Monday, July 30, 2007

Reflecting on the Gender of God, Part 2

For Part 2 of a two-part series of reflections on the gender of God, we return to the question with which we ended Part 1: If it is almost universally agreed that the Christian God is beyond gender, then does it follow that both masculine and feminine language should be used to speak of God? Because of the complexity of the question, this post will be quite a bit longer than Part 1. I hope you can find the patience wade through the details and contribute your thoughts.

Proponents of “inclusive language for God” (who shall be called inclusivists from this point forward) argue that if God is beyond gender, then it is just as appropriate to speak of God with feminine language (i.e., names, titles, metaphors, and pronouns), as it is to speak of God with masculine language.(1) Those who hold this view desire to downplay masculine language for God and employ an equal amount of feminine and gender-neutral language for God, with the aim of promoting gender equality in religious language and the Christian view of God.(2)

Opinions vary among inclusivists on how gender inclusive language for God should be employed, but some examples are needed to illustrate what this program of change would mean. Instead of referring to God exclusively as Father, worshippers may employ Father-Mother, Parent, or intersperse the references to God the Father with references to God the Mother. To avoid the exclusively masculine implications of the traditional Trinitarian titles, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, worshippers may substitute Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, or God, Christ, and Spirit, or Parent, Child, and Spirit. Finally, instead of referring to Jesus exclusively as Christ or Son of God, worshippers may employ Sophia’s Child or Holy Wisdom. Inclusivist theologians and writers have recommended numerous other creative alternatives to traditional God-language, but these suffice to show the significance of the changes they propose.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the promotion of gender equality is a legitimate concern for those forwarding the inclusivist program. All Christians can share in the desire that the church be liberated from sexism and women affirmed as equals before God and in the church. Given the record of women being caricatured and marginalized in church history, many times with the perceived blessing of God, it is understandable that inclusivists look to alter Christian God-language to help institute change. In their thinking, whether God is genderless or not, speaking of God in exclusively masculine terms projects maleness onto God. If God is perceived as male, they argue, human males will be seen as closer to God’s image than females. Such a mindset is not only wrong, but can be a source of serious detriment to women.

Even as I affirm and sympathize with the concerns of inclusivists, I believe there remains a fundamental problem with the inclusivist program that militates against its acceptance (especially by evangelicals). No matter one’s social convictions (one might even say "ideology"), Scripture is normative for providing and defining the appropriate Christian language for God. By and large, however, inclusivists regard the biblical revelation as historically and culturally limited, fallible, and in need of some correction to overcome its perceived sexism. On this basis, in practice they take the doctrine of God’s genderlessness and give it priority over the details of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. (This is not to say, of course, that inclusivists knowingly or purposefully do so, but I believe that this is the undeniable result of their theological methodology.)

For some, such a practice is not a cause for concern. Yet, for most who claim the label "evangelical" (including myself), the affirmation of Scripture's veracity and authority means that the legitimacy of language for God depends on whether such language accurately sustains the biblical picture of God. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts and motivations of inclusivists, with which I am sincerely sympathetic, it seems apparent that the inclusive language for God almost always obscures and undermines the biblical revelation.(3) As I understand revelation, God’s identity in the biblical narrative is unique and inseparable from the various masculine names, titles, and metaphors ascribed to him. To neutralize or remove this language for God from the Bible is to damage God’s unique identity and, in addition, overturn almost two thousand years of church practice.

While it is impossible for evangelicals to accept the complete agenda for inclusive language for God, I affirm that there is room to acknowledge the Bible’s feminine references to God.(4) Many of such references are similes.(5) Psalm 131:2 says, “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.” Here, an indirect simile can be inferred between God, with whom the psalmist finds rest, and the mother of a weaned child. In Isaiah 42:14, God says through the prophet, “Now like a woman in labor I will groan, I will both gasp and pant.” Here God compares his efforts to redeem his people to that of a woman in the throes birth pains. Perhaps the most explicit maternal image for God is found in Isaiah 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem." Here, God’s comfort for his people is compared to the tender comfort of mother to child. These are only a few of a number of other clear feminine similes for God in the Bible (see Ps. 123:2; Hosea 13:8; Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34; 1 Pet. 2:2-3).

