Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Man as "Prophet, Priest and King" of Wife & Children

The teaching that a man is the "prophet, priest and king" of his home isn't new.  I've certainly heard it before.  In fact, the fundamentalist website National Center for Family-Integrated Churches recently reprinted a piece written in the 1600s by a Puritan named William Gurnall.  Here's a sample:
Every father hath the care of souls upon him. He is prophet, king, and priest in his own house, and from these will appear his duty. . . How comes it to pass that many...children, when they come to be themselves heads of families, are so unable to be their relations’ mouth to God in prayer, but because they have in their [childhood] lived in prayerless families and were kept in ignorance of this duty...?
In those times, of course, it was simply assumed by society at large that men were to be in authority over their wives and families, so Gurnall quotes a number of Old Testament passages about the Biblical authority roles of prophet, king and priest, and applies them to husbands and fathers.  I disagree, of course, with Gurnall's interpretation, but it isn't a particularly surprising one.  The ancient authority positions of prophet, priest and king were held in the Bible by numerous human beings.  Since male heads of families were also in authority positions, Bible passages about the roles and duties of such authorities would naturally be applied to them.  However, I might point out that Elizabeth I was Queen of England from 1588 to 1603, and Gurnall lived from 1616 to 1679.  He would not have been unfamiliar with the concept of women sometimes fulfilling authority positions, and he would probably have admitted that some of the Old Testament prophets were in fact female, and that at least one, Huldah, was treated as a voice of authority by an Old Testament king.

In fact, Gurnall's quote above uses the word "children" and not "sons" as those who can come to be heads of families, probably recognizing that in his time (the 17th century), some women were indeed heads of their households.  Gurnall does, however, focus on fathers as "prophets, priests and kings," and though I think Jesus actually taught something quite different about Christians and cultural authority, Gurnall's words are at least understandable in his social context.

Recently, though, I learned that a disturbing new trend is placing a very troubling contemporary twist on this notion.  A Sampling of Prophet/Priest/King Teaching by the Christian Patriarchal Watch List provides a number of links and quotes exposing this new trend.

Here's an example from Charisma Magazine:
Some men think Christ is Jesus’ last name. Of course, Christ is not a name but a title for Jesus that means “Messiah” or “anointed one.” Jesus loved the church—His family—as its Christ, or anointed one. Since husbands are to love their wives in the same way as the anointed one loves His family, they need to know exactly what Jesus was anointed to do. In the New Testament, as we shall see, husbands become anointed ones.[Emphasis added.]

In theology, Christ occupies the classic threefold office of prophet, priest and king. Let’s explore how this relates to you. 
Notice what is happening here.  The authority positions of prophet, priest and king, as held by various individuals in the Old Testament, are indeed brought together spiritually in the Person of Christ in the New Testament.  But before Christ, no two of these positions were held in the Bible by the same human being.  Certain men of the Levite tribe were priests, but there is no record of one of them ever becoming a prophet.  The line of anointed kings came from David, of the tribe of Judah, so the kings were not priests and the priests were not kings. Prophets came from various tribes but were not priests or kings.

God apparently thought it best not to concentrate too much authority or power in the hands of one person-- except in the Person of His divine Son.  Christ is the "anointed one" or "Messiah" precisely because He is not merely human, but "the Word become flesh" (John 1:14).  However, this concept of separation of powers did not carry through into the Christendom of the 17th-century West, where kings ruled by divine right and the monarch of England was also the ruler of England's Church. Gurnall thus sees no reason not to combine all three authoritative roles in the person of a male head of household. However, as I have understood this traditional teaching, it has not gone so far as to equate male headship authority with the divine anointing of Jesus Christ.

Until now.

Here's an excerpt from Rob Flood over at Family Life:
It has been widely accepted that Christ's activity on behalf of the church can be summarized in these three functional titles: Prophet, Priest and King. A brief look at each will give us keen insight into our role as husbands. 
Christ as Prophet: A prophet is someone who brings forth the Word of God to mankind. He is responsible for accurately discerning what God is saying and communicating that to others. Christ performed this prophetic role perfectly in two ways. First, He accurately spoke and taught the Word and words of God to others. Second, He was the actual expression of God and the Word made flesh. 
The Husband as Prophet: We have the amazing privilege of bringing forth the Word of God to our wives. While this might involve some actual Bible-teaching time, we need to see the various other forms this should take. We can proclaim His Word and His will as we counsel our wives, as we make family decisions and as we plan for our family's future. The common ingredient in all of its forms is God's Word. Without the Word of God, a prophet has nothing to say; his words are empty and meaningless. 
In addition to bringing forth the Word in our actions, we too must personify the Word made flesh in us. We must model the truth we are teaching. We must personify what we desire our wives and our marriages to become. Without personally living the truth we proclaim, we can expect no higher praise from Christ than the Pharisees received. (Matthew 23:2-4) 
Christ as Priest: A priest is an intercessor: someone who seeks God on behalf of someone else. As Priest, Jesus is constantly seeking God on our behalf. Through Him, we are made holy, righteous, and acceptable to God. Yet, this Priest is different from all others in that He did not sacrifice a lamb, dove, or bull. This Priest sacrificed Himself on our behalf. 
The Husband as Priest: As we love our wives, we must serve as priest. Our wives and marriages need prayer. We have the privilege and duty of petitioning God on their behalf. We should pray for their purity, their protection, their joy, their faith, and their burdens. We should pray for their success as a wife, as a mother, and as a woman of God. 
We must again follow Christ's example and allow our priestly sacrifice to be our very selves. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus looked past His own sacrifice to the joy that would occur on the other side. With that in mind, look at all that your wife could become. Consider what God might want to do with her, in her, and through her. And, for that joy set before you, willingly endure when you are called to sacrifice yourself. In so doing, you will love your wife as Christ loves His church. 
Christ as King: A king is someone who is supreme or preeminent. As our King, Christ deserves our honor, our praise, our obedience, and our servitude. He is in charge … the undisputed leader of the church. Paul speaks many times of Jesus as the head of the church. Yet, while this King rules and reigns, He also serves and ministers to His people. His rule is peculiar in that He models leadership by serving. He says that the greatest among His people will be those who serve. He also is an accessible King. In many courts throughout history, subjects were never permitted to be in the presence of their king. King Jesus invites us in; He leaves open the door to His throne room. 
The Husband as King: Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear; the husband is the head of the wife. In essence, kingship undeniably belongs to the husband. As we embrace that, we as husbands must lead. We must lead clearly and boldly. We must be out there on the edge looking to the provision and the protection of our kingdom. To do less is to fall short of our calling to headship. The privilege is ours to rule our home. 
However, we are not called simply to take our crowns and dominate our wives. We must rule as Christ rules … with humility. He modeled precisely how He wants us to love our wives. As our King, Christ knelt and washed the feet of His disciples. We must follow His example and serve. Lead boldly, yet serve. Never let the brawn of your leadership outweigh the sacrifice of your leadership. Christ kept them in perfect balance; that is our calling as well.
I applaud the article's insistence that husbands should serve and not dominate their wives-- but what this article is doing is turning husbands into little Christs in their homes.  Men are essentially being told to stand in the place of Jesus to their wives and children, setting themselves between them and God as an intermediary, exercising Christ's spiritual authority over them, and "personifying the Word made flesh" to them.

I believe the New Testament does teach that followers of Jesus are a "kingdom of priests" (1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 5:10), but that applies to women and men alike, and there is no New Testament passage that says one group of Christ's followers has the right to claim Christ's own anointing to take authority over others of Christ's followers.  There is a real problem with taking one verse out of Ephesians 5, "The husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church," and reading that as if it meant, "the husband is everything to the wife that Christ is to the church."  As K. Bonikowsky's blog The Happy Surprise points out:
I think we all agree that husbands do not literally become Christ. Husbands do not literally atone for their wives’ sin. Husbands are not the voice of God to their wives. Husbands do not have absolute authority over their wives’ lives. How do we know this? Because of clear passages elsewhere. 
Since Acts 4:12 shows Peter and John proclaiming, "Salvation is found in no one else [but Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved," orthodox Christianity does not allow that husbands can be the saviors of their wives, even though Ephesians 5:23 actually says "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior [emphasis added]." So the very wording of the passage itself shows that we cannot read it as meaning "the husband is everything to the wife that Christ is to the church."

