Monthly Archives: May 2010

K Company, 75th Infantry (Rangers) Viet Nam

On this Memorial Day weekend, I’m thinking of my Viet Nam buddies from 1969-70.   Luther “Jim” Doss and Will Koenig didn’t make it home, and neither did  two friends from my high school,  Jim Theisen and Jerry Kalis.

The mission of our outfit (K company, Ranger, 75th Infantry) was Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRP: pronounced lurp).  We worked in four man teams that were flown by helicopter into remote areas and dropped off in the jungle for reconnaissance.  After four or five days, the choppers would return to pick us up.  Because subterfuge was our primary defense, we would be retrieved by the birds ASAP in the event we were exposed.  We played hide and seek well.

Mark EstopareFor 5-6 months, I worked with the same three teammates—Mark Estopare, Billy Powers, and Gary Heald—operating as R-18 (Ranger 18 or Romeo 18 according to the  phonetic alphabet).  We were stationed in the central Highlands of Viet Nam, in conjunction with the 4th Infantry Division, and lived in base camps near An Khe, Pleiku, and Ban Me Thuot when we weren’t in the field.

Mark was barely 18 and from St. Louis.  I haven’t seen him since Viet Nam, but we have spoken by phone a couple of times.  I understand he has had a hard time of it with PTSD.

Billy Powers Billy wasn’t much older and spoke with a Texas twang.  I saw Billy in San Antonio at a Ranger reunion about three years ago, and the drawl was still there as well as his buoyant humor.  He suffered a back injury from a work accident a few years earlier and was receiving worker’s comp.  Still in Texas with grown kids.

Gary Heald Gary was the oldest at 23 (I was 21).  Gary flew to Minnesota to be one of the groomsmen in my wedding in 1971, I had dinner with him in Los Angeles in 1987, and he was at the same Ranger reunion in San Antonio three years ago.  We stay in touch via email.  Gary grew up in Oklahoma but settled in California.  Remarried with adult kids.

We have animal stories: a rat perched on my shoulder as I pulled midnight guard duty; a tiger silhouetted against the moon as he sauntered along the edge of our night location; and monkeys passing by in the treetops, sounding like the whole God damned North Viet Namese army crashing down on us as we hunkered to the ground, butt muscles tight, and lungs unbreathing.  We have drinking stories, and drugs, too.  Filipino bands singing rock and roll; movie stars and football players snapping photos of us and we of them; the Beatles partying late on the Panasonic bought at the PX; poker players with military script; and personal AO’s.  We have stories of searing sun and monsoon rains.  Ponchos.  Poncho liners.  Prick 25s.  Rucksacks.  C4.  Fragmentary grenades.  Smoke grenades.  White phosphorous grenades.  Later, Bronze stars with V devices.  We have flying stories of door gunners and cobra gunships and hot LZs.  We have mountain stories, river stories, hooches under triple-canopy jungle stories, and stories of elephant grass much taller than our head.  In our stories, there are many faces with names long forgotten.  We have shooting stories that come to us in the pale light between wake and sleep, and non-shooting stories, too, of young men from the north passing unknowing in front of our claymores and M16 muzzles, smokin’ and ajokin’ down the mountain, alive still and so were we.  We became fathers and grandfathers with stories; I think they did, too.

This is a repost from last Veteran’s day.


Paul the apostle: a view from down under

Ian Elmer I happened upon a Catholic forum from Australia (Catholica—a global conversation) that appears to have pretty heady theological discussions.  The post I found was written by Ian Elmer, and I note a lengthy list of contributions by this Pauline scholar. 

The lengthy article summarized Paul’s personal history with a view toward understanding the source of his insight, especially since he was not an original follower of Jesus and only became so after the crucifixion.  To what extent did Paul learn from conversations with or instruction from the first disciples?  Paul denied any such influence, but was his denial colored by his later dispute with the Jerusalem leadership?  What was revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus?  In continuing revelation?  From his theological reflections in the decades following the crucifixion but before he wrote his letters?  Was Paul’s experience different in kind from other disciple’s Christophanies?  Theophanies in general?  Epiphanies? Meditations?  Contemplation?  General life experiences?

