Book Review: Unafraid

In this post, I’m reviewing the book, Unafraid. No, not the Adam Hamilton one that came out a few months back, a 2017 book fully titled: Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith by Benjamin L. Corey and Patrick Lawlor.

There’s something I really like about a book on theology (especially one oriented to the general public) when the best summary of the book is a verse of scripture. Here, it’s:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:16b-18.

This book is both an argument and a journey. It is an argument about how fear has distorted Christianity’s message from one of love and hope to one concerned with the avoidance of Hell, preparation for impending apocalypse and a focus on getting people to say “magic words” about their belief in Christ rather than calling people to actually follow Him. It is a journey about the personal crisis of faith that led Ben Corey away from fear-based, conservative evangelical Christianity and toward progressive love-based Christianity.

The quote from scripture above demonstrates the overarching point of both argument and journey: the opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s fear. And, as Yoda tells us, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Corey’s preaching to the choir here, so I almost put down the book when I felt I’d gotten the gist. I’ve written on this blog fairly extensively about ideas that I believed are shared with Corey: about the blessing that fear-based coercive evangelism can’t produce followers of Jesus (not directly, at least); about the backwardness of the religious right’s obsession with protecting their right to discriminate based on religion; even about the danger of prepper apocalyptic theology (albeit in a review of a video game).

Nevertheless, I’m glad I stuck the book out. Not only was it a pleasant read, but I did learn a bit of history I didn’t know and the book gave me much to think about or revisit.

On the history side, Corey traces the modern, conservative strain of American evangelical Christianity and its basis in fear to John Nelson Darby, a lawyer and lay theologian (yes, the similarity here is not lost on me) in the early 19th Century. For Corey (and I think he’s likely right), Darby almost singlehandedly transformed evangelical Christianity from a positive force truly seeking to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth (by campaigning against slavery, for worker’s rights, and other social-justice issues) to a relatively oppressive set of ideas that taught that the world was getting increasingly worse and more sinful, not better, and that hope for salvation from the damnation surely due to the world (particularly through not-very-scriptural ideas like the Rapture) could only be found through (fear-based) belief in Christ and a turning away and condemnation of the rest of the world. This apocalyptic mindset led to the idea that only “saving souls” by getting them to confess belief in Jesus mattered–there’s no need to seek justice, be a good steward to the environment, or otherwise try to make the world a better place when God’s just going to destroy it all anyway.

Though we must of course allow for variation in the beliefs of evangelical Christians as in any group of Christians, and it is not for me to say what people in that category truly have in their hearts and minds about what they believe about God, Corey’s description does tend to hit the nail on the head when I think of most of the the most-vocal evangelical Christian leaders in our day and age.

At the same time, Corey warns us about the categorization of Christianities. For Corey, when we take our identities from being “conservative” or “progressive” Christians (or even as Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc.), we create bastions of definition and meaning which we must then police and defend–leading to persecution of those who are not like-minded, especially when they try to claim membership in the same category as us. While categories may provide useful shorthand for understanding some of the core theology a person might have, Corey argues that it should not be used for more than that and that we need to keep our minds and hearts open to diversity of belief and the actual realities of individuals rather than using them to work out our own ideological and theological issues. He’s absolutely right about the danger here, and I myself feel a constant struggle (and failure, to be honest) not to fall into this trap.

Of course, Corey does argue for a progressive theology as a more genuine expression of love-based Christianity than conservative evangelism. As one part of the fallout from the crisis of faith that led Corey to progressive Christianity (from his conservative evangelical upbringing), Corey was fired from his position as pastor at a large church for, as he puts it, “hating guns and loving gays.”

Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the cathartic camaraderie I felt in reading it. My path to progressive Christianity was nowhere near so dramatic as Corey’s, particularly because I walked it much younger in life than he did. But the reminder that I’m not alone in having been raised on conservative Christianity (despite being raised in the Methodist church, I was raised in Houston, one of the most conservative conferences of the UMC in America. Further, those who often taught my Sunday school classes were not deeply theologically trained.

Overall, I remember being taught a version of Christianity that didn’t tolerate well the asking of questions and gave me an overall view of Christianity that nearly led me to leaving the Church permanently. It was only later, as I began to read and study on my own, that I understood that there were other interpretations of Christianity and, to my surprise, that much of Methodist doctrine matched closely with the conclusions I’d come to on my own. Now, even in the Methodist church I’m clearly on the liberal side of things–and proud of that, if I do say so myself.

Nevertheless, it was nice to hear someone else’s journey, to know that there are others with whom I have much in common (though I knew this already).

I think that Corey’s journey, and the arguments he makes along the way, are well worth the read.

Suicide: Fear, Loathing and Hope

This week, both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain chose to take their own lives. I read an article saying that the national suicide rate has climbed 25% since 2000 and is one of the few leading causes of death that is on the rise. In many (perhaps most) places in the U.S., suicide is a much higher percentage of deaths per capita than homicide. Something needs to be done.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts on this site, I’ve had a diagnosis of clinical depression for about half of my life now; I know what the depths of despair that can be reached by the soul are like. But let me give a few more personal details about my own experience so that you can evaluate my biases and understand the limitations with which my experience speaks to the broader experience of depression as a whole.

I have never had suicidal ideation–the fears and despairs that shake me when in the grip of a depressive episode actively drive me away from believing such an action would provide any escape or comfort whatsoever. That being the case, I do not have insight into what Ms. Spade and Mr. Bourdain thought during their last hours. All of my personal experience seems to indicate that my depression is chemically-based–when in the clutches of depression, I cognitively understand that the thoughts I keep having and the feelings I keep feeling are not who I actually am, not what I actually think about those subjects, and not the way I know I should feel. Since I’m not a doctor, I cannot speak to the potential causes of depression except to say that I imagine that those people whose depression stems more from cognitive issues–that is, cycles of unhealthy thoughts and perspectives–more than chemical issues, have a much harder time of it than I have. I am also fortunate that currently-available medication provides adequate control of my symptoms.

Additionally, my depression has never fully prevented me from being successful in life–even in the long months of my first depressive episode before I was diagnosed and began treatment, I still managed to make all “A’s” in my college classes. Never has a depressive episode prevented me from my studies or from working effectively. So, it is safe to say, I think, that my experience of depression, while not to be discounted, has not had the severity of consequences that accompany the experience for many sufferers.

None of the above is the subject of this post; it is merely information for you to evaluate the applicability and credibility of the thoughts that follow.

We Christians need to be doing something that is affirmative (in all senses of the term) to help- those who suffer from depression–and those who survive and thrive in spite of it. For too long, the Christian approach to depression and suicide has been one of wilful ignorance, fear, and passive condemnation.

It is poor theology that has driven us to this, I think. The easiest aspect of this to grasp from the history of Christianity is the idea that suicide is an “unforgiveable” sin that necessitates hell for the poor soul who chooses to end his or her own life. To begin, the logic on which this is based is flawed: it is fully possible to begin the process of suicide and repent before it has been completed but after the point of no return. In such a case, the intent of the person and the genuineness of repentence are things beyond our ability to ken and thus best left to God’s grace and mercy.

A further logical attack is found in the issue of culpability. The will of a person caught in the maw of depression has been usurped, or at least corrupted. While so ensnared, the will of the person is not fully her own. This is not to say that the person does not choose as any other person, but that the perceptions on which choices are made may be so distorted as to increase the likelihood of choices that would never have been made by the person outside of the influence of a depressive episode. This being the case, we must sincerely question whether a person who commits suicide is sufficiently in control of her will to be held responsible for the action. Without voluntary choice, there can be no sin–to call an involuntary action sin on the part of the actor would be supremely unjust.

