You seldom hear preachers mention the fact that the three wise men got lost on Christmas. The Magi following the star to Bethlehem, ended up in Jerusalem instead, tipping off Herod and triggering the slaughter of the innocents. Did the star make a wrong turn? Were the wise men really not so wise?
Almost certainly, the story of the three Magi cannot literally be true. Have you ever tried to stand directly under a star? The Polestar appears to be directly overhead, but the reason it’s called the Polestar is because it is actually over the North Pole. So the idea of following a star from Persia to a particular manger is dubious at best.
I don’t suppose there is any verse of the Bible I take literally, yet I have spent my life studying that book. Why? Because I believe scripture is speaking in symbols of a most important subject -our own unknown inner depths and our univeral connections to all that is. Symbols are not true or false, like ordinary words. They are revelations of deeper aspects of our subjective experience. They are personal in that we must go deep inside to experience them, but they are also universal because humans share the same nature, and belong to the whole universe.
There are two mistakes we can make when it comes to symbols. We can accept them literally or we can reject them literally. Either way, we misunderstand what a religious symbol is. Religious symbols can be like surreal painting. We do not look at surreal painting to learn directly about the world. What we understand when we look at a painting by Van Gogh or Picasso is the artist’s deeper subjective experience of the world. When Picasso paints everything blue, he isn’t describing a miracle, he is sharing his own sadness. He is sharing the insight that when we are sad, the world looks bluer and blurrier.
In surreal paintings the artist distorts objects on purpose. In the same way, scripture is not written to describe the world as it is. The gospel writers were not telling us the physical details of Jesus’ biography, they wanted to share how the world looked and felt when he inspired an awakening in their lives.
So when a critic points out that the Bible is simplistic and distorted, I respond “so is every map.” In the real world, roads aren’t really blue, and capital cities don’t really have a giant star in the middle. Thank goodness a map is smaller and simpler than the real world, otherwise it wouldn’t help at all.
The reason the wise men got lost wasn’t because they didn’t have a map, it was because they are a map. The story of Christmas is not a history of actual events, it is a symbolic map for the journey to the center of our own subjective being.