Just in time for Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI is out with a new book, The Infancy Narratives: Jesus of Nazareth. The new book is the third installment of a trilogy examining the life of Jesus through both historical and theological lenses. Religion News Service Vatican Correspondent Alessandro Speciale is on the show this week to talk with Welton about the controversies the book sparked, including what some have described as “debunking Christmas.”
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Alessandro Speciale Interview[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: On the line with me is Religion News Service Vatican correspondent Alessandro Speciale, who joins us from Rome, Italy. Alessandro, welcome to State of Belief Radio! [ALESSANDRO SPECIALE, GUEST]: Thank you, thank you for calling. [WG]: You’re in Rome; how far are you from the Throne of Saint Peter – and I’m speaking physically, not spiritually? [AS]: (laughs) Well, right now I am not so close, because I am at home at the moment; so it’s going to be a couple of kilometers. But usually my office is, like, just a few hundred meters, just across from St. Peter’s Square. [WG]: Wonderful. Well, listen, you wrote about Pope Benedict XVI’s newest book, “The Infancy Narratives: Jesus of Nazareth,” you wrote about it for Religion News Service last week, and no matter where our listeners have read about it since then, it’s likely that your piece was quoted, because clearly, this has touched a chord with people, and I suppose part of it is due to the Pope writing it, part of it is Christmas is drawing near – How do you explain the hyperbole that is circling around this publication? [AS]: Well, I think it’s the Christmas season on one side, and the other thing is that we have come to expect it – especially people in the media, people in the secular media have come to expect Pope Benedict to say provocative things, and to be kind of a killjoy – even if in this case he didn’t actually do much of that, to be honest. [WG]: Talk about that, because not everybody listening to us is is going to know about some of his other publications. And when you say that uh he typically has been a “killjoy,” what does that mean? [AS]: Well, I mean his remarks on condoms, recently, and the other controversial things he said; on Jews, for example. in the past. And in the case of this book, the thing that really got a lot of play was that – well, basically his book is about the childhood of Jesus. So he basically goes about on all of the anecdotes that mark our Christmas traditions, and Christmas carols. And one of the things he does, for example, is that he says very simply: “Look, fellas, in the Gospels, there is no sign of the animals in the stable that were there to warm up Jesus, even if they are in every Nativity scene and every song we know.” But at the same time, immediately adds after that: “But of course no Nativity scene would be complete without animals; they’re a part of tradition, and it would be impossible to think about any of this without the animals.” But this thing got a lot of play, and the Pope is even being compared to the Grinch who wanted to steal Christmas. [WG]: I am not laughing at you, because I know how sensitive and controversial the cultural characteristics of the religion narrative is, and I guess I’m just surprised that it reaches all the way to Vatican City! Tell us, Alessandro, what are the key points that the Pope makes in this book regarding the Nativity story as most of us know it? [AS]: Well, one of the things he says is that – it’s just a small side remark, it’s less than a paragraph about the animals. Another thing he points out that got a lot of attention is that the angels didn’t actually sing – he says they probably just talked – but of course, in the tradition of the Church, it is as if they have been singing, and they keep singing this song, for all of eternity, out of joy for the birth of Christ. And another thing is, it would be something that has been said for decades now by scholars that probably the Middle-Age monk who started counting the years from zero to begin with the birth of Christ probably got it much wrong; and in fact we have that, probably, Christ was actually born on three or six or seven before Christ! And he says, yeah, these calculations are probably correct. And the point he wanted to make in the book is that the Christ – and he wrote three books about Jesus – and he wants to make this point, is that the Jesus that we see through the Gospels, that has been told to us through the Gospels, is not just spiritual figure; is not just a single metaphor, something that is basically looked at only intellectually, but was actually a living person that was on earth, and the story that’s been told to us through the Gospels is not just a spiritual story, but it’s also a real story, so we can know the real Jesus, the man Jesus, to say through the book, to read them through the eyes of faith; and this is, of course – he’s the Pope, it’s his job, it’s what he invites everyone to do. [WG]: Yeah, and this is really where I think there’s an important truth here, and I want to be sure that I get it. I