By Mark-Donald Ude
Last year, the General Overseer of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM), Dr Olukoya, tried to justify a programme he held for his church members during the Christmas by asserting that Christmas was “unbiblical.”
The programme was presumably meant to keep them busy andshield them from the ‘filth’ and distractions associated with Christmas celebrations. When I read about it, I wasn’t so much bothered, for I regarded it as an isolated case of half-knowledge or half-truth (since I don’t consider itdownright ignorance, in any non-trivial sense).
However, I became really worried when a few days later (precisely 29/12/2019), Vanguard featured an article that showed Pastor Kumuyi (the GO of Deeper Life), Reno Omokri, and Daddy Freeze effectively corroborating Olukoya, insisting that it was “unbiblical.” (Kumuyi even went ahead to suggest he had taken similar measures since the inception of his church to keep church members ‘busy’ at Christmas, thereby shielding them from the ‘sin’ of Christmas). Because of the people involved, some of whom I have commended once or twice (Freeze for his position on tithes; Omokri for sometimes keeping the present government on its toes), it dawned on me that this case of half-knowledge or half-truth (again assuming it isn’t ignorance) is more pervasive than I had thought – and should be immediately addressed.
I call it half-knowledge or half-truth because there is some truth in their assertion. Indeed, the 25th of December Christmas Day is not ‘biblical,’ but not exactly in the sense in which they mean it. For, it was not the literal date of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.So, yes, Olukoya and co. are right, up to this point. But, how is their approach flawed?
With every sense of modesty, I could diagnose that the flaw stems from what may be properly called the‘is-it-in-the-bible?’ mentality or approach to Christianity. In my 2010 book, Be careful with the Bible, this mentality is thoroughly analyzed as a species of “Biblical fundamentalism.”
Irrespective of academic accomplishments, ecclesiastical ranking or even personal intelligence, the common thing with biblical fundamentalists is that they adopt a literalist approach to the Scripture, insisting that the only guide to Christian life are the supposedly exact words in the Bible.
As biblical literalists, they engage in sometimes futile and frustrating efforts to justify everything from the pages of the Bible. And where they meet with glaring contradictions and conflicting assertions, as are clearly rife in the Bible, they simply pick and choose which interpretation to adopt.
We scholars wrongly assume that biblical literalists are generally illiterate. But this is not the case; in fact, most Nigerian Christians of all denominations are literalists, when it comes to interpreting the Bible, though they might hold degrees in other disciplines and might even head big churches. As I said, it is simply a mentality, an approach, albeit, a wrong one.
Before I move on to address the Christmas question proper, I should quickly point out that, to free oneself from the frustration and absurdities biblical literalism necessarily leads, one should reckon with the fact that revelation, that is, God’s saving encounter with humanity, cannot be confined to a few pages of a single text called the Bible.
God has spoken and continues to speak to humanity in diverse, extra-biblical ways. Much as the Bible is important and contains the core, to reduce God’s encounter with humanity to the pages of the Bible is to limit God. God continues to speak to humanity through culture, science and technology, religious manifestations, and diverse inexhaustible ways.
The Bible is not God’s Word (at least not in the simplistic sense in which literalists mean it); rather, it is a book that provides an account of God’s revelation to humanity, perfected in Christ, the Divine Logos.
It was not thrown from heaven. It was written in time. Jesus alone is the Logos, the timeless Word of God. To equate sacred and inspired writings, put together by the early Church, to Jesus the Logos, is blasphemous, to say the very least.
The Bible itself is a product of culture and human practices, and this does not in any way diminish the fact that it contains God’s revelation of Godself, so long as we don’t restrict this revelation only to the Bible. I sincerely believe the Catholic church is one of (if not the only) the churches that have got their theologies right in this regard.
Now, on the Christmas question, some credible scholarly traditions put his birth, somewhere around 4 BC, being associated with the times and reign of Herod the Great.The Infancy Narrative in the Gospels suggests that he was born in Winter. But we all know – and this is rudimentary Theology – that the Infancy Narrative in the Gospels was written in hindsight, penned down several decades after the death of Christ, loaded with already-formed theologies/creeds of the early Church, ‘garnished’ with legendary additions and lore.
