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God’s Subversive Story of Christmas

A Q&A with Daniel Darling, author of The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught up in the Story of Jesus

Published on:
December 10, 2019
Read time:
4 min.
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What inspired you to write The Characters of Christmas? Why Christmas characters?

First, I’ve always loved Christmas. So writing a Christmas book has always been a dream of mine. And I’ve always had the idea for The Characters of Christmas in my head. I’ve always been fascinated by the people who gather around our nativity sets and adorn our cards, the ones we dress up as in our Christmas pageants. They’re well-known after 2,000 plus years of church history, but they were just ordinary people in the first century. And I think God, in writing the story of Christmas, was intentional about who would make up the cast for Jesus’s original incarnation. I think each character tells us something about Jesus and the kind of kingdom he came to establish. 

Who is your favorite Christmas character? Which person was the most interesting to investigate as you wrote the book?

That’s a difficult question, but I’m partial to Joseph simply because he’s still so obscure 2,000 years later. I think there are maybe three songs about Joseph? And yet here he is a faithful, peasant carpenter who is described as “righteous” and who always does the next right thing. By saying yes to God, Joseph was signing up for a life completely different than the one he had likely envisioned as he was coming of age. He would be taking on the responsibility of fathering a child who was not his own. Jesus, in his humanity, needed to be fathered and Joseph met that challenge, so much so that Jesus is described later in the gospels by the people of Nazareth as “the carpenter’s son.” Joseph also took on the shame of Mary’s unwed pregnancy. Who knows how this affected his business prospects and his standing in his family? And yet he bore the shame of the one who would one day bear his shame. 

You include many opportunities for personal reflection in the book. What’s one thing you want people to think about as they put the book down and celebrate Christmas this year?

By saying yes to God, Joseph was signing up for a life completely different than the one he had likely envisioned as he was coming of age.

I really hope people come away with a greater sense of awe and worship at the incarnation of Jesus and how even the characters tell us something about God’s character and Christ’s kingdom. Christmas is like a multi-faceted diamond that can be explored from so many angles. It’s so rich that it has inspired some of our greatest music, poetry, and literature. So I hope this season the people of God drink deeply from this well and I hope my book, in some small way, contributes to the edifying of Christ’s church and the spread of Jesus’s good news to those who search and seek. 

What lesson(s) did you learn throughout the process of researching and writing this book?

This was such a wonderful project to work on. I was literally writing with a Bible and several commentaries and great advent works open next to me. It was a chance to take a deep dive into the world of the gospels and the prophets. Writing this was like worship in a way that few other projects have been. I was also blown away by how each of the characters point to something in the long and rich thread of salvation history from Genesis to Revelation. 

One of the strengths of your book is its attention to the entire biblical story. Why did you choose to include the whole context of the Bible as you wrote about characters in Matthew and Luke?

This was very intentional. I tried to do biblical theology with every character, mainly because I’m so enraptured by the way the whole Bible fits together and how the gospel writers nod to themes in salvation history. Just take the shepherds for instance: yes, God chose them as the first to hear because they represented the meek and lowly, but I also think he chose shepherds because shepherding is the dominant leadership model throughout the Bible, as if to say that Jesus would be a different kind of king—a divine shepherd-king, sitting on the throne of the original shepherd king, in the city of the shepherd-king. And there are symbolic things like that in the lives of every single character. 

I also just think it’s hugely important—and way too rare—for Christians to see how the whole Bible fits together and be always watching for these themes as they read. 

What would you say are some of the biggest modern misunderstandings about the Christmas story? How do they impact one’s ability to properly observe the holiday?

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding is this misplaced pressure to make Christmas entirely sentimental while the real story of Christmas is full of both joy and deep sorrow, hope, and violence.

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding is this misplaced pressure to make Christmas entirely sentimental while the real story of Christmas is full of both joy and deep sorrow, hope, and violence. Jesus came into a world as cynical and bloody and corrupt as the world in which we live. All of the same pathos that drives people to despair or make people jaded existed then as now. This is why the Christmas story is so subversive. Look at Mary’s prayer. She’s saying this baby, this king, will totally turn the world’s power systems upside down. And so as Christians celebrating Advent this year, we must remember that we genuinely believe that this baby in the manger is the rightful king of the universe, the long-promised Messiah who is coming to redeem individual hearts and make the entire world new. Christians believe there is a new world coming. 

So while sentiment is good at Christmas—if our king has come, we should celebrate and feast and give gifts—we can also take comfort in the fact that God visits those for whom Christmas is difficult and a reminder of lost or loneliness or struggle. God visits those in despair. 

What’s your hope for those who read this book? Do you have a vision for how you hope people will use it?

I genuinely hope confessing Christians who read it are freshly awakened to the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God and that those who are not Christians might read this book and be willing to engage the wonderful and awesome mystery of Jesus, God in the flesh. I hope it drives Christians to greater worship and seekers to, like the Magi, see that their quest for truth ends not in a set of principles but in a person who defeated sin, death, and the grave and offers peace with the God who made them.

Sophie DeMuth
Sophie DeMuth is the copyeditor at Fathom Magazine and a professional writer, editor, and publisher in Dallas, Texas. She is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and has written for Fathom Magazine and Christ and Pop Culture. Find her on Twitter @SophieDeMuth.

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