Theology

A Psalm of Lament

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How long, O Lord of Love and Life, will you not vindicate your children?

How long must we protect ourselves,

How long must we fight our own battles,

How long must justify our own existence,

How long until You and Your Church call us by Your name?

 

We are the Canaanite woman,

We will continue to cling to our faith

that there are enough crumbs

which fall from the tables of your favored children.

We have been named the bitches,

The little dogs,

But we are still Your little dogs,

And we are still faithful to You.

 

How long until we hear Your praise for the faith

We’ve upheld,

In the face of opposition,

Degradation, Humiliation, Victimization,

Phobias, Hatred, Mockery,

Violence, and Condemnation?

 

We are the persistent widow,

We will not stop our cries for justice,

We will not give up the cause of Love,

We will not rest from our suit

Until You grant us the desire of our hearts:

To be recognized as Your children.

 

How long until You turn and grant our petition

For Love,

For welcome to Your table,

For protection from those

Who spill our blood,

Who defile our names,

Who condemn our souls,

Without ever getting to know us,

Or to recognize You in our faces and hearts?

 

You heard the cries of the Israelites,

Moaning in Egypt.

You heard the despair of Hagar,

Outcast and dying.

You heard the heart of the Eunuch,

Searching for welcome and comfort in Your Word.

 

You sent Peter a vision,

You changed the mind of the Rock of Your Church.

You taught him not to consider anyBody,

Any anthropos,

Unclean, impure,

Unwelcome, outcast,

Or unloved.

 

Send this vision again

To the Rock

Of Your Church.

Change the heart

That has become stone

To flesh.

Teach Your people

To Love

Like You

Love us.

 

**This lament was originally written for a seminary assignment. I post it here in honor of Pride month.

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When Jesus has less authority than the author of 1 Timothy

In a Twitter comment a while back I casually mentioned that Jesus sent out women to preach the Gospel. Soon enough a zealous complementarian (who will be known as “Twitter Bible-dude” moving forward), replied that actually Jesus never established elders or bishops of a local assembly, and that while he waited for me to prove otherwise he was just going to hang out with 1 Timothy 2-3.

This delightfully humble individual was also so kind as to provide me with a hint: “saying ‘go and tell someone something’ is NOT the same as ordaining them as a preacher in a church.”

Ok, you got me, Jesus NEVER ordained women as bishops or elders. He never ordained men as bishops or elders either. I suppose the author of 1 Timothy trumps Jesus because he was careful to be explicit on this point.

Jesus also never gave us fashion advice (what he did say was it is the man’s responsibility to gouge out his eye if it causes him to lust, and yet the same group of people who don’t allow women to preach are constantly telling rape victims they should have dressed more modestly), but the author of 1 Timothy was explicit that “women should adorn themselves … NOT with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,” in other words: no flashy fashion or jewelry (1 Timothy 2:9). I’m willing to bet Twitter Bible-dude fully supports the tradition of diamond engagement rings, which happens to be a modern symbol born from a diamond company’s advertising genius, and has nothing to do with Christian marriage.

O come on! Why does the particular rule “I do not permit,” of one UNKNOWN author, override the actions of Jesus?! (Note: the descriptive phrase “I do not permit” does not equal “women should never,” which would be prescriptive).

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The authorship of 1 Timothy has long been contested by biblical scholars. The long and short of it is this: the likely date of the letter is too late for Paul, the writing style is nothing like Paul’s (despite obvious paraphrasing from the letter known as 2 Timothy, which I believe was written by Paul), and pseudonymous writing was very common in the ancient world. This appears to be the work of an early church leader using the “voice” of Paul to give his letter spiritual authority.

There is a major assumption behind Twitter Bible-dude’s point: if you can find even one verse that when torn from historical and literary context seems to make an explicit command, then your literal interpretation of that verse trumps the s/Spirit of the the whole narrative arc of scripture, and overrules Jesus’ actions.

So much for actions speak louder than words. It’s almost as if Twitter Bible-dude never read the stories where Jesus broke explicit Sabbath law.