As I have shown in detail elsewhere, I believe that Christ's role as "head" of the church would have been understood by the original biblical audience as a limited and very specific relationship, not a generalized statement of power and authority (for though Christ does have power and authority over the church, Christ's role as "head" is not about that):
“Head” of the church, therefore, would simply not have been seen by the original Ephesians readers as synonymous with “Lord” of the church. Neither would “head” of the wife have meant “lord” of the wife. Though Christ certainly is Lord of the church, He is also Savior, redeemer, sanctifier, recipient of worship, and Master of the church. But Paul deliberately limits husband’s role towards the wife, to being the “head.” Husbands are not to appropriate to themselves any of Christ’s other roles, or seek to become as Christ to their wives. This would be idolatry, and to the extent churches today encourage married couples in such a practice, they are teaching idolatry. . .
A pater familias, accustomed to a high and prominent position, and keeping Chapter 1 in mind as he read on through Chapter 5, would have understood that as “head” in Chapter 5, he was expected to “give himself” for his wife as Christ did for the church, with the result that the church was raised up to be glorious (Eph 5:25-27). Laying down his prominence of place in regards to his wife, and raising his wife up to be beside him in oneness, and exercising his social position on her behalf and for her good, is part of what it meant for a husband to be “head” to his wife as ‘body” in Ephesians 5.
The other place where the head-body metaphor is used for Christ and the church is in Chapter 4. Here Paul says, “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together. . . maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” Here the “head” is clearly seen as the source of growth and energy for the “body.” A pater familias, keeping this in mind as he read Chapter 5, would understand that as “head” in this sense, he was to “nourish and cherish” his wife as his own body (Eph 5:29).

But nothing about “leading” or “having authority over” the church or the wife is mentioned as part of the “head to body” relationship anywhere in the Epistle to the Ephesians. Nowhere is Christ as “head“ spoken of in terms of “leading” or “ruling” the church. Nowhere is the husband told to “lead” his wife or “rule” his household. And to the original audience, which was expecting to hear such words, the absence of any such words would have shouted.
The fact is that even though Christ is in a position of divine authority over the church, and even though husbands in ancient Ephesus were also in a position of earthly authority over their wives, the Ephesians 5 passage is primarily about husbands imitating Christ in laying down power and authority, not in stepping into Christ's own anointing and using that to exercise even greater power.  Jesus told His followers in Luke 22:25-27 and Matthew 20:25-27 that following Him simply wasn't about who got to be in charge.  Though Jesus did in fact have the right to claim ultimate authority, He instead laid it down and took the place of a servant, and that is what we are to imitate.

And yet looking at the "husband as prophet, priest and king" teachings being promulgated today, very little attention is paid to Christ's teachings, in the scramble to grab Christ's power:
Jesus was a prophet who spoke the Word of God to the people and was, in fact, the Word incarnate. A prophet speaks for God. 
A husband is to be the family prophet. He represents God to his wife (and, by extension, his family, the fruit of their union). When his wife reacts emotionally, he calms her with God's wisdom. He proclaims the gospel of faith to his family. He provides biblical instruction and training to his wife and children without becoming legalistic. He prepares family devotions and encourages private devotions. He is the arbiter of family values. He insists on regular church attendance. He is a messenger from God to his family.
Husbands are to be the anointed spiritual leaders of their wives. God has anointed you to lead your wife as her prophet, priest and king. Because of the fall, your wife, according to Genesis 3:16, has a desire for you that is best rendered "a desire that borders on disease."
Charisma Magazine: Exploring a Husband's Role as Prophet, Priest and King by Patrick Morley
A husband can stand on the shoulders of others as he fulfills his prophetic responsibility to declare the truth of the Scriptures to his wife. He confronts sin and calls his wife to repentance . . . First, confronting sin and calling a wife to repentance may rock the domestic boat. A husband may decide he doesn't want to incur his wife's wrath. But he needs to obey God's call regardless of how his wife will respond. He may also fail to confront his wife ' s sin because he has a soft view of what it means to love her. Pointing out sin seems harsh and judgmental, not loving. But our example here is Christ, who loves us too much to overlook our sin. The same Prophet who wept over Jerusalem, pronouncing judgment on Israel, comes to us today by His Holy Spirit to convict us of our sin and to lead us to righteousness. If we begin to understand the consequences of sin for ourselves and for future generations, we will not think it loving to ignore or overlook our wives ' ongoing patterns of sinful behavior. 
Dennis Rainey, "Building Strong Families," quoted on the Patriarchal Watch List
Notice the complete lack of reciprocity here. The husband is the sole arbiter of family values, and he alone is treated as capable of teaching, training or proclaiming the gospel, while his wife (who, we would hope, is an adult with some understanding of her own faith) is mentioned only in terms of receiving his teaching and being "calmed" when she gets "emotional." She needs her husband to represent her before God, raising the question of whether she is allowed her own access to God through Christ, despite 2 Timothy 2:5.  Her "desire for her husband" according to Genesis 3:16 is interpreted in the most demeaning way possible, from a 19th-century male-written commentary.

And even though Matthew 18:15 shows that any Christian can take a Christian brother aside and point out sin to them, husbands are here given a special dispensation to point out sin in their wives in the same way Christ pronounced judgment on Jerusalem, while themselves appearing to need no such admonition.

The Patriarchal Watch List also has on the same page a screen shot of this illuminating list:
A Man as Intercessor in Prayer
A Man as Director of Religious Worship
A Man as Mediator of Divine Blessing
A Man as Instructor in Sacred Scripture
A Man as Judge in Holy Things
Hmm.  Apparently a scrotum is a miraculous organ which renders its bearer nearly divine, while lacking it turns his fellow human being into a creature nearly incapable of grasping spiritual things or approaching God.

Look.  I don't like to have to say something as harsh as this, but sometimes the truth has to be presented unvarnished.  While degrading the image of God in female humanity, this pernicious teaching essentially removes Jesus from the lives of a woman and her children and replaces Him with the husband-father as Christ to them. Put bluntly, it is nothing short of blasphemy, and needs to be addressed as such.

On its home page the Christian PatriarchalWatch List asks these highly pertinent questions:
Many of the ideas espoused by these groups are in fact "Biblical", i.e. verses can be strung together without regard to cultural context or the larger trajectory of Scripture to advocate a return to the highly patriarchal, highly stratified, master/subject social norms of the ancient world that Jesus transcended and began to transform. Is this really the timeless, universal ideal, the highest and the best way to read our Bibles? In a world where religious extremism is using women's bodies and souls as its battleground, is this really what we want to be the face of Christ in our world? Is this hierarchical vision of how we are to relate across the gender line what we want for our daughters and our sons? WWJD? What would Jesus Do? That is a good spell test. Would he re-create a hierarchical social structure from the Old Testament? Would he advocate raising boys to grow up to have such an exalted status as kings/priests with such unilateral authority and power and girls to serve them? Or would he chide us, as he did his disciples who jockeyed for a place of preeminence at his right and left hand? [Emphasis in original]
Husbands and fathers are not divinely anointed with Christ's threefold authority as Prophet, Priest and King! Husbands and fathers are our fellow human beings, made in the image of God but finite and fallen. In Matthew 23:9-11, Jesus said this:
Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
Brothers, please-- stop exalting yourselves. Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think (Romans 12:3). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said,
“Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.”
In the long run this human appropriation of what belongs only to Christ cannot stand, but is destined to fail.  I suggest we all get back on shore before the ship sinks.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Close Look at a Complementarian Argument

Complementarianism and the Local Church is an article by Jonathan Leeman on the 9 Marks website, which is a conservative evangelical site dedicated to "help[ing] pastors, future pastors, and church members see what a biblical church looks like, and to take practical steps for becoming one."  The site has published a series of articles on male headship, and the arguments are pretty much the same ones my various blog posts have rebutted though the last several years.  But this one, which seems to be an introduction to its male headship series, was brought to my attention on another blog, and I'd like to take a closer look at what it's actually saying and the implications of its reasoning. The basic subject is what's wrong with egalitarianism-- so this is my egalitarian rebuttal. 

