Much has been showing up in my news feeds lately about the Rev Giles Fraser’s Christmas Eve editorial in the Guardian. Provocatively titled, ‘The story of the virgin birth runs against the grain of Christianity,’ this article’s subtitle is actually quite sound: ‘Far too much rests on notions of Mary’s purity. That focus affects our attitudes towards sex and purity.’
For those not familiar with Fraser, he is a priest in the Church of England who made waves for openly denouncing the way St Paul’s Cathedral handled the Occupy protests in 2011, eventually resigning over the conflict. I believe he is now a vicar in South London as well as a columnist for the Guardian. He is known for his theological liberalism and political liberalism (two vastly different things) and his penchant for very un-English (if very typically academic) ‘straight talk’ and headlines that were clickbait before the term ‘clickbait’ was coined.
As I am starting to write [NB it was finished later] this blog post on the feast of Thomas Becket, it seems appropriate to consider another of England’s ‘turbulent priests’ and what the UK makes of him. The Guardian and its largely middle class, largely secular readership no doubt find him a curiosity: sassy, political, critical of the institution to which he stubbornly belongs. The Church of England is incapable of holding just one opinion about any issue or any body — a point which should be celebrated about it, if its own narrative of pluralism is to be believed. Which pluralism, theoretically, should be able to accommodate views at least as liberal as Fraser’s. That it doesn’t goes to show how complicated a task it is to sustain anything like a ‘broad church’.
But I don’t really want to talk about church politics here. What I want to talk about first is what Fraser says about ‘purity’, that is, that Christianity ‘abolishes’ it. A number of other bloggers and theologians have written countering this statement, arguing that if Jesus apparently thought that he had come to ‘fulfil the law’ rather than abolish it, then certainly the notion of purity — as Jesus’ contemporary Jewish leaders thought of it — wasn’t abolished. One can point to the way that Jesus treated women, slaves, and Gentile people and still find, if one wishes to find it, a ‘preferential option for the Jews’ in his work and life. Therefore, the argument goes, if Jesus did not abolish the law (the purity laws) then he could not have abolished the notion of purity. That is going too far.
One of my favourite writers is a psychologist and theologian called Richard Beck. His book Unclean is a thoughtful piece on disgust psychology and how it influences and is influenced by Christian believing. Put simply, Beck writes about how so much of societal discrimination, hatred, and exclusion rests on revulsion, abhorrence, or disgust: those gut feelings that people get when they are faced by something unpleasantly different.* The purity laws were one way of theologically encoding and dealing with this disgust, placing over top of the disgust psychology a narrative about holiness and purification. We should not fault nor necessarily doubt this narrative for its social-psycholigcal, or even spiritual, power. But we do have to admit that Jesus seemed to operate in a significantly different way: his zeal for ‘holiness’ turned narratives of purity on their head. No longer is purity something meant to be protected from the contagion of impurity; purity is a contagious gift given by the Spirit of Christ. Disgust has no more sway in the face of such a blessed, gentle, communicative purity.
Returning to Fraser: what he gets right is that Christians seem to have mostly missed this liberating notion of contagious purity, instead building new temples to safeguard a notion of purity that is incommensurate with Christian notions of grace. And often, because powerful groups of people are so good at finding scapegoats, the safeguarding of this purity has been projected onto less-powerful people and to their most vulnerable aspects – their sexuality. I think of narratives about holy virgins being those closest to God, of shaming children born ‘illegitimate’, of the whole concept of virginity and societal double-standards used to enforce it. It is a concept about policing and safeguarding a notion of purity that has no place in Christianity, if Jesus’ contagious purity is to be taken seriously.
I do not think Fraser is right to try to eject the concept of the virgin birth of Christ completely from Christianity, nor that his reading of Celsus is correct. But I agree with him that it matters not one whit whether or not Mary was what our society calls ‘a virgin’ when God’s Spirit, to use the American English phrase , ‘got her pregnant’. ** Artistic and literary depictions of this event, of the ‘Holy Spirit coming on her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her’ must always resort to imagination and metaphor – because, let’s face it, the idea is weird. It might even stir up some disgust or humour or both in us.*** That disgust, and the intentional move the Christian makes towards believing in the miracle it hides, is the beginning of the switch from purity-to-be-safeguarded to contagious purity.
Fraser ends his article as he started: with a dash of polemic, even theatrics:
Mary…a spirited young woman from Galilee, pregnant and unmarried, she sung about how God would pull down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who your parents are. Early Christians answered the likes of Celsus in the wrong way. When they charged Jesus with being illegitimate, they should simply have replied: “So what if he was?”
The last time I checked, Mary wasn’t married to God. And so, if we humans persist in clinging to tired, patriarchal, oppressive concepts of illegitimacy, we must admit: Jesus was illegitimate. He was born to an unwed woman. Mary’s ‘unsuitability’ in the eyes of the world’s myth-makers to give birth to Christ, to bring God among us, is precisely the point. Perhaps you, like me, maintain a scientifically less-than-plausible belief that Jesus Christ may have resulted not from sex between two first-century Jewish people, but that somehow, inexplicably, God was involved. Even those who believe this have to admit that Jesus was, in fact illegitimate. And that, like everything else in the tangle of new reality that Christ inaugurated, is extremely good news.
* This is sadly very evident in how many discussions about the ‘rightness or wrongness’ of same-sex marriage boil down to aversions to anal sex, whether or not these aversions are admitted or not, and as if this was the only form of sex that a couple of the same sex would choose to engage in.
** Though she does seem to think she’s ‘never been with a man’, if the conversation in Luke chapter 1 is to be believed. And the story goes on to make a point about her betrothed, Joseph, not having sex with her before the baby was born, in order to scupper rumours about him being the father of the child.
*** Don’t even get me on the subject of jokes involving the word ‘come’ in that bible quote above.