Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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There is no evidence that the Magi were converted, baptized, or born again because of their visit to the manger. Nor did they become evangelists for the infant they had come to honor with their gifts. The sacred legends don’t include some return visit with others to share the Good News. They just went home, back to the East, perhaps Persia.
Christian theology is, of course, built on more than just the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. But it is revealing that these iconic tales of strange visitations seem to have very little to do with gathering together and defending a special, privileged group of the elect or the saved all committed to creedal conformity. The shepherds go back to their flocks, praising God. The angels announce peace on earth. Simeon perceives a light not simply for Israel, but for the Gentiles. The Magi pay their respects to a new sovereign of the Jews, then quietly leave to return to life in their old dispensation, obedient to their own ruler. Strange visitations indeed.
My Epiphany day began at a press conference for a friend and colleague who is a professor at Wheaton College where she is facing the revoking of her tenure and the termination of her teaching contract. Why? Larycia chose to wear a hijab as her Advent discipline and devotion, expressing visible solidarity with Muslim women who are exceedingly vulnerable amid the current Islamaphobic atmosphere of American politics and culture. Further, she explained her decision by affirming our shared humanity through a common Creator, our shared commitment with Muslims and Jews to be people of the Book, and our shared worship of the One God. It is intellectually perilous and often dishonest to read contemporary events back into ancient texts, but it is possible to imagine that the shepherds, or the angels, or the Magi, or Simeon would have had no problem with this.
Not so the defenders of orthodoxy at Evangelical Wheaton and its legions of supporters among alumni, donors, and mega-church pastors of a certain sort. The drama, of course, is about a lot more than one professor at one Evangelical college; it has more to do with the shifting tides within Evangelicalism itself where the old guard views with dismay the rise of a different brand of Evangelicals among the GenX and Millennial generation – no less committed to Christ but more irenic, less judgmental, more prepared to question old certainties, more concerned with the condition of the world than with the precision of their beliefs.
Franklin Graham sees an all-out assault on Christianity in America and undoubtedly views this professor and her supporters as a dangerous fifth column that will destroy Christianity from within, and at storied Wheaton of all places where his father, Billy, is the most distinguished of all alums. “They mock us and hate us,” Billy’s boy warns, the “they” being the media, the haters of religion, liberals, and of course, Muslims. It is true that there are many who have no regard for Graham and his ilk. But the animosity has far less to do with their Christianity than with their bigotry.
Apocalyptic warnings are the stock in trade of many seeking to whip up religious or political passion (and funds). They have very little to do with the infant remembered this Epiphany whose coming was accompanied by the words, “Do not be afraid” and whose birth was acknowledged by a collection of strange visitations that came and went without the imposition of creedal tests. We have no idea whether any of these visitors was changed by the experience. But it is not beyond reason to think that they may have left more grateful for life, more hopeful about the future, more compassionate and empathetic toward the poor and the vulnerable, more committed to justice and peace. Otherwise, what was the point of this Epiphany?
Wheaton College will do what it will do and it will claim its actions are in obedience to and for the sake of Christ. It will no doubt assert that it remains a place of hospitality, welcoming visitors of all sorts to experience its own epiphanies of God. But excuse me for wondering how those strangest of visitors, peering out to us from the mists of the ancient world, might receive such an invitation, and whether it might feel overly weighted with conditions they have little interest in meeting.
John H. Thomas