The issue of culpability is further confused by the action of martyrdom–is a person who refuses to take action that prevents him from dying committing suicide by an instrument that only happens to be human? I have no answer for this question, but my uncertainty leads me to believe that we ought to take a merciful view of those whose lives end so tragically.

Of course, such a position on suicide is also abiblical: The only sin that the Bible (cryptically) tells us is unforgiveable is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, whatever that may be. Matthew 12:31-32. More important, I think, are Paul’s words that nothing can separate us from the love of God as laid out in Romans 8:38-39. Paul specifically mentions “neither death nor life” as things powerless to separate us from God.

The (above-described) old Catholic view that suicides were damned is well-known to us for the use of the idea as a plot device in fiction–the pain and suffering caused when a family member is refused burial in consecrated ground because he took his own life. This is an event based on history, of course, so there are multiple avenues for exposure to the idea such that we can say that an understanding of the meme is commonplace.

But there is a more insidious thought in bad Christian theology that prejudices us from showing the compassion we ought to for those who suffer from depression. Being a faith that grounds itself in the hope of a good God who loves us so much that God would come to us in flesh to be with us, we might easily fall into the trap of seeing despair as a sin against God.

You see, despair is a lack of hope and, as has been done by some religious thinkers, therefore a rebellion against and lack of faith in God and God’s goodness. This leads to the conception of the melacholic person (to use a more medieval phrase) as sinful rather than suffering. Or, to be more pointed about it, suffering precisely for that sinful rejection of hope in God.

My familiarity with this idea comes mostly from Early Modern (i.e. medieval and Renaissance) sources. But even in the Middle Ages there were those who argued for a natural explanation for mental illness–such as those who questioned whether some or all possessions were not really illnesses of the mind. Nowadays, I don’t think many articulate this kind of view–but I wonder about the extent to which it lurks below the surface in the thoughts of the faithful.

We have further stigmatized depression and mental illness in secular culture, seeing it as a weakness of personality rather than an affliction like other illnesses. We are quick to label people who commit attrocities we do not readily understand as mentally ill–some are content to label all criminals as somehow mentally defective. There are many negative consequences to this: first, it skirts the issue of culpability for people who commit crimes against others. Second, it allows us to avoid addressing the underlying social injustice that leads to some (but certainly not all) crimes. In the wake of new waves of school shootings, the very people who are adamant about keeping their guns simultaneously refuse to allocate resources to the assistance of those who need social assistance or mental help. This in spite of the many studies that dollars spent on schools save dollars spent on prisons or the anecdotal evidence that treating people better means that antisocial acts become less likely.

Even outside the issue of criminal behavior, mental illness remains a thoroughly uncomfortable issue for us. There are arguments–like those of Thomas Szasz, outdated and unsupported by evidence though those arguments are, that there really is no such thing as mental illness, only nonconforming behaviors that are easier to label as illness than to otherwise confront. There is the valid (but perhaps overemphasized) concern that mental illness provides governments and societies the excuse to use their coercive force on nonconforming individuals, a point on which Dr. Szasz (and Michel Foucault) provide some warning to us. But we are quick to turn these doubts about the particulars of mental illness into doubt about the existence of the whole thing, and that is unacceptable.

To be fair, the treatment of people with mental illness has greatly improved over the last few centuries. If you’re unaware of the origin of the term “bedlam” in the meaning of “chaos and pandemonium,” the word derives from London’s Bethlehem Royal Hospital, where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, tourists could pay to view (and even further torment) the insane. We have (thankfully) stopped performing lobotomies. But we still have issues with medicating those with whom we’d rather not deal with the actual issues of their behavior, with refusing to help the least fortunate who have mental health issues, and with discussing the issue with much depth or compassion.

Where we, as a society, have corporate responsibility is for allowing our culture to create conditions that are conductive to depression. We push the wrong values–money, fame, power, material success, productivity and achievement as worth–that don’t actually make people happy. We actively create conditions that push people away from doing the things that are beneficial to mental health: from taking time to relax, to be mindful and thankful, to create meaning in our lives and to pursue things about which we are passionate, to focus on our faith and our relationships with others. We turn a blind eye to the injustices and oppressions that can, given time, crush both mind and soul.

As Christians, we can, and should, do more. In Methodism, we talk about the Kingdom of Heaven as both “a future promise, and a present reality.” Anyone who prays the Lord’s Prayer, asks that ” Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As I have argued and will argue, the Kingdom of Heaven is ontological, experiential and epistemological as much as it is a promise of exterior change–the Kingdom of Heaven is when all things are in right (and righteous) relationship with one another. That depends on interior life as much as exterior change, for relationships are ultimately bundles of meaning narratively constructed by the mind. When our narratives, our perceptions, our beliefs and understandings match with those God intends for us, we are experiencing some part of the Kingdom of Heaven–hence present reality. That experience necessarily drives us to love others, to work to make the world a better place, and to lift up those who are suffering–our doing so is participation in God’s promise of the future fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We must recognize that mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer, nor is it a wilful disobedience to God, nor is it easily remedied by telling the afflicted either to “pull himself up by his bootstraps” or “to trust God more.” Our role must be to offer succour to the suffering in any way that we can; to advocate for systems, organizations and practices that provide resources for those suffering from mental illness, to dispel the stigma that follows mental health issues and, ultimately, to put people first.

 

Interim Report From Texas Annual Conference 2018

It’s 7:40 a.m. before the start of the 8:30 a.m. business session of the TAC on the second full day of the 2018 conference. I’ll be speaking in favor of one of the petitions before the conference. I figure, what better way to prepare myself than to write?

As it often is for me, the conference is a whirlwind of emotions and activities. I’ve gotten to reconnect with friends I do not see nearly often enough–including fellow travelers in Israel earlier this year. I’ve been inspired by sermons, reports and updates from the conference as well as the words of those friends. But it’s also a time of frustration and palpable tension.

I’ve described the Commission on the Way Forward and Council of Bishop’s recommended plan for the UMC–the One Church Plan–here. Yesterday morning, I attended a breakfast (attended by nearly 500 people) to respectfully discuss the plans with the Texas delegates to the General Conference in small groups. I understand that–especially as a lay person–I’m something of a nerd when it comes to the workings and polity of the UMC, but I was surprised about how little some of my fellow attendees knew about what was going on. This is especially unfortunate as certain interest groups and factions within the UMC attempt to manipulate outcomes and go largely unnoticed in such efforts. Some of the members of our conference are extremely gifted in the fields of rhetoric and diplomacy. Unfortunately, those gifts are not always employed in a way that is direct about the desired outcome. I’m used to political machinations being something I read about in fiction, set up as the backdrop for my own writing or roleplaying games, or that I am otherwise somewhat insulated from. TAC is the exception to that rule, and my involvement this year has given me access to more information about–and even participation in–those political gambits and struggles. But, the heart of our denomination is at stake here, so I feel obligated.

The highlight so far has been hearing Rev. Vicki Flippin, the Pastor of Social Justice, Exploring Faith, and Intergenerational Ministries at the United Methodist Church of the Village (in New York City) speak at the Reconciling United Methodists, Texas Conference dinner last night. If you are not familiar with her, look her up. Listen to some of her sermons. I certainly will be.

She started her inspirational exhortation by drawing upon science fiction–so of course I was sold (and K might have been sizing her up) from the get-go. She spoke about hope (finding and maintaining), conscientious resistance when our Book of Discipline doesn’t match the Gospel, and how narrative carries the power of change. Given my feelings about Paul Tillich’s theology and my own aspirations of professional authorship, these topics carried great weight with me.