[Paul’s Galatians letter] is leaving out some very important aspects of his former life that have clearly shaped his understanding of his initial experience on the road to Damascus. Still, this does highlight the whole process of revelation and inspiration. Whatever the nature of Paul’s revelatory experience, he took a considerably long time for him to fully comprehend the import of the message for his new-found Christian faith, as well as its impact on his life.

To pursue this thought further, Paul’s later understanding of his Damascus Road experience came only as a result of a series of conflicts at Jerusalem, Antioch and then in Galatia. By the time of writing Galatians Paul had been both marginalised from the mainstream “church” and forced to embark on an independent mission — for which he was being criticised by the Galatian opponents.

Paul’s only recourse was to attribute both his gospel and his commission to his initial revelatory experience on the road to Damascus. This was not strictly a “lie”, but there is certainly a degree of expedient selectivity in the telling. Was it justified? Or is this simply an excellent example of God’s inspiration at work in the everyday experiences of one’s workaday life? How often do we find God amidst conflict and debate? Is it not in the midst of such debates that our understanding of God’s “call” can be clarified?

I commend the whole article which highlights the controversies between Paul and the Jerusalem establishment, which is also the conflict that drives the plotline of my novel,  A Wretched Man.

Anti-ELCA Benne makes the case FOR the ELCA

This blog has previously posted on three theologians who have attempted to provide intellectual cover for the the ELCA schismatics of WordAlone, Lutheran CORE, and LCMC.  (Click here for prior posts regarding Carl Braaten, here for James Nestingen, and here for Robert Benne). 

Now, Benne, one of the “neo-cons” who influenced Bush Iraq policy, is at it again in a May 27 article entitled “Lutherans in search of a church”.

A common theme of these three ELCA irritants is that their opposition goes way back to the very beginnings—the merger of three prior Lutheran bodies into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that became a reality in 1988.  For each dissident, the focus of their dismay is the polity of the ELCA that mandates a) that voting members shall be 60% laity and only 40% clergy, b) that lay and clergy voting members shall each consist of 50-50 male and female, and c) that 10% of the voting members shall consist of persons of color.  For these three white-male-elites, the ELCA allows too much minority influence, too much female influence, and too much lay influence but not enough influence for the good old boy network.  A subtle subtext to this theme is that Lutheranism got onto the wrong track when some  denominations began to ordain women half a century ago.

Benne’s latest missive suggests this system “insured that the more ‘progressive’ elements of the church would be overrepresented.”  As opposed to the regressive-white-male-elites?  Who does Benne expect to persuade with this argument?

For those of us who support the ELCA generally and the decisions of CWA09 in particular, we can be thankful for the public statements of the “intellectual” spokesmen for the schismatics.  They make our case for us.

For Facebook users, there is a discussion of Benne’s article on the “Lovin’ the Lutheran Church” page.  Here’s a sprinkling of the comments:

Kate Wulff says, “Well, it apparently ruined things for ordained straight white men who are mad the church isn’t their personal fiefdom.”

Robert Lewis says, “And speaking as a white male ELCA pastor, I’m quite thankful that my role has been reduced in this denomination. I personally … and we as a denomination … are richly blessed by the women and people of colors and races other than white … as well as the clergy that fit that description.”

Kirsten A.S. Mebust says, “How odd that Benne defines the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church as primarily white (presumably Euro-descended) and male! It’s as if history and orthodoxy began and ended with the first half of the 20th century in the Upper Midwest of the United States! And even then, it excludes the women who established many of the mission churches, including the one I belong to. The church of his fantasy never existed.”

Shelley Barnard says, “Is he really saying that only white males can provide adequate theological guidance? That’s just… bizarre…”

Jim McGowan says, “If CORE and NACL are the ‘last, great efforts to live out the promise of Lutheranism as a church on this continent’ then we are really in trouble.”

And on and on.

Unity or justice? Must we repeat history?

The two church leaders and longtime friends saw things differently.  At the risk of their friendship, they openly opposed each other as they argued before the assembly. 

One of them sensed that church unity was jeopardized, that the break from tradition that his friend proposed would splinter the church, that his friend’s radical views of justice and inclusivity were misguided.  He was sure that his friend’s insistence upon full participation for those whose behavior insulted the norms of their religious tradition would offend and frighten the faithful core.  It was not that his faction was unwelcoming–they merely asked that all obey the traditional understanding of God’s own law, affirmed by countless generations of God’s faithful.   By refusing to conform, were not these radicals denying the very authority of God? 