Other feminine references to God in the Bible are metaphors.(6) Moses questions God in his frustration in Numbers 11:12: “Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’?” Though Moses asks these questions about himself, the implication is that God is the one who figuratively conceived and gave birth to his people. Another birth metaphor is in Deuteronomy 32:18: “You neglected the Rock who begot you, and forgot the God who gave you birth.” Here again, God is viewed as one who gave birth to his people, Israel. In Psalm 90:2, the psalmist declares: “Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” This is another clear maternal metaphor, this time referring to God’s activity of creation. Again, these are only a few of a number of feminine metaphors for God in the Bible (see Job 38:8, 28-29; Prov. 8:1, 22-25; Isa. 45:10-11; John 3:3-8).

I should point out that none of the above feminine references to God contain feminine titles or names for God, as many inclusivists claim. For example, although there are a number of maternal references to God, he is never named “Mother God” or given the title, “Mother.” Moreover, all of the verbs in the above references have masculine grammatical gender, corresponding to the masculine titles “Lord” (Yahweh) and “God” (Elohim). This is in keeping with the fact that, although the languages of the Bible never speak of God as a sexual or gendered being, they almost uniformly utilize masculine figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.), names, and titles for God.

It has been established that God is genderless, but it is the pattern of Scripture to speak of God as though he is masculine. With these qualifications in mind, however, I believe evangelicals can and should support the careful and appropriate usage of the occasional feminine similes and metaphors provided by God’s self-revelation in Scripture, in the arenas of public and private worship and theology.

Any attempt to explain why God chose to reveal himself in Scripture through overwhelmingly masculine language will be complete speculation. Based upon the genderlessness of God, however, it may be affirmed that the Bible does not use gendered language for God because God is male or female. Instead, the Bible uses gendered language because God is personal (i.e., God certainly is not an “it”). The difficulty is that there is no way in any known human language to speak of persons without implying gender. Since human beings are the only truly personal creatures, to speak of the personal God one must use human language that implies gender. Ultimately, no matter the reasons, the only sovereign, wise, and good God of Jesus Christ reveals himself in the predominantly masculine language of Scripture.

Yet, what about the concerns of feminists and inclusivists that speaking of God in exclusively masculine terms projects maleness onto God, casting human males as more “god-like,” and resulting in serious harm to women? In response, it should be noted that the God of Scripture does not promote male dominance, injustice, or abuse of women. Although the Old Testament certainly does not provide full social equality, the progress of revelation is such that the New Testament does establish the ultimate standard of love, justice, and mutual respect for women and men.(7) Moreover, while it is obvious that men have used (and will continue to use) the perceived masculinity of God as reason for oppressing women, Christians should not reject the details of biblical revelation because of such abuses. It is far better to acknowledge and condemn such abuses as wrong, while endorsing the appropriate usage of the Bible’s revealed God-language.

In conclusion, Scripture must be normative for providing and defining the appropriate Christian language for God. While it is true that Scripture has a historical and cultural context, it remains the faithful, true, and authoritative guide for all matters of Christian faith and practice. God’s transcendent and holy nature indicates that he is without sex or gender, but this truth may not take a place of priority over the details of God’s revelation. For evangelicals, the legitimacy of any language for God depends on whether that language accurately sustains the biblical picture of God. This means it is as inappropriate to speak of God as “the man upstairs” as it is to speak of God as “Mother Sophia.” God’s identity in the biblical narrative is unique and inseparable from the various names, titles, and metaphors ascribed to him. While there is justification for the careful and occasional usage of the Bible’s feminine references to God in worship and theology, to neutralize or remove the overwhelmingly masculine language for God is not an option for those who ascribe to the sufficiency of God’s special revelation.

