As I like to point out to anyone who will listen, a number of features in the ‘traditional’ story of Jesus’ birth cannot substantiated from the Bible, and may actually be misleading.
There is, for example…
- no donkey
- no ‘three kings’ (they were ‘magi’, and their number is unknown)
- no inn-keeper who turns Joseph and Mary away
- no inn
- no stable
…and so on.
But with such features so deeply ingrained in our story-telling, how can we take people with us as we seek to be more faithful to the text?
A few years ago, Stephen Kuhrt made this attempt to create a children’s carol service that challenges the traditional version of the story, offering a ‘corrected’ version in its place.
But what are we to make of the following strategy:
(a) Have the congregation sing, ‘Little Donkey’
(b) Then have a character say: “I’m sorry to tell you this…but in the Christmas stories we don’t hear anything about a donkey…there’s no evidence that Mary and Joseph had a donkey – for all we know she may have had to walk the three day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.”
And there is more of this sort of thing in Stephen Kuhrt’s script.
I’m afraid to say that, despite his best efforts, Stephen has made a wrong move here. We should not be asking people to sing any carol (or hymn or song), only to inform them that some of what they have been singing is not true.
There is a simpler and, to my mind, better approach. In carol services and similar events, we should make every effort to be true to the biblical text. This would mean omitting, or at least down-playing, the inaccurate elements we mentioned earlier. There’s plenty enough interest in the stories told by Matthew and Luke with importing (m)any of these extra or inaccurate elements. I’ve seen this done quite well in our own church.
By all means, let’s encourage people to stick more closely to the text of the Bible. If folk start reading the Scriptures with open eyes, open minds and open hearts, they will find plenty both to challenge and to comfort, without resorting to legend and fairy-tale.
But let’s not put words into people’s mouths and then tell them that they have been singing untruths.
That’s manipulative. That’s unhelpful. That’s wrong.