understand – there was a term which I always like to use to impress people that I knew it, but it wasn’t a very good term for talking about theology, but – “demythologizing” theology, which was a way of trying to get to the human Jesus. But in the process of that whole movement, in trying to identify the real historical Jesus, they got rid of so much of the spiritual trimmings of it that there wasn’t much spirituality left. And so I’m wondering how you see the Pope walking that line between establishing Jesus as a historical person, but also maintaining elements of the story that make him a very spiritual person as well. [AS]: Well, I think the Pope’s point is fairly subtle – and as a theologian, it can be expected – taking your words: I think he doesn’t want to demythologize the theology and the account that we have of Christ but he says, this mythology is not mythology; it’s the real Jesus, only to really get him you have to, you know, take away the mythology and just get to the facts. The facts are the ones you can get to through the faith; and the faith is as important as science to really understand the man Jesus. I think this is the point he wants to make. [WG]: And so does there – and I have to say I have not been able to get the book in my hands yet and read it – but is there still a star? Are there wise people from the East? Are they men or are they women? What about some of those elements of the story? [AS]: Well, on the three wise men he has an interesting point. He says: a famous theologian said they’re probably, on account of the scholarly work that we have, they are probably a theological idea rather than based in real fact. And he says this theologian has a third point: personally I’d prefer to think that they are – they were real people, who actually came and followed the planetary conjunction that he says was probably the star, but his most important thing is that it’s not if there was or there was not a star, the thing is that in the heart of these men there had to be a desire, a longing for something higher, for something bigger, something more important; or star or no star in the sky, they wouldn’t have set out on foot and started walking to Jerusalem. And he said, this is what we, all men, should do – and especially those who are not Christians. And we can see in the three wise men how all Christians long towards Jesus and this is what he says: he says, I prefer to believe they were real, but even if they were not, what’s important is that they started walking. [WG]: Are there implications in this book for how Christmas will be celebrated in years to come? [AS]: Oh, no! In fact, just today I was in St. Peter’s Square, and they’re building the Nativity scene, the big Nativity scene like they do every year. And it’s still not finished, it hasn’t been unveiled yet, but I want to bet with you there are going to be deer, the ox, and that the angels will sing, and everything will be as tradition says. Because the Pope – he loves tradition. But he is also a scholar, so he also has to point out, sometimes, what comes from tradition and not from the Gospel. And in fact he writes these books as a person, as a man like you and me; and he said in the first of these three books: criticize me if you want, because this is no doctrine, no Church doctrine; and I am just writing as a theologian, like many others. [WG]: OK, and I’m really glad that you went to that point, because I wanted to ask about the significance of him being the Pope and writing this book, and so he makes the point that he’s not trying to establish a new point of doctrine about the Nativity, but just deal with what seems to be history and what seems to be with tradition, is that right? [AS]: Yup, yup, absolutely. [WG]: Now, so what does this… So he’s not speaking Ex Cathedra? [AS]: Yup, exactly. [WG]: All right, so does that mean that when you as a journalist write about the Vatican that you write Ex Cathedra? [AS]: (laughter) [WG]: Listen, Alessandro, you’re in Rome – tell us what that city is like during Christmas time. [AS]: Well, it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. They put out all the lights in the streets, and the streets are really crowded with people looking out for presents until in the very afternoon of the 24th, and then all the churches are open and there are concerts and Christmas carols, Christmas concerts in all the churches. So it’s a beautiful time to come to Rome, really. [WG]: I’ve been speaking with Alessandro Speciale, Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service. He’s writing now on Pope Benedict XVI’s latest book, “The Infancy Narratives: Jesus of Nazareth.” His work has appeared in numerous publications worldwide. And Alessandro, I think you’ve given us a vivid image of where you are, and what’s going on there, and you’ve made some of us wish we could walk those streets with you, but thank you so much for being with us today on State of Belief Radio. [AS]: And thanks to you.
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Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
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Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.