At the risk of giving it more attention than it has already gotten, and certainly more than it deserves, I can’t help responding to the billboard placed recently, right at the New Jersey entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.

On the extremely unlikely chance that you haven’t already heard, the sign shows the three wise men approaching a simple nativity scene, with the message emblazoned across the top, “You KNOW it’s a Myth! This Season, Celebrate REASON!” The sign prominently credits the American Atheists, and claims that they have been “Reasonable since 1963.” Personally, I find that last bit funny. It suggests that, prior to the early 60’s, American Atheists were a “pre-reasonable” group of people, which is not, I don’t imagine, quite what they meant to imply.

The main message, though — “You KNOW it’s a Myth!” — in this context reads as an only slightly veiled version of, “You KNOW it’s a Lie!” The suggestion is that Christianity has been promulgating a false history of Christmas which any rational person would reject. Not surprisingly, I have a couple of issues with that.

I’m not a literalist, though. In our little corner of Christianity, we’re mostly not committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible. So I’m not bothered by the idea that the scriptures sometimes stretch the historical reality. I do take exception to the implication that a “reasonable” person cannot also be a person of faith. I’ve been surrounded by reasonable Christian people all my life and I know as a matter of fact that the two don’t necessarily have to be at odds, even if they sometimes come off that way.

My main point in writing though, is that the “You KNOW it’s a Myth!” message is demeaning to the whole notion of myth. Using myth as a synonym for lie suggests that everything mythological is deceitful, and that’s simply not true. As Joseph Campbell knew so well, there is a mythological quality to the whole of our lives.

All of our great human struggles and accomplishments have a mythology about them. Heros, holy grails, the search for love, truth and wisdom, the epic battle of good and evil… if you’re willing to be a little creative, virtually everything worth doing, humanly speaking, can be understood in light of mythology. Even reason.

So, when Christmas is accused of being a myth, what I want to say is “Yes, if what you mean is that the story of Jesus’ nativity embodies the deep truths of our human longing for meaning, peace and connection to something larger than ourselves.” On the other hand, if all that is meant is that the Christmas story is not completely, historically accurate, my response is, “So what?” Christmas is not diminished by calling it a myth, so long as we understand the real nature of mythology.

Kevin Pleas is a progressive Christian minister with 28 years of experience serving churches in the Northeast and Illinois. Currently he is Pastor of the First Congregational, United Church of Christ in Camden, Maine, a position he has held for the last nine years. He has a passionate interest in the interconnections between religion and culture and writes from a perspective of tolerance, open-heartedness, and reasoned faith. He may be contacted directly at revkev5@myfairpoint.net.