Chris Hayden: Atheist Ireland’s retelling of the Annunciation story ‘perverse’

“It is the carefully rehashed story of how a stranger appears in a young girl’s bedroom at night. The girl is afraid, yet she says “yes” to becoming pregnant.”

Mary says “yes”! Ilustration from the ‘Grow in Love’ religion course which is based on the Catholic Preschool and Primary Religious Education Curriculum.

Mary says “yes”! Ilustration from the ‘Grow in Love’ religion course which is based on the Catholic Preschool and Primary Religious Education Curriculum.

 

The story of the Annunciation is found in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. It recounts how the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a virgin named Mary, to inform her that she was to conceive a child. The child would be the “Son of the most high” and he was to be called Jesus.

The story opens by identifying the person who visited Mary, and it describes how he approached her with great respect. We read that Mary was initially perturbed, but that by the end of the conversation with the visitor, she was reassured and had agreed to participate in the plan outlined by Gabriel.

Her words of consent were: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

For Christian faith, this story is a foundational narrative. When it is being taught to young children, its theological import is, of course, not laboured. Instead, the main point drawn from it is that God, who cares for all his children, invites us to live according to his wise and loving plan.

Recently, the story of the Annunciation has been retold by Atheist Ireland with what can fairly be described as staggering mendacity. Atheist Ireland lobbies for secular education in Ireland.

At its best, this group can remind religious educators (whether school patrons, management or teachers) of the need to go the extra mile in accommodating children whose parents do not wish them to have a religious upbringing, but who feel they have no option but to send them to a school with religious ethos.

Dishonest commentary

comments are published on teachdontpreach.ie, a website hosted by Atheist Ireland

The latter presents the story in a way that is faithful to Luke’s Gospel, which means that the issue for Atheist Ireland is the Gospel story, rather than a catechetical commentary.

But that’s not quite true. What is at issue for Atheist Ireland is not the Gospel story, but the Gospel story as wrapped – and warped – around an ideology. It is not the story of a young woman replacing fear with trust in God’s care for her. It is the carefully rehashed story of how a stranger appears in a young girl’s bedroom at night. The girl is afraid, yet she says “yes” to becoming pregnant.

Atheist Ireland’s website administration goes on to observe that their understanding of the Annunciation story is “an extraordinary and dangerous message to give to young children”. How true that is. And how perverse of them to warp the original story to their own ends.

Rhetoric vs substance

If Atheist Ireland want to make an honest-to-God case, they should commend themselves to the consciences of others with an open statement of what they believe, and in turn listen openly to what others believe.

As a Christian commentator, I am more than happy to help their case, by advising them to avoid constructing hideous caricatures.

It is tempting to dismiss Atheist Ireland’s Annunciation story out of hand, and to take the reasonable view that even the most credulous of atheists would find it hard to swallow. But one wonders what might be next.

At the risk of putting ideas into the heads of website administrators, I imagine that the story of the crucifixion of Jesus could, in keeping with a long tradition of misrepresentation, be a warped into a legitimation of violence. Christians read it as a story of non-violence; its point is that Jesus did not meet hatred with hatred, violence with violence. But a little sleight of hand could take care of that.

Atheist Ireland’s retelling of the story of the Annunciation sends out a very clear message indeed. Not to the little children who will be taught the story in school, by sane and sensible adults, but to those who can see through the mendacious desperation that has inspired the retelling.

Rev Dr Chris Hayden is a priest of Ferns diocese

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