I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
A Complicated Pregnancy by Kyle Roberts
Published by Fortress Press on December 1st 2017
Genres: Biblical Meditations, Christian Theology, General, Mariology, Religion
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A Complicated Pregnancy is an easily readable, well researched, logically presented and at times entertaining book. In it, theologian Kyle Roberts steps back from the accepted sacred doctrine of the Virgin Birth/Conception to do what many Christians consider sacrilegious. He questions whether Jesus of Nazareth was really conceived in Mary without the involvement of Joseph.
To “Question the Unquestionable” is a bold step. For a Christian theologian it could easily be a career death rattle. After all, as Roberts himself admits, Mary is “second only to Jesus when it comes to Biblical celebrities.”
Considering the angels from all angles
Roberts wades in fearlessly where other Profs fear to tread. He throws hot potatoes into the fire of debate, neatly skewers them, and hands them to proponents of the Virgin Birth on a plate, ready to digest.
He leaves no stone unturned: theological, biological, ethical, logical. Here are some of the issues he raises:
- Why does the Old Testament lend no support to the traditional view of a Virgin Birth?
- Why is it not mentioned at all in the earliest/first Gospel written (Mark’s)?
- Isn’t it strange that Paul makes no mention of it anywhere in his letters?
- Why did the early Church Fathers consider that a miraculous conception was not enough and that Jesus also needed to be miraculously delivered? (They suggested that Jesus’ birth was a painless and bloodless event that left Mary’s hymen intact).
- If the incarnation means the Son of God becoming a true human being, how can Jesus be one if he wasn’t conceived like a true human being?
- If Jesus was truly human, he should have had 50% genetic input from a female, and 50% from a male. Did God replicate DNA to mimic Joseph’s? Or create a human zygote from nothing, and implant it in the womb? (But then he’s even less than 50% human).
- What does Luke mean when he writes of the Angel’s message to Mary: “The power of the Most High will overshadow you”? This wasn’t a request – and Mary was by all accounts a young girl of 12-14 years old. Could the account imply something like “divine rape”?
A wind of change – or a hurricane?
Roberts packs up his arguments with a strong concluding chapter. He gives a number of reasons why a new view on this Complicated Pregnancy can strengthen one’s faith, rather than let it blow away in the wind of change.
To be honest, “wind of change” is putting it lightly. Roberts has flung open both the door of Joseph’s carpentry shop in Nazareth, and a certain stable door in Bethlehem. Through these open doors he lets a hurricane sweep through, leaving nothing undisturbed in its wake.
What are the implications of A Complicated Pregnancy?
One implication for readers is that this Christmas, Baby Jesus in his crib might get some second glances and thoughtful looks. Or ministers might wonder why some of his congregation are stumbling over the Apostles’ Creed in church. But what’s wrong with that? After all, “You know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:3).
But is that the author’s intention? Let’s ask him …
Interview with Kyle Roberts
In trying to understand the conception of Jesus, how important is the fact that people of the first century had an imperfect understanding of human biology? Namely that the sexual organs of the mother contained everything necessary for procreation. And that the male (or in Jesus’ case, the Holy Spirit), merely provided a “spark”?
Assumptions about science (and in this case biology) inevitably intertwine with our theological beliefs. Beliefs about biology and procreation in the first century help us understand why early Christians had no trouble accepting a virginal conception as compatible with the idea of the incarnation.
For early Christians, it was very important that Jesus “took flesh” from his mother – that she contributed something of physical substance that would became the body of the baby Jesus. As the mantra went, “that which is not assumed cannot be healed.” So, Jesus “assumed” (i.e., became) human nature, so that he could fully redeem our humanity.
For these early Christian theologians, their understanding of procreation and biology posed no problem for the idea of the incarnation (God becoming human), because the removal of the male contribution wasn’t an issue. Again, everything necessary was already there in Mary’s body. God, through the Spirit, simply provided the spark that animated the flesh that became Jesus of Nazareth.
