By Zachary Guiliano
Every year at Christmas, just like every year at Easter, I look forward to the annual tradition of debunking. You know what I mean: an article claiming Jesus wasn’t really born in a stable, a book by a bishop declaring doubts about the virginity of Mary, or, in this new age of scoffers, a tweet from one of many self-appointed pundits, critics, and prophets, all delivered in the breathless voice of revolutionary fervor or the thundering tones of Elijah.
I can see why newspapers, blogs, magazines, and book publishers find it irresistible to pursue such material. Controversy, negative emotion, so-called hot takes — they sell, drive traffic to websites, and garner those wonderful likes, loves, and retweets. Human beings love the nasty side of life, as well as the opinionated, at least in print and on the Internet.
What puzzles me, however, is the way this unvenerable tradition presents itself as something new. Skeptics have been voicing their doubts about the virgin birth from the very beginning of the Christian faith.
Consider the claims of Celsus, the Greek philosopher against whom Origen wrote an apologetic work in the second century, or the rumors perpetuated about Jesus’ birth in the Jewish Talmud. Pick up the works of Thomas Jefferson or Voltaire or some other Enlightenment or Deist luminary of the 18th century. Sift through the books of numerous 19th- or 20th-century Christians who wished to reform their denominations to be more thoroughly modern or who left to found new religious sects. Or let me Google that for you, so you can find hundreds of huffy, anonymous atheists and agnostics loudly trumpeting their views on point. (I hear they gather in serried ranks on Reddit.)
“There is nothing new under the sun,” says the Preacher (Eccles. 1:9, KJV). God knows how right he was on this point.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
Why do skeptical views still attract attention as if they are new, despite their nearly constant airing? Let me suggest three reasons: public amnesia, the endurance of orthodoxy, and individual conversion.
Here, as in so many other areas of life, we face the problem of memory. Many people, including many Christians, seem not to realize that there is such a thing as liberal tradition. It is a movement with a history, a genealogy, common talking points, predictable stances, and admirable achievements mixed with an irritating air of moral and intellectual superiority. Liberals may dress or speak a little differently than they did 250 years ago — powdered wigs and elevated speech now being out of fashion — and they have different media to use, but many features remain dully, dreadfully, and mind-numbingly similar. Nietzsche couldn’t “take to Twitter,” but Steven Pinker can, all the while delivering a message of ever-diminishing sophistication.
Another and perhaps more significant reason liberal claims feel new is due to the enduring power of orthodoxy and its ability to stick in the mind of an otherwise amnesiac culture. The simple fact is that traditional articulations of creedal orthodoxy in the Christian Church have in no way disappeared. The faith is still proclaimed, and many people continue to be formed by it. Particularly at this time of year, the Church speaks in an eloquent and convincing way to the imagination.
(Can you think of an inspiring Deist or humanist hymn, beloved of the people during “this holy tide of Christmas”? I leave aside here the music of contemporary consumerism, which has proved more successful at supplementing and subverting the Christian story. “’Zat you, Santa Claus?”)
It is because traditional Christian orthodoxy endures that liberal attacks on its tenets continue to attack public interest. It would be another case entirely if liberalism had succeeded. It would have moved on to other interests. (One hopes.) But the arrogant mouth of the liberal tradition speaks its blasphemies each year precisely because it has not wiped out its enemy. Instead, it remains stuck, unable to move on, like a barnacle on the side of a ship or a parasite on its host. On its own, it would wither and die.
A final feature: the liberal tradition retains power precisely due to the force of individual conversion. After all, other than the ignorant, who are the loudest trumpeters of tired liberal claims against Christianity? Converts.
As long as churches continue to teach the faith and children continue to be formed by it, some significant proportion of the population will experience liberalism as liberation. And why wouldn’t they? They’re like teenagers, finally able to leave the house after 9 p.m., no longer held down by parental control. This is all the more true when Christian orthodoxy is allied with some cultural or political movement of consequence, like the Religious Right. Then, converts have all the thrill of feeling as if they are standing athwart a great crowd, or manning the barricades, rather than joining the unremarkable ranks of a people long marked by sincere intentions and other respectable middle class sensibilities. The latter is rather less exciting in its accuracy.
So what are Christians to do, when faced with liberalism’s all too familiar tirades?
First, we can take a deep breath, and let them roll off our backs. We should treat these liberal claims like we’d treat the random outbursts of a crazy aunt or uncle at Christmas dinner. They come around ever year and decry our beliefs and traditions, even as they participate in them. That’s fine. We can still enjoy our meal.
Second, we can read up and point out. Once we remember that liberal claims are not the fresh blows of a giant, but the exhausted and wild swings of a wearied foe too long at battle, our perspective changes. We can see that a few light taps — at the right moment, and in the right place — will knock our opponent off his feet. Learn how to debunk the debunkers.
There are plenty of friends to help you with this. Pick up a useful apologetic work, and treasure up its arguments. You could start with Origen’s Against Celsus or Alister McGrath’s Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith. Or just spend a little time listening to Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire podcast and checking out his videos on YouTube. I even hear Andrew Petiprin’s Truth Matters is worth a read! (Full disclosure: he writes for us.)
Third, we should keep doing what we do best: trusting in our tradition and forming people in the faith. All around the world, vital communities of faith teach and preach the Christian message with conviction and courage. We would do well to add a little apologetic preparedness to our usual fare. Far too many young people, especially, enter adulthood with a personal faith but without that proper readiness to “give an answer to anyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:15), particularly with gentleness and patience.
I’m not saying it will be easy. Liberalism can be exasperating and exhausting. That’s part of its nature. But it can and will be endured, so long as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Born, reigns on high.