In America alone, there are more than 220 million professing Christians, and virtually all celebrate Christmas. Two-thirds of them see it as a religious holiday. During the month of December, more than 100 million Americans will gather in church buildings and around coffee tables to hear the story of Jesus’s birth as recorded in the New Testament. They do this year after year after year, and somehow it never gets old.
For many Christians, the story’s power derives from its spiritual nature and the implications of its events for their lives. Recount this tale to a crowd of Christians, or lead them to sing about it, and they tell you it warms their hearts. Some may be moved to tears. While non-believers may find such reactions difficult to fathom, the real reactions of the faithful cannot be dismissed out of hand. And yet, there is more to this timelessness of this tale than just its spiritual value. It’s also a helluva yarn.
Bobette Buster teaches storytelling at the University of Southern California’s film school. When I asked her to analyze the Bible’s Christmas narrative, she found it contained many of the time-tested elements of good storytelling.
Stories are built upon a strong premise, and according to Buster, the best premises contain audacity. The premise must be so daring or risky or illogical that it jolts the audience awake and makes it pay attention. Jesus’s birth narrative, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew begins, “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about.” The word Messiah or “savior” is like a storytelling slap in the face. From its opening, the story claims to chronicle how the Son of God was born in an infant body and in a peasant town in order to save the world. It’s nothing if not audacious.