Peter and Paul iconWhen his friend stubbornly insisted on full participation for those unwilling to follow the law, the fabric of the church was irreparably ripped apart.  The hurtful words spoken by his once dear friend lingered long in the collective memory of his faction.  Why, he dared to accuse them of hypocrisy and failing to act consistently with the truth of the gospel. 

“How can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

His friend Paul spoke those words, but Peter and the faithful core persisted, remaining true to tradition and Torah.  They would not break bread with unclean Gentiles.  Peter was right about Paul’s inclusive agenda splintering the church.  After this confrontation before the assembly–this incident in Antioch–the rift between the Torah-abiding traditionalists and the Torah-breaking, uncircumcised Gentiles became a gaping chasm.

Saint and sinner: Paul as human being

Paul is the protagonist of my novel, which is to say, he is the main character.  He is neither hero nor villain but thoroughly human with flaws and foibles like the rest of us.  He fights externally with James and the Jerusalem establishment and internally with his own perceived sinfulness.  He can rise to the heroic in his defense of the outsider as a child of God, but he also descends to the despotic in cursing those who disagree with “his gospel”.

In the past couple of days, I have come across a pair of blog posts that touch upon themes raised in the novel.  Gavin at Otagosh blog writes the following:

The Paul of Galatians famously comes across as an egotistical ranter. He simply doesn’t handle theological diversity well! It’s his way or the highway, no matter that senior figures in the early Christian movement (Peter, James) have quite a different take on things than he does.

Is Paul defending the “gospel of Christ”? We’ve got to concede that if he was, his opponents (fellow Christians) thought they were doing that too. No, he’s defending the gospel of Paul: “the gospel that was proclaimed by me.” Go through just chapter one of Galatians and notice all the ‘me’ and ‘I’ statements. It’s an eye-opening exercise.

Galatians is about a territorial dispute, and Paul is marking his territory. So does he mean to lay down a curse or not? It seems a no-brainer. It doesn’t much matter whether you want to understand accursed as hell-bound or excommunicated, it amounts to the same thing.

Here is a list of derogatory names used by Paul in his writings to label his enemies: “peddlers of God’s word”, “false apostles”, “deceitful workers”, “false brothers”, “dogs”, and “evil workers”.  The victims of Pauline name-calling were not pagans, emperor worshipers, or mystery cultists; they were fellow followers of the man from Nazareth whose sin was disagreement with Paul’s interpretation of the Christ.

Mothermary44 The second blog post was entitled, Who was Yeshua bar Maryam?  The blogger, who goes by the name of Mothermary44, raises the question of the historical Jesus and wonders whether Pauline speculation set the Christian course away from the historical Jesus toward a mythical, divine “God in a man-suit”.

Paul knew virtually nothing about Yeshua bar Maryam, the real-life wandering teacher, healer, and sage, when he began proclaiming the gospel. The real, historical man simply wasn’t important to Paul — not compared to the divine being whose glory had stricken him blind. (Acts 9)

All my life, I wondered why the pre-resurrection Jesus — humble, loving, forgiving, funny, “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34) — was so different from the humorless and judgmental post-resurrection Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, God in a man-suit. Finally, it came to me: the difference was Paul of Tarsus. Who knew nothing about the real Yeshua bar Maryam when he began proclaiming the gospel of Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.

The novel is not quite so “in your face”, but portrays the ongoing struggle between James and Paul on several levels including James’  charge,

Who do you think you are, coming here with your Greek tongue, claiming to be a Pharisee, claiming to be a follower of my brother?  You weren’t there!

You never heard him speak, you never mingled with the crowds, and you didn’t witness the stinking Romans murder him on the cross.

You’re like an uninvited stranger at a burial boasting that you knew the dead man well.  How dare you share my grief!  How dare you!

My novel tracks my own wonderings about Paul’s Damascus road experience and about the boundary-breaking apostle to the Gentiles who graced us with stirring words of inclusion—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”—but whose pride also resulted in hyperbole and condemnation of his fellows. 

For good and ill, Paul’s legacy continues in the church of the 21st century.