I'll present it section by section, followed by my thoughts.
The issue of gender roles in the church and home is not one of the nine marks. Nonetheless, we thought it would be useful to spend an issue of the 9Marks Journal exploring the pastoral significance of complementarianism. Complementarianism teaches that God created men and women equal in worth and dignity and yet he assigned them different roles in the church and home. Its counterpoint, egalitarianism, argues that you can only say men and women are equal in worth if you let both assume equal leadership in church or home.
It's nice that he identifies complementarianism (male headship in the church and home) as not being one of the essentials that 9 Marks focuses on in church life.  There are some groups that consider complementarianism part of the gospel itself, and question the Christianity of those who don't agree-- but Leeman doesn't go that far.  Also, the basic definition of egalitarianism above, at least doesn't set it up as a flimsy strawman position. I would add the caveat, however, that there is one way you can say men and women are equal in worth but still restrict women from equal leadership-- if you fall back on God's plan to do this to women as something mysterious that cannot be questioned.  As I said in another blog post:
Either women are not equal to men, because God created them with a certain lack of authority over themselves, or ability to lead others, that men do not lack. And this lack is intrinsic to womanhood, while any lack a particular man may have in the area of leadership, is simply an individual characteristic, not intrinsic to his manhood. This makes women, in their essence as women, inferior to men.
Or women are equal to men, but God simply decided that women, because they are women, despite lacking nothing that He gave men for authority over themselves or leadership of others, may not use that authority or leadership. In other words, they are to be under male authority even though God did not design them or create them to be suited for being under male authority. This makes God, in His essence, arbitrary and unjust. He makes rules without good reasons.
The gist of Leeman's argument, however, takes a third path.  He argues that having authority is not actually any different than being under authority, and he does this by seemingly redefining authority. But before he gets there, he offers the basic argument that egalitarians are capitulating to worldly thinking rather than being submissive to the plain teaching of the Bible:
Egalitarianism possesses an obvious appeal in an individualistic age. Like the immigrant parent who abandoned the Old World with its castes or its aristocracies, egalitarianism looks affirmingly into the eyes of the little boy and the little girl and offers that quintessential American promise: “You can be anything you want to be.” Boundaries are gone. Ceilings have collapsed. God has given everyone certain talents. The game now is self-discovery and self-realization. Faithfulness requires us to discover and employ all our God-given potentialities. Like Madeline who says “Pooh pooh” to the tigers at the zoo, egalitarianism’s brave maxim is to one’s own self be true. 
Egalitarianism depends upon the worldview of individualism. That doesn’t mean egalitarians are all self-centered. It means that individual desires and talents trump any class or category considerations. So the rule-makers should never keep anyone belonging to the class of “female” from being whatever she wants to be. And complementarians, admittedly, limit what members of this class can be in the home and church. Based on the egalitarian’s sense of justice, this is irrational. It is 2+2=5. Complementarianism is not just a different perspective, it defies an egalitarian’s basic assumptions about what it means to be human and is therefore dangerous. How many of history’s grand exploitations and terrors have rooted in the systemic prejudice of one group over another! 
As such, the emotions and the rhetoric run hot, as they always do in political contests where the two sides appear irrational to one another. Why? Because our rationalities always derive from our gods. Or rather, what you take to be “most reasonable” or “most rational” is your god. A god cannot be questioned. A god is the unmoved mover. A god is the word or logic who cannot be overruled. Emotions boil hot because one’s gods hold one’s universe together and gives it meaning, so we go to battle for them. 
Precisely here, then, is where the complementarian, in all of his or her worldly folly, leans in toward the egalitarian and warns, “Be careful you are not serving an idol, at least in this one area of your doctrine. You’ll have a pretty good idea that you are if, in spite of the plain teaching of the text, you’ll find some justification for re-interpreting it because your sense of justice can imagine it no other way.”
Let's examine this more closely.  Egalitarians are wrong because of "individualism."  And Leeman defines individualism in terms of individual desires and talents taking precedence over classes and categories of humans.  The Bible, apparently, is not plagued by this problem of individualism.  This would mean that New Testament doctrines are primarily meant to focus on our identity as members of categories and classes.  This raises several questions, however.

Why do Jesus and the Apostles put such emphasis on the necessity of following Christ, trusting Christ, obeying Christ as an individual person?  Why didn't they simply preach to the leaders of the groups they were seeking to convert? Jesus could have talked to the heads of the synagogues in each town, gotten them to agree with His teachings, and then left them to instruct their congregations. Paul could have sought out the governors or the priests operating in Athens, in Corinth, in Rome.  The leaders, once converted, could then have ordered their people to report for mass baptism.

But it didn't work that way.  In fact, many (if not most) analyses of individualism agree that Christianity has historically been a major contributor to that philosophy. As says:
Christianity contributed doctrines of the freedom of the will and personal salvation that added a further dimension to human individuality. Created as equal persons in God's image, human beings enjoy inherent dignity by virtue of the divine flame that burns within their souls. Christian moral teaching replaced status, race, gender, occupation, and all other markers of social difference with one's individual orientation toward God as the determinant of the ultimate disposition of one's soul. While Judaism had conveyed some overtones of personal salvation, the dominant relation with God was conditioned by the divine covenant with the Jewish people as a whole. In contrast, Jesus' message was directed to all people who were open to his words and treated them as individuals capable of receiving divine grace and blessing. Every person, as one of God's created, could, through individual effort and renunciation of worldly concerns, render him-or herself worthy for salvation. [Emphasis added.]
In fact, the idea of personal, individual salvation is one of the distinguishing marks of evangelicalism, and particularly of conservative evangelicalism-- to the point where it has been indicted for its emphasis on personal, individual sin and atonement while tending to ignore many systemic, social evils.  So the real issue seems to be not individualism, but a certain aspect of individualism. Should the focus on the individual apply only to personal salvation? Or should the value of the human individual mean that systemic injustices against individuals because they are part of a restricted group should be abolished? In other words, does the gospel apply only to our spiritual state before God-- or is it meant to "set the captives free" (Luke 4:18) in our earthly lives too?

A while back I wrote What Galatians 3:28 Cannot Mean, which rebuts the idea that when Paul said that in Christ the category and class distinctions of Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female no longer applied, he meant to separate our spiritual state from our earthly lives so that Gal. 3:28 only applies to spiritual salvation.  Yet that is the main idea, really, that Leeman's argument is espousing.  Any application of Galatians 3:28 to earthly, human classes and categories, so that women are set free of restrictions that apply to them as a class in their churches and homes, is "individualistic" and thus worldly and wrong.   However, individualism in spiritual salvation is wholly embraced by evangelicals, and is in fact central to the "Marks" of Gospel and Evangelism in Leeman's own 9 Marks of a Healthy Church.

I would contend that the problem American Christians face is not individualism per se, but the sacred/secular split that spiritualizes the value of the individual and sees life almost exclusively in terms of personal sin and righteousness while ignoring or even condoning the unjust treatment of people as members of categories and classes.

The final paragraph in Leeman's argument above includes this warning: “Be careful you are not serving an idol, at least in this one area of your doctrine. You’ll have a pretty good idea that you are if, in spite of the plain teaching of the text, you’ll find some justification for re-interpreting it because your sense of justice can imagine it no other way.”

