Nicholas Kristof: Was Mary really a virgin? Does it matter?

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) A 44x22 foot mural of the Virgin Mary on the east side of the building at 158 E. 200 South on February 20, 2010. Two artists, El Mac and Retna, created the mural.

Welcome to the latest in my occasional series of conversations about Christianity. Here’s my interview, edited for space, with Philip Yancey, an evangelical Christian writer who has more than 15 million books in print in more than 50 languages.

KRISTOF Merry Christmas! And let me start by asking about that first Christmas. Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? Doesn’t that seem like one of those tall tales that people tell to exaggerate an event’s significance?

YANCEY I’m smiling at the question. A hundred years ago, the Virgin Birth was considered so important that it made the list of five “fundamentals of the Christian faith.” Nowadays, with in vitro fertilization, virgin births are old news. For me, the issue centers not on the mechanics of reproduction but rather the nature of Jesus. In the Incarnation, God’s own self came to earth as a human. I wouldn’t pretend to guess how divinity interacted with human DNA, but that’s the mystery the Virgin Birth hints at.

KRISTOF So it’s no longer such a big deal? I can say that I doubt the Virgin Birth without whispering?

YANCEY • It’s only a big deal if you believe that Jesus is the son of God, as most Christians do. Otherwise you have a different mystery: How did the child of two simple villagers end up changing history more than anyone before or since?

KRISTOF • Isn’t it possible to admire Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount without buying into the miracles? Why can’t we subscribe to Jesus’ message of love while dropping the walking on water, the multiplying of loaves and fishes, the raising Lazarus from the dead?

YANCEY • Certainly you can admire the message alone, and many people do. I don’t know of anyone who tried more conscientiously to follow the Sermon on the Mount than Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu. But do we lose something by ignoring or rejecting the miracles? I think we do. John’s Gospel calls them “signs.” They signify something about a God who wants creation renewed so that the blind see, the lame walk, the hungry are fed and the dead resurrected.

KRISTOF • But if we give credit to Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead, what about all the children who died whom he did not raise? And why allow them to die in the first place?

YANCEY • I have no solutions, merely a few observations. 1) You’re in good company. The Bible is full of honest lament about suffering, beginning with the Book of Job and including Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. 2) God is on the side of the sufferer. Jesus demonstrated that by always responding with comfort and healing, and by refuting those who saw suffering as punishment. 3) As Dostoyevsky set forth so eloquently in “The Brothers Karamazov,” Jesus turned down shortcut solutions — “miracle, mystery and authority” — during his temptation in the desert. Somehow the ultimate healing required God’s own self-sacrifice on the cross.

Because of the books I’ve written on suffering, I’ve been invited to speak at Virginia Tech, Columbine and Newtown. Believe me, the hope of resurrection means something when you’ve just lost your child to a school shooter.

KRISTOF • I also wonder: In embracing miracles, don’t we reject our own rationality? In my travels, I’ve met all kinds of faith healers who claimed to make the lame walk or the blind see. I don’t believe them — and I’d be even less likely to believe accounts that were written six decades after the fact by someone who had never met the healer (like the accounts in the Gospel of John). Why be skeptical of eyewitness accounts of UFOs but not of Gospel accounts written decades later by people who weren’t even eyewitnesses?

YANCEY • Most scholars believe that eyewitnesses such as Matthew, Peter, John and Mary were major sources for the Gospels’ accounts. That said, I agree with your main point. Miracles are overrated as a basis for faith. Jesus’ disciples, who had seen miracles, all deserted him at his hour of greatest need. Jesus himself refused to perform miracles on demand, to impress the doubters. Most of them came about as a compassionate response to a needy person.

It seems strange to me that we keep wanting God to intervene in the material world. God is spirit, and all the great masters emphasize instead that we need to learn spiritual disciplines to commune with God.

KRISTOF • You broke your neck once, and you recovered. Do you believe that was because of prayer? I accept that prayer provides a calm optimism that can promote physical healing, just as a placebo can. But can prayer cure cancer or, say, a broken neck?

YANCEY • I received a lot of prayer support after my broken neck, and it helped in just the way you suggest. I’m grateful for the good outcome, but my case doesn’t qualify as a miracle. I do have personal knowledge of a few — very few — apparently miraculous healings. They’re not the norm, which is why we call them “miracles,” not “ordinaries.” Far more common are the gifts of healing that a community of faith can provide by surrounding those who are suffering. Doctors caution that stress, anxiety and fear can be impediments to recovery. If a community surrounds you with practical love, by providing meals, caring for your children and helping out with expenses, that can abet the body’s ability to heal.

KRISTOF • Yes, I completely agree. But I note that people claim cases of miraculous cures where there is room for ambiguity, such as cancer going into remission. But prayer never seems to help an amputee grow back a limb.

