Angels splitting the sky to bring good news to shepherds. Wise men following a miraculous star. A virgin giving birth to a messiah in a quiet stable.
These are the themes that churches around the world are celebrating today and tomorrow in song, Scripture and sermon in one of the most sacred days on their calendar.
But when preachers look out on Christmas Eve at their congregations — the ranks of regulars swollen by out-of-towners, twice-a-year visitors and sullen, dragged-along relatives — they may be facing more skeptics than they used to.
Just under half of Americans believe the biblical accounts surrounding Christmas — such as the virgin birth, angels and wise men — are historically accurate.
That’s according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service, which found that another 40 percent of people believe the narratives comprise a “theological story.”
In 2004, in contrast, two-thirds of Americans believed in the historical truth of the entire biblical Nativity accounts, according to a Newsweek poll.
Chances are, preachers are talking to the converted. The groups most likely to believe in the literal truth of the Nativity are also the most likely to be in church on Christmas Eve.
But Christmas also draws many who are unchurched — the least likely to believe.
Some pastors say their approach is a straightforward retelling of the story, confident in its historical truth.
“I don’t try and prove how right the Nativity” story is, said the Rev. Samuel W. Chambers Sr., pastor of Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Brighton. “God needs no proof. Either you believe in Him or you don’t.”
The Rev. James B. Farnan, pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Bethel Park, agreed.
“You can’t deny the historical nature of sacred Scripture,” he said. Noting that the Gospels quote Hebrew Scripture passages they say were fulfilled in Jesus, Father Farnan added: “His is the only birth that has been predicted not only when and where but to what family and to what person.”
Other preachers say they don’t insist on belief in the details of the account but urge listeners to focus on what they see as the main message of passages — God becoming human to save humanity.
“The Christian faith is about way more than belief in the historical accuracy of every detail of the biblical story,” said the Rev. Roger Owens, professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
“Just as the angels in the Bible so often say when they appear to someone, ‘Do not be afraid,’ I would say to preachers: ‘Do not fear,’ ” added Rev. Owens, who is speaking from experience: He preached for five years at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., to a congregation of well-educated and potentially skeptical hearers.
“You will be doing your congregation a great service if you move from the peripheral details to the center,” he said. “Belief in the virgin birth might be a late development, and it might not be attested to in every Gospel, but if that’s what your faith stands on, it’s a flimsy faith. In Jesus, God took on flesh, and became truly human. This is the heart.”
Only four of the 89 chapters in the Gospels talk about Jesus’ conception and birth, and yet the stories are among the best-known in all the Bible, celebrated in hymns from ancient times to the present, depicted in countless works of art and re-enacted in multitudes of pageants featuring kids in bathrobes portraying shepherds.
Christians have included Jesus’ virgin birth as part of their creeds since ancient times; in the 1920s, Protestant fundamentalists insisted that belief in the virgin birth be considered an essential of Christian faith; Roman Catholic dogma teaches that Mary remained a virgin her whole life and was herself conceived without sin.
Yet the growing skepticism comes amid two related trends.
One is the growing ranks of people claiming no religious affiliation — now approaching 20 percent. They are the most likely to doubt the Nativity accounts. At the same time, evangelical Protestants, who overwhelmingly affirm the historical accuracy of the accounts, are shrinking, said Robert Jones, chief executive officer of Public Religion Research Institute.
The other trend is the continued debate among Jesus scholars over how much of the gospels are historically accurate in every detail — and whether it’s necessary to believe that in order to believe Christian essentials. A recent best-seller, for example, Reza Aslan’s “Zealot,” disputes the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem.
Scholars who question the narratives of Christmas bring a number of challenges: that the earliest Gospel — Mark — and epistles said almost nothing about the birth of Jesus, to a virgin or otherwise, and that the two Gospels that do tell about it give radically different accounts.
Only the gospel of Matthew, for example, tells of Joseph’s dreams, the Wise Men or of King Herod murdering the infants of Bethlehem. Only the gospel of Luke tells of the shepherds or John the Baptist’s own miraculous conception.
“That both accounts are completely historical … must be ruled out,” wrote the late Rev. Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic priest and leading biblical scholar in his book, “The Birth of the Messiah,” a 1977 volume that set out the terms of the debates in meticulous detail.
Father Brown said each gospel includes events that would have been recorded in Jewish or pagan histories if they really happened — such as Luke’s account of a global census and Matthew’s description of how the wise men’s visit sent all of Jerusalem into a panic.
But, Father Brown added, the narratives share many characteristics, such as proclamations that Jesus was the messiah and born of a virgin in Bethlehem, and they use their narratives to make important points: That Jesus followed in the traditions of Moses and King David, would save his people and reach the lowly (shepherds) and foreigners (wise men).
No one writing about a messiah, said biblical scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, would make up a story that would lead people to question the legitimacy of his birth — unless it were true.
“This is an honor-and-shame culture,” Mr. Witherington said. “We’re talking about a pregnancy out of wedlock in that culture, which could result in stoning. The idea that two Gospel writers would independently make up a story about virginal conception is beyond credulity.”
He said Bethlehem was so small that even a massacre there would be likely to escape public notice.
As for the angels and the star: “Unless you have an allergic reaction to the miraculous in general, then these stories are believable stories.”
The Rev. Dean Weaver, pastor of Memorial Park Church, a Presbyterian church in Hampton, said that while he affirms the historical truth of the narratives, he doesn’t use Christmas sermons to win over skeptics.
“Typically at Christmastime, it’s not about arguments or proof-texting or skepticism, it’s really about the beauty and the mystery of the Christmas narrative, and people entering into the fact that God came into the world because he loves us,” he said.
Plus, he said, “at Christmastime, you hope there’s some willingness to entertain the idea that the supernatural is actually real. Most people at this time of year, even if they’re skeptical, they’re open to at least wanting to believe that.”
Rev. Owens echoed the thought, summarizing his advice for preachers: “Despite what surveys say, you should step into your pulpit believing that the people there long to believe, because they do. They’ve lived in religion obsessed long enough with who’s in and who’s out, who’s got it right, and who’s got it wrong, and they are tired and they want to believe.”
Peter Smith: 412-263-1416, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.