Taking a stand on the "plain teaching of the text" and accusing of idolatry those who disagree about how "plain" it is, seems to me to be a kind of spiritual bullying.  It invokes the authority of God as a weapon to make sure the writer gets his way on what a particular proof-text means.  As Zach Hunt puts it in his blog post Why Proof-Texting is Not Like Other Sins:
This sort of proof-texting – ripping a Bible verse out of context to prove a point – is the traditional weapon of choice in fundamentalism because it allows the soldier who wields it to destroy his or her enemy with a single verse while claiming the impenetrable high ground of clear Biblical authority.
There is, in fact, a principle of interpretation that evangelicals (including, I'm sure, Leeman himself) use all the time:  If a particular verse, read at face value, appears to contradict a number of other verses, and especially if it appears to contradict the big-picture meanings of the texts considered together, the particular verse must be re-examined. 

Consider, for instance, this individual text:
She will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:15)
The plain sense of this verse is that women are saved through having babies, if they combine it with faith, love and holiness.  But complementarians such as Kim Ransleben on the Desiring God Blog re-interpret the text to be about the sanctification of women, not their salvation-- presumably because their sense of justice can imagine it no other way than that women, just like men, are saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone.  Applying Leeman's own litmus test to this, re-reading the text in this way is idolatry, plain and simple. And yet an "idolatry" that clings to the overarching message of the gospel over the supposedly plain text of an individual verse, hardly seems unfaithful to God.

So I would say that the problem is not in re-examining a verse that places women as a class, under the authority of men as a class, in light of the gospel message that we are all one in Christ Jesus.  The problem is in bullying other Christians with threats of God's displeasure if they dare to re-examine what you, a fellow human being, have decided is "plain."

The next section of Leeman's article goes like this:
Complementarians imagine a different kind of home and church than egalitarians. They are just as acquainted with authority fallen, but they can better imagine authority redeemed. They know that being in authority is no better than being under authority, because both are assignments given by God for the sake of serving him and his praise. They know that redeemed authority creates, enlivens, and empowers, and it’s a shade short of silly to argue over who gets to empower and who gets to be empowered in God’s kingdom. In fact, if there is an advantage to be had, it doesn't belong to the person called to lay down his life, it belongs to the person who receives life because the first person lays his down. 
The calculations of justice change just a bit in a kingdom where the king gives his life as a ransom for many; where he calls all of his citizens to surrender their lives so that they might gain them; and where he calls out a class of his citizens to specially demonstrate this self-sacrifice. Is there any “advantage” to climbing upon a cross? Not by any of this world’s tape measures. 
The trouble with egalitarianism is that it continues to measure “advantage” and “authority” and “over/under” with the tape measures of this fallen world. It’s stuck believing that, even if there are occasional advantages to being under authority for training purposes, in the final analysis it is always better to be over. Like the mother of the sons of Zebedee, egalitarianism asks Jesus,

Can my son sit at your right hand, while my daughter sits at your left, when you enter your kingdom?

And Jesus replies,

Ah, my child, you still do not understand how authority works in my kingdom, but are thinking about it like the Gentiles do, where authority is always used to lord it over others, not to give your life as a ransom (see Matt. 20:20-28). 
The true danger is that of believing it’s always better to be over. If that were true, its logic would apply to God. Happiness will finally elude us until we are over God, as someone intimated a very long time ago. And so we return to the caution against idolatry, which rests behind all the debates over gender and sexuality hermeneutics. What do the horrors of history really root in? They root in that one moment when all the authority in the universe was turned upside down because a man and a woman believed they could be “like God.” [Emphases in original.]
Here is where Leeman appears to redefine authority (but without actually succeeding in doing so). He says, truly enough, that the New Testament calls those in authority, and particularly husbands in Ephesians 5 (remember that in first-century Ephesus men culturally already had this authority), to lay down their lives, to self-sacrifice, and to raise up those under them.  But what he seems to lose track of is that what this actually involves, as described in Ephesians 5, is a surrender of the authority itself. When Jesus allowed Himself to be captured by the Roman authorities and nailed to a cross as a criminal, He was in that act letting go ("emptying Himself") of all His power and authority (see Philippians 2:5-8).  It's true that God restored Christ's authority to Him afterwards-- but the text of Ephesians 5 does not tell husbands to imitate Christ in the re-assumption of authority, but only in laying it down.

Also, in Matthew 23:11 Jesus did not say, "the greatest among you shall become your servant-leader." He said, "The greatest among you shall be your servant."  If Leeman believes that those in authority are to empower those under them, the best way to empower someone is to raise them out of subordination to be your equal, not to keep them in subordination to you.  Leeman glosses over the subordination of the one under authority, as if it no longer existed in a Christian concept of authority. But if the subordination no longer exists, then in what sense does the authority even exist?  Authority cannot simply be redefined so it no longer means authority-- and indeed, his emphasis on the danger of wanting to be "over God" makes it clear that this is not what Leeman really means.  To Leeman, a wife desiring to be equal in authority to her husband is the same sort of thing as wanting to usurp and depose God.  Christians who believe Jesus taught that the family of God consists of equal brothers and sisters, all under one Father and one Elder Brother who are the sole authorities,* are idolators in Leeman's book.

But if "redeemed authority" is still hierarchical human authority, and those under it are still under it, then there is a real difference, and the one in authority is superior in power and agency to the subordinate.  That is simply what the words mean, and glossing over those meanings doesn't make them go away.

Leeman's article concludes like this:
I understand that I’m making strong charges. And I hardly mean to indict Christians who hold to egalitarianism with wholesale idolatry. I do mean to indict aspects of egalitarianism as rooted in the gods of this world and the gods of the West in particular. It should not be surprising, therefore, to hear conservative voices characterize egalitarianism as the hermeneutical gateway drug to affirming same-sex marriage, or, ironically, to hear homosexuality-affirming liberal voices agree. Nor is it surprising that the egalitarian PCUSA should decide to affirm gay marriage, or that many of the evangelicals churches coming out now for gay marriage were egalitarian years ago. The same god who prioritizes the self-defining individual over and above 2000-years of Bible reading stands behind both positions. The same god whispers to both kinds of readers, “Surely the text couldn’t mean that. That would be unjust!” But who is defining justice here? Thomas Jefferson? Betty Friedan? Lady Gaga? 
Gender roles do not belong to the nine marks, as I said, but we believe they are critical to a church’s submission to Scripture and therefore its health. Fuller defenses of the position can be found at, which is run by Owen Strachan, who helped to compile the articles in this Journal. What you’ll find here are a number of pieces that examine the topic from different angles in the life of the church and church member. We pray they are beneficial.
Egalitarianism, he says, is rooted in idolatry, and embracing complementarian gender roles is crucial to fully obeying the Bible.  He throws in a version of the slippery slope argument (that if a Christian ceases to believe the doctrine of complementarianism, he or she will soon slip into worse errors like *gasp!* affirming same-sex marriage).  He tosses in the "this is what we've believed for 2000 years" argument, and implies that non-Christians couldn't possibly have any real idea of what justice means.

There is a problem with each of these arguments. First, as to the slippery slope argument: there was an article in the Atlantic last week on How Christians Turned Against Gay Conversion Therapy.  The fact is that whether we like it or not, we Christians are having to face the evidence that being attracted to the same sex is not something that can be cured or repented of.  This being true, we must rethink our approach towards people who, through no fault or choice of their own, want to marry someone of the same sex-- and many of these people trust in the same Christ we do.  In light of these facts, it makes sense to re-examine the proof-texts we've relied on in this matter.  After all, once the medieval church faced the fact that the earth did indeed revolve around the sun and not the other way around, it found that the proof-texts it had used against Galileo really could be read differently.

Perhaps what's going on is not that in rethinking these things, we're falling down a slippery slope. Perhaps what's really going on is that we're climbing a gradual ascent towards more compassion, acceptance and love towards people who aren't like ourselves.

Edited to add:  That said, the scriptures that have been used to restrict gender roles are of a different nature than those used to condemn gay marriage, and there is no reason to believe that changing one's mind about the restriction of women, necessarily implies changing one's mind about this other issue. Many egalitarians remain strongly against gay marriage.