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In contrast to the rule of this unknown man, Jesus not only permitted women to teach and preach, he trained them to do so.

Jesus taught Mary along with the other disciples, which was scandalous in Israelite culture (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus sent the woman at the well out to preach to her neighbors (John 4). Jesus sent Mary of Magdala to be the FIRST witness of the resurrection, even though a woman’s word would not hold up under Jewish law as a reliable testimony (Mark 16; Matthew 28; John 20). Jesus included women in the larger group of disciples (Luke 8:2-3). Jesus gave the great commission to make disciples of all nations the that same larger group of apostles (HINT, Twitter Bible-dude: “apostles” literally means “sent ones”), of both men and women (Acts 1:1-14; also, the Greek word often translated in verse 11 as “men” (ἄνδρες), also refers to a mixed group of women and men, just as we say “guys” when talking to a group of girls and guys today).

Clearly, Jesus did not believe being female prevents anyone from preaching the Gospel, and he actively went against Jewish law and cultural custom to send those women out to preach.

Paul also worked alongside women apostles: Priscilla (who taught and even corrected the famous preacher, Apollos, on some theological points – see Acts 18:24-26), the apostle Junia (Roman 16:7), Lydia, leader of a house church in Philippi (Acts 16, Philippians 1), Phoebe the deacon (Romans 16:1), etc.

This is not the same man who writes in 1 Timothy “I do not permit a woman to teach” men. Paul’s actions prove he was not only NOT opposed to female church leadership, but that he encouraged and commended the women who labored for the Gospel alongside himself.

Though Paul makes it clear that there “is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus,” both slavery and women’s equality continued to be issues for the new Church to grapple with (Gal. 3:28). The entire book of the Acts of the Apostles is the story of how Paul, Peter, and the other early apostles began to discern the form of this new covenant with God. They were not all on the same page when it came to including Gentiles, if Gentiles had to be circumcised and follow Torah, whether dietary restrictions still applied, how to worship God as they were being banned from the Temple and synagogues, etc. Clearly the early apostles were also not all on the same page regarding the equality of women.

That this unknown author was not comfortable with the fulfillment of the long-awaited promise that women would prophesy (essentially to speak from divine inspiration), alongside men (Joel 2:28-29 fulfilled in Acts 2:17-18), is neither surprising nor devastating to the authority of the New Testament as a whole. The scriptures are filled with flawed humans who get it wrong frequently, King David being my favorite example of just how messed-up some of the biblical heroes are. Here’s the point: the author of 1 Timothy and his rule do NOT trump Jesus’ actions.

Throwback to my Evangelical upbringing: What would Jesus do? Well, Jesus (and Paul), actively encouraged women to preach and teach the Gospel, he also got mad-as-hell at injustice. Let’s all go and do likewise.

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Theology

In Which JK Rowling Teaches Us to Read the Bible

[This was originally a guest post on Tim Fall’s blog: “Just One Train Wreck After Another,” it has been edited and updated.]

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start (indeed). When you read you begin with A B C, yes? Yes, but it is not a simple step from learning an alphabet to advanced reading comprehension, not even in one’s first language. Children learning “the quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” must have some concept of foxes and dogs, not just know their letters, to understand the basic statement this pangram is making.

Before a child can move from Little Golden Books about pokey little puppies to the Harry Potter series, she must also learn about the society in which she lives; if she is not British, then a touch of information about that society would help. She must know about school, trains, bullies, good versus evil, and how chocolate makes one feel.

She must also have a very elementary grasp of genre: the Harry Potter books are not textbooks on how to become a wizard, they are fiction meant to entertain. It is also meant to encourage young minds to think deeply about things like love, honor, courage, fear, anger, selflessness, friendship, etc. Yet she does not need to be aware of this effect on her to properly read the series.

This all may seem quite obvious, but these truths are often taken for granted, especially when it comes to reading the Bible.

