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At Christmas, what do we really believe?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, December 13, 2004

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"It will really just be me. I will just be dressed up like Santa Claus for the party. But I won't be the real Santa. So you won't be afraid when I come downstairs to give out the presents, will you?"

Maggie May and Sara Louise, my two-year old granddaughters, look up at me blankly, and then turn away. They are making no promises. In fact, I know that when I put on my costume they will be afraid to get close to me.

For Christian believers the Baby Jesus of the Christmas manger represents a Savior who is somehow both human and divine.

They would like to believe me, I am sure. But they don't. They can't quite get hold of this concept of Santa Claus - this creature who loves them and will bring them toys, this mixture of the imaginary and real, this cross between a man and something superhuman.

What keeps them at a distance? Maybe it is the wild white beard. Maybe the big tummy. Or the strange costume. Who knows what is going on inside these children's minds as they try to makes sense of Santa Claus?

I doubt if our varied and inconsistent explanations help them much.

While these little girls cannot warm up to Santa, they seem to have no problem with the Baby Jesus in the Christmas manger displays. "That is Baby Jesus. That is his mama. That is his daddy."

Later on in life, when they understand all about the "miracle" of Santa Claus, they will wrestle with another miracle, one that is even more difficult to understand. For Christian believers the Baby Jesus of the Christmas manger represents a Savior who is somehow both human and divine. For them, the celebration of Jesus' birth can be a time of reaffirmation of belief-or a time of spiritual challenge.

Just who is this Jesus whom the wise men came to worship? Our answer to this question can be guided by scripture and by the teachings of our churches. But ultimately we have to come to our own personal conclusions.

Recently, a best selling novel, " The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, turned upside down some traditional beliefs about Jesus. Although the book is "only fiction," it is based on supposed "facts" about Jesus. These "facts" include: (1) Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. (2) They had a child and their "bloodline" continues to this day. (3) The idea of Jesus' divinity was super-imposed on Christian beliefs through the influence of the Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century. (4) Constantine was also responsible for ordering a new Bible that took out the books which told about Jesus' relationship with Mary Magdalene and the importance of the "feminine" aspects of the teaching and practices of Jesus and the early church.

These "facts" are welcomed by some, especially by those who believe the Christian Church and its versions of the Christian religion have improperly relegated women to a subordinate role. But for others these "Da Vinci Code facts" represent an unwelcome challenge to fundamental concepts of who Jesus was and is.

As we wrestle with the challenges of the "Da Vinci Code facts," we need somebody we trust to separate the book's true facts from the fictional ones.

Thanks goodness for UNC-Chapel Hill professor Bart Erhman and his new book, "Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine."

Ehrman is a scholar of the New Testament and early Christian writings. While he admires Dan Brown's talent in producing a compelling mystery story, Ehrman's examination of the "Da Vinci Code facts" shows that they too are mostly fiction.

For instance, Ehrman shows that there is no credible historical evidence of Jesus being married or having a child. He shows that the Christian idea of Jesus' divinity was widely accepted in the early church and was certainly not "imposed" in the Fourth Century by Constantine. Nor did Constantine settle the question of what books became a part of the Bible, a matter that was not finally decided until later. In fact, most of the books that are a part of the New Testament were widely accepted throughout the early church long before Constantine.

Ehrman's careful and scholarly examination of the "Da Vinci Code facts" puts away some of Dan Brown's most troubling challenges to traditional views of Jesus. Therefore, Ehrman's book is a wonderful Christmas season gift to me.

But reading Ehrman's book is not risk-free. His explanation of the writings of early Christians raises other questions about Jesus, who he was and is, and what his fundamental teachings were.

Maybe, though, at a time when we are trying to persuade children not to be afraid of Santa Claus, we should not be afraid to think hard about our personal beliefs about the Baby Jesus, who he was and is, and what he really means to us.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (December 19) guest is Sharyn McCrumb author of "Ghost Riders." (Bart
Ehrman will appear on January 30.)

Programs coming up:

December 19: Sharyn McCrumb, Ghost Riders

December 26: Clyde Edgerton, Lunch at the Piccadilly

January 2: Jim Early, Tar Heel Barbecue

January 9: Lynn York, The Piano Teacher

January 16: John Dalton, Heaven Lake

January 23: Chuck Stone, Squizzy the Black Squirrel

January 30: Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities

February 6: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

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