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Jesus Of Staten Island?
Well, maybe not, but Time and Newsweek both have stories debunking the born-in-Bethlehem notion, along with a few other more sacred "truths":

Among the conclusions in Time and Newsweek: Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; there is little evidence of three kings following a star, and the story of the virgin birth may have been borrowed.

"The Nativity saga is neither fully fanciful nor fully factual but a layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology," Newsweek writes in examining the Sunday-school version of the birth of Christ.

This may be unwelcome "news" to most Americans. A Newsweek poll found that 55% of Americans believe every word in the Bible is literally true, 67% believe the entire Christmas story is literally true and 79% believe Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary with no human father.

Now, I know that the virgin birth story is quite popular as the unquestionable truth among "the faithful," despite the flagrant lack of anything more than the printed page to "prove" it actually happened...but how many believers who are dads would buy that one if little Ashley came home knocked up?

I just had three of these people trying to convince me to "accept Jesus as (my) personal savior" in a Detroit Starbucks this weekend. I explained that while I am highly rational, and thus have no idea whether there is or isn't a god, and really couldn't care less; I had, in the past, accepted Jesus (pronounced: "Hay-zeus") as my personal mechanic -- until that lummox cracked my carbureter.

When I tried to talk reason to one of the women, she told me she just knows there's a god because "Jesus is inside her." (Hmmm, and I thought she just needed to cut down on portion size.) Unfortunately, she was short on cash, or I might have made a killing selling her the bridge to Canada.

Posted by aalkon at December 6, 2004 10:54 PM


55% of Americans are biblical literalists? That is insanely scary. None of this Time and Newsweek stuff is news to serious biblical historians, and everyone else will undergo mental gymnastics to say that it isn't so.

I already lived in Ireland when it was pretty much a theocracy. I don't want it to get like that here.

Posted by: LYT at December 7, 2004 6:28 AM

Some theologists assert that the Three Kings were actually queens. Just think about it: The flowing robes, the housewarming gifts. And perhaps they made the long trip to Bethlehem because someone had said, "Jesus is inside her."

Posted by: Lena at December 7, 2004 6:56 AM

I think you’ve all lost sight of the larger scandal:

As we all know, the Three Wise Men showed up to give frankincense, myrrh and gold to Mary and Joseph as baby shower gifts.

OK, the parents burned the frankincense to cover the stink of the animals in the barn where they were staying. And nobody knows what the hell myrrh is anyway, so they just chucked the myrrh.

But what did they do with the gold? You’d think they could have afforded to move out of the barn once they had the gold, right? Nope. Did they put in a trust fund for Jesus’ education? Well, heck no; he had to work as a carpenter when he grew up. So where’s the damned gold?

Posted by: SeaRaven at December 7, 2004 7:41 AM

Luke, I think it is that here. That occurred to me during my attempted conversion. We're just protected from recognizing the extent of it by knowing each other and the rest of our east and left-coast congregating friends.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 7, 2004 8:27 AM

I'm a little suspicious of the statistics. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, only 76.5% of Americans were Christians in 2001, and the percentage has been dropping by 0.9% per year since 1990. If the Newsweek poll is correct, then the number of people who believe in the virgin birth is greater than the total number of Christians. Of course, the numbers may not be too badly exaggerated.

I was struck by the claim that the "Nativity saga is neither fully fanciful nor fully factual". Actually, it may well be fully fanciful. The idea that the Gospels are just embellishments on a series of actual events is promoted by many people, but I don't see how that claim can be backed up. Even basic elements of the story may be fiction. There is too little evidence to draw solid conclusions, and too many reasons to be suspicious. Burton Mack's interpretation seems as consistent with the facts as any other. His Jesus is a philosopher of the Greek Cynic tradition, who attracts relatively little attention during his lifetime and dies an unremarkable death. (There is reason to suspect that the real Jesus, if there was one, was never crucified.)

Okay, here's the part where I fly off on a tangent. I looked up some statistics a while back and I feel like sharing:

The percentage of atheists (including agnostics) in the US seems to be growing at around half the rate that Christianity is declining, and was around 12% in 2004, according to the Barna Group. (Of course, some of Barna's numbers seem a bit off when compared to the more rigorous research of the ARIS, but they are at least in the ball park.) And if current trends hold, Christians will be a minority of the American population by 2042. There is more info at these sites:

The religious makeup of Canada and the UK is also worth looking at. At first glance, Christianity seems strong in these countries. But many self-proclaimed Christians neither go to church nor believe in God. Their conception of Christianity has become so trivialized as to be meaningless. The phenomenon has been called "cultural Christianity", and the US may eventually follow suit:

All the Best,

Posted by: GodlessRose at December 7, 2004 9:44 AM

We're not quite there yet, Amy. The entire nation has yet to ban Playboy, "blasphemous" movies, and illegalize divorce. Such was the place I matured in.

But that's where we may be headed. And that's why I have no patience for those who claim that the religious right are unfairly demonized.

