Category Archives: Theology

James: the dangerous brother of Jesus

James and Jesus iconMany scholars suggest that the brother of Jesus known as James the Just is the most forgotten man in Christian history. “I didn’t know Jesus had a brother,” is often the first response when his name is mentioned. The evidence is compelling; according to numerous references in the canonical gospels of the New Testament, the book of Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s authentic letters, contemporary historian Josephus, the non-canonical gospel of Thomas, and early histories of the church, Jesus not only had a brother, but a very important brother, the primary leader of the Jesus movement in the decades following the crucifixion.

What? The leader of the early church? Why don’t the folks in the pews know about this? How could such an influential person in the early history of Christianity be forgotten? Ironic. Or is it? Could it be that the church has largely ignored James precisely because of his relationship to Jesus? Could it be that he was not forgotten but intentionally erased from the story?

It is axiomatic that the victors write the history, and James was the leader of the losing side in the first great conflict in church history. After the crucifixion, the original followers of the slain messiah regrouped in Jerusalem, including Peter and the other disciples, and it was here that James soon ascended to leadership. This core group of proto-Christians (it is anachronistic to apply “Christian” to this early movement) was Jewish.

Enter an outsider. A Greek-educated Diaspora Jew who insisted that he had been called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, who argued that traditional rules of Israelite religion didn’t apply to his Gentile converts, who became an independent missionary in defiance of James’ authority, and who established his own power base in regions far beyond the influence of Jerusalem. Paul of Tarsus was the thorn in the side of James.

Although James and the Jerusalem establishment may have won the early skirmishes, the emerging Christian church would soon be Pauline and Gentile, due in no small part to the vagaries of history and the Jewish civil war. With Jerusalem destroyed, just a few years after the deaths of Paul and James, Jewish Christians could not contend with the Paulines who were better suited for survival in the Greco-Roman world. Although vestiges of this internecine conflict persisted and may be traced through the compilation of the gospels and into the second century, the developing Christian orthodoxy was decidedly Pauline and the legacy of James diminished.

To 21st century sensibilities, the ancient controversies over circumcision, dietary rules, and Sabbath and festival observances seem unimportant.  Why should old conflicts be dredged up? Why is the current scholarly rediscovery of James important or even relevant?

In a word, Christology. Nothing has so divided Christians from the earliest days to the present–scholars, clergy and laity–than the conflicting answers to Jesus’ nagging question, “Who do you say that I am?” For some, it is a test, and the correct dogmatic response assures one’s salvation; for others, however, the question is a call to wonder.

In the early centuries, there were two great centers of Christian scholarship located in Alexandria of Egypt (the 2nd largest city of the Roman empire after Rome itself) and Antioch of Syria (the third largest city). Christian scholars from Antioch argued for the humanity of Jesus while competing scholars across the Mediterranean in Alexandria stressed his divinity. A scholar named Arius, who may have studied in each city, proposed a middle ground–that Jesus was somewhere between divine and human. Emperor Constantine convened the Council at Nicaea to settle the dispute, and a political compromise ensued. Was Jesus human? Yes. Was Jesus divine? Yes. Instead of either/or, the assembled bishops declared both/and. Truly human and truly divine was the political compromise, hammered out first at Nicaea and then at Chalcedon, that may have settled the debate de jure but not de facto.

Was the issue resolved? If so, why do modern-day evangelicals accuse the rest of Christendom of being soft on the divinity of Jesus? Why do liberal scholars, including many in the Jesus seminar, stress the humanity of the man from Nazareth?

Enter James. James is relevant to the ongoing Christological controversies.  James scholar Robert Eisenman ends his tome (James the Brother of Jesus) with this challenging statement, “Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus.” Many would disagree, but Eisenman’s statement frames the debate and defines the importance of James scholarship. This also brings us back to the original premise that James is not merely forgotten but has been intentionally written out of church history.

Ireneaus, the second-century heresy hunter, saw the problem, and he declared the views of the Jewish-Christian Ebionites (heirs of the James legacy?) to be heretical with a deficient Christology: “their opinions … represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation.”