This is tempered somewhat by what I hear about the conservative activity at this conference. For those of us who are progressive Christians, much of our goal this year is simply to let our brethren and sistren in the UMC know that Texas is not a monolithic bastion of religious conservativism. From what I hear from reliable sources, some (though I would caution about overgeneralization of this statement) within the conservative groups have labeled we, the progressives, as the Enemy. To my mind, that alone speaks volumes about the mindsets of the two sides (again unfairly generalized) and which interpretation is the closer walk with Jesus (when considered in toto).

Last weekend, after K’s graduation from seminary (I’m so proud of her!), I had a very good, honest conversation with my brother-in-law on my position regarding human sexuality within the Methodist Church. That discussion drew me to make a difficult confession, one that it is only right that I share with you, my readers.

I have chosen to prioritize the unity of the church over the immediate achievement of victory in regards to the justice issue that confronts the UMC. I am willing to compromise with conservatives to accept the One Church Plan because, despite how thoroughly I may oppose their theology, I wish to remain in fellowship with my conservative counterparts in our denomination. I believe that our ability to disagree and yet love and respect one another is a fundamental aspect of the witness we are called to in Jesus Christ.

But this compromise does a disservice to the LGBTQ community. The truest justice for those whose gender identities or sexual orientations do not match with mainstream social expectations is full inclusion and acknowledgment that they are children of God in the fullest sense of the phrase, without caveat or reservation, and that who they are and who they love is not a matter of sin, but a part of the uniqueness in which they were created; something that should be celebrated.

My stance asks the LGBTQ community to wait a bit longer for that true justice and acceptance–something they’ve been waiting for for far too long already. As the Supreme Court says, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Of that, I must confess guilt.

Yes, the One Church Plan will give us permission to do what is already right–to bless marriages born out of Christian love regardless of the sex or gender identities of the participants and to ordain those called to serve God in this Church without reference to their sexuality. But it does not give believers in those positions the full respect and acceptance they deserve, and it will explicitly allow the continuance of discriminatory and un-Christian practices by those who claim that “conscience” prevents them from treating the LGBTQ community as anything other than “less than.”

It is a hard path to walk; my heart aches every time think about how I’ve been forced to prioritize these conflicting convictions. For that, I ask for your prayers and your forgiveness.

Christian Marriage, Part III: The Great Metaphor

For the previous post in this series, click here.

In the two previous posts in this series, I’ve discussed Jesus’s hard saying in Matthew 22:30 (Part I) and an argument that broken marriages in the Bible often serve as a metaphor for resistible grace (Part II). Now, it’s time to turn to the higher level, more abstract and theological/metaphysical. I’ve been looking forward to this.

The Primacy of Love and Relationship

Here, I’m going to make the argument that the marriage metaphor as applied to God and the believer (or more generally to God and the Church) turns on its head many of the things we’re often raised to believe about God’s nature. At its simplest, the metaphor reminds us that God’s primary concerns–regarding Creation as a whole and each of us individually, is love and relationship.

You might think, then, “How is that different from what I’ve thought about the issue my whole life?” And in truth, maybe it’s not. If so, maybe you’ve already been to where I’m going now. However, for many fellow Christians I meet, there is a core assumption of Christianity that the role of the human is merely to worship and obey. Admittedly, I’m in Texas, where, as one pastor friend puts it, “We’re all closet Baptists in some way.”

The truth is, however, denominational aspersions aside, most Christians are taught that worship and obedience is humankind’s primary place in the universe. I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Benjamin Corey called Unafraid, detailing his journey away from fear-based theology to love-based theology and everything that goes along with that (I’ll review this when I’m finished with it). The focus on worship and obedience is greatly tied up with the image of the angry God, the entirely unworthy human, and the fear of Hell as an eternal punishment for even slight offense.

I am not arguing that we should not worship or obey God. The preface of the Eucharistic Prayer in most Christian denominations includes language similar to, “It is just and right to give praise to the Lord.” Rightly so, for our God is greatly worthy of worship and praise for all that God has done in Creation and for us. Likewise, Jesus tells us that we must keep his commandments (revealed to be “Love each other as I have loved you” a few verses later). John 15:10. We are told in the Sermon on the Mount to strive to “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Also in the Sermon, Jesus tells us to “…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16. Both of these things should be important parts of the life of a Christian.

But they are not the prime focus of the Christian. One reason for this is a simple matter of causation–loving God and being in relationship with God necessarily leads to worshipping and obeying God. But worshipping and obeying God does not necessarily lead to loving God.

Additionally, let’s think about the nature of a God who created us simply to worship God. The word, “megalomania” comes to mind, and that clearly is not our God. Paul tells us that “love is not proud.” If God is love, God is not proud.

God is complete in and of God’s self (one of the reasons that God telling Moses to refer to God as “I am” or “I am that I am” is such a telling revelation). Because God is complete, God does not need anything from humans–especially worship. But that does not mean that God cannot desire, and in God’s desire for relationship lies the foundation of all Creation.

We can take a step back and see that relationship is a fundamental concern of God’s by examining God’s own nature (to the extent that such is scrutable to human minds). Here we find the mystery of the Trinity: one God in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all consubstantial but distinct from one another. Theologians refer to the relational movement of the persons of the Trinity around one another perichoreia, a Greek word that translates to “to dance around.”

If relationship is fundamental to God, and God created humans to be in relationship with them, then we ought to search for a good understanding of what that relationship should look like. Here enters the power of the marriage metaphor.

Independence as Fundamental to Relationship

To be meaningful, a relationship cannot be coerced but must be freely entered into of one’s own accord. This is true in human marriage, but also in the relationship with God. God is not interested in the mere appearance of relationship (which is what we might have when worship and obedience are focused on above love), but true relationship, which requires love freely given.

I need not repeat the arguments I made in Part II of this series here except to say that the image of dysfunctional marriage in the Bible as a metaphor for voluntarily turning away from God establishes that humans have the ability to do so–they have free will and are not directly controlled or determined by God. This is logically fundamental to the existence of a real relationship between God and God’s created. By contrast, then, the positive image of the marriage relationship requires both the existence of free choice in both partners and love between them freely chosen.

The Trinity exhibits this dynamic even between its Persons. As G.K. Chesteron writes in Orthodoxy:

“It is written, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemene. In a garden Satan tempted man; and in a garden God tempted God.”

In Gethsemene, Jesus prays, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but Yours be done.” Luke 22:42. In this short statement, Jesus asserts both some independence from and yet an obedience to or oneness with the Father. On some level, there is a mystery to this that human minds cannot entangle, but I believe that, without having to delve into Trinitarian conundrums, we can take this as a statement that meaningful relationship requires independence.

Independence and Unity

If good and righteous marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between God and human, what can we glean from the mortal analogue that is helpful? The most successful (and by that word I mean committed, happy, sacrificial and unified) human marriages I have seen hold in careful tension the importance of acknowledging and protecting the individuality of each spouse while operating in the firm belief that, joined together, the spouses are something entirely different and somehow better than either of them alone.

Paul treats with marriage in Ephesians 5:22-30, where he writes:

“Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the chuch, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church–for we are members of his body.”

Admittedly, there are a few issues here. Clearly, Paul had never encountered anyone with anorexia nervosa or body dismorphia. Second, he’s really mixing his metaphors between marriage and body/head (elaborated on further elsewhere). Perhaps most important for our purposes, his view of marriage seems to be well entrenched in the social hangups and cultural constructs of his day. Certainly, K and I purposefully omitted any reference to her obiesence from our wedding vows, as we believed (and still do) that equality between us is fundamental to our marriage.

Nevertheless, I think that there’s a good argument here that Paul is being revolutionary in his description of the marriage relationship for the context within which he’s writing. While he does not seek to abolish female servitude within the marriage relationship, he does make clear that, despite the lack of authoritative equiality wihtin the marriage, there does exist an equality of mutual obligations of one spouse to the other and the primacy of sacrificial love to the relationship.

