Tag Archives: Scripture

James and Jesus icon

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.

Did Jesus Exist?

Mention the University of North Carolina during March madness, and the Tar Heels basketball team will come to mind–the Religious Studies department, not so much.  But, Chapel Hill professor Bart D. Ehrman made March news of his own with the release of his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?
Professor Ehrman  has carved out his own slice of fame as a best-selling author of historical books of the early Christian era, offering his own take on the recurring quest to discover the historical Jesus.

Ehrman’s popularity stems from his down-to-earth writing style that targets the folks in the pews rather than the scholarly elites of the academy—and always with tantalizing hints of controversy.  Not that his views are outside the scholarly consensus; to the contrary, Ehrman interprets the findings of the academic community for a lay audience.

Ehrman is often about debunking simplistic Christian notions learned in third grade Sunday school.  Not so with his current book.  This time, he takes on the conspiratorially-minded “mythicists” who would argue that early Christian writers, primarily the person behind the gospel of Mark, created a Christ out of whole cloth; in other words, they made him up.

From the outset, Ehrman makes it clear that there is overwhelming evidence that there really was a Jesus of Nazareth and that no serious, credible scholar would disagree. He’s probably right, but that begs the question: “why respond to a few crackpots and internet blog conspiracists who won’t accept your evidence anyway?” It would seem his task is akin to arguing with political “birthers”.

Are there thick theological layers to the gospels?  Yes.  Did the gospel compilers awkwardly attempt to squeeze Jesus into preexisting Hebrew models?  Yes.  Does the Jesus of the third grade Sunday school class misconstrue the historical person?  Yes.  Are some gospel episodes fabrications?  Yes.  Ehrman argues that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  The leap of the mythicists from these starting points to the conclusion that Jesus never existed goes well beyond reason and the evidence.

So, what is Ehrman’s essential argument and what evidence does he cite to support it?

The reality is that every single author who mentions Jesus—pagan, Christian, or Jewish—was fully convinced that he at least lived.  Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, his nonexistence is never one of them.  pp. 171-72.

Ehrman meticulously takes the reader through the earliest sources, including canonical and non-canonical gospels, letters, early Roman and Jewish authors, and the oral and written traditions that predated and served as source material for the gospel accounts.  He identifies the independent strains that underlie the gospels.  Ehrman concludes that there are multiple sources that go back to the decade following Jesus’ death and each early story begins with the premise that there was a Jewish man named Jesus “known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified … in Judea during the reign of Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea.”  That the stories contain theological interpretations doesn’t negate this common root assumption.

Most importantly, Ehrman cites Paul the apostle, which is ironic since the mythicists base much of their argument on the fact that Paul writes little about the life of Jesus.  True enough, says Ehrman, but what Paul does say is compelling.  According to Paul’s written account in his letter to the Galatians, he traveled to Jerusalem where he visited Peter and James, “the brother of the Lord”, a few years after the crucifixion.

Paul was personally acquainted with … Peter and James.  Peter was Jesus’ closest confidant throughout his public ministry and James was his actual brother.  Paul knew them for decades, starting [soon after the crucifixion].  It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have been made up.  Paul knew his best friend and his brother. p. 173.

The more intriguing question for me,  Ehrman, and a century’s worth of scholarship that goes back, at least, to Albert Schweitzer and his Quest of the Historical Jesus is not did he exist but who was he?  What did Jesus of Nazareth do?  Believe?  Say?  Finally, in the last of his three sections, Ehrman gets around to what is really interesting to all but the conspiracy-minded—Who was the historical Jesus?  His conclusion?  Turns out he thinks Schweitzer had it right all along:

I agree with Schweitzer and virtually all scholars in the field since his day that Jesus existed, that he was ineluctably Jewish, that there is historical information about him in the Gospels, and that we can therefore know some things about what he said and did.  Moreover, I would agree with Schweitzer’s overarching view, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish prophet who anticipated a cataclysmic break in history in the very near future, when God would destroy the forces of evil to bring in his own kingdom here on earth.  p.14.

Let the theologizing begin.

 

**Disclaimer.  I was given a complimentary copy of the book by a publicist representing the author/publisher and asked to offer a review.

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.”

Reconciling in Christ nationwide celebration

The “Reconciling in Christ” movement functions  as an ancillary activity of Lutherans Concerned North America (LCNA), which is the well-organized and successful Lutheran LGBTQ advocacy group.  From the LCNA website:

The Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Program recognizes Lutheran congregations that welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) believers. The complete Reconciling in Christ Roster now exceeds 450 settings, including congregations, synods, colleges, seminaries, and other organizations.

Yesterday, January 30th, many RIC congregations celebrated their RIC status.  What follows is a sampling of blogosphere comments from RIC folks around the country.

From St. Andrew Lutheran Church of Parsipanny, New Jersey.

About ten years ago, our congregation voted, UNANIMOUSLY, to adopt a statement that we would be open and welcoming to ALL people who seek to know Christ, regardless of any discriminating factor, including their sexual orientation or gender identity. We became part of a community of believers, affiliated with Lutherans Concerned/North America, to adopt this statement. By doing so, we became a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Congregation.

This one of the things I love about my congregation. We voted unanimously to become RIC because it is part of the culture of who we are. There were no dissenters. We all knew this was the right thing to do. We were already living it; we should just say it out loud. All are welcome here.