Second, with regards to "2000 years of church tradition" -- for one thing, the complementarian position does not actually reflect 2000 years of church tradition. Complementarianism teaches that men and women are equal, but different in roles, while church tradition until recent times held that women were simply inferior.  In any event, evangelicalism is usually quite ready to admit that church tradition can be, and often is, mistaken.  Evangelicals long ago rejected the longstanding church traditions of the authority of the pope, of infant baptism, and of transubstantiation (that the communion elements become the actual body and blood of Christ).  Evangelicals only bring out the argument from tradition when tradition happens to support what they believe.

Finally, I disagree that giving women the freedom to lead** in their churches and homes is a "worldly" idea of justice.  As I detailed above, if women are not subordinated because they are inferior by nature, then their subordination is arbitrary and without reason-- and it is in clear violation of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," which is the ethic taught by our Lord Himself. Who would want to be consigned to a permanent subordinate status based on a purely arbitrary exclusion of one or more of his or her categories or classes of personhood?  And if we would not want it done to ourselves, we should not do it to others.

Also, non-believers are just as capable as believers of understanding "do unto others."  Jesus didn't mean it to be rocket science!  In fact, the fundamental knowledge that subordinating women is against "do unto others" is one of the big things that is keeping many non-believers from even considering Christianity.  They too are made in the image of God: they have a basic knowledge of what love is and what justice is, and they can see that some of the rules we Christians claim are from God, are neither loving nor just.

So I think I'll pass on accepting Leeman's indictment of worldliness and idolatry. And if what I consider most reasonable and most rational is my god, then I will proudly agree that my God is indeed reasonable and rational, not arbitrary, but loving and just.


*My extensive study of the issue of authority in the Bible can be viewed herehere and here.

** I continue to draw a distinction between "authority," the power or right to be the leader, and simply leading, which can be done by any person or group of persons at any time if they have the skills and inclination for a particular season or role of leadership.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Repost: Happy Easter!

It was in church on Easter Sunday in 1979 that the 15-year-old me, in the middle of the singing of "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," lifted my eyes to heaven and whispered, "Ok, God, I'll trust You."  Today I'm going to let Peter Marshall, 1950's Chaplain of the US Senate, be my "guest blogger" to help me express what Easter became for me on that day: the day I first let my own life's story become caught up in the Great Story of the gospel, which Dr. Marshall retold so often and so well.  So here is a section I have abridged from perhaps his most famous sermon.


Three years before, the Master had called them to become fishers of men.  Now that His fame had died away, they would once more become fishers of fish.

Their King crucified like a criminal.  Their Messiah ending up-- not on a throne, but on a cross, hailed as King on Sunday, and dead like a common thief on Friday.

They remained the despairing survivors of a broken cause, as they stumbled blindly down the hill, their eyes filled with tears they could not stop.
They were the very picture of men without any hope.
Utterly crushed. . . beaten. . .
disappointed. . .
In their faces there was the stark, dreadful look of hopeless despair.

Jesus was a dead man now, very much like any other dead man.  The Roman authorities were satisfied that they had seen the last of this strange, troublesome Dreamer.

Thus they left Him on Friday evening-- just before the Sabbath began, His dead body hastily embalmed,
wrapped in bandages on which a hundred pounds of myrrh had been hastily spread. . .
the tomb closed with a huge stone and soldiers standing guard around it.

Then came Sunday morning.

The first rays of the early morning sun cast a great light that caused the dew drops on the flowers to sparkle like diamonds.
The atmosphere of the garden was changed. . .

It was the same garden. . . yet strangely different.
The heaviness of despair was gone,
and there was a new note in the singing of the birds.

Suddenly, at a certain hour between sunset and dawn, in that new tomb which had belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, there was a strange stirring, a fluttering of unseen forces. . .
a whirring of angel wings
the rustle as of the breath of God moving through the garden.

Strong, immeasurable forces poured life back into the dead body
they had laid upon the cold stone slab;
and the dead man rose up
came out of the grave clothes
walked to the threshold of the tomb,
stood swaying for a moment on His wounded feet,
and walked out into the moonlit garden.

We can almost hear in our hearts the faint sigh, as the life spirit fluttered back into the tortured body, and smell in our own nostrils the medley of strange scents that floated back to Him
of linen and bandages. . .
and spices
and close air and blood.

Then came a group of women as soon as they could, bringing spices and materials with which to complete the hasty anointing of their Lord. 

They came with all the materials with which to anoint a dead body,
and when they came to the grave in the garden, they found that the stone had been rolled away from the door of it, and the grave was empty.

Here is John's account of what followed:

"But Mary stood without the sepulchre weeping. . . and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.  Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?  She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

Jesus saith unto her, Mary.  She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master."

There were two names spoken, "Mary," and "Rabboni."
She heard her own name spoken as only one Voice could speak it-- gently echoing in the garden.
And there was her "Rabboni" -- the breathless "Master!" as she saw His face.

Christ had spoken her name, and all of heaven was in it.
She uttered only one word, and all of earth was in it.

Then, what happened?
Suddenly Peter is facing the foes of Jesus with a reckless courage.  Why, this does not sound like the same man.  The truth is, it is not the same man.  He is different--
very, very different.

The disciples of Jesus were scattered
with a sense of tragic loss
and then, in a few days, they were thrilling with victory, completely changed. 

The were all thrilled beyond fear in the stupendous knowledge that Christ was alive,
and they went about rejoicing in a joy beyond pain.

Happy Easter to my readers, wherever you are.  Thank you so much for coming and reading.


Peter Marshall, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master, Fleming H. Revell Co. (1950), pp. 101-114.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Good Stuff - March 2015

So here's what I thought was eye-opening, mind-opening and/or heart-opening on the Internet this month.  Interestingly, as I look at these posts as a group, I see a thread running through all of them of false dichotomies: the idea that a thing or person must be either A or B, that there is no such thing as C-- and D? Well, that's just silly.

Of Boys and Girls (Good and Rotten) and Climbing Trees at Word of a Woman explores the thinking behind the parable that says girls are like apples on a tree waiting for a boy to come and pick them:
Funny, he says the “good” girls just need to be patient and wait for a brave boy who is willing to climb the tree to the top for them. Forget about whether or not the girls they have judged as being “rotten” and “easy” are actually awesome too. Or whether or not the ones they have judged as “good” and worthy are actually either. “Good” girls he says should wait for a boy to give them validation and approval. Thanks, but no thanks. Instead, perhaps we should teach ALL the girls that they are not some boy’s prize for being brave and not slumming it with a “rotten” girl. They are not an object to be possessed. Their value is not determined by whether boys think they are “good” or “rotten” but rather on the fact that they bear the image of God him/herself. Perhaps we should teach the girls not to compare themselves to each other and judge one another. Perhaps we should teach the girls to love themselves and each other.
The post shows that parables like this one, rooted in and growing out of patriarchy, use a false dichotomy: either you're a good girl, or a bad girl.  But this post, The Impetus of Patriarchy by Greg Hahn at This Brother, shows that patriarchy also uses a false dichotomy for guys: either you're a real man, or you're not, and "real" manliness means having power over women:
You have to be “considered fully creditable as a man”. And the unspoken understanding of many is that you don’t just get that from having X and Y chromosomes and reaching adulthood. You have to earn your manhood, so as to be seen manly by those around you. If you can feel it, all the better, but in the very least you need to be seen that way. . .

And if that’s true, that is ultimately what drives patriarchy: Men living in the pain of not “being the man”, which is believed to be “displaying power to exert control over one’s self and one’s world.” . . .

Apparently the only difference that Piper can see and articulate is that men lead, women follow. So John Piper’s masculinity is inseparably linked to his authority and leadership of women. . . .
I believe that fueling the reluctance to change or to even look deeply into the issue of male/female equality is, in the heart of many men, fear.

Often people think it’s about selfishness or control, and sometimes it is. But I don’t think most guys in the church are like that. It’s usually not a case that they’re bad men. Quite the contrary, most Christian guys just want to live their life, raise their kids and grandkids, serve the Lord and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” at the end. But many men, even the strongest ones, have a deep and abiding fear of not measuring up. 
(Emphases in original)

I think a similar fear motivates people often times towards "America can do no wrong" patriotism. It's another false dichotomy: this time about what it means to love America.  I think President Obama really got to the heart of the problem in his speech Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches on the White House website.
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon. (Applause.)

