Saturday, December 29, 2012

In Defense of Santa Claus

I remember going to see Santa Claus when I was a little kid.  Back then, large corporations (like the one my dad worked for) liked to use their money for more than lining their CEOs' pockets.  Santa would land in the company parking lot in a big helicopter, and all the children would be ushered inside to tell him what we wanted for Christmas, as he sat in a big sleigh surrounded with boxes and boxes of presents.  Every child received a very nice toy based on age and gender.  One present in particular I'll never forget: a toy dwarf's cottage from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, complete with seven little toy dwarfs and Snow White herself!  I was thrilled.

As Christmas drew near, our excitement and anticipation increased.  My father had a set of sleigh bells, and on Christmas Eve he'd go outside in the dark and jingle them, yelling "Ho, ho, ho!"  We kids would squeal and run for our beds, where we'd hear the thudding of reindeer hoofs on the ceiling over our heads (it was Dad again, pounding across the deck with a couple of long poles).  One year Dad even made a trail of ashy bootprints from the fireplace to the Christmas tree.  I don't remember whether he actually helped Mom clean that up or not. . .

But the main thing I remember about Christmas in those days was magic and wonder.  The miraculous hung close to our young lives, ready to break out at any moment.  Somewhere out there was a jolly, kind old man who wanted to give us toys just because he loved children.  My parents didn't play up the "you have to be good" thing all that much.  Santa's gifts were gifts of love.  For most of my childhood my parents were not Christians, but as I think back now, I realize that Santa was my first compelling illustration of a benevolent, supernatural father, and his gift-giving showed me my first clear picture of grace.

I didn't write any blog posts this Christmas, but I did read a few.  And there was one I read that I felt I had to respond to now, before we all take down our trees and put our stockings away.

I understood and respected the decision of Jen Hatmaker in her blog post The Christmas Conundrum to turn from consumerism and materialism at Christmas, but I couldn't help feeling a little sad as I read these words:

We've pulled out of the Santa charade. Our newest kids are 5 and 8, preparing for their first Christmas in America, and we're just not doing it, yall. Maybe because we've spent the last four years trying to unravel the mess we've presented to our other kids all these years, but hear me say it: We are giving Christmas back to Jesus. Not a corner of it; all of it.

There is no fake benefactor this year my kids can petition to get more stuff. Because honestly? For a five-year-old, how can Jesus compete with Santa? Our children don't have spiritual perspective; when faced with the choice of allegience, they have a baby in a manger, or they can get a jolly, twinkling, flying character who will bring them presents. This is going to be an easy choice for them. My friend Andrew, who identifies himself as a member of the "non-believer corner" put it this way:

"I always thought it was strange how Christians will tell me they have this giant and awesome truth they know is true deep in their soul and want to share with me, but when 12/25 comes around they lie to their own progeny because, apparently, that giant, liberating, and awesomely simple truth is somehow just not enough. It may be a good narrative, but it needs a little something to give it some panache."

As importantly, it sets this tone for Christmas: Be good and you'll get stuff, which becomes so deeply seeded, undoing that position is almost impossible. When we teach our children to understand Christmas through this lens, then tell them at nine-years-old: "Never mind! It's all fake! Oh, and stop being so selfish because Christmas is about Jesus"...we shouldn't be surprised when our kids stage a mutiny and ask to move in with Grandma. Young parents, this is so much easier to do right the first time rather than try to undo later. Give your kids the gift of a Christmas obsessed with Jesus - and no other - when they are little, and it will be their truth all their lives.

Ms. Hatmaker must do as she believes is best for her own kids, and for all I know this may be what is best for her own kids-- but I cannot take her view.  Though Santa is often equated with materialism and greed, he isn't synonymous with those things.  And I can't imagine Santa as I understood him as a child, ever wanting to usurp Christmas from Jesus or compete with Him for affection.

When I grew old enough to stop believing in Santa, I had already stopped believing in God. My parents began telling us that both were myths.  But when I came to understand that all the jingle bells and reindeer hoofbeats were a show my parents had put on for us, I wasn't angry with them.  I was grateful-- and sad.  Grateful that they'd given me a few glorious years to believe in wonders.  Sad that there was no magic, no miracles; that the world was just a mundane place where nothing ever happened without a reasonable explanation.  That Jesus in the manger was a pretty story Mom had told us when we were little, but he was really just a man like any other man.  That the North Pole was just a magnetic spot in an empty sea of ice.

I still liked getting presents on Christmas, and I liked being with my family.  But after I stopped believing, Christmas was empty.  Sure there was love, and family, and giving-- but lovely as those things were, they were still just part of the mundane world.  The magic was all gone.  I needed to learn to be content with the mundane, because that's all there was or would ever be.

Or so I thought.

When I met Jesus at the age of 15, the miraculous came back.  Christmas was suddenly more than magic-- it was holy.  Christmas Eve became the focal point of remembering, every year, how God drew near, and even nearer, the earth-- so near that all at once God was one of earth's creatures.

God.  With us.  



And Santa as a picture of joyous, extravagant giving in celebration of that.

A few years later I became caught up in the new legalism that was sweeping evangelical communities.  Christmas as most people celebrated it was whitewashed paganism. Santa was just a big fat lie parents told their kids-- a lie that encouraged greed and materialism.  If we really loved God, we should focus on Jesus exclusively, and celebrate His birthday alone.

Christian parents should shield their children from Santa.  Santa was the enemy.

But I grew older.  I began to learn to recognize and turn away from legalism in my Christianity.  And then I had kids of my own.

I never exactly told my daughter whether Santa was real or not.  But when she was two years old, she told me that he was.

And remembering magic and wonder and miracle in my own childhood, I just didn't have the heart to tell her no.

So we let our children believe in Santa and Jesus.  And believe me, this was a matter of letting, not making.  Believing was in their nature.  They were born with wonder in their eyes.

Early on my own parents sent their grandchildren a toy Santa Claus house to play with, and at my request, they also sent a toy manger scene.  (My mom had become a Christian again by that point, and I believe my dad eventually did too, though believing was something that never did come easy to him.)  My children played with the two things together.  They liked to have Santa come into the manger scene to say hello to Jesus.  My daughter even had him kiss the Baby in the manger.  It was very sweet.

We didn't turn Santa into an idol of materialism.  The kids believed that Santa filled their stockings and gave them three or four additional presents every year.  The rest of the presents under the tree were from their family and friends.  We told the children that Santa gives children presents because he loves children, and he loves children because Jesus loves them.  That gift-giving-- even extravagant gift-giving-- is appropriate and right as a celebration of God's great, excessively extravagant gift of His Son to us.  That loving generosity and humble gratitude are an honor to the season and the One who is its center.

Santa, too, can be holy.

There was no competition in my children's eyes between Jesus and Santa.  There was no "choice of allegiance."  Every year on Christmas Eve we would read the Bible story and The Night Before Christmas together.  We still do.  Afterwards we light candles and sing carols.  As they have grown older, my kids no longer request songs about Santa.  They want to sing songs about the birth of Christ.

Magic has opened the path to miracle.  Santa has pointed them to the Father, and Christmas to Christ.

You see, I don't agree with Ms. Hatmaker that children have no spiritual perspective.  I don't believe there is, or need be, a dichotomy between the spiritual and material.  The key is simply to love people, use things, and worship God-- and not to get any of those three mixed up. God made the material world and said that it was good.  Children, like adults, are made of matter and spirit.   Both are good, and God desires us to worship Him with our whole selves.  And any good thing in the material world can be of use in spiritual worship, whether it be an altar, a cross, a kneeling bench-- or a tree, twinkling lights and candles.

And a jolly, fat man in a red suit can give us a glimpse into the father heart of God.

We only have to let Christmas work its miracle within us.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Taking a Break for Christmas

To all my readers:  A very merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and I hope any other celebration you undertake will be joyous and fun!

Last December I had just started blogging and still had a number of previously completed essays that I could put up.  This year that reserve is depleted, and I must compose a new piece every week.  I'm loving blogging--  but I'm also a mom of two and a full-time paralegal, and I need every spare minute between now and the holiday to get ready for it!