YANCEY • George Bernard Shaw is said to have wryly observed that although he saw crutches and wheelchairs at shrines of healing, he saw no artificial limbs, glass eyes or toupees. Jesus did not come to earth to solve all our problems. In person, he affected only modest numbers of people in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. But he set loose a movement with the mission of bringing the good news of God’s love across the globe.

KRISTOF • One of the problems I have with the evangelical church is that it seems more dazzled by the miracles than the message. Particularly in the age of Trump, conservative pastors weaponize God to support a president who is trying to cut Medicaid and school lunches for the poor. Shouldn’t conservative Christians believe as much in the good Samaritan as in the Virgin Birth?

YANCEY • I grew up in what I now call a “toxic” fundamentalist church in the South, and I view with dismay the contemporary mixing of politics and religion, including some of the policies you mention. Churches often end up on the wrong side of issues — such as the blatant racism I heard from the pulpit as a child. Fortunately, I travel to other countries where I can see the long-term results of the Gospel that Jesus preached. According to Transparency International’s index, nine of the 10 least corrupt countries have a strong Christian heritage. The same pattern holds true for indices that measure freedom, prosperity, gender equality, earth care, human rights, democracy, freedom of the press, and charity.

KRISTOF • Those are indeed countries with a Christian heritage — that they are walking away from. Secular countries do better on those indices, no?

YANCEY • You would have to mention that! Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a tiny seed that falls into the ground and grows into a great bush in which the birds of the air can nest. The Gospel advances by fits and starts, but over time it does bring about change for the good. Think of Scandinavian countries, which rank at the top on most of those indices. For about 200 years, many prayers in Europe sought protection from the Vikings. The Gospel transformed the culture, and the benefits continue even after many Scandinavians have turned away from formal religion. In a way they are living off the moral capital of good Samaritan values.

KRISTOF • Do you think religion results in better people? I’ve seen many people of faith risk their lives for others. But conversely it was conservative Christians who helped delay any effective response to AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s because it was gay men who were dying. That was just plain evil.

YANCEY • We’re flawed human beings who get some things right and some things wrong. Much like those in the recovery movement, we acknowledge our helplessness and dependence on God to forgive us, and to give us the power to become more like Jesus. The “better people” were the ones most opposed to Jesus. Little wonder: Jesus said that prostitutes and tax collectors would go first into the kingdom of God, ahead of the religious professionals.

At the same time, like you, I know many people who do God’s work humbly and sacrificially. I wrote three books with a renowned leprosy specialist who told me that virtually every advance in the understanding and treatment of that feared disease came from Christian missionaries — not because they were necessarily the best doctors and researchers but because they were the ones willing to work with leprosy-afflicted persons. And, while you’re right that some Christian leaders gave an appalling response to the AIDS epidemic, in the end it was the evangelical Surgeon General C. Everett Koop who pushed a reluctant government to give it attention and resources.

Jesus followers have a clear mandate to serve the homeless, the diseased, the grieving, the sexually trafficked, the prisoners, the oppressed, the immigrants, the marginalized. The church is sometimes said to be the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.

KRISTOF • Yet evangelical tradition suggests that non-Christians burn forever in hell.

YANCEY • Jesus didn’t mince words when he talked about judgment, yet in his parable of the sheep and the goats he declared that we’ll be judged on how we treated those who were hungry, imprisoned, sick and in need of clothes and hospitality. Interestingly, he spoke of actions, not doctrine.

The more I know Jesus, the more I trust him as merciful and am content to leave questions of the afterlife in his hands. I like the depiction of hell in C.S. Lewis’ fantasy “The Great Divorce” as simply a place for those who choose against God, and it may well be an ongoing choice.

KRISTOF • What frustrates you about secular liberals or even mainline Christians? What do they not get about evangelical Christianity?

YANCEY • Increasingly, the media portray evangelicals as a right-wing political lobby group — reactionaries. In fact, evangelicals were at the forefront in the abolition of slavery, in civil rights, in women’s suffrage. All around the world evangelical groups are healing the sick, feeding the hungry and attending to the needy. To take one example, the International Justice Mission is finding creative, courageous ways to attack sex trafficking.

I visited a federal prison recently, and the chaplain told me, “Liberals lobby the legislature for prison reform, but it’s the evangelicals who actually come here and teach prisoners skills they can use when released.” We need both approaches.

We’re living in a divisive time, and some of my secular liberal friends stereotype evangelicals as redneck, racist Trump supporters. But when I visit thriving evangelical churches, I hear very little talk about politics — though I always find volunteers who staff soup kitchens.

KRISTOF • I’ve asked this last question of each of the previous people in these Q&As: What is someone like myself who deeply admires Jesus’ teachings but is skeptical of the Virgin Birth, of the miracles and of a physical resurrection? Am I a Christian?

YANCEY • The church I grew up in would have an instant answer to that question. We thought we knew who was “in” and who was “out.” Jesus was more elusive, and his parables contain an element of surprise. I would rephrase the question and toss it back to you: Are you a Jesus follower?

Nicholas D. Kristof

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.