ELCA gay rostering marches on

Following the votes of the ELCA churchwide assembly in August (CWA09) and the implementation of new rostering policies by the ELCA church council regarding partnered gay clergy last month, the reinstatement of once-removed pastors continues around the US.  First came Brad Schmeling and Darin Easler in Atlanta.  This week, the Sierra-Pacific synod has reinstated a group of eight California pastors who were once rostered but subsequently removed because of same-gender partners.

California reinstatements A routine Lutheran candidacy committee meeting turned extraordinary today as the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved the reinstatement and reception of eight gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender clergy.
Today’s meeting opens the door to complete the process of adding all eight to the roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran denomination in North America.

All eight are currently or were previously on the roster of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a movement within the Lutheran church to expand ministry opportunities for openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pastors.

This week in Minnesota, another first: the approval of a lesbian pastor who had not previously been rostered.  The Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper carried the story:

Mary Albing For seven years, the Rev. Mary Albing has been pastor of Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in south Minneapolis. But the official roster of pastors lists the job as vacant.

Albing, a lesbian, couldn’t be recognized as a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Her stealth status ends Sunday morning when Bishop Craig Johnson of the Minneapolis Synod signs the original Letter of Call that Albing got from the church in 2003. She is believed to be the first lesbian to become a rostered ELCA pastor since the denomination voted last year to accept gays and lesbians in committed relationships.

“On one hand, it’s going to be a huge day, and I’m very excited about that,” said Albing, 55. “But at the same time, it’s not going to change anything in terms of what I do.”

In an earlier post, I suggested the national media has discovered the ELCA.  Now, the secular blogosphere is noting that the ELCA may be a welcoming church after all.  The blog entitled “Gay Rights” notes that Albing’s rostering “marks the trajectory that the Lutheran Church as a whole is moving toward — that of a welcoming place for people of all stripes, regardless of sexual orientation.”  And, Albing’s story is noted with approval in the blogosphere of the UK.

As a closing benediction, I will pass along the 20th anniversary story of one gay couple as reported by Pastor Roger Lovette, father of one of the partners, on his blog, Head and Heart.

We’ve learned a lot from them through the years. We’ve learned that being gay is not what one does but what one is as a person. We bristle when anyone says: alternative lifestyle—as if homosexuality was a choice. Ever heard anyone talk about the heterosexual lifestyle? Through this experience, we’ve learned a lot about injustice. Gay couples want the same legal rights and privileges as married folk. They want to serve in the military just like everyone else. To deny people who love one another full legal rights is just wrong. We have learned that to be different is no crime or sin.

We have come to know that all people are basically the same—with the same hopes and dreams. The tragedy is that when those that are gay are forced into a closet this becomes a crippling way to live. This silly idea that gay couples threaten or weaken the institution of marriage is strange. Can we blame gays when 50% of our marriages do not make it?

Pastor Lovette's family We have come to believe that Jesus really does love all the little children of the world. We believe that the prism through which we read the Scriptures must be filtered first through the spirit and attitude of Jesus. Jesus stretched out his arms and said: “Come ye…” and there were no exceptions.

But this we know. There is a couple in Philadelphia that have in their relationship what married people everywhere long for. Commitment, trust, caring for one another—in sickness and in health—a loving relationship.  Matthew and Mark, like a multitude of others, have faced incredible odds when they courageously struck out together twenty years ago. But their ties have lasted and grown stronger. I am proud of our son and his partner and wish them many, many more anniversaries. They are role models for us all.

Pain as proof

We moved last week, just down the block, but packing, transporting, and unpacking a household is an onerous task regardless of the distance.  Still walking around boxes and nursing a stiff old body that will turn social-security-eligible next week.  In the middle of it all, I had a book signing on Saturday, and Sunday marked the third installment of a four part series I am teaching at my congregation about the canonization of the New Testament—the centuries long process of determining which writings would become the sacred books of Christianity.  A story of conflict and controversy and erecting boundaries to define the outsider.  I offer these personal notes as explanation for the dearth of posts on this blog recently.  But today I’ll offer my thoughts on a subject that has been festering for awhile.

Pastor Cary and Pastor Jeff are commenters to this blog with a different point of view than my own.  I’m decidedly pro-revised-ministry-policies, and they’re both opposed.  Pastor Jeff suggests that his Arizona congregation has or will soon leave the ELCA and Pastor Carey is a leader of a SE Minnesota group called “Faithfulness Gathering” whose vision is To create a home for faithful Lutherans in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.  The clear implication is that those of us who support the ECLA policies aren’t numbered among the faithful.

