The Atlantic website has a piece by Jonathan Merritt gravely informing us all that “Your Christmas Nativity Scene is a Lie.” Well, that’s a pretty serious charge. Let’s examine the argument.
Merritt begins with the point that Jesus may not have been born in a stable. The word usually translated as “inn,” he notes, is more properly translated as the guest room of a private home. Where we often think of Joseph as seeking shelter in a kind of hotel that was full, and being turned out into the stable, he was probably, on this view, seeking room at the home of relatives who, having insufficient room, had to put him and Mary in the lower level of their home, where it was common at that time to put the animals at night.
Even if Merritt is correct, I would not call this a lie, but a misunderstanding. But it is not necessarily even a misunderstanding. Merriam-Webster defines a stable as “a building in which domestic animals are sheltered and fed.” On Merritt’s account, we are dealing with poor people–first century Palestinians–who had a room in the house that doubled as a place “in which domestic animals are sheltered and fed.” And the Bible confirms they were in a place where animals were fed because it mentions, as Merritt himself notes, that Jesus was laid in a “manger.” Sure, it’s not a separate building, and so does not precisely meet the definition. But if you had a family poor enough to live in, say, a barn, would you say they were inaccurate in referring to the first level as the “stable” just because it was not in a separate building? I don’t think so, and I don’t think the “stable” claims deserves to be called a serious error, much less a “lie.”
Merritt then goes on to mention that we envision cattle and sheep as being present, even though the Bible does not mention them, and that we often depict three wise men, even though the Bible does not say how many came. To speak of anything here as a “lie” is silly. On this view, any visual depiction of the nativity will be a lie because it will involve details that cannot be known. If the Holy Family is in a place where animals are kept, then it is not dishonest to visualize animals. If we are informed that wise men came, then any visual depiction will have to settle on some number to show.
Merritt also mentions that we think of the three wise men as three kings, although the Bible does not say so, but only refers to them as “magi.” Is the depiction of the wise men as kings a lie, then? No, it is a tradition. We can’t know that the tradition is true, but neither do we know that it is false.
When, we wonder, are we going to get to any actual lies in Merritt’s treatment of the traditional nativity scene?
He finally does come to something that is admittedly an inaccuracy, and here we seem to arrive at what really concerns him. He notes that most American nativity scenes depict the Holy Family as white, although they certainly were not Europeans.
Merritt has a point here: a depiction of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as European-looking is certainly factually wrong. I think, however, that he makes this into more of a problem than it really is. He fears that such depictions reinforce racism by suggesting that lightness is associated with what is good and darkness with what is bad.
I think that here Merritt is not giving his fellow citizens enough credit. There would be a serious problem if most Americans really thought that Jesus was a European, or that it was important to believe that he was one–as if he somehow belonged especially to them and was not particularly concerned with people of other races or ethnicities. I think it is safe to say, however, that almost no American Christians think that–that almost all American Christians would freely admit that Jesus himself did not look just like the child in the nativity scene but instead looked like a person of middle eastern descent, as he was. Similarly, although it is common to use “darkness” and “light” as figurative expressions for “evil” and “good,” almost all American Christians would disclaim any belief that there is such a thing as “evil” or “goodness” associated with race or skin color.
What, then, is going on with the depictions of the Holy Family as white? Probably nothing more sinister than the commonplace impulse of artists to present their subject matter in a way that is immediately accessible to themselves and to their audience. As Merritt himself mentions in a separate article, the depiction of the Holy Family as white-looking in European art goes back to the Middle Ages–when most ordinary Europeans had very little, if any, contact with non-Europeans. The point was to depict Jesus as a human being, and the artist defaulted to depicting him as the kind of human being with which the artist was most familiar.
Judging from the books Merritt has co-authored, he is a Christian himself. He should know that charity is a key Christian virtue, and that one aspect of it is not assuming your fellow human beings to be worse than they really are. This is especially out of place for a Christian during the season of Christmas. Christians contemplating a nativity scene–even if it inaccurately depicts Jesus as white–are going to be reminded of God’s love for human beings, and by that experience are going to be less likely, not more likely, to succumb to the evil of racism.