Even if Paul’s words do not go far enough in dealing with equality in human marriage, they nevertheless work quite well for the metaphor of marriage between God and believer, where there can never be authoritative equality between God and human. Still, according to Paul’s description (taken as metaphor), out of love for us, God condescends to us (in the truest sense of the word) to be in mutuality with us if not purest equality.

We should also note that Paul makes the point that love (and sacrificial love at that) is the focal point and highest foundation of the marriage relationship. In Part I of this series, we discussed the arranged marriage system of Biblical Jewish culture. In arranged marriage systems, ancient and modern, the first concern in arranging  amarriage is the prosperity and socioeconomic well-being of the couple to be married. Surely, the parents want there to be a loving relationship between the spouses, but this seems to take a backseat to the foregoing concern. For Paul, though, love should come first, presumably even in the context of Jewish arranged marriage in the 1st Century CE.

Conclusion

So, if my arguments are correct, what we should glean from the marriage metaphor in the greater sense is the following: (1) that God’s first concern is relationship with the created and that this is especially true for humanity; (2) that such a relationship accentuates and affirms the independence and individuality of humans rather than telling humans to diminish themselves and wholly hide behind Christ to be shielded from judgment (though the injunction to strive to become more Christlike and to pursue santification remains as it always has with the only change that we should expect santification to change the individual into who God created him or her to be rather than pushing us into unoriginal and uninspiring conformity with all humans); (3) that love, as claimed throughout the Gospels, is both the foundation and goal of this relationship; and (4) that we should take from the marriage metaphor that our relationship to God is meant to uplift and celebrate humans just as we uplift and celebrate God.

In some sense, there is nothing whatsoever radical in these points. But at the same time, I think it’s clear that this metaphor calls us away from framing the relationship of the believer to God in terms of monarchy, fealty, obedience and faceless subservience. I would argue that this understanding calls us to a sort of humanist Christianity, by which I mean an envisioning of Christianity that celebrates humans as God’s good creation just as we seek to follow Christ to leave the stain of sin behind and worship and praise the Lord our God for the sacrificial love that God first showed us before we ever understood anything about our existence. In this formulation, God retains God’s rightful place at the center of our lives, as desire and focal point of truth, as the greatest relationship available to us in all existence, while giving us a positive view of ourselves rather than seeking the diminution of the value of humans to accentuate God’s holiness and worthiness above all else.

 

 

 

Christian Marriage, Part I: Matthew 22:30

Introduction

Recently, a friend of mine who is a retired Methodist pastor asked me to teach his Sunday-school class for a few sessions. I was, of course, flattered and immediately said yes. I haven’t had a chance to do much teaching about Christianity in the “real” world lately and–as I imagine you might suspect–teaching about my faith is one of my favorite things to do.

Then my friend told me that the subject would be “marriage.” K and I will have been married twelve years in June, and we’ve been together seventeen, but all of the members of this particular Sunday-school class have been married far longer, and some have been married longer than I’ve been alive. It felt like a trap, though I’m sure it was not meant as such.

Despite the danger, I wanted to teach too much to back out. Besides, it’s often a good idea to get outside of your comfort zone a little–the best learning is done there. Nevertheless, I needed to sidestep the pitfall of trying to give marriage advice to people who know far better than I.

So, I decided that, while I’d sure teach about Christian ideas of marriage, I’d do so from a theological perspective rather than a practical one. More in my area of knowledge and safer. This led me to the topic we’ll discuss today: one of Jesus’s hard sayings in Matthew 22:30 (also Mark 12:25 and Luke 20:34-35, so it’s pretty clear that the authors of the Gospels thought that this saying was important).

N.B.: Because this has turned out to be a relatively long post, I’ve tried to insert section headings for ease of navigation and so that you, dear reader, can read or skip as much as you want. Trust me, I won’t be offended: I’ll never know what you picked to do. Unless you tell me, in which case I’ll do my best not to be offended.

Matthew 22:23-30

In Matthew 22:23-30, the Sadducees have come to Jesus to test him, and they present him with a hypothetical problem to solve (flashbacks of law school immediately followed). Specifically, they tell him of a woman who was married and widowed without a child, so her husband’s brother married her, but then he died, so the next brother in line married her, but then he died, and so on and so forth until the woman had been married to seven brothers before she died herself. The problem the Sadducees pose, then, is who will she be married to in the afterlife?

Jesus says, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead–have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Matthew 22-29-32.

Whoa! I enjoy being married. I love my wife. When we got married, we intentionally left out the “’til death do us part” language of our vows–we didn’t think that just this life would be enough for us. I want to be connected to her eternally. So what do I do with what Jesus says here?

Research. That’s what I do. And think. Because something’s going on here, and I’m quite sure that Jesus is not telling us that we will not be with those we love in the Kingdom of Heaven. This lead me to identify a problem, a relatively obvious one when you think about it. Our modern Western idea of marriage is not like the idea of Jewish marriage in the first century C.E. To impose our idea of marriage on this statement is to immediately miss the point.

Instead, I came to understand that Jesus is making a point about social justice. Let’s walk through it together:

Context

First, let’s but things in context–geographically, historically and literarily. As you might have seen in my posts about my profound learning experience with Dr. John A. “Jack” Beck, it has been ingrained on my mind now that, when I look at the Scriptures I ask: “Where are we when this takes place?”

Geography

In this instance, that question proved immediately helpful. In Matthew 21:23, we are told that “Jesus entered the temple courts.” So that means that Jesus is on the Temple Mount when speaking with the Sadducees. I soon learned that even that was not enough specificity for this passage of the Gospel. Matthew doesn’t tell us where on the Temple Mount Jesus is more than that he’s there somewhere, so I needed to do some research to see if I could find some information to make a better supposition about where specifically Jesus might have been.

First, let’s talk about the geography of the Temple Mount itself. I recommend Googling to find a picture because one will be helpful, but I’ll try to do a good job describing with words.

Imagine a rectangle (Josephus described the mount as a square a furlong on a side, but I don’t think that’s quite right–it’s possible though that I am mistaken. For sake of argument, bear with me.) with the longer sides oriented roughly north-south. That’s the Temple Mount. The place now known as the Western Wall or the “Wailing” Wall is a part of the north west segment of the entire western wall.  The entrance to the top of the Temple Mount was made via ramps up from doorways in the southern wall–these doorways are now sealed up, but you can see parts of them. There was also a bridge entryway on the southern part of the western wall, connected to Herod’s Stoa on the south end of the Temple Mount. The impressive archway of the bridge and stairs of this entrance have since been destroyed, but you can find both pictures showing where the supports of the arch can been seen in the wall even today and diagrams showing what it would have looked like in the past.

Let’s return to Herod’s Stoa. While his lineage is a little complex, Herod was considered to be a Gentile. Therefore, he could not travel further than the Court of the Gentiles in on the Temple Mount. The Court of the Gentiles is essentially the area of the Temple Mount outside of the walled-in Temple complex proper. Herod built the Stoa as an elaborate three-aisled arched and columned basilica where Herod could stay in luxury while looking out at the Temple–and reminding Israel who was in charge.

On the (outside of) the eastern wall of the Temple Mount with another set of gates was a colonnade or cloistered area known as Solomon’s Porch, so named because it was believed that that part of the Temple area had been built in Solomon’s time (I have not done any research to determine the likelihood that that belief was true).

Near the middle of the Temple Mount itself is the Temple complex, facing (very) roughly east-west). Think of the Temple complex as two compartments, with the entrance into the first compartment from the eastern outer wall of the complex and entrance into the second (western) compartment–where the Temple istelf was–only through the first compartment. The first compartment is known as the Court of the Women (because it was the closest to the Temple women could get). The second compartment, the courtyard around the Temple proper, was known as the Court of Israel.