St. Jerome saw the problem. Around 400 CE, Jerome suggested that James and the other siblings of Jesus mentioned in Scripture were really cousins. At the heart of Jerome’s rejection of a human brother for Jesus is the high Christology of the church. There was no room on the divine family tree for mere human branches.

For many, the divinity of Jesus is the hallmark of Christianity, the sine qua non, and thus James is dangerous. Do we dare to ask the lesser-known man from Nazareth–James, the brother–“Who do you say that Jesus is?”



“I’m not a scientist, man”

Galileo by Giusto SustermansEver since the Roman Inquisition decreed that Galileo was “vehemently suspect of heresy” for suggesting the sun stood still while the earth revolved around it, the interplay of science and religious belief has been problematic for the church.  In the ensuing centuries as the age of reason, of enlightenment, and of rationalism dominated western thought, church folk could either accept or reject scientific data, and Christians inexorably moved into one of two camps.

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of “liberal Protestantism” which freely embraced science and empiricism … faith seeking understanding.  Scripture was subjected to scientific and historical analysis, the so-called “historical critical method.”  For this camp, it was “both-and.”

For others, the dilemma was easily solved: If science contradicted traditional, Biblical understanding, science must be rejected.  For this camp, it was “either-or.”

The Presbyterians in the 1920s served as proxy for the whole of Christendom in the so-called “Fundamentalist-Modernist” controversy.  Presbyterian scholars chafed under imposed dogmatic “fundamentals.” Emanating from Auburn University, theologians circulated a document proclaiming the freedom of conscience and the right of dissent—the so-called “Auburn Affirmation.”  A commission was formed, and the 1927 Presbyterian General Assembly adopted the commission’s progressive report; the modernists had prevailed and the fundamentalists had lost.

    But the rift in Christianity wasn’t healed, and the two camps grew further apart.  Historian David Hollinger suggests using the terminology “ecumenical” for the progressives and “evangelical” for the conservatives.  The terms imply an outward versus insular attitude.  In the Church of England decision this week to preclude female bishops, the “evangelical” camp prevailed.  In the recent legislative wrangling within the modern-day Presbyterian Church over LGBT ordination, the evangelicals lost; this was also the recent experience of the Episcopal Church, the Lutherans of the ELCA, and the United Church of Christ.  All these “ecumenical” denominations have endorsed gay clergy.  Meanwhile, evangelical Christianity continues to loudly defend its non-scientific worldview.

This is the religious background to the political point of this post.

In the last generation, the United States has witnessed the rise of the religious right.  More than that, evangelical religionists have come to occupy a dominant position within the Republican party.  When presumably intelligent and educated Senator Marco Rubio visited Iowa this week, he professed ignorance when asked a simple scientific question about the age of the earth:

“I’m not a scientist, man … It’s one of the great mysteries …  It is a dispute among theologians.”

Nobel prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman responds,  “What about the geologists?”

Here is the profoundly frightening part.  By wedding itself to the evangelicals, the Republican party has embraced ignorance, and Marco Rubio is constrained to play dumb for fear of alienating the Iowa base.  Krugman puts it this way:

Reading Mr. Rubio’s interview is like driving through a deeply eroded canyon; all at once, you can clearly see what lies below the superficial landscape. Like striated rock beds that speak of deep time, his inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mind-set that has taken over his political party.

Evolution versus creationism and global warming are obvious public policy issues affected by Republican know-nothingism.  Less obvious is economic theory: austerity versus stimulus during a down economy or the lack of evidence to support supply-side, trickle down policies.  As with their evangelical religionist cronies, the Republican preference is for dogma over empiricism.

Lest we dismiss Krugman as just another liberal Democrat, consider the sentiments of Ross Douthat, one of the handful of Republican commentators willing to acknowledge the emperor wears no clothes.

The fact that the “conservatives vs. science” framework is frequently unfair doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist, or that Republican politicians should just get a free pass for tiptoeing around it. No matter how you spin it, Rubio’s bets-hedging non-answer isn’t exactly a great indicator about the state of the party he might aspire to lead … it’s still neither politically helpful nor intellectually healthy for a minority political party to pick pointless fights with the nation’s scientific and technical elite.