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.

Roger E. Olsen at his blog of the same name, addresses the human weakness at the heart of the attitude behind the kind of patriotism the President was pushing back against. Olsen's post The Sin of Tribalism defines the us-vs-them, we're-in-and-you're-out mentality as fundamentally un-Christian:
“Tribalism,” however appears when a community closes its ranks around an illusion of superiority and excludes others for the purpose of increasing feelings of superiority. A tribe invents “badges” or emblems of superiority that to outsiders are totally illusory. Tribes rarely recognize themselves as tribal in this sense; members really do think they are superior to outsiders. Outsiders, however, recognize that the badges of superiority are false—unless they want in. . . .
Tribalism is sin—from a Christian point of view.

Jesus confronted tribalism among the Jewish leaders of his day. Some of them claimed that they were especially favored by God only because they were children of Abraham. The Apostle Paul also confronted that attitude. But the point for Christians is not to point a finger at any group guilty of tribalism but to examine ourselves. . . .
A wise and mature person is one who is aware of tribalism and resists it. That’s true whether the person is Christian or not. A wise and mature person, Christian or not, holds himself or herself aloof from the rituals of tribalism even when forced by necessity to be present.

And in You Can Count Me Out of Atheist Tribalism, Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism fights the same human tendency in non-Christians:
To put it simply, atheists who are quick to blame terrorism committed by Muslim individuals on Islam and just as quick to excuse atheism from any role in atrocities committed by atheists are using a glaring double standard. . . .

On some level I think I understand what’s going on here. A number of prominent atheists frequently point to religious atrocities and human rights abuses in order to argue that religion is dangerous and that we should work toward its elimination. When Christians or other religious believers respond by pointing to atrocities committed by atheists like Stalin, these atheists can’t respond with “Yes, and we think that’s bad too,” because their argument is that lack of religion is superior to religion, and examples like Stalin make it clear that a belief in a deity is not a required condition for mass murder or oppression. And so they have to find a way to explain away Stalin’s atrocities as not truly a result of his atheism.
I didn’t leave one tribe, with its demonization of other groups and tribes, ample use of the No True Scotsman fallacy, and insistence on valuing in-group loyalty above all else, to join another tribe doing the exact same thing.

Another false dichotomy shows up in these two posts about racism and why it's so hard for us as white people to see it or even be willing to look for it in ourselves. Why White People Freak Out When They're Called Out About Race by Sam Adler-Bell at Alternet explains:
For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not "doing." 
In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people. 
The good/bad binary is also what leads to the very unhelpful phenomenon of un-friending on Facebook.
If we see racists as only those bad people over there, and never ourselves, we can feel superior (tribalism again).  But seeing racists as those bad people over there also renders it impossible for us to to humble ourselves and admit that we just might be participating in racism unaware. It's just too shameful and horrible for us to face.  So says Understanding the Racial Empathy Gap: the Power of Narratives by Judy Wu Dominick at her blog of the same name.
One of the things the Civil Rights Movement managed to do was inject a keen sense of shame into white America’s collective conscience over its institutionalized abuse of African Americans. It marked a significant turning point in the nation’s history. In the beginning, when shame produced an appropriate acknowledgement of injustice and a desire to make things right, it led to cultural shifts and new legislation that effectively released African Americans from the stranglehold of the Jim Crow era. 
The tricky thing about shame, though, is that it’s a toxic, identity- and value-threatening emotion. and when it’s not processed in a thoroughly redemptive way, it can actually lead to a recycling of our sins instead of a healthy and restorative repentance. . . .
So a new shame-based, reactive narrative set in: Forget the past. We are not racists. We are anti-racists. And we are colorblind. This new narrative unwittingly undermined progress even as progress was being made. First, it imposed a willful forgetfulness on one of the nation’s most traumatic and formative experiences, which desperately required thoughtful, collective, and public debriefing, not consignment to cold storage. Second, it introduced taboo-like sensibilities into the very act of dialoguing about race and ethnicity, which, instead of being helpful, has proven to be very damaging for blacks and other non-whites who wish to have their distinctives recognized, validated, and celebrated alongside those of whites, rather than denied and left unacknowledged.

Folks, this kind of either-or thinking isn't helping any of us.  I'd like to suggest that we start seeing not just A or B as possibilities, but also A and B, and C, and even D.  Who knows, maybe we'll get all the way to accepting and acknowledging Z someday!

And if we do, it will be partly because of the kind of brave people who said these things online this month.

Friday, March 13, 2015

In Memorium: Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett has died.  Somehow it falls kind of flat to simply say he was one of my favorite authors.  In fact, Terry Pratchett was one of the wisest, funniest, most insightful and compassionate writers I ever read.  I loved losing myself in his worlds, absorbing his perceptive intelligence and pithy common sense.  

His most famous series was set on the Discworld, a flat planet with waters perpetually pouring over its edge.  It rested on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a great turtle swimming through space.  It was a world of magic, wizardry and witchcraft, trolls and dwarfs and humans and pixies, into which intruded from time to time some of the phenomena of our own world: telegraphs and trains, the movie industry, the banking world and the postal service.  With a cutting, satirical edge that never became cruel or bleak, that never lost sight of the beauty of the universe or the value of the human individual, Pratchett gave us some of the most enjoyable plots and best characters I've ever encountered in literature:  crotchety Granny Weatherwax, honest Commander Vimes, rascally-but-responsible Moist Von Lipwig, and the ever-polite Death with his hood and scythe, endlessly curious about what it was like to be alive.

But Pratchett also wrote a number of other really wonderful, non-Discworld books. Nation is set on an alternate earth where a young islander and a shipwrecked princess cope with the aftermath of a deadly tsunami.  Dodger is about a young entrepreneur in a Dickensian London.  Good Omens (written in tandem with the great fantasy author Neil Gaiman) is about the Apocalypse, the Anti-Christ and the end of the world.  In fact, this author was so prolific that I know there are still some of his books out there I haven't read yet-- and that I will read them someday with the bittersweet enjoyment of knowing there will never be anything quite like this written ever again. 

There are several web posts (like this one) celebrating Sir Terry by quoting some of his funniest stuff. But I'd like to give tribute to him here by quoting some of his smartest stuff: some of the things he or his characters said that has really made me think, that has opened my eyes and widened my horizons.

Sir Terry used humor and fantasy to explore almost every area of human thought, from religion and philosophy to science and invention.  He was not a Christian, but he had a deep sense of morality and a reverence for the beauty of the universe and the preciousness of life.  (The Demaris Film & Bible Blog has a good synopsis/analysis of Pratchett's beliefs if you'd like to read more about them-- but as I have explained elsewhere, I believe that God's grace is over all the world, and that there is nothing to fear from a manifestation of that grace in any person, whether they agree with my theology or not.)

Pratchett understood people as few of us ever do-- and yet despite all our self-induced blindnesses and stupidities, all the things that make us laughable or even pathetic, Pratchett really loved human beings, just for being human.  His character Death never encountered a human that he didn't treat with dignity and consideration-- even the worst of the worst.  Other authors have made Death terrible; Terry Pratchett made him lovable.  

I think that, paradoxically, this is because Sir Terry's books are filled most of all with a zest for living. When he wrote about trains, he wrote with sheer admiration of the power of the engine and the ingenuity of the engineer.  When he wrote about the postal service, that mundane institution suddenly revealed itself as a showcase of the human capacity for interconnection and mutual service. Nothing, it seemed, was mundane to Terry Pratchett.  Everything was fascinating and worth looking at with the fresh eyes of exploration. Perhaps even death was a thing that, when it came, he was curious to explore. 

So here are some of the things he has said that most capture that sense of exploration and insight. Emphases are in the original texts. The title of the source appears after each quote in italics.