You’ll notice that I’ve bolded four places around the Temple Mount–the Courts of the Gentiles, Women and Israel and Solomon’s Porch. The scholarship I reviewed indicated that these four locations were the places where Jesus taught when he taught at the Temple. That’s a pretty easy statement to make since, combined, that covers pretty much everywhere but inside the Temple.

With this in mind, let’s look at some textual evidence. As I mentioned above, Matthew tells us that Jesus “entered the temple courts.” That rules out Solomon’s Porch, I think, as the location for this saying. But we can go farther than that.

The day before this confrontation with the Saduccees, Jesus had overturned the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple. All the texts I looked at stated that the moneychangers would have been located in the Court of the Gentiles. I see no reason to argue with that. When Matthew relates Jesus this previous event, he tells us again (before, really) that Jesus “entered the temple courts.” I think the connection there makes it quite likely that Matthew 22:23-32 also takes place in the Court of the Gentiles.

There’s a logic to this as well. Given that Jesus has come for Jews and Gentiles (although that’s only made explicit later), he would have wanted to teach in as public a place as possible most of the time (though how many Gentiles actually came to the Court of the Gentiles is hard to say). More important, I think, is that the Pharisees and Saducees would have wanted to challenge Jesus in as public a forum as possible–again making the Court of the Gentiles the likeliest place for this scene.

If I had to bet, I’d say Jesus was in the Court of the Gentiles, but there’s no proving that. On other grounds, I think it’s very likely that Jesus was not in the Court of Isreal. Why? Because I think it was important to him (as I’ll argue below) that women be present to hear the words he speaks in this passage.

That’s the geography. Now, let’s talk about the historical context of Jewish marriage in which Jesus’s statement is made.

An Etymological Aside

One of the most surprising things I discovered in my research is a relatively minor etymological note, but one that immediately impressed me. The word baal (sometimes written and pronounced “ba’al“) is sometimes used for the word “husband.” The word itself is most often translated as “lord” or “master” and, when discussed in the OT, usually refers to pagan gods, who are called baals just as we would name our God by saying “the Lord.” There were many baals (though they’re often only referred to as baal): Baal Hadad of Tyre, Baal Hamon, and as a title for the Canaanite god El, just to name a few. Indeed, the probable etymology of the word is from the Mesopotamian god Belu and there’s no question that, whenever used by the Old Testament authors, the connotation of paganism was attached, intentionally or not.

Baal is translated as “husband” in Genesis 20:3; Exodus 21:3 and 22 Deuteronomy 22:22 and 24:4; 2 Samuel 11:36; Joel 1:8; Proverbs 12:4 and 31:11, 23 and 28 and Esther 1:17 and 20. It is by far not the most common word used for husband in OT Hebrew (that is “‘iysh” or, properly, אִישׁ, Strong’s H376). There’s not enough here to make a true argument that the use of the word means anything more than when we refer to a mortal “lord” as opposed to “the Lord” in English, but it is interesting to me.

Historical Context of Marriage

Etymological notes aside, let’s talk about the social culture of marriage. Jewish marriages were (and sometimes still are, though much less often, I think) arranged by the parents and particularly the father. Most of the usages in the Old Testament of the word “marriage” are in the context of a woman being “given” or “taken” in marriage. It’s easier, in fact, to refer to the times when the Hebrew equivalents of the English word are not used in that context–1 Kings 11:2 (“enter into marriage”) and Dan 2:43 (“they will mix with one another in marriage”).

As with many–perhaps most–premodern societies,  marriages were not arranged for love but for the maintenance or creation of economic, political or social ties between families. For farming families, marriage helped consolidate interests between families for farming larger areas cooperatively, a palpable benefit for surviving in hard times. For the elite, as we’re perhaps more familiar in the Western medieval context, marriages were about determination of succession, alliances and control of territory.

As evidence of this, the Old Testament has some relatively complex rules on where and how land can and cannot pass as a result of marriage and children–land cannot be transferred by marriage between the twelve tribes, for instance.

The marriage itself was not just an agreement between spouses, as we tend to think in the modern world–it was a contract between families with much more at stake than how the couple got along.

To marry a woman, a man would give her father a mohar (typically defined as a “bride-price” or “dowry”). We see this in Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:17, 1 Samuel 18:25 and it is the basis of Jacob’s work contract for the hands of Rachel and Leah. Socially, though, this was not considered the “sale” of a woman but was meant to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of a productive member (through marriage). There was some expectation that a father would set aside some or most of the mohar for his daughter’s future, but there was no strict rule requiring this and a second gift was made by the groom to the bride.

Let’s talk specifically about Levirate marriage, since that’s the situation that the Sadducees are refering to in questioning Jesus.

Levirate marriage (which is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10) was the practice where, if a man was married but died leaving a widow and no children, the deceased man’s brother was expected to marry the widow. The first child between the two would be deemed to be the child of the dead man, ostensibly assuring the descent of the man’s name and property. Despite the focus on “protecting the dead man’s name,” the practice was likely meant to be a social protection for women–now outside of their father’s house and without a husband or male children, the widow might be left without social protection or anyone to provide for her. Being a childless widow could be a precarious social position indeed.

If the stories of Ruth and of Onan and Tamar are to be taken as exemplars, it seems that it was more common for women to pursue the idea of Levirate marriage–and for men to sometimes resist it.

Under Mosaic law, women were expected to be absolutely subordinate to men. A man could divorce his wife, but not the other way around. A man could have multiple wives, but a woman could have only one husband (both Josephus and Justin Martyr–who wrote well after Jesus–described the existence of the practice contemporary to their writings). Under Levitical law, a husband had the power of life and death over a woman who committed adultery (as we see Jesus confront even in his time).

There is evidence that women purchased or sold land or otherwise participated in commercial enterprise, so (as always) we need to understand that there was some nuance and complexity to the social status of women but, for the most part, women were subjected to the will and whim of men and were used in marriage as a tool for the management of property and other “masculine” concerns. Women simply did not have the rights or freedoms that, in modern culture, we believe that they are entitled to (and Jesus, as I’m going to argue, would agree).

Literary Context

In the passage before the Saduccees test Jesus on the subject of marriage in the great hereafter, the Pharisees have tested him on whether taxes should be paid to Caesar. He tells them to “…give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Matthew 22:22. In other words, he turns the Pharisee’s question back upon itself by telling them, “you’re asking questions about money and power, but those are not the concerns of God. We’re talking about something much more important.” His Kingdom is not in contention with the petty kingdoms of man.

After the confrontation we’re discussing, Jesus gives the Great Commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind….Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39.

It is significant that the exhange with the Sadducees occurs bookended by these two statements.

Interpretation

One of the commentaries I looked at mentioned (and astutely, I think) that, for the Sadducees at least, this confrontation really isn’t about marriage. The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife (or angels for that matter), so what they’re doing is asking a question that they believe is logically unanswerable so that they can say, “Aha! Can’t figure that one out, can you? See, there is no afterlife, because it wouldn’t make sense!”

This is almost certainly the Sadducees’ goal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing that Jesus is talking about. If it were, he would only have needed to (after noting that they misunderstand the Scriptures) make the statement that God is the God of the living and not the dead–that assertion alone is enough to confound the Sadducees’ purpose.

Yes, the statement about marriage at the resurrection reinforces Jesus’s retort above, but it also does more.

Coming on the heels of the Pharisees’ question about money and taxes, Jesus is telling the Sadducees the same thing he told the Pharisees. Given the social background of Jewish marriage, what the Sadducees are asking, in a sense, is “who will own this woman in the afterlife?” or, to put it in a slightly more sympathetic light, “who will have rights over this woman in the afterlife.”