(1) Consider, for example, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (New York: Crossroad, 1985); Brian Wren, What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1989); Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in a Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
(2) This view is to be distinguished from both the two exclusivist approaches: traditionalists employ exclusively masculine language for God, while radical feminists often employ exclusively feminine language for God.
(3) See the excellent work contained in the following volumes: Alvin F. Kimel, ed., Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992); Donald G. Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1985); Cooper, Our Father in Heaven, 191-220.
(4) For the following information on the Bible’s feminine similes and metaphors for God, I have benefited much from Cooper’s careful and fair discussion in his Our Father in Heaven, 65-90.
(5) A simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by “like” or “as.” Some English similes include, “He eats like a bird,” or “She is slow as molasses.”
(6) A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two. Some English metaphors include, “You are my sunshine,” or “He is a teddy bear.”
(7) Cooper provides a skillful discussion of this truth (244-249). His conclusion is worth quoting at length: "However the disagreements about marriage and ordination turn out, there is strong consensus that the Bible generates a high view of women, considers them naturally and spiritually equal to men, insists on their well-being, and provides the foundation for healthy and just relations between the genders. Thus we come to a curious conclusion: The Bible progressively elevates the status of women as it progressively reveals God as Father. God the Father loves women and provides for them as much as men. Therefore the inclusivist charge that the Bible, especially its predominantly masculine presentation of God, promotes the devaluation and oppression of women is false" (248-249).

Birth control and California pigeons

Some of my brothers and sisters in the SBC have a more conservative view of family planning than I, particularly as it pertains to various forms of birth control. Although I disagree with their conclusions regarding oral contraceptives, I respect their right to disagree and admire the heartfelt conviction that lies behind their public stance on the issue.

That said, from my position on the matter, I find the following article quite amusing: BBC News: US pigeons to get contraceptives. If you will permit me some light-hearted laughter at their expense, I find it humorous to imagine the same folks arguing against this coerced, unnatural limitation of the pigeons' God-given duty to pro-create. (You will notice, I'm sure, that this abomination is taking place in the den of iniquity that is...California. Or, as the Governator so eloquently puts it: "Calee-fornee-a.")

I hope you can chuckle with me. If not, I hope you can forgive my strange sense of humor.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reflecting on the Gender of God, Part 1

What follows is Part 1 of a two-part series of my reflections on the gender of God. This issue is one that I researched at length at the beginning of the summer as part of a writing project for Harvest House. Also, it has been a subject of discussion with not a few of the Christian women with whom I serve every week in Fairfield. I do not claim to have reached the conclusion on the matter, for it is an exceedingly complex issue theologically, hermeneutically, and missionally, but I hope that the presentation of my thoughts may produce some interesting discussion.

While never a major issue in the past, the proliferation of feminist theologies in the latter half of the twentieth century has caused the question of God’s gender to become a matter of some debate. Radical feminist Mary Daly shocked the world with her blunt pronouncement: “If God is male, then male is God.”(1) She used this assertion to support her endeavor not only to de-throne “God the Father,” but also to discredit Christianity in its entirety as an evil, oppressive religion.

Despite her militant feminist ideology, which evangelicals cannot support, Daly’s challenge is of great consequence. Few matters are as important as how one conceives and speaks of the God of Jesus Christ. Many contemporary feminists affirm Daly’s supposition that the male God of Christianity can never liberate women, so it is prudent for evangelicals to seek to provide a thoughtful and biblical response to her challenge.

Is the God of Christianity male? Two matters contribute to an answer of this question: the nature of gender and the nature of God. Although debates continue over the full definition and origin of gender, there is universal agreement that, at the very least, gender is based upon one’s physical body and one’s cultural environment. From a biological standpoint, the human body carries the permanent marks of belonging either to the male or female sex. Genesis testifies that God designed human beings as a distinctly male and female in their physical bodies (Gen. 2:21-25). There are rare times when these marks are mixed or obscured, but such exceptions are few and they reinforce the norm. As a result, men and women’s gender identities are grounded in and limited by the permanent details of their sexed bodies.

From a sociological standpoint, human beings with sexed bodies develop their gender identities from within a specific culture. This accounts for the way in which notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” vary in cultures over time and space. In one sense, such notions of are fixed, as cultural expectations for gender become embedded in economic, political, and cultural practices. In another sense, though, notions of gender can be fluid, able to be influenced and altered through changes in culture and subcultures. As a result, gender identity has some flexibility depending upon cultural contexts, but ultimately the distinctions of the male and female bodies provide a foundation of stability.