Posted by: LYT at December 7, 2004 9:56 AM

I'm with you, Luke. And thanks, Charles. A ray of hope. My impression of Europeans (England and France), and a Swiss-Italian friend's impression of Italy is that people see the church as a big, greedy business, and are, generally speaking as a population, as fervent in their religion as we Americans are in celebrating Thanksgiving. They really have almost secularized it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 7, 2004 10:02 AM

PS Speaking of Playboy and such, I have pieces in this month's and last month's Hustler. This month's is marked "February," actually. It's a scientific defense of porn (data-based, not feminist fury based), mainly using the analysis of a whole lot of studies by a prof named Catherine Salmon. Last month's piece was how to tell if a woman's lying, also based on real data, not that crap about whether somebody's looking you in the eye. (Hi, doesn't it make sense that liars know all about that stuff, too!?)

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 7, 2004 10:04 AM

> That is insanely scary.

Amy does that too, it's a lefty tic... Saying things like "Be very afraid, that is really scary," etc. The tone is sort of teenage-sarcastic, in the sense that if it's completely out of line, a grown-up will call my bluff. If none do, them dammit I meant it literally and want credit for dealing with the world in a foursquare manner. And if the threat under discussion itself doesn't gel, no one will remember my crippled judjment and fear-mongering, and hey, I was just kidding, right?

No one should ever take Time or Newsweek too seriously. Especially for evergreen (though heavily-trodden) theme pieces composed by the B-team over the Thanksgiving holiday for an otherwise quiet December week.

> everyone else will undergo mental
> gymnastics to say that it isn't so.

Given the context, the musclework is found in ascribing any credibility to the meme at all. A blog quotes a daily quoting a newsweekly quoting an unknown pollster of unspecified commission from an unphrased question of an unidentified population, where the margin of error is 'who knows' divided by 'whatevar'. You can track it down if you want to, but do you seriously worry that 55% of Americans can't tip a waiter without consulting a Psalm?

Never been to Ireland; they say it's pretty. It's crawling with the faithful (and they talk funny), but to call it theocracy dulls the edge at the top of century when we're going to need to keep our blades sharpened.

Guys, C'MON...!

Posted by: Cridland at December 7, 2004 5:40 PM

Speaking of Virgin births, 'tis the season to share a little something my late, great grandfather once said: Do you really think it's coincidence that April Fool's Day is nine months before Christmas? (If ya do the math, you'll see that "Jay-zus," as the inbred Red-staters call Him, popped out of the Holy Womb a week early.)

Posted by: Lawaneke at December 7, 2004 6:41 PM

Crid, it's better now than it was, and it certainly wasn't the Taliban, but there was NO separation of church and state. Catholicism is written into the constitution, and any movie deemed offensive to Jesus was banned by the official censor. Any amendment opposed by the church was doomed to defeat -- this included the one proposing the legalization of divorce. Divorce! Homosexuality was illegal. (This has since changed on both counts since becoming more integrated with, y'know, that horrible socialistic "Old Europe")

I had other parents refuse to drive me to school as a kid because I wasn't Catholic. Don't tell me what is or isn't scary about that if you've never been there.

Oh, and by the way, we also had terrorism. Again, not as bad as in Israel, but not exactly anything nice.

Bush talks funny too. Doesn't mean he's not a danger.

Posted by: LYT at December 7, 2004 8:42 PM

> Don't tell me what is or isn't scary...

Why are lefties so fascinated with interior lives? LYT, no one cares enough about your emotional core to tell you what to feel; we're not pscyhotherapists. But having heard your concerns, others are free to challenge or disregard them.

And we are clearly talking about the right and the left. Amy talks about the liberating cluster of blue-state insight-

> knowing each other and the rest of our
> east and left-coast congregating friends.

Could this be more provincial?

You can live in terror of an Irish-style "theocracy" sweeping America if you want. But with liberalism sweeping their fundamental institutions as you decribe in your post, it will be difficult to sell this worry to other Americans. Especially the churchgoing flyovers, entranced on weeknights by Republican favorites like Will & Grace and Desperate Housewives. Apparently they think Bush is confronting the truly hazardous theocratic enthusiasts.

Posted by: Cridland at December 7, 2004 9:58 PM

Crid, it's one thing to have a difference of opinion on free markets (I'm for them), but the fundamentalists are primitives trying to force their fairy tale on the rest of us. I have a 14-year-old girl corresponding with me now who insists evolution is a crock, and god whipped up the world in six days. These people should be deciding life for the rest of us? It's like me telling you what to do because a giant purple dinosaur told me so.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 8, 2004 12:45 AM

Fucking moron literalists. (Sadly, I'm not /trying/ to be a troll. That's pretty much all I can state on the subject of biblical literalists without launching into a full-blown rant on the subject.)

Posted by: M at December 8, 2004 4:43 AM

> trying to force their fairy tale
> on the rest of us

History has a name for the kind of religious coercion that you and I suffer these days... PARADISE!

Posted by: Cridland at December 8, 2004 6:58 AM