Jesus’s response says, “Asking that question shows your complete lack of understanding–you’re concerned about power and status in the world and thereby missing all of the important things with which God and the Scriptures are concerned.”

Jesus’s life itself is grand statement that the things that we humans chase so lustily after–fame, wealth and power–are not the more important things of God–relationship, love, creation, meaning. It stands to reason that his responses to doubters carry the same truth underneath them.

And with the Great Commandment(s) following after this passage, we certainly cannot read Jesus’s statement that people do not marry in the afterlife to mean the same thing as “people do not love” in the afterlife. The argument could be made (drawing twistedly on C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I think) that the kind of love in the Great Commandment does not include eros/romantic love but only agape/unselfish love, but the use of marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between the believer and God (or the Church and Jesus) so profoundly throughout the Bible (this is the topic of the next part in this series) seems to indicate otherwise.

Conclusion

What we’re left, then, is a promise of a more socially just existence in the resurrection–the artificial human socioeconomic and political construct of marriage will be replaced by natural and divine relationship that is about those involved and not about power and wealth and land in the world. I can’t help but imagine that there were women in the crowd who heard Jesus make the statement and thought “Thank God!” not because they did not want to love and be loved but because they wanted to be equal–something the old system of Jewish marriage did not allow them.

P.S. – I do not mean any of the above analysis to be a disparagement against modern Jewish marriage practice. Until only recently in our history, Christian marriages were also arranged primarily for economic and political purposes. Even more important, it is my understanding that ideas about Jewish marriage have evolved through the ages so that modern Jewish marriages are every bit as concerned with love, respect and equality within a marriage as Christian ones are (ignoring entirely those fundamental and “evangelical” Christian sects that still maintain that a woman should be subservient in all things.

Topics Coming Up:

The next topic I’ll discuss in this series will be about marriage as metaphor for relationships with God–we’ll start with Scriptures and move into theology and metaphysics.

At some point in this series I’ll return to the two creation stories of Adam and Eve in Genesis and what they might mean for God’s original intent for the values that a marriage ought to uphold.

While my stance that homosexuality is not a sin and that the love between people of the same sex (or gender identity for that matter) should be viewed (from a theological perspective) no differently from that of a heterosexual couple has been discussed on the blog previously and should be relatively well-known by my readers by known, this series is probably a good place to include some comments on that front as well, so look for that in the near future.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Easter After Israel

It’s now been about two weeks since I arrived home from Israel; as you might note, I haven’t written much since then. But a few days after Easter seems a fitting time to share some of my reflections over the past few weeks. The experience of Easter Sunday has spurred me to think deeply about how my experience of the places where the Easter story unfolded has changed my perception of the narrative.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I tend to relate to my faith through intellect and intuition far more than through emotion. To a great extent, this is simply a matter of the way I’m wired, and while it makes me especially good at some aspects of theology, it doesn’t always prove terribly helpful on my faith journey. Since Maundy Thursday, in revisiting Christ’s death and resurrection through the Gospels, a few thoughts have dawned on me about my own failings in understanding the crux of our faith. Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might be helped by my reflections on weaknesses of my own that my pilgrimage is–I hope–working to remedy.

I have discovered within myself two places where–though I did not know it until recently–my understanding of the Passion and Resurrection were woefully insignificant.

The first of these, given my psyche, is perfectly understandable (I tell myself). I have allowed my understanding of Christ’s redemptive work to be too abstract and global without also realizing how palpable and intimate it is. Seeing the places where the events unfolded, being exposed to the nuances of the location and culture–to the extent that they remain available after 2000 years, has plunged me into the thick of the narrative to consider with great detail what the experiences might have meant to those who experienced them. Given my existential approach to theology, it’s actually rather embarrassing that I’ve for so long neglected the import and emotional impact of being personally involved in the story in favor of looking to the transcendental and eternal truth of the Gospel as if it were merely on of Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by.”

Let me be clear: this is a story with mythopoeic–perhaps better stated as theopoeic or theopoetic–power. There is great and deep truth in the Gospels that needs nothing from historicity to be true. That said, some things, sacrifice especially, have more meaning when someone actually had to endure the suffering and loss. Otherwise the meaning is only a metaphor for the idealistic world, a fine point on our weltschmerz, that “suffering unto death” that underlies the human condition and the existential states that God’s redemptive work addresses and heals. Acts of sacrificial love are only well-intentioned ideas until they are acted upon. There are many of the Bible’s stories that have the exact same meaning regardless of whether they are histories or stories, because they speak to the nature of reality. With Jesus and the entirety of the Incarnation, the something would be lacking from the Gospel message if it the events described did not actually happen. Easter is not merely some celebration of the story; it is a celebration that God, through Jesus, actually did the things that redeem us. He is Risen, indeed.

Thus, the Gospel story should be encountered as personally as possible, because the redemptive acts of the Passion and Resurrection–under whichever theory of atonement we might choose to understand them–are deeply personal and we are living them out, each and every day, though we often fail to see this in the bright lights and constant motion of daily survival.

From a certain perspective, perhaps I should offer myself some grace, because I lacked the tools to place myself within the events before my journey. I had not seen much of Israel, even in pictures, so I had little my imagination could grasp (except for illustrations in children’s picture books, bad Biblical reenactments and fleeting glimpses from documentaries) to build an image of the action and setting.

And that is especially true in America, I think. As a recent comment I overheard about Sunday’s live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates, the images we associate with the strength demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels falls into the same problem that plagued the people who encountered Him directly when He dwelt on the Earth: we superimpose our social ideas of strength upon Him rather than seeing the true strength He demonstrates in His sacrifice. We want a warrior king instead of a humble servant to represent the things we should aspire to. A pastor friend of mine likes to point to the “P90X Jesus” as an iconographic example of this–the image of an Olympic athlete with .001% body fat displayed on the cross (and usually white to boot).

A better understanding of the particulars of the people who experienced the Incarnation, the culture into which Jesus came and the places where Jesus preached and died both brings the truth of the story home and reinforces the actual meaning of the story rather than allowing this to be a mutable myth that we can make to be a mirror of ourselves.

The second realization I had is that I take for granted knowing the ending of the Easter story. I know that the Resurrection follows Good Friday and never stop to consider what it must have felt like not to have known–no matter how much faith one might have had in the expectations of what would come to pass.

When the disciples watched Jesus die, watched His suffering without any power to stop or alleviate it, were forced to doubt the reality of all He had taught them. I imagine most of you have read the C.S. Lewis quotation arguing that Jesus was either God or a madman; now imagine having invested three years of your life to answer that question, believing that Jesus is God, and then watching Him die, yourself likely a criminal subject to personal persecution if you too much attention comes to you.

Kafka could not have written a story of greater absurdity, Satre one of more extreme existential strength. There is no avoiding, I think, that if you were a follower of Jesus on Good Friday, you felt your soul on that cross with him though your body remained free, felt each nail pounded slowly deeper into your very essence, felt your ability to breathe and not to panic slowly fade to oblivion, felt everything you ever knew or believed threatened, felt forsaken by the One in whom you placed all your trust.

How fortunate we are never to have suffered this dark night of the soul! Though, I suspect that most of us at one point or another in our struggle to come to faith have encountered something similar in substance though lesser in degree.

As we march toward Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us try to feel the wonder and amazement when the disciples encountered the living Christ, how their faith had been fully, finally and undeniably affirmed, how nothing in the world could touch them or hold them after seeing the ultimate truth of Creation. That is redemption. That is grace.

Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

For the previous entry, click here.

In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

For the next entry, click here.