So I'm taking some time off.  But I'd like to leave you with these beautiful words about Mary, mother of Christ, from Rachel Held Evans' book A Year of Biblical Womanhood:

She is what made Jesus both fully God and fully man, her womb the place where heaven and earth meld into one.  At the heart of Mary's worthiness is her obedience, not to a man, not to a culture, not even to a cause or a religion, but to the creative work of God who lifts up the humble and fills the hungry with good things. . . 

One need not be a saint, or even a mother, to become a bearer of God.  One needs only to obey.  The divine resides in all of us, but it is our choice to magnify it or diminish it, to ignore it or to surrender to its lead.  p. 72

I wish you, in this holiday season-- so appropriately set at winter solstice, when in the midst of darkness the light comes-- an encounter with the living God.

Thank you all for reading.  I'll be back when the presents are opened!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Men Must Be Spiritual Leaders" - Real Life Consequences

"The man should be the spiritual leader of the home."  That is the standard teaching of most Protestant, evangelical churches.  The Open Bible website has a whole page of Scriptures which apparently support this-- many of which I have addressed elsewhere on this blog.  I believe this teaching springs from a misunderstanding of the historical-cultural assumptions which the writers would have shared with the original readers, which we in modern Western culture are not necessarily privy to.

But the idea remains pervasive that God has decreed that men are meant to be spiritual leaders, and women to be spiritual followers of their men, from the moment they get married.  Some say that God designed men and women this way; others say that He simply decreed this for unknown reasons, and who are we to question?  But if we believe that God is holy, just and good, then we must believe that God's decree and/or design is somehow good for both men and women.

All men and all women.  Or at least every man or woman who feels no call to celibacy and who desires to be married.

Christianity Today's website for Christian women, Her-meneutics, recently ran a blog post by Marlena Graves on this very issue:  "He's Just Not a Spiritual Leader" and Other Christian Dating Myths.  The author's main point was that this teaching was being misunderstood, so that women were refusing to marry men whom they did not perceive as spiritual leaders:

Some time ago in the school cafeteria, we ran into a young woman we knew well. Shawn and I had counseled her and her boyfriend the year prior. I asked her about their relationship. “I broke up with him a month or so ago,” she said sheepishly. Shawn and I tried to veil our shock.

A few minutes later, I asked her why. “He’s just not a spiritual leader,” she answered. After we parted ways, Shawn turned to me and said, “I can’t help wondering how many otherwise beautiful relationships have ended due to misconceptions about spiritual leadership.”

As we processed the news and recalled some of our conversations with the couple, we remembered her saying that he had a patient nature, was intelligent, a hard worker, and of peaceful demeanor, complementing her quite well. But she also mentioned that he rarely initiated prayer or Bible study. For her, in the end, not initiating in those areas was a deal-breaker. . . . 

It seems that initiating prayer, Bible study, and other similar devotional activities is a litmus test for male spiritual leadership in some branches of the American church. And the common complaint by women on our campus is that men are failing in spiritual leadership; they aren’t passing the litmus test. They aren’t initiating.

Marlena Graves goes on to explain that spiritual leadership isn't just about initiating prayer and Bible study; that men can be spiritual leaders without showing any of the characteristics traditionally associated with spiritual leadership.  And she goes on to give a new definition for spiritual leadership:

I started wondering about all the godly men who may have other spiritual gifts—just not the ones traditionally considered “male” spiritual gifts. For example, what about men who have the gift of mercy or hospitality or service or encouragement, and who are full of the fruits of the Spirit? Do we devalue them simply because they’re not at the helm or out in front but rather operating alongside their partner? Is initiating devotional activities within a relationship really what it means to lead? . . .

A spiritual leader is someone who is full of the Holy Spirit—someone who evidences the fruits of the Spirit in increasing measure. Some women prefer that their partners initiate prayer and Bible study. Of course, they’re free to have such preferences, and even to believe that such initiation is a “male” spiritual gift. But we, as the larger Christian community, should find ways to recognize the men who don’t initiate devotional activities and yet model Christlike leadership because they display the fruits of the Spirit.  

Emphasis added.

The problem, of course, is that given this definition, any Christian who is being led by the Spirit and bearing the fruit of the Spirit, is automatically a spiritual leader.  And women can and do bear the fruit of the Spirit just as much as men do.   Marlena Graves seems to me to simply be redefining "spiritual leader" so that it will fit any man, just so that any man can be called that. 

When I got engaged to my husband, I too thought he should be my spiritual leader, and it troubled me that he showed very little evidence of being one.  I prayed to the Lord about it, and I received the reassuring impression that Jeff was everything I needed him to be, and not to worry about the rest.  So I went ahead and married him. 

But as we relaxed in my uncle's cabin on our honeymoon, I wanted very much for my new spiritual leader to lead Bible study and prayer-- so I asked him to.  Very reluctantly, he complied.  It felt-- well, it felt sort of fake.  But since the Bible said he was now my spiritual leader, I believed that leading me was exactly what he should be doing. 

So I found myself in the ludicrous position of trying to make him lead. 

Needless to say, it didn't go very well.  Fortunately for our marriage, I decided this was ok, that he just wasn't that kind of spiritual leader, and I backed off on the leading-Bible-study thing.  We were both much more comfortable.

Today, almost 25 years later, I asked Jeff to look back on that time and explain what he was feeling then.  Here's what he said:

"I'm not a take-charge kind of guy.  I knew I was supposed to be your spiritual leader, and I also knew I really wasn't.  And that made me feel stupid and inadequate.  I didn't want to initiate Bible studies, because I couldn't be your teacher.  I had been a Christian two years, and you had been a Christian for almost 10 years.  I wasn't going to disrespect all your experience, learning and knowledge by going on pretending I was leading you, which was all it was-- just pretending."

The Her-meneutics blog post shows that I'm not the first woman, or the last, to go through verbal gymnastics to make an interpretation of Scripture-- in terms of male "headship"-- fit the actual facts. Any adult Christian can be spiritual leader of his or her children. But for one Christian adult always to be the one to lead the other Christian adult in every marriage-- regardless of knowledge, experience, gifts, or years in Christ-- now seems to me to be an arbitrary and difficult box to force married couples into.

For Retha, the blog author at Biblical Personhood, the consequences of this teaching were also very negative.  In her post What "the man should be the spiritual leader" did to me, she explains:

I believed a Christian woman only belong with a man who can lead her spiritually. Any other kind of man cannot be the will of God for the life of a Christian woman. In practical terms, that would be a man who knows more of Christianity and love Jesus more than I do. . . .

Needless to say, any man who started to give a slight indication that he likes me, I judged on whether he could lead me, spiritually and otherwise. The few men who did give spiritual leading in my life was already married, and gave spiritual leading to many. The men who showed an interest in me? I simply showed no interest in return. How could I, because I, as a dedicated believer, thought that if he cannot lead me spiritually, the relationship cannot be the will of God?

Laugh if you want. They say many people have an unrealistic view of marriage. “Spiritual leadership” is part of the unrealistic expectations of many Christian women.

Well, I don’t complain about my time of believing that. Knowing God is great- with or without a man. But on age 36, not only a virgin but someone who never had a boyfriend, I looked at the Bible again . . .

Retha also came upon a redefinition of "spiritual leadership" in terms of loving one's family, expressing that love often, praying with one's spouse and family, being an active participant in church, and being strong but gentle.  Her response? 

But then, a woman who loves her husband and children, expresses that love often, prays with and for her family, is an active participant in her church, etc., who is strong, but gentle-- is an equally good thing!  For some reason they call it “spiritual leadership” when a man does it, but not when a woman does it. Why not???

After I sworn off the ridiculously unbiblical “man should be the spiritual leader” idea at age 36, I had my first boyfriend last year – at age 37. This was also a man who could not be my spiritual leader, but it did not matter. Even though the relationship did not work out, it is still a beautiful memory.

Perhaps I will still have a husband some day. Perhaps it is too late. But dammit, I wish nobody ever told me the rubbish of “the man should be the spiritual leader!” I could have been married, with children. I always liked children a lot. And now that I don’t think men fall horribly short of a leadership standard God sets for them, I find I like men a lot more for what they are. 

Emphasis in original.

Being single is a beautiful way to serve Christ, and I know God will lead Retha in whatever future path He has for her.  But how painful this was for her!  -- and I can't help thinking about what this idea also did to the men she met in her earlier years, who were trying to find a spouse but were considered to be failing a spiritual mark: a mark that they simply weren't designed to achieve. How easy for a man to lose confidence in his manhood, when he is given this false idea of what manhood is!  How many good Christian men, men who desire to be husbands and fathers, have found themselves in this boat? 