Pastor Jeff has twice invited me, via a comment on my blog, to write a post about an ELCA synod that has significant financial difficulties.  Pastor Cary writes that the ELCA is a “sinking ship” and the only question posed on his blog is whether to join CORE or LCMC.  Why do these two and many others keep pointing to negative ELCA statistics and anecdotal evidence of pain in the parishes?  That several hundred ELCA congregations have or will sever their ties with the ELCA is undisputed as is the knowledge that thousands of individuals will also move elsewhere.  No doubt about it, these departures and the residual anguish in many congregations are immensely painful for the ELCA. 

But why chirp about it?

Some would suggest that it is mean-spirited reveling in the struggles of the ELCA, pleasure in the pain of one’s opponents, but I’ll give them more credit than that.  Instead, I think they seek to prove a point, and they cite the pain of the ELCA as proof—of what?  That the decisions of CWA09 were wrong?  To create a collective “buyer’s remorse” regarding the decisions of CWA09?  There’s a certain “you were warned” tone to the comments.  The admonition “if the ELCA adopts pro-gay ministry policies, then there will be mass defections” has come true.  That’s why it’s also necessary to overstate and hype the defections.  Why, some suggest that the ELCA itself is damaged beyond repair (a sentiment Pastor Cary may share).  But fear not, Lutheran CORE will leap into the breach with their proposal for a “reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism.”  Drum roll, please.

If maintaining unity in the ELCA is a greater priority than enacting justice, then I see their point.  Steady as she goes.  Don’t make waves.  Avoid controversy.  Refrain from challenging the folks in the pews with enlightened notions of human sexuality; after all, the gays left their church a long time ago.  Don’t talk about sex at all.

Change can be painful.  Don’t free the slaves, Mr. Lincoln, or we’ll secede from the union.  And when we do, it’s really you who leave us.  Must our kids remind us that doing the right thing is not always popular?  So, the next time someone flaunts the latest congregation to vote itself out of the ELCA, I ask what does that prove other than that the ELCA was willing to risk, to take a stand, to do the right thing despite the self-fulfilling threats of the secessionists?

BTW, I’ll ask my canonization class on Sunday if we’re unbiblical.

Book Review: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

2004 Hardcover release Published in 1979, The Gnostic Gospels has received the National Book Award and has become the leading work regarding the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in 1945, and Pagels is recognized as a preeminent authority on these Coptic language, gnostic flavored texts.

Although discovered in 1945, the texts remained outside public purview for many years due to scholarly and governmental squabbling over access.  When western scholars finally obtained access to the discoveries, Pagels was entering graduate school at Harvard.  Listen to her story:

I first learned of the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1965, when I entered the graduate program at Harvard University … I was fascinated to hear of the find, and delighted in 1968 when [a Harvard professor] received mimeographed transcriptions … because the official publications had not yet appeared … Convinced that the discovery would revolutionize the traditional understanding of the origins of Christianity, I wrote my dissertation at Harvard and Oxford on the controversy between gnostic and orthodox Christianity.

After receiving her Harvard PhD, Pagels accepted a faculty position at Barnard College, Columbia University, and she continued her research into early Christian Gnosticism, publishing a couple of technical books in the process.  In 1975, she traveled to Cairo and received access to the original documents, she delivered a paper to the First International Conference of the Nag Hammadi scholars, and “having joined the team of scholars, I participated in preparing the first complete edition in English, published in the United States in 1977.”

Nag Hammadi codices The story of finding the buried vase that contained the ancient texts is filled with blood revenge murder and sufficient intrigue for an Indiana Jones movie, but the speculation regarding the burying of the vase millennia ago is equally compelling.  Nag Hammadi is a small city on the banks of the Nile River several hundred miles upstream from the Nile Delta.  Based on dating the codices found in the jar, it is commonly believed that the vase was buried between 350 and 400 CE. 