So much for the vacuous impact on public policy wrought by the marriage of evangelicals and politicians.  What about the impact on religious institutions?  On religion itself?  Evangelicals love to beat their chest and point to declining membership in the ecumenical denominations in a post-Christian America.  But it is not just the old mainline denominations—it is Christianity and religion in general.  We have previously posted about this issue and quoted a review of the recent book American Grace which:

makes the case that the alliance of religion with conservative politics is driving young adults away from religion …. Among the conclusions [of a major survey] is this one: “The association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift.”

And Douthat the Republican agrees:

the goal of Christianity is supposed to be the conversion of every human heart — yes, scientists and intellectuals included — and the central claim of Christianity is that the faith offers, not a particular political agenda or an economic program, but the true story of the world entire. The more Christians convince themselves that their faith’s core is identical with the modern innovation of fundamentalism, and in direct conflict with the best available modern biology and geology, the less attainable that goal and the less tenable that central claim.

Why did Paul persecute the early church?

When I wrote my historical novel about Paul the apostle (A Wretched Man),  I wrestled with some thorny historical questions, including this one.  Last month, I was asked to read and review Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist I once again encountered the question, and I found Ehrman’s answer to be less than convincing.

First, some background.  Paul twice mentioned his role as persecutor but without any details.  As with much of his writing, Paul assumed his listeners already knew the story so he didn’t elaborate.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Cor 15:9 (NRSV)

In the most autobiographical of his writings, Paul speaks to the Galatians,

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. Gal 1:13 (NRSV)

In neither instance, does Paul offer a clue as to what he did, exactly, or why he did it.

the-stoning-of-stephen-by-rembrandt-1625Of course, the Acts of the Apostles goes into much greater detail: Jerusalem persecution, stoning of Stephen, sent to Damascus by the High Priest to arrest the followers of Jesus, etc.

The common assumption is that Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus because they claimed he was the long-expected messiah.  Does that really make sense? Why would such a claim have been offensive to Paul or the Hebrew populace? While that may have been the reason why the Romans and their puppets, the High Priest and his crowd, feared Jesus and caused his execution, that hardly explains why Paul and the populace would have persecuted his followers after his death.

Ehrman initially agrees,

There was nothing blasphemous about calling a Jewish teacher the messiah. That happened on and off throughout the history of Judaism, and it still happens in our day. In itself, the claim that someone is the messiah is not blasphemous or, necessarily, problematic (though it may strike outsiders—and usually does—as a bit crazed).

This statement strikes me as eminently reasonable and debunks the traditional assumption that the early church was persecuted because they claimed Jesus had been the messiah. There has to be more to it.

Ehrman’s response is that the claim that Jesus was the crucified messiah is what greatly offended Paul and the others, because no strain of traditional Jewish messianic expectations suggested a crucified messiah.  While that may well be true, I fail to see the offense.  Here is where I part with Ehrman.  If anything, such a claim would only make its proponents sound even crazier but hardly blasphemous to the point of widespread persecution and arrest.

Back to Stephen.

What did Stephen do or say that caused his arrest and execution?  Why did they “stir up the people against him”?  Because he spoke “blasphemous words against God and Moses,” “against this holy place and the law,” and because he said that Jesus would “destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed down.”

No where was there any complaint that he claimed Jesus was the messiah, crucified or not.  The charges against him were that he denied the basic tenets of Hebrew religion … adherence to the law of Moses and temple sacrifice.  In Stephen’s long speech to the Sanhedrin, he concluded,

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears … You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

There could be no greater offense than to question circumcision and failure to keep the law.  Stephen challenged the basic Hebrew self-understanding and thus their standing before God.  To a devout Pharisee, zealous for the law, as Paul claimed to be, this was the crux of the matter.  This would also tie in closely with Paul’s Damascus road experience, in which his life took a 180 degree turn away from zealotry for the law to his law-free gospel message.  Furthermore, it also ties in with the ongoing conflict between Paul and the “mother church” back in Jerusalem over the requirements of circumcision and dietary niceties.

