The Sunday before Christmas, I attended a church service with my family. The pastor was discussing a familiar passage from Luke 1, commonly known as “The Annunciation,” where the angel Gabriel came down to Nazareth and informed Mary that she was going to “conceive and give birth to a son.” I’d heard it dozens of times before, at least once every Christmas, and year after year I listened as preachers praised Mary for her obedience, her willingness to carry a child into the world at the risk of cutting herself off from all good society. I prepared to tune out for the next few minutes.
But this time, hearing the story from my rather newly-formed liberal-feminist ears, I was offended. It seemed misogynistic and just plain creepy that God would (somehow) impregnate a woman and force her to have a baby. And given Mary’s status as an unmarried woman, the next nine months and potentially the rest of her life would be hell since her acquaintances would assume she’d committed adultery. Part of me, hearing the story this time, wanted Mary to stand up, look the angel in the face, and say, “No.”
I realize that would leave me and the rest of the human race completely screwed. If we accept what scripture says, it’s precisely because of Mary’s subservience, her desire to do what God asked of her that our salvation became possible. We could argue that it was her choice to obey, and someone more fundamentalist than I am would probably say that the act of obeying is in fact defiance against the pressures of society. But was it really a choice, considering God’s power and the relative powerlessness of Mary?
Luke makes it clear that Mary was excited about it, or (twist!) at least a really good faker, as she later says to her cousin, “My soul glorifies the Lord … for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” But think what would have happened if she hadn’t agreed to it. IF she even had a choice in the matter, it was between obedience and, perhaps, going mute or blind until she relented and agreed to give birth to the kid. Before you excommunicate me, Catholic Church, remember what happened to the many others in the Bible who didn’t obey God immediately? Like Zechariah? Adam and Eve? Uzzah, who was struck dead because he reached out to steady the Ark when the oxen stumbled?
All this to say, while listening to the Annunciation story, my carefully watered, Biblically liberal, skipping-Ephesians-4-when-I-read-the-Bible Christianity-in-a-pot began to wither. A part of me had been convinced that, if I focused on the “Jesusy” passages in the gospels, I would get to the heart of what Christianity was, and not have to worry about troublesome things like the sexism all over the Bible. But this isn’t even a passage that you can skip over. This is the story of how Christ was born – it’s kind of important. And even this story is problematic.
For a moment, though, I was able to step out of my anger. As I sat in my chair staring at the pastor, silently boiling and wondering why this had never occurred to me, I realized I was relieved to be offended. It was a good thing that I hadn’t grown completely stony and impassive to this story. All too often, we sit in the pews and let this insane, radical, life-changing stuff bounce off of our seats as if we had force-fields protecting us. We need to let ourselves react, whether it’s in joy or anger or simply confusion. I don’t want to sit in church and think, “That’s nice.” No, it isn’t. If something in scripture makes you uncomfortable, that’s meaningful. Think about it; examine why.
For me, it’s often passages that I see as anti-progressive that make me squirm. And then there’s all the scripture that condemns greed and wealth, verses from Jesus himself that ask us to give away all our possessions to the poor. I dig them, but they don’t exactly make me feel like a saint.
Non-believers have asked me, “If you’re so offended, then why are you still a Christian?” I don’t know. Perhaps I’m a lousy feminist. Or perhaps because there are fundamental human rights that I firmly believe in, and I think God ingrained those beliefs in me, even when they seem to contradict the scripture that makes me believe in God in the first place (yikes!). There are a lot of confusing and offensive passages in the Bible, and I still don’t really know how to think about them. At the same time, there are many other passages that I can get behind, verses like this one from Isaiah: “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Yeah!
Despite my knee-jerk revulsion to parts of scripture and even some fundamental parts of orthodox Christian faith, I know that I don’t want to believe in a higher power that is just a better version of me. If I’m never challenged by my worldview, if there is nothing in my beliefs that seems sort of contradictory, then I may as well have made it all up. I can’t expect to understand, or even agree with, a being that’s supposed to have existed for all eternity and will continue to do so forever.
I could end with some wise quote from C. S. Lewis or Tim Keller or the book of Job, but I don’t want to. I don’t want anyone to nod along to what I’ve “concluded” and say, “Oh, that’s nice.” It isn’t nice. Faith is anything but nice.
Rebekah Mays is a Barnard College graduate originally from Austin, Texas. She currently works and writes in Prague, Czech Republic. You can find more of her writing on her blog The Prague BLOG or follow her on Twitter @smallbeks.
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Image #1: "L'Annonciation" by Philippe de Champagne
Image #2: "Annunciazione" by Fabrizio Boschi
Image #3: "The Annunciation" by Henry Ossawa Tanner