Who buried the vase?  Why?  Pagels borrows this explanation:

The scholar Frederik Wisse has suggested that the monks who lived at the monastery of St. Pachomius, within sight of the cliff where the texts were found, may have included the Nag Hammadi texts within their devotional library.  But in 367, when Athanasius, the powerful Archbishop of Alexandria, sent an order to purge all “apocryphal books” with “heretical” tendencies, one (or several) of the monks may have hidden the precious manuscripts in the jar.

All this is merely background to the primary thrust of The Gnostic Gospels, which is to interpret and compare these gnostic texts with orthodox Christianity.  Here are Pagel’s main theses:

  • Hierarchy threatened: 

Because gnostic Christians stressed a direct relationship with God attained through self knowledge (gnosis) as revealed by Jesus, the authority of the deacons and bishops was threatened, and the hierarchy attacked the gnostics with a vigor befitting a life-death struggle.  Even though the gnostics were fellow Christians, albeit with different views, the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy developed to smash the gnostics.  Chief among the heresy hunters was Bishop Irenaeus whose monumental “Against Heresies”, c 180 CE, provides the greatest insight into the early battle over orthodoxy.  He wrote:

Such persons are, to outward appearances, sheep, for they seem to be like us, from what they say in public, repeating the same words [of confession] that we do; but inwardly they are wolves.

[Gnostic teaching destroys them in] an abyss of madness and blasphemy.

[S]uch a person becomes so puffed up that … he walks with a strutting gait and a supercilious countenance, possessing all the pompous airs of a cock.

One must obey the priests who are in the church—that is … those who possess the succession from the apostles.  For they receive simultaneously with the episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.

  • Significance of the Resurrection: 

Since gnostics stressed interior knowledge initiated by the revelatory character of Jesus and under the guidance of the spirit, individual theological views varied–dogma was not important—interior enlightenment mattered, and this varied from one to another.  Thus, gnostics held varying views on the resurrection of Jesus, but they tended to spiritualize the resurrection accounts and understand the resurrection symbolically while their opponents stressed the literal historicity of the resurrection, at least in part as self-serving claims for authority for the witnesses to the resurrection (Peter and the disciples) and their heirs (priests, bishops, and pope). 

Pagels describes the resurrection view of the gnostics as follows:

Ordinary human existence is spiritual death, but the resurrection is the moment of enlightenment.  “It is  … the revealing of what truly exists … and a migration into newness.”  Whoever grasps this is spiritually alive.  This means that one can be “resurrected from the dead’ right now:  “Are you—the real you—mere corruption?  Why do you not examine your own self and see that you have arisen?”


  • The role of women:

Again, gnostic views are diverse and varied, but clearly the gnostics held a higher view of the role of women than did their orthodox opponents.  Since the gnostics had no priests, anyone, including a woman, was free to speak at gnostic gatherings.  Some gnostic sects had women in leadership roles. 

Gnostic imagery also offered a heightened view of women.  Pagels sketches three common motifs: the divine mother as part of an original couple, divine mother as holy spirit—the trinity becomes father, mother, and son, and divine mother as Wisdom.

Why did the orthodox church move to exclude women?  Pagels speculates that part of the reason was because the gnostics did not; thus, excluding women became a mode of differentiation from the heretics.

We can see, then, two very different patterns of sexual attitudes emerging in orthodox and gnostic circles.  In simplest form, many gnostic Christians correlate their description of God in both masculine and feminine terms with a complementary description of human nature … Gnostic Christians often take the principle of equality between men and women into the social and political structures of their communities.  The orthodox pattern is strikingly different: it describes God in exclusively masculine terms [which] translates into social practice: by the late second century, the orthodox community came to accept the domination of men over women as the divinely ordained order, not only for social and family life, but also for the Christian churches.

  • Persecution of Christians:

Martyrs and a lion While some gnostic Christians would have been victims of first and second century Roman persecutions, Pagels generalizes that it was mostly orthodox Christians who faced, and embraced death, while the gnostics mostly did not.

The examples of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Perpetua and Felicity are illustrative.  Each of these willingly and gladly accepted their deaths, repeatedly refusing the offer for leniency in exchange for demonstrating sacrificial allegiance to the emperor.