The truth is that there are only two ways to respond to this teaching.  One is to define "spiritual leader" in the usual way, and find that many men fall short.  The other is to redefine "spiritual leader" so that it can fit any man-- which also means it can fit any Christian, woman or man, who is sincere in his or her faith.  

With regards to the first response, only those who find that their natural personalities already fit the box they are being stuffed into, will find it really works for them.  And with regards to the second-- many people, like my husband and I, will eventually realize that the over-broad definition is really just a way of pretending.

If spiritual leadership of the home really is God's design and/or decree for men who are meant to be married, then why is it not good for all such men?  Why is it not good for all women?  Doesn't a good tree bear good fruit?

Maybe the problem is that it never was a good tree, and it was not planted by God, but by human tradition and human misunderstanding.  Maybe God's desire is that each man and each woman be who they were created to be-- whether spiritual leaders or not. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs: Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman

Matthew 15:21-28 tells this story:

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."  The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.  He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

For years I didn't know what to think of this story.  It looked like Jesus was first ignoring, and then insulting, a poor, desperate woman-- for no other reason than that she was a Gentile.  It looked like she obtained healing for her daughter only after submitting to humiliation by agreeing that she and her people were little more than "dogs."  If Jesus is really the compassionate Savior of all mankind, how could He be so racist and cruel?  

But one of my general principles of Bible interpretation is to read passages like this in light of passages that are easy to understand.  Jesus is consistently portrayed elsewhere in the Gospels as ready to help any sufferer who came to Him, including Roman soldiers, tax collectors, and lepers.  When something doesn't seem to fit, the key is to look deeper.

As I discussed in my earlier post Assumptions Make You-Know-Whats Out of You and Me, the reason some Bible passages seem jarring and out of place, is that we come from a different cultural context.  Things the original writers and readers took for granted and felt no need to explain are mysteries to us, which can make us completely misunderstand what is actually going on.

So, in looking deeper, I found three aspects of Ancient Near East (ANE) culture that shed significant light on what Jesus and the woman He encountered were actually doing.

1.  Community.

Kenneth Bailey's book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes examines this story in Chapter 16.   He says:

"A critical component in both the parables of Jesus and the dramatic stories about him is the ever-present community.  In much current reflection on many of these texts, the community is ignored.  Contemporary Western society is highly individualistic.   Most of the societies in the majority world still function as tightly knit communities. . . That community gives identity and profoundly influences both attitude and lifestyle. In the stories about Jesus, the surrounding community (on- or offstage) is a critical component in all that takes place and its presence must be factored into any interpretive effort."

Bailey points out that this story is not simply about an interaction between Jesus and a foreign woman.  The disciples are the audience, and Jesus' words and actions must also be interpreted in light of whatever lesson He intended to impart to them.   (The listeners/readers of this story both as it was told and written down were also part of the tellers'/writers' intended audience.)   Bailey points out that both to the disciples and to the original hearers of the story, Jesus' interaction with this woman (who came out to him herself and was therefore probably a poor widow with no one to send in her place) would raise parallels with the story of Elijah and the starving widow of Sidon (1 Kings 7:7-16).  Jesus had spoken of this Elijah story in the synagogue when He announced Himself at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4:25-27: "And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it did not rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land.Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon."  Jesus intended that His ministry be compared with that of Elijah, and that is just what the disciples would have done.

The initial response of Jesus to this foreign woman-- not answering her a word-- was entirely in accordance with the norms of the day, and the disciples knew it, which was why they asked Jesus to do the expected thing and send her away.  But Bailey points out that in the presence of this woman's suffering, and with their understanding of Jesus as a prophet, "such ethnocentric views were inevitably uncomfortable."  By interacting with this woman first within the social norms, and then by stepping outside them, Jesus was teaching His followers a new way to respond to foreigners-- and to women.

2.  Socio-Economics. 

Jane E. Hick's online article in the Lutheran magazine Word and World, entitled Moral Agency at the Borders: Rereading the Story of the Syrophoenician Woman, points out:

"Tyre was a well-known commercial center with significant trade relations along the Mediterranean. . . Tyre would have owned surrounding territories and could have claimed agricultural proceeds from these, but it would also have used its considerable clout and wealth to acquire surplus from Jewish villages, sometimes leaving less than enough for those who actually worked the land. One can imagine that the exploitative situation was exacerbated during times of drought and famine; urban centers likely took their allotment of food first, leaving shortages of food in the countryside."

Even if she was poor, the Syro-Phoenician woman was a still a member of a Hellenized (Greek-cultured) group which was known for exploiting the nearby Jewish community.  Hicks goes on to say, "Given these underlying power dynamics, Jesus’ household metaphor in which the bread goes first to the children of Israel would be understood by early listeners as a reversal of the reigning order."

Hellenized cultures such as this woman's would be well-versed in the teachings of Aristotle, to whom all others were barbarians, socially on a par with slaves.  Though the Gospel of Matthew reflects Jewish contempt of the woman as a "Canaanite," a descendant of the peoples originally displaced by the Jews, the fact remains that the contempt between these two people-groups would have been mutual.  The Syro-Phoenicians would have viewed the Jews as "dogs," and here in Syro-Phoenician territory, Jesus might very well have been ironically turning the prevailing attitude on its head for the woman to see and acknowledge.  His lesson in racism would thus not have been just for the disciples, but for her.

3.  Honor and Shame.

David A. deSilva's book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture states in Chapter 1, Honor & Shame:

"The culture of the first-century world was built on the foundational social values of honor and dishonor. . . Those living or reared in Asiatic, Latin American, Mediterranean or Islamic countries have considerable advantage in their reading of the New Testament in this regard, since many of those cultures place a prominent emphasis on honor and shame. Readers living in the United States or Western Europe may recognize immediately that we live at some distance from the honor culture of the first-century Greco-Roman world (including the Semitic peoples in the East). In our culture the bottom line for decision-making is not always (indeed, perhaps rarely) identifying the honorable thing to do. In the corporate world, for example, the “profitable” frequently acts as the central value. Considerations of right and wrong are also prominent, but these are based on internalized values or norms rather than values enforced by overt approval or disapproval by the larger society. Typically we do not talk about honor and shame much. . . ." pp. 23, 25-26.

In the cultures of both the Jews and the Syro-Phoenicians, males and females gained honor in different ways.  Males gained honor by deeds of courage or generosity in the community, while women gained honor by maintaining the integrity of their privacy within the home and family.  DeSilva states:

In the ancient world, as in many traditional cultures today, women and men have different arenas for the preservation and acquisition of honor, and different standards for honorable activity. Men occupy the public spaces, while women are generally directed toward the private spaces of home and hearth. When they leave the home, they are careful to avoid conversation with other men. The places they go are frequented mainly by women (the village well, the market for food) and so become something of an extension of “private” space. In the fifth century B.C., Thucydides wrote that the most honorable woman is the one least talked about by men (Hist. 2.45.2). Six hundred years later Plutarch will say much the same thing: a woman should be seen when she is with her husband, but stay hidden at home when he is away (“Advice on Marriage” 9). Both her body and her words should not be “public property” but instead guarded from strangers." p. 33

Kenneth Bailey points out in Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes that, just as no self-respecting woman would speak to a strange man in public, no self-respecting rabbi would speak to a woman in public (p. 221).  Jesus quite frequently ignored this prohibition: discussing theology with the woman at the well in John 4:1-42; assuring the woman who washed His feet with her tears that her sins were forgiven in Luke 7:36-50.  Here He seems at first to obey the social barrier, and then breaks it.  Why?

Bailey reminds us that in calling out to Jesus using the title "Lord, Son of David," this woman is using a Messianic title for Jesus-- very unexpected in a Gentile.  In spite of being a Syro-Phoenician, then, this woman believes that Jesus is more than an itinerant Jewish preacher.  She also opens with the beggar's standard cry, "Have mercy on me!"  This woman is so desperate for help that she deliberately lets go of  her honor by following and calling out to a man in public, and by using a beggar's words.  Socially, she has no reason to expect this Jewish rabbi to answer her-- but she believes He is more than a rabbi.   So she perseveres in the face of His silence-- but she does not (as we tend to do) read His silence as insult or cruelty.  Like the woman who touched the hem of His garment (Luke 8:40-48), she knows there are barriers to overcome and sets herself boldly to overcome them.

