By Mark-Donald Ude
Last year, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries (MFM) General Overseer Dr. Olukoya tried to justify a program he ran for his church members over Christmas by claiming that Christmas was “unbiblical.”
It is presumed that the program was intended to keep them busy and protect them from the “dirt” and distractions associated with Christmas celebrations. When I read about it, it didn’t bother me that much, because I considered it as an isolated case of half-knowledge or half-truth (since I don’t consider it total ignorance, in any trivial sense).
However, I was very concerned when a few days later (precisely on 12/29/2019), featured an article showing Pastor Kumuyi (the GO of Deeper Life), Reno Omokri, and Daddy Freeze effectively corroborating Olukoya, insisting that it was “unscriptural.” (Kumuyi even suggested that he had taken similar measures from the beginning of his church to keep church members “busy” at Christmas, thus protecting them from the “sin” of Christmas.) Because of the people involved, some of whom I have praised once or twice (Freeze for his position on tithes; Omokri for sometimes keeping the current government on their toes), I realized that this case of half-knowledge or truth to medias (again assuming it’s not ignorance) is more pervasive than I had thought, and should be addressed immediately.
I call it half-knowledge or half-truth because there is some truth to its claim. In fact, the 25th December’s Christmas Day is not “biblical,” but not exactly in the sense that they mean it. Because, it was not the literal date of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. So yes, Olukoya and company. they are right, up to this point. But how flawed is your approach?
With all sense of modesty, I was able to diagnose that the defect is due to what might properly be called the “is-in-the-Bible?” Mentality or approach to Christianity. In my 2010 book, Beware of the Bible, this mindset is thoroughly analyzed as a kind of “biblical fundamentalism.”
Regardless of academic achievement, ecclesiastical rank, or even personal intelligence, what is common with biblical fundamentalists is that they take a literalist approach to Scripture, insisting that the only guide of the Christian life are the assumptions 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 when they come across glaring contradictions and contradictory claims, as the Bible clearly abounds, they simply pick and choose which interpretation to adopt.
We scholars mistakenly 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, although they may have degrees in other disciplines and even head large churches. Like I said, it is simply a mindset, an approach, albeit incorrect.
Before turning to the question of Christmas proper, I must quickly point out that in order to free oneself from the frustration and absurdities that biblical literalism necessarily drives, one must consider the fact that revelationIn other words, God’s saving encounter with humanity cannot be limited to a few pages of a single text called the Bible.
God has spoken and continues to speak to humanity in various extra-biblical ways. As important as the Bible is and contains the coreTo 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 various inexhaustible ways.
The Bible It is not Gods Word (at least not in the simplistic sense in which literalists say it); rather, it is a book that provides an account of God’s revelation to humanity, perfected in Christ, the Divine Logos.
He was not thrown from heaven. It was written on time. Jesus is only the Logos, the eternal Word of God. To equate the sacred and inspired writings, collected by the early Church, with Jesus the Logos, it’s blasphemy, to say the least.
The Bible itself is a product of human culture and practices, and this in no way diminishes the fact that it contains the revelation of God himself, as long as we do not restrict this revelation to the Bible alone. I sincerely believe that the Catholic Church is one of (if not the only) churches that have got their theologies right in this regard.
Now, on the question of Christmas, some credible academic traditions place its birth, around 4 BC, associated with the times and reign of Herod the Great. The childhood narrative in the Gospels suggests that he was born in winter. But we all know, and this is rudimentary theology, that the childhood narrative in the Gospels was written in retrospect, written several decades after Christ’s death, loaded with already formed early Church theologies / creeds, ‘adorned’ with legendary additions and traditions.
It is not just the narrative of childhood; in fact, much of the content of what we know today as the Gospels was narrated with already elaborate theologies of the early church of the time, riddled with legendary additions and even idiosyncratic styles of the writers.
Of course, there was some historical / literal core to the stories, but they weren’t primarily intended to convey literal, historical truths but one 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 For this salvific act. This is the central truth all Christians should believe.
The Bible is not a book of historical precision; is a book of faith! In approaching the Bible, one must get rid of the mentality that seeks to seek literal truths. Those who go on a hunting expedition in search of literal truths of the Bible will return with a rather sparse game, just a few platitudes of the most regrettable kind.
Even the atheistic philosopher (towards whom I have some intellectual leanings) knows this. Therefore, he warns Christians to focus more on what he calls the “psychological type of the Redeemer” and not on the minute details of how he lived and died.
So Olukoy could be quite “right” in saying that Christmas as we know it is not in the Bible. However, I find the term “unbiblical” that he uses quite simplistic. I guess the best word that conveys the same message without downplaying the meaning of the Incarnation of Christ is extra-biblical. Is it in the Bible? And my answer is: So what? Should it be in the Bible? Only literalists, as I’ve 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 undoubtedly noble and uplifting? Literalists tend to lose sight of the fact that Christianity is a religion steeped in symbolism.
The symbolism is appropriate insofar as it is in accordance with the spirit and message of Christianity. Eliminate the symbolism and there is only a little or nothing left to hold onto. Christmas is one of those extra-biblical expressions of symbolism. Aim at Incarnation.
The message is that the Incarnation belongs to the general salvific “package”. Christmas offers a message of hope to the world. Therefore, all the discussions and discussions about times and seasons are out of place. Only literalists argue about exact times and seasons.