That’s my answer, Professor Ehrman’s opinion notwithstanding, and that was also the answer I proposed in the Wretched Man novel.

Interpreting Paul the apostle

Paul is such fun.

While his preeminent importance in the development of normative Christian doctrine is indisputable, his writings are enigmatic at best and indecipherable at worst.  What is the heart of Paul?  Does Paul reveal himself in Galatians 3:28, the so-called “Christian magna carta” —no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female—or in other writings that seemingly support slavery and the subjugation of women?

Paul also finds himself plopped down in the midst of 21st century debates over gays.  Again, the question arises whether he was the great inclusivist who encouraged Gentile participation in the early church without precondition, without the proper male genitalia, against the wishes of church leaders, and contrary to scripture and centuries of tradition, or was he the greatest gay-basher in history?  Though his “vice lists” have been dubiously translated to include homosexuality, his ranting in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans may be the favorite “clobber passage” of modern gay-bashers.

they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

How do modern exegetes unpack these harsh words?  Yes, this passage is about idolatry, first and foremost.  The evils of homosexual behavior are his assumption not his point.  Yes, Paul’s words must be viewed from the cultural perspective of the 1st century Greco-Roman world, and yes, Paul must be understood as a Jew learned in the law to include the Levitical abominations.  These influences certainly colored his perception, and it is unfair to ask a 21st century question of this 1st century man.  He simply would have harbored a radically different understanding of human sexuality than we do today.

But, we can go further.  What was Paul’s central theme of his letter to the Romans?  Grace.  That humankind is made right with God through God’s own offer of welcome and not through human effort, achievement, or merit—“works of the law” in Pauline terms.  Trust God and rely upon that promise (faith).  Paul works this out as he wrestles with the premise of Hebrew religion that Jews are God’s chosen over against his view that Gentiles should also be included.  Justification by grace through faith and not by works is the simplified summary.  So, if these are Paul’s themes in his letter to the Romans, where do his introductory remarks (quoted above) fit in?

Paul is setting a trap.  He is speaking to Jewish listeners, and he gets them nodding as he recites their cultural stereotypes about the unclean gentiles.  But wait, he suggests as chapter two unfolds, aren’t we Jews also guilty of breaking the rules?  How are we different?  Don’t we also depend upon God’s grace?  And then Paul is off and running with his interplay of the themes of grace, faith, works, Jew and Gentile, etc. throughout the remainder of his letter to the Romans.

In doing research for my current book project about the history of the movement for full inclusion of gays in the life of the church, I came across a succinct version of this exegesis, which came in a 1977 Presbyterian debate.  George Edwards of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a member of a Presbyterian Task Force on homosexuality, spoke these words:

Paul says here that “God gave them up to dishonorable passions”.  Is this, then, Paul’s theology?  Of course not!  God never gave anybody up!  What kind of theology would that be?  Paul is here using a rhetorical device to get his legalistic reader all worked up in self-righteous frenzy before he hits him over the head with his own inadequacy and dependency on God’s grace.**

Perhaps we can take meaning from this passage of Paul after all.  Perhaps it is a clobber passage that offers an analogy for our current debate, but no, not to strike gays but to slam the “self-righteous frenzy” of 21st century legalists and to point them, and all of us, toward our inadequacies and dependency on God’s grace.

Paul, you sly fox.  What a wretched man you are.  Sounds like a good book title.


**Quoted in Chris Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988) p. 164.

Earliest Christian Manuscript Discovered

Arbel CavesAntiquities experts have released the contents of a Christian manuscript that may predate Paul’s letters and the gospels.  Discovered in one of the many caves of the Arbel cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the fragment appears to be an early version of a passage that later appeared in Mark and the Synoptic gospels.  Carbon dating places the document in the third or fourth decade of the first century near the time of the crucifixion.  Some suggest the fragment contains the actual words of Jesus of Nazareth.

