The Story Behind the Stories

Michael Metzger

Ferguson. Chandler. “I can’t breathe.” ISIS. Beheadings. It’s Christmas time in the city. But you’d have to know the story behind the Christmas story to recognize this.

Schmaltzy Christmas songs hardly capture the sinister goings on recorded in the original story. Read Revelation 12. It begins with a dragon (i.e., Satan) instigating an uprising in heaven. This took place before creation (Isaiah 14 & Ezekiel 28). A third of the angelic realm rebelled against God. They lost and were thrown to earth, which is described as “formless and void,” a phrase with ominous overtones of God’s judgment.

Next, a woman appears, about to give birth. Satan is crouching before Mary, ready to devour the baby. At the last second, Mary’s child is snatched away. Mary, the infant Jesus and Joseph flee into Egypt (Matthew 2). Satan seethes at his missed opportunity. He is last seen scanning the horizon, looking to devour followers of the Christ child.

This Christmas story was told for centuries. When the sixteenth century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China, he brought along religious art and icons to help illustrate the gospel to a people who had never heard the good news. The Chinese embraced pictures of the Virgin Mary cuddling the newborn baby but were horrified by scenes of the crucifixion, bloodshed, and war.

The nineteenth century Victorian reformers felt pretty much the same way. Although many were followers of Christ, they sought to expunge illicit sex and violence from all sorts of ancient stories, including the murder and mayhem associated with the original Christmas story. A saga with a sinister element became entirely sweet.

J.R.R. Tolkien warned against cleaning up messy stories. It would ruin them, he said. We witness the wreckage in today’s Christmas by the lack of what Hollywood screenwriting coach Robert McKee calls an “inciting incident.” This is when all hell breaks loose and protagonists do battle with antagonists. By reducing slithering princes to sweet Ken Dolls, an engaging story became saccharine.

Samuel Johnson wrote that we more often need to be reminded than taught. I write essentially the same column every year to remind us of the story behind the stories. William James felt that the world is “all the richer for having a devil in it,” so long as we don’t forget about him but “keep our foot upon his neck.” Doing so reminds us of how Christmas is supposed to be a bit scary. Lots of bad guys and mayhem, often animated by an ancient foe’s anger. We witness it in Ferguson. Or ISIS. But you’d have to know the original Christmas story to recognize this. Have a Merry (but maybe Messy) Christmas.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike


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  1. Thanks for the reminder, Mike. Maybe I need to start wishing people a Messy Christmas. It could lead to some interesting conversations…or get me crossed off a lot of peoples’ Christmas card lists.

  2. Merry (and I mean Happy) Christmas Mike and Kathy
    I am reminded by your message about a tradition in Austria I witness when I was working there. In the week before Christmas one night, the devil goes out to find little children to devour. People are dressed up like Halloween to chase him away and protect the good children. I had never seen this before and can’t remember what they called it.

  3. April:

    It’s probably similar to Krampus, celebrated In Germany during this season. The Krampus is a devilish goblin who tears through the streets as St. Nick’s evil counterpart, looking for misbehaving children (who had better watch out).

  4. I have a number of friends who do not celebrate Christmas as a Christian principle. Maybe I should wish them a Messy little Christmas. Merry Christmas, Mike.

  5. How true.

    It’s funny that recently a few liberal friends of mine some of whom are atheist told me i had been indoctrinated.

    I guess I still haven’t expunged Christianese from my dialect.

    I thought about it, and realized that I do have to struggle against a felt-board concept of Bible stories…

    and that rather than teaching me how to think, my church mostly taught me what to think.

    I too wish we did more honor to the Bible’s stories by taking off the saccharine we’ve glazed over top of them in the last few centuries.

    It would make the Gospel more compelling to a world that finds the church, it’s adherents, and it’s take on the world fakey.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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