Yesterday I happened to watch a short YouTube tribute to Christopher Hitchens. Among the many clips from his presentations and debates was one in which he quotes David Hume,
“Which is more likely: That the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?”
I’ve encountered this quote before, but this time it stuck in my head and made me sad, not because I harbor any particular illusions about virgin birth, but because Hitchens, in using this (albeit clever) quote, subtly condones the morals and judgment of patriarchal society past and present, who immediately assume that there are merely two choices: magic miracle or pregnant girl with a despicable, low character who schemed and lied because, well, she was a minx, a “wanton woman” as Merriam-Webster puts it. Like C.S. Lewis’ “Liar, lunatic lord” trilemma (for more on this, visit Dustin’s website) in which he limits the options without thinking through the historical context, there are other options besides simply believing or condemning Mary.
I’ve got several thirteen- to fifteen-year-old students right now. Most of them belong to a conservative, tightly knit families and churches. Even in our relatively modern and humane era, one of them getting pregnant would be required to carry the pregnancy to term, and would be kicked out of church school, ostracized by friends and possibly family until she turned eighteen or nineteen, possibly going on forever. In their church community, the girls that have been known to have slept with their boyfriends, let alone gotten pregnant, must get married to remove the stigma and participate in community life without scarlet letters hovering overhead. In light of my experience in this community, I can only imagine what fear and shame a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl in a rural community two thousand years ago must have felt at finding herself pregnant. Divine origins aside, we can’t possibly know the circumstances for sure. Maybe she was a flirt, maybe she was pious and retiring. Perhaps she was seduced by some trusted or feared authority figure, perhaps Joseph couldn’t wait, or perhaps she was simply raped. When she found she was pregnant maybe she was in denial. After all, there are many young girls who think they won’t get pregnant if they only have sex once, or other similar (false) ideas. In a less rational time, she could easily have dreamed that in fact her child was a miracle child from God, and taken the dream as a sign from heaven. Quite possibly, she came up with the story and clung to it with the tenacity and desperation of a frightened teenage fresh out of options. She probably wasn’t the only one to use this story as a cover, but her luck held and Joseph was either kindly or gullible and saved her from community ostracism by marrying her anyway.
Regardless of the fine print in the story, I think we can do better than Hume or Hitchens, and speak gently about those whose religious or cultural circumstances force them into desperate straits.