[W]e really DO care. We DO care that you are here with us. We DO care that you feel welcome here. We DO care that you find a relationship with God and work to draw closer to Him. We DO care that you should not feel judged by the people here. We DO care that your gifts and talents are recognized and valued here. We DO care that you find fellowship with the other members of the body of Christ who worship here. We DO care…because you are a child of God… our brother or sister in Christ Jesus.

From St. Michael’s Church of Philadelphia:

Not only for once a year on “Reconciling in Christ Sunday”…but for everyday!  A message we at St. Michael’s proudly uphold:

“All Are Welcome, All Are Welcome, All Are Welcome…Welcome Here”

A South Carolina newspaper reported that Reformation Lutheran of Columbia is becoming rejuvenated, along with its inner city neighborhood:

… an influx of urban pioneers, many of them gay and lesbian, began buying up the arts-and-crafts cottages and other homes that had fallen into disrepair.

The congregation decided to reach out to its new neighbors but found that many were suspicious of the church. That’s when the congregation underwent a series of conversations that let it to become a congregation intentional in its mission and outreach. Now the church, with 150 members, is a vital part of the community.

My wife and I were privileged to attend the celebratory service at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Mn.  For those who know the history of LGBTQ advocacy within the ELCA, St Paul Reformation is an iconic congregation.  It was the first RIC congregation dating to 1984.  It is the parish of Pastor Anita Hill, a national figure in the ELCA movement toward gay inclusion.  Other prominent members include the lesbian couple, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, who made history in San Francisco nearly twenty years ago, and Emily Eastwood, the executive director of LCNA.  Click here for an earlier post about the recent Rite of Reception for Hill, Frost, and Zillhart which officially welcomed them to the clergy roster of the ELCA.  We greeted all of these folks yesterday.  Frost delivered the sermon, her first since becoming rostered (her current call is to a hospice ministry), and she told me that she and Phyllis will return to their former San Francisco congregation on February 27th for an historic celebration in which the St Francis congregation, once expelled, will formally return to the ELCA. 

I was honored to play a small part by addressing the adult forum.  We discussed the apostle Paul’s struggle with the Jerusalem leadership of the early Jesus movement and their “yes, but” attitude toward Gentile inclusion in the early church and the parallels with the current struggle for full inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

The Road to Damascus

Tuesday, January 25th marks the conversion of Paul, according to the Revised Common Lectionary. 

Wikipedia suggests a “Religious conversion is the adoption of a new religion that differs from the convert’s previous religion.”  In this sense, the term “conversion” is actually an anachronism disliked by scholars because at the time of Paul’s Damascus road experience, neither he nor any others of the fledgling Jesus movement anticipated or intended a new religion.  Perhaps “transformation” is a better choice.

Paul on the Road to Damascus by Richard SerrinWhat happened that day on the road to Damascus?  In Paul’s own writings, the only reference to Damascus is the following understated account from his letter to the Galatians:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.   Galatians 1:15-17 (NRSV)

By the time the author of Acts told the story, a generation or more later, dramatic flourishes had been added:

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.            Acts 9:3-7

Paul conversion by RubensApparently forgetting what he had written earlier, the second telling of the story by the author of Acts reversed the seeing and hearing.  In the first passage, the companions of Paul heard the voice but saw nothing; in the second, they saw but did not hear.

While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’         Acts 22:6-10

Finally, the third version contained within Acts significantly expands the conversation between Paul and the voice: 

when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’    Acts 26:13-18

current copyIf you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that my novel about Paul, entitled A Wretched Man, was published around ten months ago.  How should I depict the scene on the Damascus road?  How could I describe an event that is believable to my readers yet account for the profundity of Paul’s experience?  As I wrestled with my choices, I also wondered, to what extent was Paul’s experience of the presence of the divine, his theophany, different from the times in my life when I felt God’s touch?  Or, from a more intellectual perspective, I wondered about the famous 19th century book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which a late 20th century reviewer lauded for its “penetration into the hearts of people.” 

In my novel, I foreshadowed the Damascus experience in a scene with Paul’s fictional mentor, Eli the sage.

“The Prophet Ezekiel describes the God who is indescribable. How do we see the God that is beyond sight? How do we know the God who is beyond knowing? The absolute holiness of God is greater than a mere human can bear and more than we can comprehend. These are words beyond words with meaning beyond meaning.”

“I understand,” said Paulos.

Eli scowled. “Do not be overconfident, my young friend. Self-doubt is the blossom of wisdom. When Moses faced God in the burning bush, he asked, What is your name? We must all pursue the same question,” Eli said, and then his voice dropped to a whisper, “but we err if we believe we have the answer.”

The oil lamp flared and briefly chased the shadows, but then the flame died, leaving the room dark except for the shaft of light that fell across the scroll in Paulos’ hands.

“As soon as we name the one whose name is unknown, we create the one who created us,” Eli said. “Ezekiel the prophet painted colorful pictures that point to the truth, but they are untrue.”

Paulos squinted into the nearly blind eyes of the old man. Had the fuzziness that coated his eyes reached his mind? Paulos began to doubt his mentor who spoke in silly riddles. He tugged on his nose and his gaze returned to the written words. His finger traced the scribed marks with care not to touch the holy scroll. He read aloud, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

The wizened old man rhythmically tapped his willow cane on the tile floor. First, he offered a promise. “One day you will see the glory of the Lord.”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

And then, he issued a challenge, “What words will you speak when you tell the tale? What picture will you paint?”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

And finally, he uttered a warning, “But retain your humility and self-doubt. Do not pretend to answer Moses’ question or paint truer pictures than Ezekiel. Do not commit idolatry.”

In the end, how did I write the Damascus scene?

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.)