It is not just the Infancy Narrative; indeed much of the content of what we know today as the Gospels were narrated with already-made theologies of the early church of the time, shot through with legendary additions and even idiosyncratic styles of the writer(s).
Of course, there were some historical/literal core to the stories, but they were not primarily meant to convey literal, historical truths but a theological truth, that single truth of faith – namely, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born (precise date irrelevant), performed his earthly ministry in a time-frame, died and rose from the dead, and that the world has been redeemed by this salvific act. This is the core truth all Christians should believe.
The Bible is not a book of historical accuracies; it is a book of faith! When approaching the Bible, one should rid oneself of the mentality that seeks to hunt for literal truths. Those who go on a hunting expedition for literal truths from the Bible will return with quite a meagre game, just a few platitudes of the sorriest type.
Even the atheist philosopher (to whom I have some intellectual leanings) knows this bit. Hence, he cautions Christians to focus more on what he calls the “Psychological-Type of the Redeemer” and not the minute details of how he lived and died.
So, Olukoyamight be quite ‘right’ in saying that Christmas as we know it is not in the Bible.However, I find the term “unbiblical” which he employs rather too simplistic. I guess the better word that conveys the same message without downplaying the significance of Christ’s Incarnation is extra-biblical. Is it in the Bible? And my answer is: So what? Must it be in the Bible? Only literalists, as I have described above, would find a problem with that. Aren’t there countless Christian practices, evolved over the years, that have no direct biblical support but are no doubt noble and edifying? Literalists tend to lose sight of the fact that Christianity is a religion steeped in symbolism.
Symbolism isproper insofar asit is in keeping with the very spirit and message of Christianity. Do away with symbolism, and there is only a little or nothing left to hold on to. Christmas is one of such extra-biblical expressions of symbolism. It points to the Incarnation.
The message is that the Incarnation belongs to the overall salvific ‘package.’ Christmas holds out a message of hope to the world. Therefore, all bickering and hair-splitting about times and seasons are quite beside the point. Only literalists bicker about exact times and seasons.
It is my considered position that biblical literalism, that‘is-it-in-the-bible?’ mentality, would collapse on its own terms. I contend – and this is a key argument of this write-up – that no Christian can consistently maintain a literalist standpoint. Otherwise, we might as well ask whether such titles as General Overseer, Daddy, etc. are found in the Bible.
Those who point out that “Daddy” is like “father” might be quickly reminded that Jesus commanded us to call no one father. We might as well ask where such newfangled practices as Cross-Over Nights, Crusades, etc. are strictly mentioned in the Bible. (By the way, those familiar with the history of the Medieval Ages would agree that the word “crusade” is quite infamous or, to put it mildly, doesn’t have such pious origins).
We might also ask where tithes and similar ‘self-help’ practices are explicitly commanded by Jesus in the New Testament (and might even insist that in the one or two places Jesus mentioned tithes, he maintained a discernably cynical attitude towards it because of the underlying hypocrisy thereof). We might ask why we worship on Sundays and not strictly on a “Sabbath” – so on and so forth.
But I sincerely think these questions are irrelevant. I do not begrudge people their cherished titles and their beloved tithes. There is nothing essentially wrong with the practices I mentioned, provided there are no excesses that detract from the core Christian message.
Indeed Christianity is dynamic and admits of some creativity as long as they are not sinful. I only pointed these out to make the case that literalism is quite an unsustainable approach to Christianity. We simply cannot go too far with it without contradicting ourselves or coming across as hypocritical.
We simply cannot continue to pick and choose which part of the Bible to ‘get tough’ on, while we treat the rest with levity. In Christian life, we should learn to tell the substance (essence) from mere accidents and go for the former.