With this basic understanding of the nature of gender, it seems apparent that God, having neither a sexed body nor a human culture, cannot have a gender. Yet, does the testimony of Scripture support this conclusion? Although the Bible often speaks of God in masculine terms and even figuratively describes him as having body parts, God is never said to have reproductive organs (as Baal and other gods have). God has no female god as a counterpart, and he does not produce the world through procreation, but through his spoken word. Moreover, John 4:24 testifies, “God is spirit.” An implication of this verse is that God, being holy and transcendent, has no body, and exists as a being wholly outside the realm of creaturely existence. Because sexuality and gender are characteristics of bodily creatures, then God cannot have gender.

Moreover, some biblical texts specifically warn against identifying God with human males and females.(2) Numbers 23:19 warns that “God is not a man [ish: male human], that He should lie, nor a son of man [adam: human], that He should repent.” Hosea 11:9b is similar: “For I am God, and not man [ish], the Holy One in your midst.” In speaking of the righteous nature of God’s character, both texts prohibit thinking of God as a man. The clearest teaching on this subject is Deuteronomy 4:15-16: “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female.”

In this way, imaging God as male or female is considered idolatry, suggesting strongly that the biblical tradition is against attributing gender to God. Despite the fact that Scripture often uses language for God that is suitable for a masculine person, God is not like a human male in his form or character.

Establishing the genderlessness of God does not counter Mary Daly’s initial challenge, however. If it is almost universally agreed that the Christian God is beyond gender, then does it follow that both masculine and feminine language should be used to speak of God? We will consider this question in Part 2.

(1) Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973), 19.
(2) For these observations, I am indebted to John W. Cooper’s discussion of the biblical evidence for God’s genderlessness in Our Father in Heaven: Christian Faith and Inclusive Language for God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 182-187.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A reflection on Harry Potter and the Kingdom of God

At the risk of being tarred and feathered by my more conservative friends, I would like to offer a short reflection on something I read in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Whatever your views on these books, I hope we can agree that all truth is God's truth. That is to say, anywhere truth arises, anywhere something truthful is portrayed, it belongs to God because God is the author of truth...even if its found in the pages of J.K. Rowling's bestselling series.

What follows is a short interchange between the young Harry Potter and his friend Hagrid, whom he has just met. Hagrid is the groundskeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and a trusted friend of the Hogwarts headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. Here, Hagrid explains what the Ministry of Magic does on behalf of the school. "Muggles" are normal humans, non-magic folk, most of whom do not know that Hogwarts exists. Consider this carefully:

"There's a Ministry of Magic?" Harry asked, before he could stop himself.
"'Course," said Hagrid. "They wanted Dumbledore for Minister, o' course, but he'd never leave Hogwarts, so old Cornelius Fudge got the job. Bungler if there ever was one. So he pelts Dumbledore with owls every morning, askin' fer advice."
"But what does a Ministry of Magic do?"
"Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there's still witches an' wizards up an' down the country."
"Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone'd be wantin' magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we're best left alone."

Almost 2,000 years before J.K. Rowling penned these words, a homely rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth was teaching his students about the secrets of God's Kingdom. Jesus' students had difficulty understanding his simple stories, which were layered with meaning, and repeatedly had to request interpretation from their master. Finally, presumably fed up with the mysteries and secrets, they asked, "Why do you speak in parables?" Jesus' response was just as perplexing as his stories: "The secrets of the kingdom of God have been given for you to know, but to the rest it is in parables, so that 'looking they may not see, and hearing they may not understand'" (Matt 13:10-12;Luke 8:9-10).

Jesus went on to explain: "For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
You will listen and listen,
yet never understand;
and you will look and look,
yet never perceive.
For this people's heart has grown callous;
their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
otherwise they might see with their eyes
and hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn back—
and I would cure them" (Matt 13:13-15).

In the world of Harry Potter it is the job of the Ministry of Magic to ensure that the secrets of the magic realm remain secrets. The Muggles cannot and would not understand the ways of witches and wizards because they are different people from a different world. They are governed by different rules, led by different values, and loyal to different causes. So, it is best that Muggles are not aware of what is going on in the world of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, and Hagrid. In a sense, until they have "ears to hear," they cannot understand. And, because they're Muggles by nature, they will never have "ears to hear." While Muggles go about their business in what they think is the "real world," Harry and his friends discover and learn to live within what is the real world.

