Examining the Nativity

Article excerpt


It's that time of year.

Ornament-filled trees are going up. Wreaths are being hung. Greeting cards are being sent and received.

Christmas is upon us.

Venerable weeklies Time and Newsweek, however, focus on the ecclesiastical - rather than the commercial - aspects of the holiday season.

Newsweek's cover story is "The Birth of Jesus," with the subhead "Faith and History: How the Story of Christmas Came to Be."

The cover also billboards two current hot topics. "Steroid Bombshells" looks at the scandal surrounding superstar athletes and performance-enhancing drugs. Then there's "The 'Lemony Snicket' Saga," a feature on the upcoming film "Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events." (The PG-rated fantasy, starring Jim Carrey, arrives in movie theaters next week.)

With its cover feature - illustrated throughout with reproductions of great artworks about the Nativity - Newsweek wants to tell "the hidden story of the Nativity narratives and what they mean to the faithful."

The story was timed, no doubt, to coincide with the release of a recent Newsweek-conducted poll that found that 84 percent of American adults consider themselves Christians, and 82 percent see Jesus as God or the son of God. Seventy-nine percent say they believe in the virgin birth, and 67 percent say they think the Christmas story - from the angels' appearance to the star of Bethlehem - is historically accurate.

Other matters are explored as well. The story raises a controversial point on whether Mary was, indeed, a virgin and cites a quote from Shakespeare's "Hamlet": "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Finally, after some speculation on Gnosticism, the eight-page feature closes with a citation from Cardinal John Henry Newman, the noted Victorian cleric who converted from the Anglican faith to Catholicism. It then segues into the familiar closing words of Luke 2:14: "and on earth peace, good will toward men."

By contrast, the 10-page story in Time, "Secrets of the Nativity," by David Van Biema (who, sadly, died after completing his reporting for the cover story) is somewhat more interested in how feminists respond to Mary. "These days," the piece reads, "some feminist readers like Vanderbilt University's Amy-Jill Levine, editor of the forthcoming 'Feminist Companion to Mariology,' are more interested in what might be called Mary's feistiness."

After examining various theories surrounding the Nativity story and virgin birth, Time decides that most Christmas worshippers nowadays aren't focusing on the account found in the New Testament's four Gospels. Instead, the story says, the interpretation is more personal, with many responding to "a simple joyous proclamation of salvation."

The story closes with a look at the planning and preparation that goes into the long tradition of Christmas pageants. Among those featured: the Rev.

* * *

The third major news weekly, U.S. News & World Report - which in recent years usually has given one of its December covers over to some Christian (or religious) subject - changes course this time with "Photographic Treasures From the National Archives. …