When the disciples, upset that Jesus has not already sent this shameful woman away, ask Him to go ahead and do it, Jesus instead gives a response clearly intended for the woman to hear: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel."  This is not an answer to the disciples' request.  Instead it is a rhetorical statement of something the disciples and the woman both know,* but it functions as a challenge to the woman:  "Tell me why I should help you."  Instead of sending her away, Jesus engages Himself in the interaction.  She then is encouraged enough to come right up to him and kneel, switching from the beggar's standard plea to the simple words, "Lord, help me."

And here is what is truly astonishing.  DeSilva tells us that a challenge of the sort Jesus offers was a common social interaction in ANE honor-shame cultures-- but only for men.  He explains:

"[H]onor can be won and lost in what has been called the social game of challenge and riposte. It is this “game,” still observable in the modern Mediterranean, that has caused cultural anthropologists to label the culture as “agonistic,” from the Greek word for “contest”.  The challenge-riposte is essentially an attempt to gain honor at someone else’s expense by publicly posing a challenge that cannot be answered. When a challenge has been posed, the challenged must make some sort of response (and no response is also considered a response). It falls to the bystanders to decide whether or not the challenged person successfully defended his (and, indeed, usually “his”) own honor. The Gospels are full of these exchanges, mainly posed by Pharisees, Sadducees or other religious officials at Jesus, whom they regarded as an upstart threatening to steal their place in the esteem of the people." p. 29, emphasis added. 

The rest of the exchange between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman is just this sort of challenge-riposte.  Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."  He uses a diminutive word for "dogs," (Bailey, p. 224), which slightly softens the challenge.  But he flings up to her the attitude of her people towards the Jews, as well as their attitude towards her people.  She (perhaps wryly acknowledging that the tables are turned between them, a Hellenized woman in her own territory and a lowly Jew) answers with a pithy response-- which Jesus then acknowledges as having bested Him in the challenge!  

The challenge-riposte, if offered to a man, would be an attempt to gain honor at his expense.  But Jesus offers it to a woman who, according to every social convention of both their cultures, has already forfeited her honor in this situation.  In doing so He raises her to the status of an equal.  And in acknowledging her win, he restores her honor in the sight of the audience.

By understanding this story in terms of community, socio-economics, and honor/shame, we see that what is really going on is that Jesus has:

Echoed the mercy and miracle-working of Elijah;
Showed a foreign woman and His disciples their mutual prejudice;
Restored a woman's lost honor (at His own expense!);
Taught His followers what "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" really looks like; 
Answered a desperate mother's prayer for the healing of her child. 

And for us, of course, it illustrates again how we need to learn what things the original writers and readers took for granted and felt no need to explain, in order to keep from totally misunderstanding a Bible text. 

If Jesus had simply done as we in the modern West expect, and healed the woman's child, all the underlying dynamics would have gone unaddressed.   Instead, He used silence, followed by challenge-riposte, to deal with the full situation.  Seeing this, I have gone from embarrassment at this text and a wish to avoid it, to an even greater love and admiration for my Savior and a desire to tell this story on my blog as it it deserves to be told.

Jesus acted in concern for the whole person and the whole situation with which He was confronted.  He didn't apply bandaids, but spoke right to the heart of the matter.  And He healed more than just the child He was asked to heal.

So how do we apply this story to our own lives?

I think that for us today, this story is about how social and religious conventions can perpetuate racial and gender oppression.  Oppression hurts more than just those on the receiving end.  It hurts the perpetrators too-- and we as human beings often find ourselves in both positions.  If Jesus went against religious and social convention to set people free from attitudes that restrict and bind themselves and others, shouldn't His followers do the same?


*Note:  Jesus' initial mission was to the house of Israel; it was to His followers, after the Resurrection, that the mission to the Gentiles would fall-- which renders a lesson to them like this one especially important.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Recommendation: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

I remember the excitement I felt when, as a brand-new Christian, I began to explore what kind of life Jesus wanted me to live.  The type of Christianity which I initially encountered was the gentle, fireside faith of the 1970s:  we didn't call ourselves "biblical Christians" or "Bible believing Christians" but "born again Christians" -- not because we didn't believe the Bible, but because we tended to think of our faith more in terms of our encounter with Christ.  I read the Bible more to find out what it said about Jesus, than what it said I was supposed to do.  The main things I did figure out I was supposed to do involved believing that Jesus died for me, trusting God, and being kind to people.

But something changed along the way.  Before long I found myself in a Christian group that told me there was something more to Christianity for me than I had thought.  I was a woman, and I needed to learn to live the way God had designed me as a woman to live.  It wasn't enough to just follow Jesus as a Christian-- I needed to learn to follow Jesus as a woman, which apparently was quite different from following Him as a man.

I learned "biblical womanhood."

I learned that I needed to be taught how to cook and sew and keep house, because that was how women glorified God.  I learned that my prime example in the Bible was the Proverbs 31 woman-- except that I shouldn't forget that the Mary and Martha story showed the importance of also spending time in prayer and Bible study, which was what "sitting at the feet of Jesus" meant.  I learned that as a wife I would need to submit to my husband's authority, and that I should get in practice early, by being submissive to my brothers in the church.  I learned that a Christian woman was ladylike and sat with her legs crossed at the ankles and never at the knee; that she dressed with class and style but always with modesty; that she spoke in a quiet voice; that she never gave her Christian brothers hugs from the front, which might cause them to stumble-- but only side-by-side hugs.

And because I was already naturally soft-spoken and a little quiet, and because I had a naturally yielding disposition, I found that all of this came fairly easily for me.  I was a model Christian woman-- and proud of it.

Except that I hated to sew, I had neither inclination nor desire to can vegetables or make jelly, and I disliked the "feminine" topics of conversation among the younger women at my church, which seemed to be centered around husbands, homemaking and hairstyles.

Somehow, I was still falling short.

Later, when Maranatha Campus Ministries and my religious certainty fell apart-- when I re-examined everything I'd been taught, took it apart and put it back together (missing some pieces but gaining some others) as a freer kind of faith-- this model of womanhood was one of the things I discarded.

So this October when my best friend ordered me a copy of Rachel Held Evans' A Year of Biblical Womanhood as a birthday present, I was gratified to read these words in the introduction:

"Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman?  And do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold?  Must I?"

Rachel Held Evans was taking my journey, but in a much more dramatic and intriguing way.  She set out to answer a three-part question: What does it mean to be "biblical"?  What does it mean to be a woman?  And what does it mean to be a "biblical woman"?

Ms. Held Evans decided to spend a year living out the passages in the Bible -- Old and New Testaments-- which addressed or described women.  "There would be no picking and choosing," she stated.  Setting aside standard evangelical principles of Bible interpretation and standard ways evangelicals apply those interpretations to their own daily living, she would consult all kinds of women who attempt to live by and practice the Bible-- "even when those practices didn't particularly suit my own interpretation of the text."

Rachel studied and practiced orthodox Jewish women's practice of Torah and observance of holy days.  She studied and practiced contemplative prayer as done by Catholic saints and nuns.  She took part in simplicity of living and modesty of dress with the Amish.  She interviewed a Quiverfull daughter, a woman living in Christian polygamy with other "sister wives," and a female preacher/pastor.  She went to Bolivia with World Vision to learn about justice to the poor, and to a Benedictine monastery and a Quaker meeting to learn about silence.  Jewish, Catholic and Protestant; mainstream and extreme alike-- Rachel tried as much of it as was practicable.  (She couldn't, apparently, bring herself to ask her husband Dan to try polygamy; and her attempt at being a patriarchy-style "help meet" resulted in his ordering her to stop submitting to him!)

Along the way she added fun with some playful extremes.  She called her husband "Master" for a week, softening his discomfort by pretending to be Jeannie from the old TV show I Dream of Jeannie.  She spent one of her menstrual cycles camping out in her yard.  She sat on the roof of her house to teach herself not to be contentious, since the Book of Proverbs states that living on the roof, though unpleasant, is not as unpleasant as a contentious woman.