Here is the translation from the Aramaic text:

Ancient manuscriptSome Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman?  He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.  But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has not made to lay together, let no one join in marriage.”

I apologize for my  falsehood.  Of course, no such text has been discovered or exists; yet, the actual passage on divorce, which has nothing to do with same-gender relationships, has been coopted by conservative defenders of “biblical marriage”, who latch onto the phrase “God made them male and female” and take it out of the context.  As the nation and our churches wrestle with marriage equality issues, this divorce text has become the “clobber passage” du jour.  My purely fictive version of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is no less perverse than the interpretation that twists this passage into authority against marriage equality.  I have merely written down in plain language what some infer from the text.

When you see it in black and white, it seems rather far-fetched, doesn’t it?  Is my fictive version equivalent to the actual version below?  Of course not, yet some would have you believe so.  Exegesis is the process of getting ‘out’ of the text what is truly there in the first place. The opposite of exegesis is eisogesis. This is the process of putting ‘into’ the text something that wasn’t intended by the author.

For reference sake, here is the actual text from Mark 10:2-9 (NRSV).

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Evangelicals and gays

Tony Perkins of the American Family Council, gay-basher in chief, not only doesn’t speak for all Christians, he doesn’t speak for all evangelicals.  Nor do Charles Colson, James Dobson, or Tim LaHaye.  It would seem there is a younger crowd, a new generation, that is raising questions about the traditional evangelical intolerance toward gays.  Yes, the move toward gay equality is advancing at all levels of religious and secular society, even within the quarter most associated with rigorous opposition.

A small but growing group which calls itself Evangelicals Concerned offers support for gays seeking reconciliation of their faith and their sexuality:

Organizations or churches with Evangelical roots have traditionally been the most condemning, exclusionary and antagonistic to Christians who identify as GLBT. This bias has produced untold levels of damage to many children of God and has caused many to abandon their faith traditions or commit suicide. Evangelical organizations are responsible for virtually every attempt to convert GLBT people. EC has challenged the conversion therapy notion for 25 years, standing in the gap and providing healing and safety to thousands of Christians.

The Gay Christian Network (GCN) also consists of mostly evangelical members.  Earlier this summer, I met one of their leaders when we both happened to be workshop presenters at the Lutherans Concerned Convention in Minneapolis.

The Gay Christian Network is a nonprofit ministry serving Christians who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and those who care about them.

Like many Christian mothers, Sandy was completely unprepared to learn that her son was gay.

How could he be? Everything she had been taught in church had led her to one conclusion, that gay people were sinful, that they had turned from God, and that they were ultimately condemned to hell. Yet none of that fit the profile of her beloved son. He was a good son, and he loved God. How could he be gay?

For five months after learning of her son’s sexuality, Sandy was a wreck. She was sure that homosexuality was not of God. Yet she loved her son. She needed answers, but she didn’t know where to turn.

Then she found GCN.

FalsaniAn article in the Huffpost this week questioned, Is Evangelical Christianity having a Great Gay Awakening?  Author Cathleen Falsani suggests that she struggled to accommodate traditional evangelical Biblical ethics with the reality of the gay relationships in her circle of friends. 

That was my answer: Love them. Unconditionally, without caveats or exceptions.

I wasn’t sure whether homosexuality actually was a sin. But I was certain I was commanded to love.

For 20 years, that answer was workable, if incomplete. Lately, though, it’s been nagging at me. Some of my gay friends are married, have children and have been with their partners and spouses as long as I’ve been with my husband.

Loving them is easy. Finding clear theological answers to questions about homosexuality has been decidedly not so.

Falsani then discusses a book by none other than Jay Bakker, the son of the famous televangelists of a generation ago, Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker, called Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society.

“The simple fact is that Old Testament references in Leviticus do treat homosexuality as a sin … a capital offense even,” Bakker writes. “But before you say, ‘I told you so,’ consider this: Eating shellfish, cutting your sideburns and getting tattoos were equally prohibited by ancient religious law.