Thinking about Homosexuality in an Unchanging Gospel – An Epistemological Argument

Last night, I attended a potluck dinner and worship service hosted by the Reconciling United Methodists of the Texas Annual Conference (RUMTX) and attended by our new Bishop, Reverend Scott  Jones. The event represents the optimistic opening of a dialogue between proponents of full inclusion and our bishop, who—I’m given to believe—takes a decidedly conservative stance in regards to the United Methodist doctrine regarding sexual orientation. This includes continuing to bring disciplinary action against those pastors who violate the current Book of Discipline by performing gay marriages.

My experience last night has led me to share the following thoughts regarding full inclusion in the United Methodist Church, or within Christianity at large.

In his remarks during the worship service, Bishop Jones stated (I’m paraphrasing) “that the Gospel doesn’t change, but times do.” You could just as easily change out the word “Gospel” for “Jesus,” “the Scriptures,” “God,” or many other words to the same or similar effect, and it’s quite possible a different word was used by the Bishop and I’m misremembering. Regardless, though, the use of any of these words seems to intimate the same idea—a common one proffered by conservatives on the issue of homosexuality’s “compatibility” with Christianity.

The problem is that the statement of the unchanging nature of the divine doesn’t actually tell us anything. If the point is that the meaning and truth of Christianity and all that that entails does not change, that tells us nothing. It does not prove that traditional interpretations of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ are the correct ones, does not in and of itself explain the often-ambiguous meanings of the Scriptural texts, and does not even assert that we have the ability to properly interpret holy words.

As I’ve mentioned, my master’s degree is in English, focusing on medieval and Renaissance literature. My undergraduate degree is in History, again focusing on those periods. In my graduate work, I received training in the literary school of thought called “New Historicism.” The New Historicist’s approach uses a few key philosophical assumptions that are apropos to this conversation. First, New Historicism asserts that we cannot separate ourselves fully from the culture and ideologies of our own time when we interpret a literary or historical text (the Bible is of course both) and that—while we should absolutely be looking at the historical context in which something is written—we cannot fully access the context of the author or the work. This is partially because of our temporal and experiential remove from the author and partially because it is at best difficult for us to definitively discover how and where the author and work fit into the historical context with particularity. The author and her work may be fully or partially “bought-in” to the ideological context of her time, but we cannot determine this with great certitude—particularly since every text may rely on unspoken assumptions not explicit in its words.

What does this mean for us and Scripture? If you follow these assumptions, we can’t fully understand the historical context in which the Scripture is written. For all of our knowledge of Israelite and Greco-Roman culture and language, we have lost the paradigm of the people who lived through the Gospel times through the slow crush of time. We must therefore make guesses about certain meanings of the text, however educated those guesses may be.

At the same time, we cannot divorce ourselves from our own cultural and experiential biases and expectations—we cannot elucidate objectively. This makes a diversity of opinions not just desirable but necessary in our interpretative attempts.

All of this goes to say that we cannot with great confidence state definitively the Gospel message when it comes to highly complex issues such as homosexuality—we get in our own way. We have to do the best we can in interpretation, and I believe that we probably can come close to the truth of things (though logic may only get us so far). At the same time, however, we ought to be very careful about having extreme confidence in the theological positions we take when were are outside of the core doctrinal Christian beliefs (those about which we can be most secure, I think, are those found within the various creeds).

What we’re left with here is a statement without any logical assertion. Instead, it seems to me, the only value is a rhetorical one. This rhetoric taps into the idea that Christianity is under attack by mainstream secular culture—that broader cultural acceptance of homosexuality is undermining “pure” Christian doctrine. It is the same idea that causes some of us to insist that there’s a “war on Christmas,” that a secular world is actively seeking to marginalize (an uncritical and unquestioning view of) Christian truth.

Let’s for the sake of argument accept the possibility of humankind attaining knowledge of absolute divine truth. Even with this acceptance, we must admit the extreme difficulty of doing so. With that admission, we must at least entertain the possibility that Christian interpretation of the Gospel message is a process that moves closer (and occasionally farther) from the truth we seek as we discover new methods of inquiry and experience new cultural paradigms.

This development over time is something we see play out in the story of the Old Testament (and the New, but I’ll focus on the Old for these purposes). Abram is called out by what he believes is one god among many for a special covenant. The early relationship between God and the Israelites is not one of monotheism—it is one of monolatry (devotion to one god without denial of the existence of other gods). How many times do we hear the Hebrews say “Who [i.e. which other god] is like our God?”

The Ten Commandments are monolatrous and not monotheistic—“You shall have no other gods before me.” Compare with the monotheistic Shahada of Islam—“There is no god but God. Muhammad is His Prophet.” The Hebrews undergo a process of better understanding God, starting with the identification of God from the collection of supposed divine beings to a realization of God as the supreme and only divine being.

If ancient Hebrew theology progresses from a more limited to a more accurate understanding of the nature and person of God, why should we suppose that Christian theology was perfect thousands of years ago and that we could not come to a better understanding of the Living God through time and debate?

In the New Testament, we see the apostles understanding of Jesus’ message improve over time—with Jesus often lamenting the things they fail to understand. Are we any different?

If we return to the question of homosexuality in Christianity, here’s where the above points take us:

(1) Traditional interpretations (i.e. those that consider homosexuality to be sinful or “incompatible” with Christianity) should not be categorically prioritized but should—as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral would have us do—be reviewed by considering tradition alongside the Scriptures themselves, logic and reason and human experience (both personal and cultural).

(2) If honest epistemology precludes us from being absolutely sure about our theological position on homosexuality, we must make our best guess.

That best guess requires the weighing of competing theological precepts. These competing precepts are definitions of what it means to “love thy neighbor.” From the conservative position, the argument goes: “It is not loving to allow your neighbor to continue in sin.” The progressive response (to which, admitting my own bias, I subscribe): “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” For me, loving my neighbor does not mean judging them for what I might believe to be sin—I’m no better myself, and sin is, in my mind, far too complex in non-egregious contexts to be categorically defined.

In my own personal understanding of Jesus, I cannot conceive that a loving relationship between two people is right or wrong based on sex or gender. I think to categorize things along such uncompromising lines is too akin to pharisaical legalism for my comfort.

I have said in other posts that I believe that the question of homosexuality in Christianity is really a cover for an underlying argument about epistemology and the methodology, nature and bounds of interpretation of Scripture. I hope that this post adds some clarity to that assertion that I have made, regardless of where you stand on the issue or how you approach Christian epistemology and interpretation.

Like it or not, the real argument over homosexuality in Christianity is over. Today’s youth (at least for the most part) cannot fathom condemnation based on gender and sexuality issues. You might call that cultural indoctrination if you like, but I’d say it’s an example of C.S. Lewis’s natural law. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that, if youth see Christianity as homophobic, they will never open up to the opportunity to actually know Jesus. To me, that’s what’s at stake by continuing to make an issue out of homosexuality in Christianity—the longer that we even prevaricate on anything less than full exclusion, the more we push people away from Jesus.

During his speech last night, Bishop Jones said that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Meaning, of course, Jesus. If my epistemology means that I have to take a guess about which theological position is best, you can bet that I’m going to choose the position that may bring more people to Christ every single time. Is that a compromise? Maybe, but it’s one I’m more than willing to accept.

 

The Beautiful Truth about Evangelism

When I was in college at Texas A&M, once a semester a certain Tom Short would visit campus. Mr. Short travels from university campus to campus, attempting to evangelize.

A close friend and I would skip class to watch –and argue with–him. You see, he offended me. Not because he’s an evangelist, but because he spread a message too filled with fear, shame and condemnation to represent the Gospel. Once, after standing amongst the gathered crowd and going back and forth with Mr. Short for several minutes about what I perceived to be problems with his idea of God, a fellow student approached me and handed me a flyer for an atheist and agnostic student club. When I told the guy that I was a Christian, but that I didn’t believe that the visiting evangelist was doing a good job of representing what Christianity is about, he looked at me, confused. That’s what this kind of evangelism accomplishes for Christ–it turns people away by giving them an inaccurate image of our God and our faith.

