Some close family members were married by a minister from New Zealand who said: “The bible is just a book of stories - the way you live your life depends on the stories you believe.” I am aware that might cause a fair amount of nose-wrinkling in some Christians. To me it’s skewed way of saying “Truth can resonate in all stories, whether or not they happened.”
People like stories. Here’s one.
One Christmas when I was a boy I was in the car with my mum and we hit a small bird. It was a robin. I think I insisted that we stopped to check it’s health, annoying little sensitive brat that I was. We were next to a farm and one of the workers there - a man whom I now suspect suffered terribly with his mental health but whom I then imagined fondly as Benny from Crossroads - picked up the bird and held it tightly in his fist for me to see. All better, see, youngster? No harm done. I left happy that the universe was as it should be.
I know now that some roadside pact had been made between my mother and Benny, and that he had broken the dying bird’s neck behind his back before showing me its dead face. The somewhat dubious moral to this story is that sometimes children should be protected from the truth.
The weird thing about memories like these is that I don’t remember learning this grizzly truth. I don’t remember, for example, ten years later my mum casually saying, “Hey, son, remember that bird we hit but was OK? It wasn’t actually OK, it was dead. That poor boy Benny snapped its neck. I thought you should know.”
I’m not sure how this story became this story, in other words. It is, like almost all memories that stick around, a personal myth. I don’t know what actually happened. Like most childhood memories, the details are filled in and embellished over time; Benny may not have been wearing a simpleton’s hat, it may not have been a farm. It might not have been Christmas, or a Robin. It may not even have been a bird.
It might have been the vicar.
Like most good stories, the details are all colour - the truth is the core.
The truth is the core.
We fostered a puppy a few days ago. She’s called Holly. She and her sisters were found alone in a building site. Two of them died of pneumonia and she’s now sick too, so we’re very worried. We don’t know if we’ll apply the same truth of that befuddled Benny/robin story if it all goes south. She’s staying at the vet. The vet said: “Pray, because God answers all prayers.” She didn’t just say this; she said something about medicine too…otherwise we may have tried another vet. I did try praying, but I always find it hard. I feel like a fraud, like I’m pretending. The best I can do is exercise a kind of concerted hope with my eyes shut which, perhaps, is all that praying really is. Like crossing your fingers in the dark.
It’s Christmas Day, a day that celebrates a fundamental detail of the Christian faith - that our flawed species has been saved by an all-powerful supernatural force. Of all the stories to believe in, it’s definitely the best. It's core is hope over adversity and uncertainty, which is the core to every good story and the core to every mythology that has ever bound humanity - it's the core to the story of our own lives, our own relationships, our own families, perhaps our own species. It is also just the beginning of a story, which is where we humans always sit.
Does it matter whether or not you believe in the story of Christmas, so long as you place the core, the raw light of that story above everything else within it? Are we allowed to do that? To hold hope in an ideal without subscribing to the detail with which it has been encrusted?
I would not have to have been born too many years ago to have been taking a very real personal risk in saying what I just said. This is pretty awesome. Somewhat less awesome is that fact is that neither would I have to have been born many miles away. There are people - maybe even some who are reading this, who will find that question as upsetting or enraging as my daughter would do if you told her Santa doesn’t exist - which he absolutely does, by the way, and if you think otherwise then you’re an idiot and you’re definitely on the naughty list.
I believe in the details of the Christmas story as much as I believe in the details of the Star Wars story. I’m sorry if that makes anyone sad or uncomfortable or angry. But I do believe in its core, just as I believe in core of the original George Lucas trilogy. (For the record, I don’t believe in Jar Jar Binks.) I believe that hope is born in dark and troubled places. I believe that things have to get worse before they can get better. I believe that it is difficult, but still possible for the love of a single person to change the world. I believe that we all have that ability inside of us.
I also believe that a great energy flows through everything and that the most evil and corrupted man in the universe can redeem himself by hurling his master into the chasm of a giant space station with electricity buzzing from his fingertips.
And this is why they should always show Star Wars on Christmas day.
Happy Christmas and good will to you all, and - if you feel like it, in any way you choose to do it - please keep your fingers crossed for our pup Holly.