In a parallel way, in the Kingdom of God, followers of Jesus are governed by different rules, led by different values, and loyal to a different cause. Those outside the Kingdom cannot and will not understand our ways because they are different people from a different world. Although touched by the working of God's Spirit and God's people every day, most people remain ignorant of what is going on in God's world. Because they do not have "ears to hear," because they are "looking but do not see," they will go on about their daily lives in what they think is the "real world." But, followers of Jesus discover and learn to live within what is the real world.

There is one important difference, however, between the world of Harry Potter and the Kingdom of God. By Hagrid's testimony, not only can Muggles never understand the magic realm, but also they should be completely shielded from it. In his mind, it is best both for Muggles and the world of wizards that Muggles remain "in the dark" about the nature of reality. Yet, the message that the Kingdom of God is here and Jesus is King must be proclaimed through all the world. Although many will continue "to look and not see" and "listen and not hear," some of the spiritual "Muggles" in our lives will, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, respond to the good news of God's reign and submit themselves to the rule of Jesus.

I'd love to read your thoughts on this reflection. Just be sure I can read it through the tar and feathers.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Academia and the Church

At times, it is a great challenge for me to keep one foot planted firmly in the academic world and one planted just as firmly in the local church. Below are two of my favorite quotes about spanning the sometimes treacherous gap between academic disciplines and church life. They encourage me when times are tough; perhaps they will do the same for you.

“I live in a world that has done its best, since the Enlightenment, to separate the church from the academy. I believe passionately that this is deeply dehumanizing in both directions, and I have lived my adult life with a foot on both sides of the divide, often misunderstood by both…I have been reassured again and again that my calling is not necessarily to solve the great dualities of our post-Enlightenment and now postmodern world but to live in prayer at the places where the world is in pain, in the assurance that through this means, at a level far deeper than the articulate solving of the problem, my discipline may find new fruitfulness and my church, perhaps, new directions. And out of that may perhaps grow, I pray, work that is peacemaking and fruitful. The darkest times have again and again been the most fruitful.” – N. T. Wright

"Good scholarship often leads to unemployment." - Joel Weaver

Shedding light on the NT with other documents

I am the first to affirm that the Bible is a sufficient guide for followers of Jesus in all matters of faith and practice. If a person has access to the scriptures alone, I believe they will find a suitable guide for faith when combined with the filling of the Holy Spirit.

That said, I believe there is much to be gleaned for understanding the scriptures from other sources, particularly written documents from the ancient world. One such source of outside information is Greek documentary papyri, which is, in effect, the papers and documents left in the rubbish heaps of the ancient world. These ancient documents number in the hundreds of thousands and include a variety of things: receipts, census records, marriage records, contracts, apprentice agreements, personal letters, arrest warrants, and much more.

In the following post, I provide an example of the benefit such documents can bring to the study of the New Testament. The papyri I address comes from the Tebtunis papyri collection, which was discovered in the winter of 1899/1900 at the site of ancient Tebtunis, Egypt. The expedition was led by the British papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt. The Tebtunis papyri form the largest collection of papyrus texts in the Americas. The collection has never been counted and inventoried completely, but the number of fragments contained in it exceeds 30,000. Each papyri is named and numbered and the papyri under consideration today is called P. (or "papyri") Tebt (Tebtunis) II 322.

The Acts of the Apostles contains numerous conversion accounts detailing the way in which certain notable members of the early church made their way into the faith community. Three of these accounts are distinctive (Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus: Acts 16:13-15, 34; 18:7-8) because they reference not individual acts of conversion, but conversion en masse, involving the entire “household” (Gk. oikos). In every situation, the initiative of the household head leads to the entire household’s reception of the gospel message and subsequent baptism.

In the modern Western context, in most cases a “household” consists of one or two parents and children and, in recent years, perhaps an aged relative (usually a grandparent). Yet, one cannot and should not assume that the “household” referenced in Acts had a parallel composition. So, who exactly was included in the Greco-Roman household? It is in this matter that Greek documentary papyri provide some valuable socio-historical insight.