  • The True Church:

The gnostics and the orthodox drew differing boundaries that defined the true church in ways that excluded the other.  For the orthodox, the church consisted of those who held fast to the creed, participated in the sacraments and worship, and obeyed the clergy—“Outside the church there is no salvation.”  For the anti-authoritarian gnostics, the church consisted of seekers after esoteric wisdom–“the light within”–even if their search led them away from the established church.  Truth was to be found in individual enlightenment rather than blind obeisance to the dogma of the bishops.  The charge that gnostics claimed to be spiritual elites has merit.

Conclusion: Pagels offers a benign view of the gnostics, suggesting their suppression resulted in the impoverishment of Christian tradition, but she does not advocate or “side with” Gnosticism.  Yet, the historical record reminds us that orthodoxy always belittles those on the fringes, those who dare wonder, those “restless, inquiring people who marked out a solitary path of self-discovery.”  And, she suggests that current Christians again dare ask questions that orthodoxy would claim are settled:

How is one to understand the resurrection?  What about women’s participation in priestly and episcopal office?  Who was Christ, and how does he relate to the believer?  What are the similarities between Christianity and other world religions? …  What is the relation between the authority of one’s own experience and that claimed for the Scriptures, the ritual, and the clergy?

According to Pagels, if the ancient monks had not buried their library, those gnostic texts would surely have been burned and Christianity would have lost a great treasure. 

Today we read them with different eyes, not merely as “madness and blasphemy” but as Christians in the first centuries experienced them—a powerful alternative to what we know as orthodox Christian tradition.  Only now are we beginning to consider the questions with which they confront us.

Should the ELCA be more democratic? Or less?

Conservative ELCA antagonists continue to rail about the ELCA decision making process in order to delegitimize the church wide decisions of 2009 (CWA09).  The ELCA is too democratic and egalitarian say some.  Failing to note the inconsistency of the argument, others claim that ELCA members and congregations are subservient to an autocratic regime in Chicago, disdainfully dismissed as “Higgins Road”.  Over a thousand voting members, the actual electees from around the US who voted at CWA09, are alternately criticized as dupes of a well-organized and financed gay lobby or as independent spirits who followed their own whims rather than the will of their constituents (the “voting member” rather than “delegate” terminology argument).

Two weeks ago, I attended the NE Minnesota Synod assembly, and I watched and listened to the debate over a resolution to conduct a synod-wide polling of the attitudes of members and congregations regarding CWA09.  If the ELCA only had a direct democracy, the sins of CWA09 would have been avoided; let the people decide!  Then, this past weekend I listened to the debate over a resolution at the SE Minnesota synod assembly that called for synods to have a veto over the decisions of CWA voting members regarding social statements.  A House of Lords to reign in the unbridled actions of the House of Commons?

Which is it? Too much democracy or not enough?  Too hot or too cold, baby bear, or just right, Goldilocks?

Latest Review of “A Wretched Man” published

The Historical Novel Society is highly respected in the field of historical fiction.  They offer an online presence and also publish two prestigious print magazines, The Historical Novels Review (quarterly), and Solander (twice yearly).  Thus, I am delighted to report that they have offered a very favorable review of my work,  A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the Apostle.

Here is their review, verbatim:

In A Wretched Man, Holmen remains faithful to the historical origins of Christianity in the first century C.E. while weaving an intriguing tale of discord between James and Paul—a discord paralleled by Paul’s own internal conflict with his “unclean” inclinations. The suggestion of homosexuality as the thorn in Paul’s flesh is skillfully incorporated into the tale without being overwhelming.

James, the younger brother of Jesus, has assumed the burdens of his brother, first while he is away teaching and then when he is crucified. He must care for their mother Mary and younger brothers as well as provide leadership to Jesus’ followers. When Paul approaches James with his account of conversion while on the road to Damascus, James is furious. How can Paul claim to know what Jesus wants when Paul never knew Jesus, never walked with him, and certainly was not there when he died!

As a devout Jewish Christian, James insists on the keeping of Torah and the circumcision of Gentile converts. He and the Nazarenes await the return of Jesus and the kingdom of God on earth. Paul, on the other hand, ministers to the Gentiles and travels spreading the good news to all who will listen. He preaches that all Jews and Gentiles are welcome apart from Torah. He comes to believe that the kingdom of God is spiritual not physical. These are two very different interpretations and neither is willing to yield.

The author notes are very helpful for those unfamiliar with early Christian history as are the maps of the Holy Land. A well-written historical fiction novel. Recommended. — Debra Spidal