With charming honesty and self-deprecating humor, Rachel does give her own interpretations and conclusions regarding Scripture in her book-- as well as detailing the things of beauty she learns and absorbs in her year-long journey.  One thing that seemed clear to me as a reader was that the true teachings of the Bible which Ms. Held Evans said would permanently influence her-- towards care for the poor, towards avoidance of contention, towards the holiness to be found in silence-- are not exclusively for women, or for men either.  The story is enhanced by wise insights from her husband Dan's journal, which provide a quiet counterpoint to his wife's flamboyance.  It is Dan who points out that though Rachel is the one ostensibly submitting to him, the whole project involved his support of her. 

Rachel's conclusion?

"So after twelve months of 'biblical womanhood,' I'd arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that there is no such thing.  The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth.  . . As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of 'biblical womanhood,' there is no one right way to be a woman, no mold into which we must each cram ourselves. . . 

[I]n the deeper recesses of my heart and mind, I think I was looking for permission-- permission to lead, permission to speak, permission to find my identity in something other than my roles, permission to be myself; permission to be a woman.  What a surprise to reach the end of the year with the quiet and liberating certainty that I never had to ask for it.  It had already been given."

Living as a Christian woman, just like living as a Christian man, boils down to two things, which are really almost one:  grace and faith.  Grace doesn't put constraints on our personhood in Christ's New Creation.  We enter as little children.  We are led by the Spirit.  And one day we will see Him as He truly is.  Rachel and I, in our different journeys through "biblical womanhood," ended up in the same place.  It makes me feel like we are sisters-- as indeed we are.

But I can't finish this book recommendation without saying something about the number of Christian voices on the blogosphere which are doing anything but recommending this book!  I don't feel that I need necessarily defend Ms. Held Evans, because she's done an admirable job of defending herself.  But it makes me sad that she needs to.  Many of the critiques go far beyond "I disagree with the premises and the conclusions of this book" or "I don't like the way this was written."  Some accuse her of only wanting a place in the spotlight-- they even question her Christianity and claim she is siding with atheists in mockery of the Bible.

Why do Christians attack one another like this?

I will briefly address the two main forms that the negative critiques seem to take.

1)  She's using shoddy hermeneutics (principles of Bible interpretation) to distort what evangelical complementarians mean by "biblical womanhood."

According to this critique, there are certain universally agreed-upon principles of Bible interpretation that all Christians adhere to, such as that the Old Testament cleanliness laws are fulfilled in Christ and no longer have to be followed-- and Rachel Held Evans either is ignorant of these or deliberately flouting them.

I suppose that since the term "biblical womanhood" was more or less coined by evangelical complementarians to refer to their particular beliefs and practices about practicing the Bible's teachings for Christian women today, evangelical complementarians might be led to believe Rachel's intent was to distort "biblical womanhood" as they understand it.

But the fact remains that there are many different kinds of people who read, interpret, and try to practice the Bible, and when it comes to what we call the Old Testament, Christians (and evangelicals) simply don't corner the interpretation market.  Judaism was here first.   Since Rachel Held Evans made a goal to research and explore as many interpretations and forms of practice as she could manage in the time allotted, I think she makes a very good case that complementarians really can't claim the term "biblical womanhood" all for themselves.  This wasn't all about evangelicalism, nor is Rachel's book about what complementarians in particular mean by "biblical womanhood." And the idea that the book should be centered around a universally agreed-upon, basic Christian hermeneutic which Rachel deliberately flouted (in addition to being inaccurate) seems to impose upon the book the critics' idea of what it should be about, and then to condemn it for not meeting that expectation-- rather than allowing the book to speak for itself and be what it is.

(In fact, I wish Ms. Held Evans had had more time to explore other major hermeneutics that seek to practice the teachings of the Bible, such as conservative Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  In a sense the book is incomplete without these.)

2.  She's making a mockery of the Bible and/or making Christianity look bad.

This critique seems to be centered on Ms. Held Evans' more out-there practices during the year, and especially the one where she sat on her roof.  Nowhere does the Bible tell anyone to sit on their roofs, and the passage (Proverbs 21:9) about contentious women is written in terms of husbands finding the roof more desirable as a place to be than with their wives.  Therefore, by doing something as silly and unbiblical as sitting on her roof, Rachel makes the Bible and all of Christianity look silly.

The issue I have with this is that the idea of interpretation (figuring out what the text might mean) is being conflated with the idea of practice (figuring out what we then should do).  Rachel made it clear in the book that she wasn't sitting out on her roof because the Bible told her to.  She was sitting on her roof as a penance, to bring home to herself the unpleasantness of what she describes as "complaining, snarkiness, nagging, swearing."  That's what a penance is-- an action a person takes to show repentance and as a self-deterrent against further wrong-doing.  As such, it falls squarely within the realm of practice, not interpretation.

And there's where the inconsistency of a critique like this becomes plain.

If Rachel Held Evans says, "I'm going to take this proverb about contentious women, and apply it to my life by finding out how unpleasant it is to sit on the corner of the rooftop, in order to remind myself not to be contentious," how is that different in substance from when a woman says, "I'm going to take this psalm about children being a blessing, and apply it to my life by never using birth control again"?

Both ideas are about application of a text to one's own life.  Sure, the Bible never says a contentious woman should sit on the roof.  But neither does it say that women should not use birth control.  There is a passage about a man named Onan getting punished by God for spilling his seed on the ground, but no one else in the Bible is punished for using birth control-- and history tells us that the Ancient Near-East cultures in the Bible did know of and use various methods.  So maybe something else (such as the fraud and covenant-breaking which are plainly described in that text in Genesis 38) was the real reason why Onan was judged.  Try as we might, it is impossible to find any place in the Bible that directly tells women not to use birth control.

So why is one application of a passage in the poetry texts (Psalm 127:3 resulting in not using birth control) being "biblical" -- while the other application (Proverbs 21:9 resulting in sitting on a roof) is "making a mockery of the Bible"?

I think that many Christians (including those making these critiques) are often unaware of how much Christian practice is rooted in tradition, and how much seems normative and unremarkable simply because Christians have done it in the past.  It's possible to believe that we are being radically sold-out for God and counter-cultural when we fly in the face of modern Western culture-- but most of the time this supposed radicalism is actually a return to earlier traditional practices which were more restrictive to women, and not new practices at all.  So when someone like Rachel Held Evans tries a practice that really is new, all we can see is how silly it looks-- not noticing, perhaps, how silly our own practice might look if no one had ever done it before.

So I'd like to request more charity and grace from my fellow-Christians who have taken it upon themselves to denounce A Year of Biblical Womanhood as a dangerous book that attacks the Bible and Christianity and might lead gullible Christian women astray.  Really, folks-- what this book is really about is that there are a great many different ways, historically and throughout various cultures today, that "biblical womanhood" has been and is being understood-- and in light of that, perhaps we should all cling a little less tightly to our assurance that we have a full and correct understanding of what biblical womanhood is supposed to mean.

And maybe we women could give ourselves, and our sisters, a little more permission to just be.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Things I Have Learned Not to Fear

When I was a young Christian in charismatic evangelicalism (Assemblies of God, followed by Maranatha Campus Ministries), 2 Timothy 2:7 was frequently preached:

"For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and love, and a sound mind."

Other verses emphasized the point:

"For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption. . . "  Romans 8:15.

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.  He that feareth is not made perfect in love."  1 John 4:18.

"You are children of God and have victory over the devil," the pastors told us.  "Be bold as a lion, be strong and courageous!"  (Proverbs 28:1 and Joshua 1:6)  We would never have described ourselves as afraid of the world, or as living in fear of anything at all.

How, then, did I learn to be afraid of so many people, so many things?  Back then I would have said, "Oh, no!  I'm not afraid of these things.  But I know enough to be cautious.  There are things out there that God just doesn't want Christians involved in!"  Looking back, however, at myself and my young Christian friends-- at the strength of our visceral reactions against certain things-- I have to say that, no matter how we denied it, what we'd been taught to do was to be afraid. 

So later-- after I married a man who, though in the same church, had never bought into many of its ideas; after I began to live more in the greater community of my town than in an encapsulated Christian community where everyone I knew had the same beliefs as me; after family members I loved and respected showed no ill effects from things I'd been taught were roads to destruction and apostacy-- that was when I began to question if these fears were actually valid, or born out of ignorance.