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Come to think of it. If birthdays of pastors, prophets and GOs, wedding anniversaries, church foundations are celebrated with so much fanfare that sometimes gulp millions of Naira, why would we begrudge Jesus, the Lord and Founder of Christianity, this one single putative birthday? Do all who gather to celebrate GOs’ birthdays know or care about the exact date they were born? Why would this be a problem only when it comes to Jesus in whose name the so-called pastors and GOs are ‘employed’?
Why do we lose that sense of symbolism when it comes to Christmas? In a country full of atrocities and evils that demand frontal condemnation, why would anyone think that condemning Christmas might be a good way to express one’s self-righteousness.
Talking about atrocities and sin, those who condemn Christmas celebration usually point to the period as a time of general immorality. Once again, this is one-sided, nothing but half-truth. A lot of good things also happen at Christmas. It is a time of family reunion, a time of sharing, a time when people show remarkable philanthropic gestures, a time when cities empty into the villages to also keep the villages warm, a time of community sports competitions and talent discovery, a time of reconciliation and peace, a time of visitation and solidarity, a time of marriages and expressions of love, a time when the air wears a festive mood, adornedby centuries-old Christmas songs.
Those who pretend to care so much about ‘sin’ (as they call it) seem not to realize that Nigeria has sadly become an iniquitous nation where atrocities, killings and injustices go on all year round, and not just during Christmas. I strongly believe these evils stem from a dysfunctional system, that favors mainly pastors/prophets, ‘men of God,’ politicians and people with criminal minds.I also believe that the evils in Nigeria are a result of pervasive ignorance in the land – which again favors only pastors/prophets/GOs, imams and politicians.
As soon as the nation as a whole is fixed, much of the evil that goes on will be minimized. So, the best way to minimize sin at Christmas is to fix the entire system and condemn the atrocities therein.
It is even baffling and disappointing that, of all the problems confronting the country, some people could only put their fingers on Christmas celebration. But this also reveals the kind of country we have become, a country of religious fanaticism, especially from the two most dominant religions.
Whiletiny countries like Rwanda are making successful round-trips to the moon, Nigeria’s key export (apart from crude oil) is religion, with thousands of made-in-Nigeria churches found all over the world, targetingunsuspectingfellow immigrants and their tithes. This is a country where religion has become a major ‘cash crop,’ especially since the advent of the Prosperity Gospel.
It is a country where the dream of most young people is to become pastors or politicians, and not to invent something new. It is a country that would rather invest on pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem than in science and technology; a country where people compete only in owning private jets and largest church auditoriums but never in industry; a country that consumes but never produces.
It is a country where churches and mosques are found in every street with no corresponding righteousness; where weird ‘prayer centers’ spring up at such a rate as would leave the early founders of such movements as bewildered as the proverbial sorcerer that could not control the forces he had conjured up from the nether world; a country where normal medical conditions are frequently ‘diagnosed’ as the handiwork of witches and wizards, and money collected from same victims to ‘exorcise’ the alleged ‘witches;’ a nation where everybody wants to get-rich-quick, with no tangible career, all hopes pinned on illusory ‘favors’ promised by so-called ‘men of God’.
In such a country, bickering and hair-splitting about religious festivities is not unexpected. Not intending to sound derogatory, anyonelooking at Nigeria from a distant land cannot but see it as one large circus of unserious and irresponsible people.That’s perhaps how Nigeria is seenthe world over. And I frankly believe these are the things that should be worrying us, not matters about Christmas.
I intentionally adopted a rather polemical method. But I hope the reader is able to see through the polemics to get to the main point, namely, that biblical literalism (the ‘is-it-in-the-bible?’ attitude) is the cause of our inability to see the significance of commemorating the birth of the Founder of Christianity, ignoring exact times and seasons.
Afterall, the most important elaborations on doctrinal issues and Christian practices sometimes take on a polemical dimension. To round off, I once again submit that, when we do away with biblical literalism/fundamentalism, we would not only enjoy the true meaning and divine significance of Christmas, we would also experience the true riches of the holy Scripture and Christian life in general.
Mark-Donald Ude, is a FWO Research Fellow, Center for Research in Political Philosophy and Ethics (RIPPLE), KU Leuven, Belgium. (email@example.com)