Away In A Manger

Is Divine impregnation an unalloyed good? According to The Angelus, the Angel of Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost, having said “Be it done unto me according to thy word” first (Luke 1: 26-38). 

It’s important to note what the “deal” involved: 

“God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.

He will be great,
    be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
    the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
    no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

This arguably mythic scenario has inspired much magnificent Renaissance art, showing lilies (a sign of Mary’s virginity) and a white dove encircled by golden rays (the Holy Ghost in avian form). According to Christian teaching, a kindly carpenter named Joseph married Mary, her pregnancy notwithstanding, and took care of her and her baby. But did God stick to His side of the bargain?

Becoming the Mother of God, assuming you take the Annunciation literally, would certainly have catapulted Mary into an eventful life. After she gave birth to Player No. 2 in Team Holy Trinity, King Herod tried to bump him off; shepherds turned up bearing lambs; visiting royalty beat a path to the new family’s door bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and the family got an unexpected trip to Egypt. 

Her son grew up to become a celebrity, performing miracles wherever he went. A bit of a hell-raiser sometimes, it must be admitted: whipping those money-changers in the Temple certainly got the authorities interested. 

Spoiler: the Romans got him at age 33, and he was publicly executed along with two common criminals. Never mind: God resurrected him two days later, and then he ascended into heaven. 

Mary’s son generated a whole new religion, complete with its scriptures, Apostles, and lots and lots of miracles. Mary was assumed into heaven as Queen of Heaven. She became the subject of a cult of her own, had shrines erected to her and innumerable pilgrimages, generated her own miracles, appeared to astonished schoolchildren, and made dramatic prophecies. Not bad for a humble maid.

Mary’s elevation to divine circles did not meet with universal acclaim, however. First came the Protestant Reformation, which decided that Mary-worship should cease. Then, on December 3rd this year, the memorably named Dr Eric Sprankle tweeted:

The virgin birth story is about an all-knowing, all-powerful deity impregnating a human teen. There is no definition of consent that would include that scenario. Happy Holidays.

When a Twitter critic referred him to Scripture, Sprankle tweeted:

The power difference (deity vs mortal) and the potential for violence for saying “no” negates her “yes.” To put someone in this position is an unethical abuse of power at best and grossly predatory at worst.

Sprankle works at Minnesota State University as an Associate Professor. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist and an accredited sex therapist. His website states that he “currently leads the Sexual Health Research Team at MSU examining sex work stigma, the effects of sexually explicit material, older adult sexuality, and the intersections of sexual health and genital piercings.”

It seems likely that Sprankle was just tossing out a provocative thought for the hell of it, given the season, to see what reaction he got.

It’s as well that Sprankle doesn’t live in Europe, though. Here the God-fearing European Court of Human Rights has ruled that free speech under Article 10.1 of the European Convention can be curtailed under Article 10.2, where “presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of the followers of that religion could be conceived as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance” and even as “incitement to religious intolerance”, capable of amounting to a criminal offence (see E.S. v Austria, Application no. 38450/12judgment of 25 October 2018 ¶¶ 53, 57). 

Thus far, Twitter has not suspended Sprankle, or locked his account until he deleted his provocative and – arguably – offensive tweets. This unregulated electronic communications platform is, of course, notorious for its erratic and arbitrary approach to speech. Evidently, it would appear that not enough Christians could be bothered to spam Twitter’s automated reporting systems on this occasion. This can be seen as an indication that Christian communities are reasonably tolerant, of course.

But even if we consider Sprankle’s claim on its merits, it promotes the modish PC idea that young women lack any kind of agency, when confronted with a sexual proposal – or a religious one. This assumption is endemic in the US, and to some extent in the UK. It’s ironic that Sprankle, who claims to support sex workers, should assume that consent was impossible in the scenario that he seeks to critique. 

Sprankle, of course, is trying to have it both ways. He is asking us to consider the possible undue influence that a deity could have, whilst failing to acknowledge that in much, much earlier societies, there was nothing like the gulf between gods and men that is assumed today. Indeed, the Old Testament is full of encounters between God and humans, with the latter asking lots of questions (sometimes showing scepticism, and even laughing), and God offering lots of promises and incentives in return. This is more transactional than domination. 

As for Mary, Professor Philip Jenkins has explained that as Queen of Heaven, she inspired a cult of her own – not, he hastens to add, in any sinister sense, but rather as an object of devotion and veneration – from 170 AD on. As he explains:

Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, the mainstream church made a supernatural female figure absolutely central to its belief system and its everyday practice.

[…]

In devotional practice, Mary for well over a thousand years became the second Christ, a co-Christ. 

Against this backdrop, Sprankle’s belittling of Mary’s life and her subsequent elevation as a key female deity could be seen as at best ignorant, and at worst disrespectful.

Sources

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/ignorant-academic-characterizes-the-virgin-birth-as-rape-because-its-that-time-of-year-for-that-sort-of-thing

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2013/09/why-mary/