Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mary and Joseph in Bed: The billboard that's shaking up New Zealand

UPDATE 12/18/2009: The billboard was attacked a 3rd time by an elderly woman who slashed it with a knife and this time, the church says, it will not be replaced. Glynn Cardy, vicar at the church, told Ekklesia:

"I regret to say that tonight our billboard was attacked by a knife wielding Christian fanatic who was then apprehended by a group of homeless people who care about our church. Later in the evening another group of fanatics ripped it down.

"When knives are wielded in the name of God I have two responses. One is to act to ensure the safety of the public and parishioners. We will therefore not be replacing the vandalised billboard with an identical one.

"My second response is one of deep sadness at those in the Christian Church who don’t want to offend any faith position, even the most literalistic view of a male god. By having unity as their priority they inadvertently feed fanaticism.

"We have no regrets about bringing this discussion about Jesus’ origins and the nature of the Christian God into the public sphere – into homes, workplaces, universities and the internet. We are glad that discussion about Santa, food, and present buying was momentarily usurped by a discussion about Jesus.

Auckland, New Zealand is buzzing about the following billboard that the self-described "progressive Anglican" church St. Matthew-in-the-City has erected twice. The first time the billboard was defaced with brown paint; the second time it was stolen.

Before we continue, we know perfectly well that this billboard goes against the Catholic Church teaching that Mary was a virgin before and after Jesus' birth. A spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Auckland reaffirmed this position and called the poster "inappropriate and disrespectful".

So why are we reporting this controversy here? Because we actually went to the church Web site and read what their vicar, Rev. Glynn Cardy, wrote about the church's reason for putting up such a provocative poster. And what he says is not so bad, although we personally disagree with calling the Christmas narratives "fictitious". Some excerpts:

...Many in society mistakenly think that to challenge literalism is to challenge the norms of Christianity. What progressive interpretations try to do however is remove the supernatural obfuscation and delve into the deeper spiritual truth of this festival...

...The Christmas billboard outside St Matthew-in-the-City lampoons literalism and invites people to think again about what a miracle is. Is the miracle a male God sending forth his divine sperm, or is the miracle that God is and always has been among the poor? ...

...Progressive Christianity believes the Christmas stories are fictitious accounts designed to introduce the radical nature of the adult Jesus. They contrast the Lord and Saviour Caesar with the anomaly of a new ‘lord’ and ‘saviour’ born illegitimate in a squalid barn. At Bethlehem low-life shepherds and heathen travelers are welcome while the powerful and the priests aren’t. The stories introduce the topsy-turvy way of God, where the outsiders are invited in and the insiders ushered out...

...Progressive Christianity doesn’t overlook Jesus’ life and rush to his death. Rather it sees the radical hospitality he offered to the poor, the despised, women, children, and the sick, and says: ‘this is the essence of God’. His death was a consequence of the offensive nature of that hospitality and his resurrection a symbolic vindication...

...One billboard that expresses middle mush reads, “I miss hearing you say ‘Merry Christmas’, and its signed ‘Jesus’. No one can take offense because no one is being asked to do or think anything particularly different, except say ‘Merry Christmas’.

No doubt on Christmas Eve when papers print the messages of Church leaders most of them will serve up this middle mush. Jesus will be born in a palatial sanitized barn and every king and crook, religious and irreligious, will be surrounding him saying ‘Merry Christmas my friends!’ No reader will be asked to do or think anything risky, no reader will be offended, and no reader will write a critical response. They’ll just yawn and turn the page.

So maybe this billboard will get people talking and thinking about the theological concepts that we often swallow without really understanding what they mean.


  1. I'll talk from my personal experience, and you might disagree, of course.

    How can we explain our faith to someone who doesn't believe, in the XXIst century?

    For me, one of the 'miracles' that can be understood by anyone is the fact that a 'feminist' man (Jesus) preached universal Love, Justice and Liberation as the best way of serving God, in the context of a heavily patriarchal culture and epoch, and His Spirit is still working for Peace, alive in those who believe in the good news. Hey, that man MUST be a Son of God! For me, that's the greatest 'miracle' on which my faith is deeply rooted.

    I think that having doubts is nothing bad. It is part of the process of being true to one's faith, feelings and reason, and growing in the path of freedom. It doesn't mean you are a better or worse christian. Treating the Christmas narratives as fiction or reality isn't the central issue, in my opinion. There is a fundamental right: anyone can believe in religious creeds and values freely! Plurality is nothing bad, because the deepest faith is one and the same.
    For an instant, let's imagine that those stories are fiction... then, what did the first christians want to tell us with those stories? Is there a 'truth' in these stories that needs to be listened to? I think so, and it is a striking and valuable truth.
    Thinking that they are simply 'lies' is also a childish attitude, because closes the door to deep reflection on their 'hidden' values and intentionality.
    Sorry, I hope you get the message of what I want to say, my english is not as fluent as I wanted when it comes to theology :)

    I disagree with that campaign's way of inviting to reflection, because it is based on direct provocation (sex, again!). There are other ways of asking for critical sense in people.


  2. Wow! This update is ...WOW!
    "elderly woman who slashed it with a knife"!!!!
    Sorry, I couldn't stop laughing for a while.
    This is so surrealistic!!