A bit older and wiser, I realize now that my public protest about evangelism in the style of Mr. Short was more about self-expression and formation of personal identity than any real attempt to prevent the preacher from accomplishing his goals. There never was any need for me to speak against him, as his entire production was–as I’ll argue below–doomed by divine design. That seems a very harsh thing to say, and it is, so I hope you’ll bear with some explanation.

I don’t know whether Short’s preaching (or polemic, as was most often the case) ever caused anyone to say that he confessed Jesus Christ as his savior, but I doubt the authenticity of any such declaration (while admitting that only God knows such things). I’m not sure that fire and brimstone, accusatory evangelism has ever made a follower of Christ. Someone who confesses to be a Christian, probably, but not someone who has fallen in love with our Creator.

There’s something anemic about a theology that pressures people to make choices only to avoid hell. It reeks of predation on man’s cowardice, a use fear to coerce an admission of belief. The whole scheme is anologous to torture–give me what I want or suffer the consequences. Like torture (according to recent studies), the practice at best goads people to say anything to avoid suffering–in this case, eternally, we are told. Even secular values would condemn the person who confesses a certain belief (or who abandons a previously-confessed ideology) just to avoid punishment. So why does anyone think that threats are a viable way to share the Gospel truth?

This post isn’t about man, though. It’s about God. It’s about a God so gracious that such condemnatory evangelical practices are doomed to failure. You see, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ can only be entered into voluntarily–no amount of threat or shaming can cause a person to make a choice in his heart. Again, coercion might make someone say they’ve voluntarily chosen something, but it won’t change a person’s true desires.

Here we find a poetic justice. If God is love, and God’s ultimate desire for us is to have a deep and meaningful relationship with God, then it should follow that God wants nothing to do with coercion in the establishment of the relationship. That a person may only willingly enter into that relationship demonstrates a humility on God’s part in God’s willingness to preserve our free will in the hope of a genuine relationship, one that we may never choose to pursue.

The scriptures tell us that a person comes to believe in Jesus Christ’s divinity only through the action of the Holy Spirit and not through the actions of humans. Thank God for that! I don’t want to delve too deeply into pneumatology in this post, but I’d like to summarily comment that it seems to me that the Holy Spirit makes a way for us (call it preveneient grace if you like; we Methodists do) to choose to enter into a relationship with God based on our love for God’s character and creation.

Likewise, scholars of religion and mystical experience often describe a profound spiritual experience as one that changes one’s life but is by its very nature ineffable to others. That no one can “prove” God to us safeguards the opportunity to seek God out for ourselves, makes room for belief. After all, faith is a choice to believe in things that we cannot rationally prove or disprove.

So what does that mean for true evangelism, a sharing of the Gospel that is (I think) more in line with God’s intent for us? All we can do is try to reveal the person of Jesus Christ to others: through our own actions, through our words, through our sharing of the Gospel. It is not for us to make believers–God has ensured that a believer can only make himself. To be clear, this post is not a condemnation of evangelism–far from it–but only a stand against evangelism based in anything but love for fellow man and a desire to share the great joy of knowing Christ.

This reality reminds us of God’s deep love for us.God intends a personal relationship with each of us–a relationship so unique to each of us that we can’t even even reasonably communicate it to one another. We can only bask in the awesomeness of it side by side.

Here’s the beautiful truth about evangelism: the God of love has created the universe so that only by love may God be approached by the believer. This is not a comment about sin or salvation, not a theodicy or an aspersion against the unbeliever, only a realization of the beauty of a God who will not let us be successful is using ways other than God’s to bring people into faith.

So, the next time you hear a preacher full of fire asking you where you’ll go if you die today, don’t get angry, but remember the beauty of a God who has by the very nature of existence decreed that such an ungodly approach to the Gospel will never succeed.

A Wedding Homily

I recently had the great honor of being asked by my sister to perform her wedding ceremony. I’m not an ordained clergyperson, but that’s the sort of request that one just does not deny, and I remain so moved to have been asked.

At about the time this post goes live, the ceremony will be underway and, depending upon the timing, you might be reading this just about the same time that I’m saying these words to the gathered witnesses. Regardless of when you read them, here are the words I will speak, am speaking or have spoken for her homily:

“A few minutes ago, you heard a reading from 1 Corinthians 13. It’s a verse that’s often selected for weddings, being about love and all, but it’s worth considering what’s going on in the whole passage.

The passage begins with ‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.’

The scriptures here tell us that love must be the foundation of meaningful action; all action not based in love is ultimately fruitless and forgettable. Your successes do not matter; your failures do not matter; but your love, your love matters. Why?

Because the purpose and foundation of existence itself is relationship with God, with one another, and Creation. So important is this to our Creator that 1 John 4:7 and 8 tell us that ‘Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God…God is love.’

Jesus often uses the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between the church—as the body of believers—and the divine. The marriage relationship, the facing of life together where two people put their partner’s needs before their own, that’s the closest human relationship that exists to the relationship that God seeks with each of us.

The passage in Corinthians ends, ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’ Faith, hope and love are so closely bound together as to be almost inseparable. Hope is the joy and peace stretching into the boundless future that comes from faith in the absolute love of another for us. This is the message of the gospel, but it’s also the foundation of marriage. A successful marriage must be founded upon those three: faith, hope and love.

That’s much easier said than done. Marriage is not always easy; it’s the careful fusion that makes two one but also retains and respects the individuality of both members. Here’s the paradox: you two love one another because of who you individually are, but your marriage is a promise to so bind yourselves together that you, for many purposes, are one. Sometimes, there will be a struggle between your own individuality and the needs or best interests of the marriage. That’s where you’ll need faith, hope, and love.

When I talked about the three above, I hope that I made it clear that love is the most important of the three—both faith and hope rely upon love to work. Fortunately, this same passage in Corinthians gives us something of a crib sheet if we’re wondering what that word “love” means.

You see, we use the word ‘love’ to mean a number of different things: I love my sister and I love my wife and I love chocolate, but none of those loves is the same as the others. This isn’t confined to the English language—the original Greek of the New Testament has, according to C.S. Lewis’s reading, four different types of love—conveniently, Greek actually uses different words for those different types of love.

Lewis tells us about storge, the love between people that comes from empathy and familiarity, the kind of love between parents and children. Then there’s philia, the brotherly love that people who share common values or interests. There’s eros, the romantic love of desire. Most important, there’s agape, the kind of self-sacrificial love that God demonstrates for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In a marriage, you will have storge, you will have philia, and you will have eros. Those things are the rightful and righteous fruits of a marriage to be enjoyed, but they are not sufficient to keep a marriage solid. Only agape can do that.

Fortunately, 1 Corinthians gives us a map of agape. That was the description of love you heard earlier in this service. I won’t repeat it now—you’ve heard it many times before—but I do want to point something out. The things that define love in those passages, they are not feelings, they are not descriptions of conditions, and they don’t just occur. Those things that define love in the passage—patience, kindness, not boasting, humility, truthfulness, perseverance—those things are choices.

And that’s what your marriage vows are really about, about the promise between the two of you to continually choose agape, to choose to love one another and to protect and build your relationship, and not just when it’s easy. Especially when it’s not easy.

But remember that you are not alone. The people here before you have given their word that they will be there to help you when choosing love is difficult. And sometimes it will be.

It is my prayer for you that, through the continuous choice to love one another with that divine and unconditional love you will promise to one another in just a moment, the joy and peace that comes from hope, faith and love will be yours always, based in this moment you are about to share and the words you are about to say.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”