“The truth is that the Bible endorses all sorts of attitudes and behaviors that we find unacceptable (and illegal) today and decries others that we recognize as no big deal.”
Leviticus prohibits interracial marriage, endorses slavery and forbids women to wear trousers.

ScrollBakker’s exegesis is quite right, and he could have gone further.  When I have presented workshops interpreting the so-called “clobber passages” of the Bible, I point out that these ancient Hebrew regulations were religious rules and not universal ethics, loosely akin to the modern day ritual of meatless Fridays, formulated from a consistent pattern of Hebrew rituals of boundaries, markers, and insularity.  Don’t do as the Gentiles do.  Don’t mix with the Gentiles.  Don’t mix unlike things.  Don’t mix seeds in your field.  Don’t mix different fabrics in the same garment.  Don’t cavort with the temple prostitutes of the Gentiles (male and female).  Don’t follow the sexual practices of the Gentiles.  Don’t eat meat from animals that confuse their category.  A shellfish doesn’t have fins or swim like a fish; it is an abomination.  Don’t eat shellfish. 

Here is the preface to the chapter in Leviticus that contains the infamous clobber passage:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.

Leviticus 18:3

Ritual regulatory rules of behavior for the ancient Hebrews are complicated, which cannot be adequately addressed here, but perhaps that is the essential point; it’s not as simple or as black and white as the literalists would suggest.  When we understand the context of their ancient formulation, we recognize a ritualistic and symbolic system of separation of a besieged peoples, anxious to preserve their identity against the dangers of assimilation by the empires that dominated them militarily and politically.

Falsani also discussed Bakker’s interpretation of the New Testament, Pauline “clobber passages”, and Bakker again is accurate when he suggests:

Examining the original Greek words translated as “homosexual” and “homosexuality” in three New Testament passages, Bakker (and others) conclude that the original words have been translated inaccurately in modern English.

What we read as “homosexuals” and “homosexuality” actually refers to male prostitutes and the men who hire them. The passages address prostitution — sex as a commodity — and not same-sex, consensual relationships, he says.

Roman art depicting pederastyIn my workshops, I dig deeper.  Modern day Bible versions that include the word “homosexual” are anachronistic at best and political at worst.  Paul used two Greek words, arsenokotai and malakoi, which do not otherwise appear in the writings of the period; thus, it appears he may have coined them himself.  Bakker’s suggestion that the terms refer to prostitution may be correct, but I think the better interpretation is that the terms refer to the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty, involving an aristocrat and a young man or boy, which was fairly common in the period.  Again, attempting to make sense of Paul’s two-thousand year old writings is complicated, and there’s more to it than fits in this blog, but the essential point is that Paul’s writings were conditioned by a 1st century context.  The issues facing Paul were not the same issues we face today. 

Falsani’s experience—“Some of my gay friends are married, have children and have been with their partners and spouses as long as I’ve been with my husband”—persuaded her that the traditional application of the Biblical “clobber passages” didn’t fit for her and for a growing number of her evangelical friends.  She concludes:

Only time will tell whether more evangelical leaders — Emergent, emerging or otherwise — will add their voices to the chorus calling for full and unapologetic inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church.

But I’m sensing a change in the wind (and the Spirit.)

What do you know for sure?

Self doubt is the blossom of wisdom, self assurance its rot.  Socrates purportedly said the only true wisdom is that one knows nothing.  Vanity, vanity, all is vanity saith the teacher.  Jeremiah admonished the haughty, “do not let the wise boast in their wisdom.”  Paul added, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”  “Let go and let God” replies the 12th stepper. 

I happened on the blog today of Kathy Baldock that husked the kernel this way:

My know-it-all attitude was already being confronted  by having my Christian marriage ending over fidelity+ issues and I was open to considering that maybe I did not have all the answers, maybe I did not understand as much as I thought.  I was in that scary place of failure and being unsure. I was ripe for change.

To stretch in any area of growth and to shed the comfort of assurance is unsettling and intimidating. My comfort was broken just enough to allow challenge to some of my core beliefs about several things.  So, for me, it was crisis that opened me more to God’s Spirit. My own voice and opinions were becoming less loud in me; I was hurt and willing to listen.  This was a pivotal point in my own faith walk.  I moved out of the known and into the scary.

