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Seasonal trivia

03 January 2014

THE Bible contains only one reference to sneezing (2 Kings 4.35). It is still illegal to show Monty Python's Life of Brian on Good Friday in parts of Germany. Lucifer and . (full stop) are banned as baby names in New Zealand. Factual trivia are the stuff of Christmas and end-of-year quizzes, which celebrate the human capacity to remember unconnected bits of information. There is more at play than that, however. The popularity of such quizzes reflects the human capacity for wonder. The reason why bizarre and quite useless bits of knowledge have a habit of sticking in the brain - when other, more vital, things such as train times or shopping-list items disappear instantly - is that anything quirky engages the imagination.

The state of education in the UK at present means that children have little opportunity to use their imaginations. Tight, exam-focused curricula restrict their learning to useful facts or abstract formulae. They struggle to remember that 12 twelves are 144, but would recall instantly that the human gut contains 100 trillion bacteria. It is a sadness that the imagination is timetabled off into one or two arts subjects - English, say, or drama - and treated with increasing suspicion as children grow older. "Lucy is such a dreamer." But an active imagination is at the root of every successful career in science and engineering, for example. Innovation begins with vision, and encouraging children to dream, then put things to the test - and most probably fail - takes more time and effort than most classroom teachers can afford.

This failing is not unknown in the Churches. The stories of miraculous events in the Bible are put under pressure from both sides: from the literalists, who demand that everything described by the Bible's authors is held as sure and certain fact, and from the rationalists, who dismiss as myth all but the most basic skeleton of the biblical account. The truth does not lie somewhere in between, but somewhere other. As knowledge grows, so, too, does the extent of what remains unknown, and this has had a profound effect on the way academics now handle the truth - or "truth-claims", as they call them, cautiously. The line between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary no longer exists, and so it is perfectly easy to know things that may be implausible or contradictory and yet still striking and, in the broadest sense, useful. This is the territory of belief which so many in the Church advocate without really grasping at what it involves.

It is fitting that the sages of the New Testament, the magi, are themselves part of a mythology. Their number and origins are unknown, the timing of their arrival unknown, the nature of their celestial guide disputed. For all that, their significance as markers of Christ's divinity holds. More than that: they capture the imagination more successfully just because there is so little known about them. When will Christians appreciate the value of mystery?

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