The result is this list.  Here are some things I've learned not to fear.

Non-Evangelical Christians.

I thought that every Christian who didn't go to the kind of church I went to, was a Christian in name only.  They didn't believe Christ was the Son of God.  They didn't believe He had died for our sins and risen from the dead. And because they didn't believe these things, if I fellowshipped (Christianese for "hung out") with them, I would find myself doubting these things too, and I could even lose my faith. So I talked only to other evangelicals, and learned very little about other branches of Christianity.

Since then I have found that, though there are some Christians who don't believe in an actual resurrection, there are tons of non-evangelical Christians-- Eastern orthodox, Catholic and Protestant-- who don't differ from evangelicals much at all on these most basic issues of the faith.  And even those who do differ are usually kind, warm, caring people-- people who, it seems, often take the New Testament's actual teachings about things like caring for the poor, far more seriously than most evangelicals do.  Who is trusting Jesus more, following Jesus more closely?  Only Jesus Himself knows, and it's none of my business.  That's what He told Peter in John 21:22: "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?  Follow thou me."


I thought atheists would do anything to get a Christian to stop believing, and that atheists, having no foundation for morality, just did whatever they wanted.  But actually, most atheists are not interested in divesting religious people of their faith.  A few are, but atheists by and large just want Christians to not try to convert them.  They don't want Christians to impose their beliefs on others, and they are happy to return the favor.  Contrary to what I was taught, atheists usually have strong ethical and moral values and strive to be true to them-- truer, sometimes, than Christians do when they think a little prayer of repentance will automatically undo any damage they have caused.

Public Schools.

The purpose of religious schools are to impart their religious tradition to children along with the ABC's and addition and subtraction.  Many Christians think public schools are the same-- that their purpose is to impart "secular humanism" as a sort of quasi-religion to vulnerable young people who don't know any better than to imbibe it.  When the circumstances of my life resulted in the necessity of sending my own children to public school, I was very afraid of this.  I remember going to my first Curriculum Night (where the principal and teachers imparted to us parents what our children were going to be taught that year) with deep suspicion.  What anti-Christian teachings and values were going to be imparted to my helpless kindergartner?

None, it turned out.  The public school system and its teachers were mostly concerned with teaching my kid what she needed to know without getting involved in controversies and without getting sued!  This meant that yes, she was going to learn about evolution when she got older, but she was not going to be taught that evolution replaced faith or that there was no need for God.  And both my kids were going to learn something that I decided I approved of very much:  empathy and tolerance for others who were different from themselves.  This was something that had not been emphasized when I myself was in public school, but it was apparently a big part of these schools' new anti-bullying program.

I still had scars from being bullied myself.  If the school was going to strongly discourage bullying and strongly encourage empathy and tolerance, I didn't care if it was a public school or not.  If it was strong on academics (this system was), if the teachers were dedicated and cared about kids (they did), and if my kids were going to learn to treat others as they themselves wanted to be treated (hmm, doesn't exactly sound anti-Christian, does it?), I was all for it.

Secular Music (Especially Rock-n-Roll).

Yes, I really had come to believe that listening to any music with a rock beat that wasn't about God or Jesus, was a slippery slope towards licentiousness, lukewarm faith, and even apostacy.  In fact, even Christian music was suspect if it had a rock beat, and any music with lyrics was suspect if the lyrics weren't about Jesus.  I remember when Christian singer Amy Grant was declared to have left the fold because she recorded a few songs that weren't about God and which were picked up by secular radio stations.  No more listening to Amy Grant!

Now I wonder what on earth I was thinking.  There is a Protestant doctrine called "common grace" which says that all good things are from God, not just those things that are outwardly Christian.  God's grace is everywhere, and nothing good is to be feared.  I still don't listen to music that contains obscenities or promotes misogyny, racism, violence, etc.-- but I am very much uplifted by a lot of popular music today.


When I became a Christian, Halloween was just becoming anathema (an unholy thing) in Christian circles.  A well-known Christian comedian had-- falsely, it turned out-- confessed that he was once a Satanist high priest and that Halloween (which did actually come from pagan roots) was Satan's high holy day.  Letting your kid dress up as Mickey Mouse and ask for candy at your neighbor's front doors was tantamount to letting Satan walk in your front door.  Harvest festivals at local churches were the approved non-Halloween activity for the righteous, so you could be away from home while the antichrist holiday activities were in full swing.  Costumes were permitted at these harvest festivals so long as no witches, ghosts, zombies, vampires, ax murderers or any other evil and/or supernatural costume was worn.

It turns out that Halloween's roots aren't any more pagan than those of any Christian holiday.  The early Roman church deliberately placed its feast days on the days of pagan holidays in order to give the pagans a Christian way to celebrate the same holidays they were already used to.  Carving pumpkins and dressing in costumes certainly isn't inherently evil, any more than bringing a pine tree into your house and decorating it is inherently evil (I know some Christians are still against celebrating Christmas, either, but really, didn't God create the pine tree?).

Nowadays I think giving candy to people who come to your door and ask for it, seems to work rather well as a festive observance of Christ's words, "Give to everyone who asks of you."  Luke 6:30.  And making a game of things that frighten us is a very good way of coping with fear.  It used to be called "whistling in the dark," and I know of no better way to do this than by turning death into something to laugh at, one day out of every year.


Good Christians are supposed to be Republicans, right?  It's the Republican party which has embraced biblical values, while Democrats are only interested in increasing the power of the inherently corrupt State.  That's what I used to think until I actually talked to real Democrats and read real articles written by them.  Lately, too, it's been kind of eye-opening to listen to what real Republicans have been espousing.  A lot of it doesn't sound anything like what Jesus taught.

This year I left the Republican party, re-registered as an Independent, read the book Left, Right and Christ by Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes, and let go of my political biases once and for all.  So far I've felt no ill effects.


Feminists are ruining our country and destroying our men!  Aren't they?  Turns out that feminism is simply the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes, according to the dictionary, or "the radical notion that women are human beings," according to feminist Cheris Kramarae.  Certainly, there are some radical feminists that practice sexism against men, but most feminism is for men, advocating for men's release from gender stereotypes that hurt them just as much as gender stereotypes hurt women.  I happen to think men and women should be functionally equal in every area of life-- and that makes me a feminist, even though that is a bad word in many Christian circles.

I guess I'll have to get used to being called names for standing up for what I believe in.  Wait a minute-- as a Christian, I think I'm supposed to already be prepared for that, right?

People who are LGBT.

Many Christians will tell you that we are supposed to "hate the sin, love the sinner," but what I discovered in myself, much to my dismay, was that I was really "hating the sin, fearing the sinner," and I needed to repent.  Actually meeting , talking to, listening to and deciding to love real people who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender-- and finding out they are not monsters with an agenda to take over our nation and recruit our children-- was a huge step in shedding my homophobia.  Because that's what it was, and denying it never changed anything.

Other Religions.

This was probably the biggest fear that I walked away from.  So many Christians believe that the only reason to learn anything about other religions is for apologetic purposes, so that we can learn how to argue against their beliefs.  Admit the possibility that there might be any wisdom, truth or guidance to be had from people of other faiths?  Might as well just go ahead and deny Christ and get it over with.  Your Christian friends will be praying for you.

Imagine my amazement when I found that Buddha, Confuscius and the Tao actually said some of the same things Jesus Himself taught. That Islam's concept of submission to God isn't really different than that of Christian surrender.   Sure, there are differences in the major religions, and I'm sticking to Christianity as my own faith-- but if common grace is real, then truth is truth wherever we find it.

I still believe in what Christ said:  "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me."  John 14:6.  But I do notice that He never said, "There is no truth to be found anywhere but in the Scriptures," or "Nothing that any non-follower of Mine tells you has any value."  In fact, in Acts 17:22-34, Paul commends the pagans in Athens for being "very religious in all aspects," even to the point where they had raised an altar with the inscription "To an Unknown God." Paul was not afraid of the Athenian's religion, even though he'd been a devout Jew all his life.  He related to them first through their own faith and did not condemn them.