Kathy Baldock Kathy, a straight ally who blogs at Canyonwalker Connections, comes from an Evangelical background, and she confesses that she once bashed the gay community, “I felt compelled to tell ‘the truth in love’ and did so quite a few times.” [a favorite catch-phrase of self assured gay bashers]

But, in her own vulnerability, as she encountered ambiguity in her own life, her ingrained assumptions proved empty when she stumbled upon another hurting human on the dusty hiking paths of the nearby canyons.  After more than a year of a developing trust, her friend confided,

I am the absolute lowest on the totem pole.  I am a Native American.  I am a woman, and I am a lesbian.  Not even God loves me.

Perhaps a self-assured person would not have heard the pain in this lament, but Kathy’s own wounds allowed her to listen and to grow:

I was growing in my own relationship with God; it was less about rules and more about grace and mercy. Grace and mercy on me from Him. It flowed outward to those around me. I had to understand it before I could extend it. I often say, you cannot export what you do not have.  I can now see that the way believers treat the needy, the less powerful and those on the edge says more about their own relationship with God than just about any other indicator.  When I see grace come out of a person, that is what is in their reservoir. When I see anger and intolerance come out, then unresolved pain is in their reservoir. I was personally going through massive, miraculous, marvelous healing and grace was filling the newly available places in me. Grace was filling my reservoirs and it was coming out.

“Not even God loves me,” said the woman hiking the canyons. 

Kathy knew scripture; she knew the oft-quoted clobber passages, but their message of condemnation seemed dry as the canyon trail.  It was time for some good news.  You are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, sang the Psalmist.  To her hurting friend, Kathy became a wounded healer.  To the gay and lesbian community, Kathy became a grace-filled, evangelist of good news.  To the “hate the sin but love the sinner” church community, Kathy issued a challenge.

I made up my own story about gay and trans people according to my truth about them. Are you doing that?  When you humbly get outside your own understanding and story and engage another person that is nothing like you, it can be challenging and scary. What if you are wrong about them?

Equality for the GLBT community is coming and we, as Christians, both straight and GLBT, have a great opportunity in this to grow in grace and love as we challenge our judgments and fear. We can either do this the world-way of yelling and polarizing or the Jesus-way of engaging with hospitality.  Up until now, the church has been very guilty of conducting ourselves in the world-way.  We are not looking very Jesus-like to those outside the church.

What do you know for sure?

Fear of the feminine?

Is misogyny related to homophobia?  We have long noticed that the leading spokesmen against the ELCA gay-friendly policies often sound sexist tones in their rhetoric.  That trend continues with the Lutheran CORE response to the Rite of Reconciliation service in California last week.

The blog of Lutheran CORE offered the following commentary yesterday:

A worship service formally receiving seven gay and lesbian persons as ELCA pastors included elements that many Lutherans would find offensive or even heretical.

The service also included elements of pagan and goddess worship (emphasis added) reflecting the practice of some of the congregations of the new ELCA pastors.

What the blogger referred to as “pagan and goddess worship” were prayers that recognized feminine and other images of the divine.  I guess that can be pretty scary to the patriarchy. 

Here are  the offending prayers; is this pagan and goddess worship?

Our Mother who is within us we celebrate your many names. Your wisdom come, your will be done, unfolding from the depths within us. Each day you give us all that we need. You remind us of our limits and we let go. You support us in our power and we act in courage. For you are the dwelling place within us, the empowerment around us, and the celebration among us, now and forever. Amen.

God, lover of us all, most holy one, help us to respond to you to create what you want for us here on earth. Give us today enough for our needs; forgive our weak and deliberate offenses, just as we must forgive others when they hurt us. Help us to resist evil and to do what is good; For we are yours, endowed with your power to make our world whole. Amen.

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven. The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the people of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth! With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen.