But now we understand procreation very differently; the removal of the biological father’s contribution creates a conceptual problem for the idea of the incarnation. How does the divine logos become a fully human male, without the contribution of a human father?
How would you respond to a Christian who suggests that their faith is anchored in the virgin birth, and that you are therefore threatening the very bedrock upon which their faith is based?
In A Complicated Pregnancy, I speak directly to that assumption, by arguing that anchoring faith in a doctrine like the virgin birth, is precarious and unwise – not just from the vantage point of history, biblical support, and science – but from the perspective of the theology of the incarnation itself. I would go even further and suggest that we not “anchor” our faith to conceptual doctrines, since faith is a personal trust in a living God. Nonetheless, when we discuss doctrines that should be considered essential for orthodoxy, I think we should stick to the incarnation itself – which isn’t actually compatible with a virginal conception. I’d say it’s even undermined by it.
Many Christians may be concerned that even questioning the Virgin conception/birth is “the beginning of a slippery slope.” Is this true? Will your next books by querying the miracles of Jesus, and even the resurrection?
This is an understandable question. I would agree with the implication of the question that, if the virgin birth is on the table for re-examination, all received doctrines can be as well – including the resurrection. But as I explain toward the end of the book, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection is not undermined by the idea of the incarnation. So, I don’t see there being the same kind of compelling theological reason for rethinking the resurrection, as there is for the virgin birth.
I’d also add that the “slippery slope” is often used as a scare tactic; a way of keeping Christians in line and discouraging them from thinking too much. But I’ve found that thinking critically and exploring issues like this, following evidence where it leads, doesn’t undermine my faith but broadens and deepens it. I suspect that for many Christians, faith has stagnated not because they ask difficult questions, but because they’ve been dissuaded from it, by heavily guarded doctrinal walls!
Isn’t a virgin birth essential for a sinless Christ?
It was for Augustine and many medieval Christians, who believed that “original sin” is passed along through procreation. Sin and sex has been deeply intertwined in the Christian imagination ever since. The virginal conception became the great interruption of original sin – protecting Jesus from sex and sin. But when you discard Augustine’s theory of original sin (as we should!), you no longer need a virginal conception to preserve Jesus from the impact of the sins of Adam and Eve. So, Jesus could be conceived through human sexual intercourse and still live a sinless, human life!
Leading theologian N. T. Wright, when writing about the story of the Virgin conception, says that people “believe the story not because of what it says about Jesus, but because of what it says about sex – namely, that it’s something God wouldn’t want to get mixed up in.” Can you comment on this?
This restates my previous point about Augustine. For a few critics who have contacted me already, this seems to be their main concern. How could Jesus have been conceived by human sexual intercourse? There seems to be an underlying skepticism about sex here – that it’s bad, and that the human body is inherently evil. These sentiments run deep in Christian history and they have resulted in all sorts of problems for us. But if we can recover a better theology of the incarnation, that might help us move past these “gnostic” impulses of Christianity that still plague us.
You write strongly that the traditional theology of Mary supports patriarchy, suppresses gender inequality and underwrites sexual and emotional abuse against women. Can you explain how?
This answer also builds on my previous one. Look, it’s clearly not the case that everyone who believes in a traditional view of Mary and the virgin birth is patriarchal and oppressive toward women. Nor is the converse always the case (that a liberal view of Mary will result in the liberation of women). The point is that, by and large, institutional Christianity has constructed a view of Mary which has been convenient for perpetuating patriarchal attitudes toward women; attitudes which idealize female sexuality (and virginal “purity”), which instrumentalize female bodies, and which value women primarily for their submissiveness and receptivity. For another perspective on Mary, we need only look to Luke’s Magnificat, which shows us a different kind of Mary than the one which tradition has often given us.
Thank you for your input Kyle, and I wish you well with A Complicated Pregnancy.
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