I don't have all the answers as to how God deals with people of other faiths than my own.  But I must believe that when Jesus said, "If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me," He indeed meant "all."  I am not a Calvinist.  I don't believe in a limited Atonement.  I believe people can resist being drawn, but I cannot believe that God chooses certain people to never even have a chance.  So if Christ is drawing all peoples to Himself, then who am I to tell him how He's supposed to do that?

So those are most of the things I've learned not to fear.

There are still quite a few things that I fear.  Poverty.  Drowning.  Earthquakes.  People breaking into my house.  Spiders.  ElfQuest never getting made into a movie.

But I like to think that more of my fears nowadays are of things that actually can hurt me.  I feel like I may finally be learning to really live the verse I used to think I was following:

"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.  He that feareth is not made perfect in love."

Someday I hope to be made perfect in love.  Till then-- I promise to try not to be afraid of you just because you're different from me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is God's Nature "Father" and not "Mother"?

There is an argument among Christians today about whether the Father God can also be thought of as a Mother.  Paul R. Smith's Book Is it Ok to Call God Mother? - Considering the Feminine Face of God answers "yes."  Many other Christians have also pointed out the many feminine/motherhood metaphors describing God both in the Old and New Testaments.  Clearly, according to Genesis 1:27, both male and female humans are made in the image of God; therefore, though God is a Spirit and without gender, God's nature must encompass both male and female.  Shouldn't this mean that God our Father is also God our Mother?

Certainly not, other Christian groups say.  Jesus, they point out, taught us to call God "Father," but He never called God "Mother."  Some cite Ephesians 3:14-15:

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named. (KJV) -- which in some translations reads:  "from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name" (Phillips) or "of whose fatherhood all heavenly and earthly fatherhood is a copy" (Barclay, Daily Study Bible).

Proponents of this doctrine say that theologically, we need to discard the idea that being Father means God is male; but the nature of God is Fatherhood, and all fatherhood on earth springs from God's very essence.  "Father" is what God is called-- one of God's names-- and therefore describes the nature of God.  But since God is not called "Mother" in the scriptures, the motherhood images of God are merely metaphors-- word pictures to help us understand something about God, just as referring to God's "feathers" (Psalm 91:4) does not make God a bird.  God is Father, not Mother-- and indeed, some who teach this insist that it is actually blasphemy to refer to God as Mother.

There are problems with this teaching, however.  First of all, the word translated "fatherhood" in certain translations of Ephesians 3:15 is the Greek word "patria"  As I quoted above, the King James version translates this as "family," as do most other translations, with only a few using "fatherhood."  There are only three instances in the New Testament where this word "patria" is used.

Luke 2:4 - And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into. . . Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage (patria) of David.

Acts 3:25 - Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made. . . saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds (patria) of the earth be blessed. 

And, of course, Ephesians 3:15 - Of whom the whole family (patria) in heaven and earth is named.

Ephesians 3:14-15 does make a play on words between "Father (pater) of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "of whom the whole family (patria) of heaven and earth is named."  God the Father is seen as the Pater of the patria, which is a word linguistically related to "father."  But just because it is related to the word "father" does not make this word mean "fatherhood"!  "Fatherhood," as proponents of this teaching mean it, is "the state or nature of being a father."  But patria is not a concept word referring to a state of being; it is a concrete word referring to a group of people that are related by familial descent.  Therefore, meaning of this verse in its original language has to do with God being the source and engenderer of all people groups-- not the source of a state of being called "fatherhood" that women and mothers can never share.

This verse simply does not say that the nature of God is fatherhood and not motherhood.  In fact, there are certain implications of the idea that the nature of God is fatherhood and not motherhood, which the teachers of this doctrine may not have anticipated nor even desired.

1. If fatherhood is directly derived from God’s nature and motherhood is not, then what this would mean is that fatherhood is not only a biological thing, but a spiritual, divine thing, while motherhood is a biological thing only. This would mean that only fatherhood, and not motherhood, can have a spiritual dimension.

2. This wreaks havoc with the idea (which is often also believed by those who accept the doctrine of God-as-Father-only) that motherhood is a woman's highest calling. If motherhood is not spiritual and does not partake of the Divine Nature, how can it in any sense be a high calling?

3. This view degrades motherhood and thus womanhood, for if this necessary function of women does not reflect the nature of God, while the corresponding necessary function of men does reflect the nature of God, then women do not reflect God in one of the main aspects of the very nature of womanhood. ("Necessary" here is used in its meaning in logic-- not that it is necessary for women to be mothers, but that the potential  to be mothers and not fathers is "necessary" to the definition of womanhood.)  However, the holders of this doctrine usually believe men and women are both made in the image of God and are equal before God; that they just have different "roles."  But tying these roles into the nature of male vs. female humanity, and then saying the female role does not reflect the nature of God, contradicts the assertion of equality.

4. To find it insulting to God, or blasphemous, to think of God as having a mother's nature as well as a father's, smells of misogyny. Why should the Motherhood of God be blasphemous, unless there is something unholy about motherhood/womanhood?

5.  If only fatherhood, and not motherhood, can have a spiritual dimension (see point 1), then women must also, being made in the image of God, be able to partake of this spiritual, divine thing called Fatherhood, so women must be able to be spiritual fathers. To say otherwise is to say women are not as much made in God’s image as men are.  And yet the idea that women as well as men can be spiritual fathers is distasteful to those who believe this doctrine-- most likely because they associate "fatherhood" with authority that they believe women were never intended by God to have.

So, given that one way of testing an idea is to follow it through to its implications-- the implications of this idea seem to end up in a very self-contradictory place!  Perhaps it makes more sense to say that the nature of God is to engender, which both fathers and mothers actually do, and that there are other reasons why God is not called our "Mother" in the Bible that are unrelated to whether motherhood is also God's nature.

I'm going to go through some of the arguments in an online reprinting of Why God is Father and Not Mother by Mark Brumley, managing editor of the Catholic Faith Magazine (who originally published this in the July/August issue of 1999), to see how well his arguments hold together and if another way of looking at the issues he raises makes more sense.

Brumley says:

Since Christians believe that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, they must hold that He most fully reveals how we, by grace, should understand God: as Father. Otherwise they tacitly deny the central claim of their faith—that Christ is the fullness of God’s self-disclosure to man. Non-Christians may do that, of course, but Christians cannot—not without ceasing to be Christians in any meaningful sense of the word.

Here is the doctrine made explicit:  Jesus revealed God as "Father," and if we say otherwise, we are denying Christ and ceasing to be Christians.

The problem, of course, is that my understanding of the God-as-Mother concept is not that it denies the Fatherhood of God-- not at all.  Rather, that the Motherhood of God is a viable concept in addition to that of God's Fatherhood.  I am not saying we should stop viewing God as Father, but only that it is possible to view God as Father without excluding Mother.  Jesus, of course, stands in a special relation to God in that God is His Father in a way that God is not Father to the rest of us, except by adoption (see Galatians 4:5).  As Brumley himself says:

Now whatever else we say about God, we cannot say that He is Jesus’ mother, for Jesus’ mother is not God but Mary. Jesus’ mother was a creature; His Father, the Creator. "Father" and "Mother" are not, then, interchangeable terms for God in relation to Jesus.

Brumley then insists that if God was not Mother to Jesus, He [male pronouns for God are intended to be understood as generic here] cannot be Mother to us.  But that is precisely what Brumley cannot say, given his own words.  Jesus had no human father; He did have a human mother.  But the rest of us have both human mothers and human fathers.  Jesus could not call God His mother because God was exclusively His father.  God is not exclusively our Father, for we have human fathers as well.  Since God is our Father in a different way than He is Jesus' Father, it is not impossible that God could also be our Mother in that same way.

We cannot escape the fact that Jesus taught us to pray to "Our Father" and not "Our Mother."  But how restrictively should this be understood?  Brumley believes that it is wrong to call God anything other than what is revealed:

Undergirding Jesus’ teaching about God as Father is the idea that God has revealed Himself as to be such and that His revelation should be normative for us. God, in other words, calls the theological shots. If He wants to be understood primarily in masculine terms, then that is how we should speak of Him. To do otherwise, is tantamount to idolatry—fashioning God in our image, rather than receiving from Him His self-disclosure as the Father.

