity,” pursue doubters and dimwits, helping them, as one anti-religious advocate says, “to break from the shackles of the false morality that religion fosters” and supposedly “imposes” on them. With “scholarly” myths drawn from what is often deceptive speculation, every sort of “expert” holds forth on popular television during the days of Christian Feasts with ideas that sneer at a religion that they present as ignorant, low-class, and based on the life of a typical “Galilean Jew” of his time. (One brings to mind the “reconstructed” face of a witless-looking, simian-like Christ-anti-Christian and anti-Semitic in its portrayal-that was featured in “Popular Mechanics,” that refined journal of religious studies, in December of 2002.)
Naturally, there is an underbelly to religion, and its ills, like those of any human pursuit, are all too obvious. However, any thinking, fair individual would not attribute to it the origin of wars, exploitation, racism, sexism, and every human foible, as so many narrow-minded people do today. The truth is that, however evil the world may be with religion, without religion’s emphasis on ethics, morality, and a higher vision of the human being, we would indubitably find ourselves in a far more miserable state. And while religions may in their imperfection foster prejudice that ill serves their more lofty ends, they cannot be expected to be free of the weaknesses that they attempt to address. Non-Christians, as a tour through the Internet will convince one, relish the mockery of Christianity in the public domain in this country, just as Christians often ridicule and demean non-Christian religions when they subject them to misrepresentation. But these are the intellectual maladies that the better voices in religion ultimately decry and try to address: deficits that shame the genuinely religious when they confront them in others or in themselves. What is dismaying in all that I have described is that those who make their reputations as anti-religious bigots in the scholarly realm feel no qualms about exploiting public ignorance about religious belief in a society where education is on the decline. Nor do they seem to feel any remorse in helping self-indulgent dimwits to abandon, by the denigration of, and militant, malicious contempt for, the ethical and moral standards taught-however imperfectly-by religion.
If what I have said about the public vilification of religion, and Christianity in particular, seems somehow exaggerated, let me describe a segment from a week-long presentation of commentaries on Christianity by National Geographic Television during the week of Western Christmas this year (2009). I was given a tape of this segment to review. It is titled “The Birth of Jesus.” I will summarize it quite simply. It begins-this is de rigueur these days-by pointing out that the well-known passage in Isaiah (7:14), that has often been taken by Christians as evidence that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, as Christian Scripture affirms with regard to Christ (St. Matthew 1:23), actually merely refers to a “young woman” (almah, as the Hebrew reads) and not to a virgin (parthenos, as the Greek reads).. Having thus glibly dispensed with any link between Christ and the Messiah, it goes on to describe the reality of Christ’s very natural birth to a peasant girl and her peasant husband (the word “peasant” is constantly used throughout the segment), people of a poor class who were forced to see the birth of their child occur amidst the “droppings” of animals in a cave. It represents Mary, who is twice disrobed for the titillation of the viewers, in the throes of a painful childbirth, being crudely cleansed after the birth by other peasant women, and carrying out a ritual bath, according to Jewish custom, after her ordeal. All of this was meant to imply that Christ’s birth was anything but a matter connected with the miraculous. The narrator remarks, as well, that Jesus would have been circumcised and named on the eighth day after His birth, even though the Christian celebration of Christmas does not acknowledge this event. At the end of the segment, once again placing emphasis on the lowly origins of Mary and Joseph and their son, the narrator points out that the true miracle of the birth of Christ is that someone of such ordinary circumstances could have had such an impact on the world: the anomaly of Christianity in nuce. In conclusion, we are told that the parents of Christ were undoubtedly benefited, above all, by the joy of bringing yet another life into the world.
Needless to say, were it not for the deterioration of education in the humanities in modern society, even an uninformed observer would laugh at the dismissal of the virgin birth of Christ on the basis of the various interpretations of the word “almah” in Hebrew. Both among Jewish and Greek scholars there is immense disagreement about the use of this word. Moreover, the constant reference in the segment to the lowly birth of Christ, to peasantry and to poverty, to a birth among the “droppings” of animals, and so on, are so far over the proverbial top that one wonders whether elitism in the service of what is clear religious ridicule really appeals to more urbane listeners. These tawdry elements in the segment also call into question the willingness of the “scholars” who added their commentaries to this outrage to dismiss outright the historical narrative of the Gospels, which clearly explains why Mary and Joseph took refuge in a cave where animals were sheltered and which, in recounting the genealogy of both, attributes to them family lineages that are anything but those of simple peasants. As well, are we to scrap traditional attestations to the life of Mary as a Temple Virgin, which make the distasteful and rather explicit scenes of her birth giving and ritual bath a bit coarse for those who attempt to elevate the vulgar through religious narrative? Let me not mention the utter nescience of noting that the circumcision and naming of Christ are not acknowledged by Christians on the Nativity, as though to suggest Christian unfamiliarity with such matters. The Feast of the Circumcision is, of course, celebrated on the eighth day after the Nativity, and, at least in the Christian East, we still name our children on the eighth day after their birth. The condescending elitism of those responsible for this segment reaches its bumptious conclusion with the implication that we Christian cretins would do well to marvel that someone so insignificant as a Jew from the backwaters of the Mediterranean could ever have achieved eminence, perhaps better taking our joys and spiritual rewards from our ability to breed and give birth, even if only among the “droppings” of beasts.
In fact, Christianity views the Incarnation of Christ as a restoration of the human being to his lost glory. As the Archetype of man’s spiritual destiny, Christ was born to a Virgin as an affirmation of human transcendence of the flesh. Jesus Christ’s Resurrection, which is, again, one of the targets of the National Geographic’s banal trashing of the loftiness of Christian philosophy, contains the image of man’s victory over death and his vision of immortality and the eternal. The elevation of man by the Incarnation of an Ineffable, Unknowable God, condescending to take on the human form of His creation, remaining Perfect God and becoming Perfect Man, is highlighted in the humble birth of Christ. The majesty and the subtle impact of such imagery can never be realized by those who dig in the garbage of animal droppings for their understanding of the sublime, engage in the open mockery of a religion in the guise of scholarship, and seek to denigrate, humiliate, and demean Christian believers by relegating their Founder to someone Whom, in their elitist degeneracy, they consider the proper object of their scorn. One need not be a believer to find such “scholarship” and such cheap television entertainment repugnant and execrable. I cannot believe that even a scoffer could find value in this attempt to deride Christianity (and by implication religion in general) and, as a consequence, to feed the trend towards depravity that we see in a society fast losing its vision of spiritual life and a higher understanding of the imagery and beauty of religion. Then again, perhaps the segment that I was sent, as well as the series into which it is inserted, is itself a sign of depravity and a symptom or product of the dim-witted self-indulgence that it serves: an elitist artifice exploiting the ignorance, bigotry, and literalism that it attributes to religion and which it spawns in its profanity. Scholarship it is not; indeed, it does not even reach the level of poor scholarship. If I had had colleagues of this type when I was teaching at university, I would have escorted them to an encyclopedia set for children and said: “Read. Lessons in ethics, philosophy, and the psychology of religious symbolism will follow. Then on to refinement in such matters as cultural sensitivity….”