In the many years since Greek documentary papyri became a subject of serious study, census documents have made up a large and very important portion of the investigation. Of the countless census documents found in cities of ancient Egypt, P. Tebt II 322 is a suitable example. Dated August 27, 189 CE, it constitutes a census return of Achilleus son of Apollonius, sent to the strategos and basilikos grammateus responsible for taxes in the region.

In the account of the occupants in his home, Achilleus catalogs the following seven persons: Pasigenes, son of Theon, son of Eutyches (61 years old); Eutychos, son of Pasigenes by Apollonous (30); the wife of Pasigenes, Herakleia, daughter of Kronion, (40); Thasis, the daughter of Pasigenes and Herakleia (5); Herakleia’s children, Sabinus son of Sabinus (18) and Sarapias (22); and the wife of Eutyches, Tapesouris, daughter of Isidora (18). All of these persons reside with Achilleus in “a part of a house, an area, a courtyard, and a hall.”

Although we cannot determine with certainty the size of the living area entailed by this description, it indicates at the very least that no less than eight people lived within very close quarters. As shown above, these persons range in age from sixty to five years old and make up an extended family with partial or full blood relations. Most interesting, however, is that the information available suggests that none of these persons are blood relatives of Archilleus. It appears that Archilleus has a household composed of seven people who are unrelated to him.

Although the census’ repetitive list of names and numbers do not make for the most engrossing reading, census documents like P. Tebt II 322, of which there are a vast number, offer insight into how one should understand that use of “household” in the NT text. Although all of the evidence cannot be considered here, the majority of papyrological evidence suggests that, much more than the modern “nuclear family,” Greco-Roman households often were composed of numerous persons who were not directly related to the household head. These house-members may have included slaves, manumitted slaves, and the children of manumitted slaves, as well as boarders and, perhaps, billeted soldiers.

As a result, when Luke-Acts refers to mass conversions in the “households” of Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Crispus, it cannot be assumed that such households indicate simply the person’s spouse and any children (although this possibility is not entirely ruled out either). Indeed, there is evidence that such households may have included a number of miscellaneous persons who, for reasons undisclosed in the NT, adopt the way of Jesus in like manner to the household head.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

tears and truth, 10/04/06

when i weep
for my circumstances,
i think that i am mourning the difficulty,
the struggle,
the hardship.
i think that i, above all,
should be most pitied.

yet, my spirit testifies:

when i weep,
i mourn not the difficulty,
the struggle,
the hardship;
i mourn the death of self,
the crucifixion of the flesh,
the burial with Christ.

though i think that i, above all,
should be most pitied;
i, above all, should be most envied.

every tear that falls
brings me closer to the supreme good
for which God is working all things:

that the image of Christ
be formed in me.

when you see me weep, pity me not.
pray instead,

that God, who is faithful,
will bring his good work to completion
and that I might learn
the secret of Christ’s eternal life:


Saturday, July 21, 2007

New blog of interest

Recently, my good friend, mentor, and sometime co-author, Dr. Boyd Luter, began a new blog, Agree to Disagree Agreeably, that aims to address the various sticky issues of the Southern Baptist Convention. If you have an interest in such things, I recommend Luter's blog to you as a place of deep, careful thinking and irenic conversation.

Luter is a graduate of Mississippi State University and holds the Th.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary. He has over 16 years of pastoral ministry experience, as well as 15 years experience teaching Bible and theology. I benefited greatly from his tutelage at Criswell College, but he has taught as an adjunct at both Golden Gate and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminaries as well.

Luter has published eight books and 20 journal/periodical articles, in addition to contributing to a number of edited volumes on biblical and theological topics. My favorites of his books include Women as Christ's Disciples, co-authored with Kathy McReynolds, and God Behind the Seen: Expositions on the Books of Ruth and Esther, co-authored with Barry Davis.

Presently, Luter is Pastor of Comal Country Church in Canyon Lake, TX and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Theology at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an occasional contributor to SBC Outpost, as well.

Friday, July 20, 2007


My friend Joel Patrick is studying for two weeks in Oxford, England. He and his wife, Gabrielle, are good friends. I love the following picture that he took of a storefront in Oxford. Habibi is the Arabic word for "friend" or "dear friend."

For whoever is interested: The musician and peace activist Michael Franti composed a simple song called "Habibi" while on a trip to Iraq and the Palestinian territories for his film, I Know I'm Not Alone. The song delighted locals with its simple, friendly message.