Walter Brueggemann While the image of God as father may be the most prevalent Biblical metaphor for the ineffable and transcendent YHWH whose name shall not be spoken, it is not exclusive.  The esteemed scholar of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann, suggests “No noun for Yahweh can be taken at face value; each must be attended to in its rich, contextual density”, and Brueggemann offers the following lists (The Theology of the Old Testament, pp 233-263):

Old Testament metaphors of governance

  • Yahweh as judge
  • Yahweh as king
  • Yahweh as warrior
  • Yahweh as father

Old Testament metaphors of sustenance:

  • Yahweh as artist
  • Yahweh as healer
  • Yahweh as gardener-vinedresser
  • Yahweh as mother
  • Yahweh as shepherd

The Hebrew reluctance to name the one who cannot be named is rooted in the understanding that to name and define is to domesticate and control.  How revealing is it that CORE would claim a metaphor of control as the sole and exclusive way of speaking about the divine? Is it “pagan and goddess worship” to call on other metaphors, especially those of sustenance?

Author appearances and advocacy

Regular followers of this blog know that I haven’t posted much lately, and that’s because I have been on the road promoting my novel, A Wretched Man.  Most recently, I spent four days with the Wisconsin Annual Conference of the United Methodists (UMC) in La Crosse.  I managed to sell a goodly number of books and network with numerous congregations and organizations that may use my book for an adult forum or book club discussion.  The study guide that I prepared as a pdf document proved to be quite popular.

The trip to La Crosse had an unintended benefit: my exhibitor’s booth was placed next to Kairos CoMotion, an LGBT advocacy group within the Wisconsin UMC, and I had plenty of time to visit with Jim and Steve, a gay couple who have been together for many years and who were married in Toronto four years ago.  Steve has long been an LGBT leader and spokesman  within the Wisconsin UMC following his rejection for admission to a UMC seminary because he was gay.  At the conclusion of the convention, I accompanied Jim and Steve to a meeting and communion service for the Kairos CoMotion supporters.  I hope to post more about this group and the status of LGBT issues within the Wisconsin UMC later.

Switching from past book-related appearances to future ones, I note that in yesterday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper, I was lumped together with a couple of heavy hitters of progressive Catholicism under the header “Controversial Roman Catholic speakers are coming to Twin Cities.”

First on the scene is author Obie Holmen, who will be reading from his new book, “A Wretched Man,” Thursday at the House of the Beloved Disciple, 4001 38th Av. S., Minneapolis. The reading will be preceded by a 7 p.m. “mass of celebration for our LGBT brothers and sisters.”

I must smile at the article headline since I am not Roman Catholic nor do I think my support for the majority position of the ELCA on this blog qualifies me as “controversial”.  But any press is good press, as they say, and to be linked with luminaries of Roman Catholic progressive thought such as British theologian James Alison and feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether is flattering.

Early in July, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) will hold its national, General Assembly in Minneapolis.  Cokesbury functions as the official booksellers for the Presbyterians, and their bookstore will offer my book for sale during the weeklong Presbyterian assembly that promises up to 8,000 attendees.  On Monday, July 5th,  at 2:30 pm, I will be present in the Cokesbury bookstore at the assembly to autograph copies of the novel.

let justice roll Finally, Lutherans Concerned North America (the ELCA gay advocacy group) will hold its biennial convention in Minneapolis beginning July 7th.  The theme of the gathering will be Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters.  On Saturday morning, July 10th at 8:30 am, I will present a workshop entitled “Paul the Apostle–History’s Greatest Homophobe?”  The LCNA convention will close with a celebration dinner back at the Minneapolis Convention Center (after the PCUSA clears out) to remember and relive the historic vote in that venue last August.

On the evening of Saturday, July 10, we are having a night on the town! We will head over to downtown Minneapolis to revisit the historic place where the ELCA voted for full-participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It’s appropriate to revisit the site. Many people said that celebration felt “stuck in their throats”. We hope that we will be able to clear our throats and cheer with joy. It will be an evening of reconciliation, celebration, and defining our path moving forward.

Busy.  Busy.  Busy.  But also extremely rewarding.  Hope to see you along the way.

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.