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I am not saying the only way a person can properly read and understand the Bible is to first learn Hebrew and Greek, and then take seminary courses on ancient Israelite society, Greco-Roman society, and historical/literary methods of analyzing scripture (although I do highly recommend this). I am pointing out that comprehension of whatever one reads first requires basic knowledge of the society/culture in and/or for whom it was written, as well as the intended genre. Interpretation comes next.

As I said above, a child can properly enjoy the Harry Potter series without ever realizing that JK Rowling is simultaneously teaching her about life, love, and friendship. Adults tend to pick up on those lessons in fiction, but they do not confuse fiction that teaches truth with a text that teaches fact (at least, not if they understand how genre works).

Furthermore, not all adults agree with JK Rowling’s perspective. Both the author and the reader see with their own metaphorical set of cultural and personal lenses which tint how they understand what is written and read. Many people have had such awful experiences with forms of witchcraft in the real world that they resent Rowling for using magic to delight young minds in her quest to tell a story which actually has nothing to do with magic.

In the Harry Potter series the existence of magic is merely a literary device. The books are not meant to be propaganda for the pursuit of magic in the real world. The magical context allows Rowling to take what is so familiar as to be taken for granted and cast it in a fresh light, to make the reader see in fiction what she has become blind to in her daily life: the very fabric of our society, our cultural expressions, the framework of our political philosophies, etc.

IMG_1386This is true of all fantasy and science fiction works (I highly recommend reading the introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). Hermione’s fight for the freedom and dignity of house elves is nothing less than a fight for civil rights. Children who read learn empathy, and children who become empathetic to house elves and Hermione will grow into adults who stand for the civil rights of disenfranchised groups in real life.

Magic is not the point, love is.

If we read these books “literally,” then everything gets confused. Likewise, if we disregard genre and context when reading the Bible, then we easily confuse metaphor with literalism, poetic truth with scientific fact, or descriptive statements with prescriptive, universal commands.

Much of Jesus’ teaching is focused on correcting misinterpretations of Israel’s scriptures, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”, etc., because #badtheologykills. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus criticizes Israel for killing the prophets sent before him (Luke 11:45-52). He, too, is killed because Israel fails to recognize him. His entire conversation with the men on the road to Emmaus is one long lesson in scriptural interpretation.

In the Acts of the Apostles (aka the Gospel of Luke, vol. 2), Peter calls Jesus “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22). The Israelites were expected by God to use their reason and experience with Jesus to help them understand the holy scriptures and ancient traditions which had been passed down to them. They ignored that his healings and other miracles were all obviously good works of God, and instead accused him of conspiring with the devil because they read that it is a sin to do work on the Sabbath, it is unclean to touch a leper, etc., and so they killed him.

Next time someone says personal experience is not a valid lens through which to interpret scripture, I would remind them that 1) it is impossible to be purely objective, and 2) God expects us to pay attention to what we experience (like God working through women preachers, or God using a LGBT Christian to be a neighbor/Good Samaritan to her fundamentalist coworker), in order to help us better interpret scripture.

(See Acts 10 for a precedent-setting example of using experience to change our minds on a theological point: Peter has a vision from God instructing him to “not call profane, what God has made clean.” Peter then preaches to the Gentile, Cornelius, and his household, who all receive the Holy Spirit. Peter’s experience of the vision together with witnessing the Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit leads to the inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 15).

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If I had to choose the most valuable lesson from my undergraduate studies in literature, and my graduate studies in theology, it would be the importance of knowing how to read, and learning to be self aware as I am reading.

The Christians who tend to be slower to quarrel with those of differing theological perspectives are those who recognize the poverty of their own “knowledge” about God. Those most fiercely committed to their theological views are more likely to equate themselves being potentially wrong with the truth in scripture being potentially false. Their love and devotion to God and “the w/Word” are genuine, but their inability to distinguish between their limited comprehension of the scriptures and the mystery of God’s will for the scriptures is where the real theological problems are bred.

We all do this to some extent. The more careful we are to balance socio-historical analysis with literary analysis as we seek to interpret scripture, the less resistant we will be to recognizing our own potential mistakes, and the more gracious we can be to one another.

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