On humans and storytelling:
[A]ll men are writers, journalists scribbling within their skulls the narrative of what they see and hear. - Dodger
On death:
[N]o-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away... The span of someone's life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence. - Reaper Man
On law and order:
[Y]ou were so worried about legal and illegal that you never stopped to think about whether it was right or wrong. - Snuff
On tribalism and its antidote:
It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things. - Jingo
On evil, and how evil happens when the ideology is more important than the person:
Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things. And right now it would happen if you thought there was a thing called a father, and a thing called a mother, and a thing called a daughter, and a thing called a cottage, and told yourself that if you put them all together you had a thing called a happy family. - I Shall Wear Midnight
[I]t's true that some of the most terrible things in the world are done by people who think, genuinely think, that they're doing it for the best, especially if there is some god involved. - Snuff
 On fundamentalist, cultic terrorism:
. . . [E]very deviation from the norm was treated as an attack on all that was truly dwarfish. Others had already fled and died, and who could say they knew how many more were left. . . And the trouble with madness was that the mad didn't know they were mad. The grags [leaders] came down heavily on those who did not conform and seemed not to realize that this was like stamping potatoes into the mud to stop them growing. - Raising Steam
 On cognitive dissonance:
Sometimes people fools themselves into believing things that aren't true. Sometimes that can be quite dangerous for the person. They see the world in a wrong way. They won't let themselves see that what they believe is wrong. But often there is a part of the mind that does know, and the right words can let it out. - Unseen Academicals
 On parenthood and commitment:
He'd be home in time. Would a minute have mattered? No, probably not, although his young son appeared to have a very accurate internal clock. Possibly even two minutes would be ok. Three minutes, even. You could go to five, perhaps. But that was just it. If you could go to five minutes, then you'd go to ten, then half an hour, a couple of hours. . . and not see your son all evening. So that was that. Six o'clock, prompt. Every day. Read to Young Sam. No excuses. He'd promised himself that. No excuses. No excuses at all. Once you had a good excuse, you opened the door to bad excuses.Thud!
On cultural assimilation:
"What kind of name is that, I ask you? Who’s going to take you seriously with a name like that? This is modern times, right?" 
He looked at her defiantly, and she thought: and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls... the melting pot melts in one direction only, and so we make progress. - Unseen Academicals
 On prejudice:
She thought that being foreign was a crime, or at least some sort of illness that you could catch by being out out in the sun too much, or eating olives. - Nation
Everybody knows trolls eat people and spit them out. Everybody knows dwarfs cut off your legs. But at the same time everybody knows that what everybody knows is wrong. - Unseen Academicals
On religion:
[The old man said,] "Everything I know makes me believe that [God] is in the order that is inherent, amazingly, in all things, and in the way the universe opens to our questioning. When I see the shining path over the lagoon, on an evening like this, at the end of a good day, I believe."] 
"In [God]?" asked the girl. 
This got a smile. "Perhaps I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science." - Nation
Finally, these two that I can't locate and don't remember what book they came from, but I have always remembered them, at least in paraphrase:
A good ruler doesn't drive; he steers.
Stories are how we humans tell ourselves who we are.

Anyway, if you've never read anything by Terry Pratchett, I hope you will. And I hope you'll be as amused, as intrigued-- and as deeply touched and moved-- as I have been.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Good Stuff - February 2015

Here are the best things I've read on the Internet in the month of February:

Leonard Nimoy, the Man Who Gave Star Trek Its Heart by Graeme McMillan on MSN, speaks to me in my sadness that this man who enriched my world so much has passed on:
And even when he, along with the rest of the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, retired with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it turned out that Nimoy’s Spock lived on, and prospered, making appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek as the character. It was unsurprising, in many ways; a Star Trek without Nimoy felt incomplete, somehow. There was both a gravity and levity in his performance, a humor behind the stone-faced, eyebrow-raised stare of disbelief he so often employed. Star Trek, as a series, is a mixture of tones and genres, as much comedy as drama, and Nimoy managed to embody that in a way unlike any other.

"Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed" a Year Later: Why Calvinism (Still) Isn't Beautiful by Austine Fisher on Roger Olson's blog, gives voice to something I have long felt, that the poet Keats' words "beauty is truth, truth beauty" tell us something real, and that Calvinist doctrine (particularly the doctrine of limited atonement, that Christ didn't die for all humans, but only for some) just doesn't fit into that:
Because God is infinitely good and beautiful, theology must be good and beautiful or else it’s not true. When properly understood, the truth invites not only the mind’s assent but the heart’s affection. The truth should make your heart sing. This notion of the truth’s beauty is not an invention of secular humanism or some other boogey-man, but belongs to the deepest intuition of biblical Christian sensibilities. . .

The New Calvinists attempt to paint a ravishing picture of the manifold excellencies of the self-glorifying, all-determining God of Calvinism, expressed primarily through the doctrines of grace. I say that picture is a false veneer that only works when you ignore the reprobate. I say that picture cannot contain, as its central image, a crucified God who would rather die for sinners than give them what they deserve.

Why I Love Being a Black Girl by Austin Channing, is a horizon-enlarging viewpoint from a perspective I need to listen to:
Though there are many great soul food restaurants, none compare to the smell of my grandmothers dinner rolls wafting through the air, the sweet smell of history filling the small kitchen. We sat on the edge of our seats the night Michael moonwalked across the stage, then we hopped up and did it with him. We couldn't afford to see Whitney in concert, but you better believe we knew every note to every song... even if we couldn't reach it ourselves. The NBA possesses some great players, many of whom were good guys from around the way- taking girls to prom, participating in the school talent show, being cheered on by the brown faces around them. Yes, we do shape culture, but first we live it ourselves.

The Myth of the Absent Black Father at ThinkProgress, shows that things aren't always the way they have been made to look:
Considering the fact that “black fatherhood” is a phrase that is almost always accompanied by the word “crisis” in U.S. society, it’s understandable that the CDC’s results seem innovative. But in reality, the new data builds upon years of research that’s concluded that hands-on parenting is similar among dads of all races. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to bust this racially-biased myth. 
The Pew Research Center, which has tracked this data for years, consistently finds no big differences between white and black fathers.

Holiness Among Depraved Christians: Paul's New Form of Moral Flourishing by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology, shows a way to read and understand some of the main themes in Paul's epistles that really explains a lot:
Paul was setting up these Jesus-communities whose members consisted of, in the eyes of skeptical Jewish onlookers, morally depraved and wicked people. To Jewish onlookers it looked like Paul was handing the keys to the liquor cabinet to a bunch of alcoholics. Morally speaking, this was a recipe for disaster. Paul was hopping around, going from city to city, setting up these communities. And then leaving them! Without the Torah, and the habits of spiritual formation embedded in the culture of faith communities who had been shaped by Torah obedience generation after generation, how were these new Gentile Christians going to lead holy lives? 
This was the great moral experiment of Paul's gospel. Could a new form of moral flourishing emerge among the Gentiles separate from the Torah?'' . . .

In a nutshell this was the heart of Paul's vision for morally forming Gentiles: The Holy Spirit, the Golden Rule, and the Imitation of Christ. This, Paul felt, would be enough to transform depraved pagans into a "holy people." . . .

Specifically, Paul's Gentile churches were moral demonstrations to Jewish skeptics. And I think this explains a lot of why when Paul gets outside the core of his moral vision--the Golden Rule, the example of Jesus--he falls back upon Jewish (and Greco-Roman) visions of moral flourishing. I think this is why, for example, Paul's household codes are patriarchal. That's what Jewish moral flourishing at that time looked like. And given the skepticism Paul faced he was keen to make Gentile households look like Jewish households, seasoned albeit by the love ethic of Jesus (e.g., mutual submission).