So is it wrong for humans to call God something other than what God calls Himself?  There is at least one place in scripture where a human does just that-- and God does not rebuke her.  Genesis 16 tells the story of how Hagar, Abraham's slave wife, was driven away by Sarah, and how God met Hagar in the wilderness.  Genesis 16:13 tells us, "And she [Hagar] called the name of the Lord who spoke to her 'You, God see me,' [or, "the God who sees"] for she said, 'Have I also here seen Him who sees me?'"   

There are actually many names for God used in the Old Testament, including names taken from other ancient religions.  There is one-- the name transliterated "Yahweh"-- which God calls His own Name, speaking to Moses in Exodus 3:14, but there is no indication that each and every other name used for God, including "El, "Adonai," and "Shaddai" [or "El Shaddai"], and "Ehyeh," were names God personally revealed to humanity as His names.  There are stories throughout the Old Testament where a person has an encounter with God and speaks of God using a new variation on one of these names.  Of course, Jesus' revelation of God should take primacy-- but there is simply no place where the Bible states that it is wrong for humans to give names to God.

Brumley goes on:

The fact is, whenever the Bible uses feminine language for God, it never applies it to Him in the same way masculine language is used of Him. Thus, the primary image of God in Scripture remains masculine, even when feminine similes are used: God is never called "She" or "Her." As Protestant theologian John W. Miller puts it in Biblical Faith and Fathering: "Not once in the Bible is God addressed as mother, said to be mother, or referred to with feminine pronouns. On the contrary, gender usage throughout clearly specifies that the root metaphor is masculine-father.

The question here, of course, is "why?"  Brumley dismisses the idea that the use of masculine pronouns and names for God could be driven by the patriarchal mindset of the times in which the Bible was written, but the fact remains that the word "father" (and other masculine names) in ancient times would have conveyed things God intended to reveal about Himself which the word "mother" (and other female names) could not have conveyed.  Women had no legal power in those times and were considered property to be transferred from male to male.  But this is no longer the case today.   Women today in society have the same rights and powers as men, and mothers today hold the same legal authority over their children that fathers do.  Therefore, the word "mother" no longer carries implications of powerlessness or dependence.

In fact, since fathers and mothers are different in the way they relate to their children (and children relate differently to them) motherhood conveys different concepts of relationship-- not inherently better, but different-- so that the desire to relate spiritually to a religious mother figure is widespread in humanity. Brumley, who says "Catholicism’s doctrine that Mary is the 'Mother of Christians' is correct," himself embraces a spiritual Mother in Mary. Protestants believe Mary should be honored as Christ's mother without becoming our own Mother. But many Protestants feel something lacking in relating to God only as Father. Is the desire for a divine mother-child relationship a genuine human need, and does it actually spring from the Motherhood of God? God is the One who said, after all, "As one whom his mother comforteth, so shall I comfort you." Isaiah 66:13. Though God does not call Himself "Mother" in the Bible, there certainly are promises of Motherhood in a verse like that one!

What are the reasons Brumley gives for why God is Father and not Mother, given that he disagrees that it has something to do with the Bible's patriarchal cultures? Brumley says:

A father is the "principle" or "source" of procreation in a way a mother is not. To be sure, both father and mother are parents of their offspring and in that sense both are causes of their offspring’s coming-to-be. But they are so in different ways. Both mother and father are active agents of conception (contrary to what Aristotle thought). But the father, being male, initiates procreation; he enters and impregnates the woman, while the woman is entered and impregnated. There is an initiatory activity by the man and a receptive activity by the woman.

This idea is inherently male-centered in perspective.  As Brumley says, it used to be thought that only the father was an active agent of conception: that he contributed the "seed" to which the mother's body was merely the "soil" in which the seed was planted.  We now know that both mother and father produce a "seed"-- sperm and an egg-- which combine together to become a child.  But the idea that the father "enters" the mother to "impregnate" her is neither more nor less accurate than the idea that the mother "encompasses" the father in order to "take" his seed.  Many men can testify that when a woman wants to become a mother, it is frequently not the man who "initiates activity"!  In short, there is no reason why God's generative, life-giving power is not as physically analogous to motherhood as it is to  fatherhood.

Another idea of Brumley's is this:

Because the father procreates outside of himself, his child is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) other than his father. Likewise, the father is other than his child (though also not wholly). In other words, the father, as father, transcends his child. Fatherhood, in this sense, symbolizes transcendence in relation to offspring, though we also recognize that, as the "source" of his child’s life, the father is united or one with his child and therefore he is not wholly a symbol of transcendence.

On the other hand, because the mother procreates within herself—within her womb where she also nurtures her child for nine months—her child is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) part of herself. And similarly, the mother is symbolically (though in reality not wholly) part of her child. In other words, the mother, as mother, is one with her child. Motherhood, in this sense, symbolizes immanence, though we recognize that as a distinct being, the mother is also other than her child and therefore not wholly a symbol of immanence. . . .

Which leaves us with the obvious question, "If this is so, why does traditional theology use only male language for God?" The answer: because God’s transcendence has a certain priority over His immanence in relation to creation. . .

To prevent God’s transcendence from being lost sight of and God being wrongly reduced to, or even too closely identified with, His creation, language stressing transcendence—masculine terms such as father —is necessary. . .

Thus, in order to express adequately God’s infinite transcendence and to avoid idolatrously identifying God with the world (without severing Him from His creation, as in deism), even on the metaphorical level we must use fatherly language for God. Motherly language would give primacy to God’s immanence and tend to confuse Him with His creation (pantheism). This does not exclude all maternal imagery—as we have seen even the Bible occasionally employs it—but it means we must use such language as the Bible does, in the context of God’s fatherhood.

In other words, God’s Fatherhood includes the perfections of both human fatherhood and human motherhood. Scripture balances transcendence and immanence by speaking of God in fundamentally masculine or paternal terms, yet also occasionally using feminine or maternal language for what is depicted as an essentially masculine God.

In a self-contradictory fashion, Brumley here associates masculinity with God's essence while simultaneously admitting that both motherhood and fatherhood image the nature of God-- one through transcendence and one through immanence.  I am inclined to agree that this analogy (fatherhood is to transcendence as motherhood is to immanence) has some merit.  However, I am not at all convinced by Brumley's idea that if we think of God as Mother, we will lose sight of God's transcendence and become pantheists. This would only be the case if we replaced the idea of God as Father with the idea of God as Mother.  But if we think of God as both Father and Mother, then God's immanence and God's transcendence achieve a balance.  

You see, I am also not convinced that God's transcendence should be given priority over God's immanence.  Jesus came to reveal God the Father-- but the Father also revealed the Son as Emmanuel-- "God with us."  Matthew 1:23. The Holy Spirit came from Father and Son and now dwells within us.  John 14:17.  And Psalm 139:7-10 states:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.

All of these are ideas of immanence.  If we focus on God's transcendence to the point where it takes priority over God's immanence, we can end up with a distant, removed God who commands from afar, and can miss the fact that God is very near.  In many branches of Christianity, it is transcendence, not immanence, which is overbalanced in Christians' worship and service of God.

Brumley concludes by discussing the Trinity and the Incarnation in terms of Fatherhood, in that it is necessary to see God as containing an eternal, engendering relationship between God the Father and God the Son, who nonetheless are One.  As a Trinitarian, I wholeheartedly support this-- though I think Brumley is associating "Father" with maleness and supposed male authority, in spite of his assertions to the contrary.   When he says:

Thus, within the Trinity, there is fundamental equality—each Person is wholly God—and basic difference—each Person is unique and not the Others, not interchangeable. And there is also sacred order, with the Son begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. This shows that equality and difference, and even equality and hierarchy, need not be understood as opposed to one another. . . .

--he is arbitrarily adding an idea of hierarchy to the Trinity, and from there to human male-female relations, that is simply unnecessary and without basis.*  Once he has done so, he has weakened the female and rendered it dependent, which may be at the heart of why he disagrees with ascribing motherhood to God. 

In short, there is no reason to follow Brumley's reasoning to deny the Motherhood of God, especially in light of the negative implications that I have described early in this post as proceeding from such a denial.  I believe it is most accurate, therefore, to say that God's nature and essence encompass both fatherhood and motherhood.  

Both fathers and mothers reflect God's image when they relate to their children.  And we can relate to God both as a Father and Mother.  

For which I am truly thankful. 


*Note: I have discussed this further in Part 3 of my series, The Bible and Human Authority.