It is my position that Biblical literalism, that “is-in-the-Bible” mentality, would collapse on its own terms. I maintain, and this is a key argument of this article, that no Christian can consistently hold a literalist point of view. Otherwise, we might also wonder if titles such as General Overseer, Dad, etc. are found in the Bible.
Those who point out that “papa” is like “father” could be quickly reminded that Jesus commanded us not to call anyone father. We could also ask where such novel practices as Crossing Nights, Crusades, etc. are strictly mentioned in the Bible. (By the way, those familiar with the history of the Middle Ages would agree that the word “crusade” is quite infamous or, to put it mildly, does not have such pious origins.)
We might also wonder where tithes and similar ‘self-help’ practices are explicitly commanded by Jesus in the New Testament (and we might even insist that in one or two places Jesus mentioned tithes, he maintained a discernibly cynical attitude towards them due to hypocrisy underlying it). We might wonder why we worship on Sundays and not strictly on a “Saturday”, and so on.
But I sincerely believe that these questions are irrelevant. I don’t envy people for their precious titles and their beloved tithes. There is nothing essentially wrong with the practices I mentioned, as long as there are no excesses that distort the central Christian message.
In fact, Christianity is dynamic and admits of creativity as long as they are not sinful. I just pointed them out to show that literalism is a pretty unsustainable approach to Christianity. We simply cannot go too far without contradicting ourselves or appearing hypocritical.
We simply cannot keep choosing where in the Bible to “go hard” while treating the rest lightly. In the Christian life, we must learn to distinguish substance (essence) from mere accidents and go for the former.
Now that I think about it. If Pastors, Prophets and GO birthdays, wedding anniversaries, church foundations are celebrated with such fanfare that they sometimes swallow millions of Naira, why would we envy Jesus, the Lord and Founder of Christianity, this one putative birthday? Does everyone who gather to celebrate GO’s 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 GO 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 could be a good way to express self-righteousness?
Speaking of atrocities and sins, those who condemn the Christmas celebration often point to the period as a time of widespread immorality. Again, this is one-sided, nothing more than a half-truth. Many good things also happen at Christmas. It is a time of family gathering, a time of sharing, a time when people show remarkable philanthropic gestures, a time when cities empty into villages to also keep villages warm, a time of community sports competitions and discovery of talents, a time of reconciliation and peace, a time of visitation and solidarity, a time of marriages and expressions of love, a time in which the air takes on a festive air, adorned with centennial Christmas songs.
Those who pretend to care so much about “sin” (as they call it) seem to fail to realize that Nigeria has sadly become a wicked nation where atrocities, murders and injustices continue. all yearand not just at Christmas. I firmly believe that these evils stem from a dysfunctional system, which mainly favors pastors / prophets, ‘men of God’, politicians and people with criminal minds. I also believe that the ills in Nigeria are the result of widespread ignorance on earth, which again favors only pastors / prophets / GO, imams and politicians.
As soon as the nation as a whole is fixed, much of the evil that occurs will be minimized. So the best way to minimize sin at Christmas is to fix the whole system and condemn the atrocities that take place there.
It’s even puzzling and disappointing that of all the troubles the country faces, some people could only put their fingers in the Christmas celebration. But this also reveals the kind of country we have become, a country of religious fanaticism, especially of the two most dominant religions.
While small countries like Rwanda are making successful round trips to the moon, Nigeria’s key export (besides crude oil) is religion, with thousands of Nigerian-made churches found around the world targeting their peers. unsuspecting 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 shepherds or politicians, and not invent something new. It is a country that would rather invest in pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem than in science and technology; a country where people compete only to own private jets and the 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 without the corresponding rectitude; where strange “prayer centers” arise at such a rate that it would leave the early founders of such movements as baffled as the proverbial sorcerer who could not control the forces he had conjured from the nether world; a country where normal medical conditions are frequently ‘diagnosed’ as the work of witches and wizards, and money raised from the victims themselves to ‘exorcise’ the so-called ‘witches’; a nation where everyone wants to get rich quick, without a career, all hopes pinned on illusory ‘favors’ promised by so-called ‘men of God’.
In such a country, discussions and discussions about religious holidays are not unexpected. Without pretending to sound derogatory, anyone who looks at Nigeria from a distant land cannot help but see it as a great circus of irresponsible and unreliable people. Perhaps this is how Nigeria sees the whole world. And frankly I think these are the things that should be worrying us, not the Christmas issues.
I intentionally adopted a rather controversial method. But I hope the reader can see through the polemics to get to the main point, namely that biblical literalism (the attitude of “is-in-the-Bible?”) is the cause of our inability to see the meaning of commemorating the birth of the Founder of Christianity, ignoring exact times and seasons.
After all, the most important elaborations on Christian doctrinal questions and practices sometimes acquire a controversial dimension. In closing, I once again propose that when we do away with biblical literalism / fundamentalism, we would not only enjoy the true meaning and divine meaning of Christmas, but we would also experience the true riches of Holy Scripture and the Christian life in general. .
Mark-Donald Ude, is a FWO researcher, Research Center for Political Philosophy and Ethics (RIPPLE), KU Leuven, Belgium. ([email protected])