The framework of fundamentalist propaganda distorts how we view every religion by Fred Clark at Slactivist, addresses the flaws in the reasoning that insists terrorists like ISIS embody what Islam is really all about, and counters the dangerous idea that all Muslims are evil, and that any Muslim who isn't evil isn't a "real" Muslim:

This framework is pervasive, shaping our perception of every religion, not just Islam. We’ve been tricked into seeing inquisitors and crusaders as a more genuine expression of any religion than that religion’s saints or mystics. We’ve swallowed the idea that the inquisitors must be correct in their interpretation of religious texts, while any who disagree with those interpretations must be willfully ignorant, or sweetly deluded by some irreligious “political correctness.”

And in this related post at Slacktivist, Clark makes this profound observation:
This kind of separatist/exclusivist, prideful fundamentalism will always be schismatic. That’s its nature. That’s true whether we’re talking about Real True Christians or Real True Muslims. Their entire self-concept is driven by the need to confirm their own authenticity by condemning the inauthenticity of others — or, rather, by accusing others of inauthenticity and seeking or inventing new ways to support that accusation. And they can never stop doing that. . .

Real True Christians do not base their identity on their devotion to the Bible or to the Creeds, but on finding ways to elevate themselves above other Christians they can denounce as false, apostate, liberal and inauthentic. Real True Muslims do not base their identity on their devotion to the Koran or to the pillars of their faith, but on finding ways to elevate themselves above other Muslims they can denounce as kuffar.

What this means for the rest of us is that we cannot hope to learn anything about the substance, character or meaning of any religion, belief system, or fandom, by looking to those who proclaim themselves the Real True believers. They may be the ones talking the loudest about “authentic” Christianity/Islam/fandom, but they are bound to be the least reliable examples of what such “authentic” belief might entail.
The idea that those whose religious practices are gentler, more loving, kinder and more accepting are somehow less sincere, less authentic in their faith than those who are harsher, more judgmental and intolerant, is something this blog continually strives to counter-- and not least by sharing these various links today.  As I've said many times, to follow Jesus's teaching and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" includes listening to others with an open heart and mind.  And when we do that, it can't help but make us gentler, kinder and more accepting.

And I think that's what following Christ will lead us to in the end.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

If We Say We Have No Sin...

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.… 1 John 1:8-9
This is a basic principle of Christianity: that we as human beings are prone to sin and error and should admit as much.  "Confession is good for the soul," the old saying goes, though our natural inclination is to deny error and not admit to wrongdoing.  This inclination seems especially prominent in politics, as this Washington Post article details:
No one likes to admit that they made a mistake. We have an ingrained reticence to do so, a near-primal response that little kids learn probably before they can speak. Admit your mistake, get punished. Don't, and maybe you can wiggle your way out of it. 
If your job involves being judged and evaluated by people, that instinct is almost certainly worse. And if your job involves being evaluated and you have a group of people committed to defending you on an ideological basis no matter what you say, admitting error becomes all but unthinkable.
Christian grace, on the other hand, is all about the freedom to admit wrong in ourselves and accept others in spite of their faults, knowing that God loves and forgives and wants us to do the same.  And I think this goes not just for our individual sins and errors, but for group ones too.  Humans don't just sin individually.  We sin as groups-- as nations, as communities, and yes, even as churches and religious communities.

So why are so many of us Christians involved in vigorous denial of any such thing?  Why are we more interested in defending ourselves than examining ourselves?  And why, when someone does point out how our group sins or how we might have participated in sin in the past or present, do we attack that person as if the only real wrong was the perceived insult to us?

The main thing that's bothering me is the reaction of prominent Christians against President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he said:
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.
The response to this has been really troubling, as detailed in this Slate article, as prominent Republicans and conservative commentators (largely professing Christians)  "reject the suggestion that Christianity has anything to apologize for."  They claim that the Crusades were justified and were the fault of the Muslims (the same article claims the Church had "almost nothing to do with the Inquisition").  They claim that Jim Crow laws were over thousands of years ago instead of being part of  reality for the Baby-boomer generation.  They claim that Obama was wrong to claim Christians have any responsibility for racism. And they accuse the President of not being a real Christian because he would dare admit that yes, Christians and Christian communities have sinned.

And yet it's the person they're claiming isn't a real Christian who is following the Christian principles of humility and confession which they seem to have lost sight of.  I can't help thinking that politics are partly to blame.  I'm not saying Christians shouldn't get involved in politics or shouldn't vote their consciences-- but that's different from practically turning Christianity into a political movement. And when we do that, it's not surprising that we end up acting according to political "admit no wrong" wisdom.  However, President Obama is a politician and a Christian, and this time (possibly because he's not part of that movement) he got it right.  It's too bad that his Republican Christian opponents can't see wisdom when it comes from someone on the other team.

I think, actually, that defensiveness against any admission of racism is actually one of our biggest problems even today.

Racism is still very much a part of our reality today in America, and most, if not all, of us white people have imbibed racist attitudes to some extent just by being born, growing up and living here.  And yet we have also been taught to believe racism is some archaic evil from the past-- so what upsets us most is the idea that someone might think we're racist in some way, or call us a "racist" because of something we said or did. The Agabond blog calls it "the R-Word":
The r-word is the word“racist”. It is in effect the n-word for white people:they get upset when you call them that and lose all sense of reason. Even on the Internet it pretty much ends any fruitful talk about race. . . Two things are going on here: 
1. Many whites seem to think “racist” means joining the Ku Klux Klan, flying the Confederate flag, using the n-word, stuff like that.The old Jim Crow sort of racism that was common in America before 1970. Most white Americans born since then are colour-blind racists. It is this subtler racism that most people of colour have in mind when they use the word “racist”. 
2.  White Americans have a self-image of themselves as fair and just, of not being racist. So when you say they are racist it threatens their self-image. That is why they get so upset. 
But that self-image stands in the way of any further progress.
It is like the kind of patriotism where people feel threatened when you say anything bad about their country. It is a false patriotism that stands in the way of making their country better.
It's interesting to me that Agabond equates the same two things I've been talking about-- denial of racism with do-no-wrong Christian patriotism-- because I think they're both rooted in the same thing. We're being "conformed to this world," as Romans 12:2 says.  We're following our natural, human desire to exalt ourselves and our causes, and our natural unwillingness to admit to wrongdoing.  But Christ would have us humble ourselves, be assured of grace, and let go of our fear of being found in the wrong.

Anyway, it seems to me that I, as a white person, can't really understand what black people go through as well as they do themselves, and certainly not without listening to their side of things. But when I first started reading Agabond's blogsite, I had to quell my defensiveness and my sense of injury at this word "racist," and learn to say, "God's grace is with me, even if I'm racist in some way and don't know it-- so am I? Because God can help me change, but only if I admit the problem!"

The fact is that being so defensive against the word "racist" and "racism" is keeping us from seeing where we might need to confess and repent.  And this isn't the Christian way to live.

Dr. Beverly Tatum on the By Their Strange Fruit Website puts it so well:
I consider myself a racist in the same way that I consider myself a sinner in need of forgiveness (see post Basically Good). People bristle at both characterizations (“I’m a generally good person, I don’t need Jesus”; “I’m not a racist, I’m color blind”). But to me, these terms simply identify the latent issues that I know I still have to work on, which is better than pretending the issues aren't there at all.
 As Christians, we ought to be the first to admit that Christians have done (and still do) wrong.  We ought to be the first to examine ourselves, the first to confess our errors and faults, and the errors and faults of our group, our nation, our community. The fact is that many times our faults are visible to the observing world anyway-- and when we act blind to them, we only come across as hypocrites.

Gregg Easterbrook in a 2011 Reuter's editorial encapsulates what most people probably really think when we do that:
Just as lying about what you did may be worse than what you did, refusing to admit an error may be worse than the error itself. 
All human beings occasionally are wrong — trust me, I’ve had plenty of experience! Honest admission of error makes a person upright and sympathetic. Refusing to admit error, by contrast, suggests deviousness or even megalomania.
We aren't enhancing either our own reputations, or God's, when we refuse to even open our eyes to our wrongs, much less confess and apologize. And we're not doing Christianity any good by pressing it into the service of a political agenda.

It's just making our Christianity look less and less Christian.