Update on Darfur

Sadly, it seems that there is a strong chance that the newly discovered underwater lake in Darfur is dried up. See the report from BBC News here.

If nothing else, this recent story has made it apparent to me, and hopefully many others, that the environmental causes of the genocide in Darfur need to be seriously addressed. Here's the important quote from the BBC News article:

...Hafiz Muhamad, from the lobby group Justice Africa, told the BBC the 'root cause' of the conflict was lack of resources. He said 'drought and desertification' in North Darfur had led the Arab nomads to move south, where they came into conflict with black African farmers. Last month, the UN Environmental Programme (Unep) said there was little prospect of peace in Darfur unless the issues of environmental destruction were addressed.

It seems that tougher economic sanctions on the Sudanese government are simply "quick fix" solutions to a complex problem. Let's continue to pray and labor on behalf of this desperate region.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Remembering women disciples with Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza

I am re-reading Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. Schussler Fiorenza is a feminist theologian and New Testament scholar, on faculty as Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. Her other notable works include Bread Not Stone; But She Said; and Revelation: Vision of a Just World.

Schussler Fiorenza's aim in In Memory of Her is "to reconstruct early Christian history as women's history in order not only to restore women's stories to early Christian history but also to reclaim this history as the history of women and men" (xiv). She does so by employing historical and theological critical analysis as well as a developed feminist biblical-historical hermeneutic. Indeed, it is largely her feminist hermeneutic, which employs a self-identified "hermeneutic of suspicion," that leads to her conclusions.

I will not detail my disagreements with Schussler Fiorenza, for they are many and varied. If you want proof of my critical perspective on feminist theology, see my post An Evangelical Consideration of Feminism and Feminist Theology. I am the first to admit that there is much to be wary of (and to reject) in feminist theology. Yet, serious disagreement does not, in my mind, preclude serious examination of the benefits one may reap from feminist scholarship.

As evidence of this, I offer the following quotes from In Memory of Her. Although I am not saying that I agree with everything she says, I find Schussler Fiorenza's observations insightful and challenging overall. I am encouraged by her to claim for myself the feminine figures of early Christianity and re-envision the early church as a church of men and women. Let's listen carefully. Feel free to offer your thoughts in response.

In the passion account of Mark's Gospel, three disciples figure prominently: on the one hand, two of the twelve--Judas who betrays Jesus and Peter who denies him--and on the other, the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus. But while the stories of Judas and Peter are engraved in the memory of Christians, the story of the woman is virtually forgotten. Although Jesus pronounces in Mark: 'And truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she had done will be told in memory of her' (14:9), the woman's prophetic sign-action did not become a part of the gospel knowledge of Christians. Even her name is lost to us. Wherever the gospel is proclaimed and the eucharist celebrated another story is told: the story of the apostle who betrayed Jesus. The name of the betrayer is remembered, but the name of the faithful disciple is forgotten because she was a woman... (xiii).

...All four Gospels reflect the same basic story: a woman anoints Jesus. This incident causes objections which Jesus rejects by approving of the woman's actions. If the original story had been just a story about the anointing of a guest's feet, it is unlikely that such commonplace gesture would have been remembered and retold as the proclamation of the gospel...Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus...must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. According to the tradition it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophetic sign-action...

Whereas according to Mark the leading male disciples do not understand this suffering messiahship of Jesus, reject it, and finally abandon him, the women disciples who have followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem suddenly emerge as the true disciples in the passion narrative. They are Jesus' true followers (akolouthein) who have understood that his ministry was not rule and kingly glory but diakonia, "service" (15:41). Thus the women emerge as the true Christian ministers and witnesses. The unnamed woman who names Jesus with a prophetic sign-action in Mark's Gospel is the paradigm for the true disciple. While Peter had confessed, without truly understanding it, 'You are the anointed one,' the woman anointing Jesus recognizes clearly that Jesus' messiahship means suffering and death.

Both Christian feminist theology and biblical interpretation are in the process of rediscovering that the Christian gospel cannot be proclaimed if women disciples and what they have done are not remembered. They are in the process of reclaiming the supper at Bethany as women's Christian heritage in order to correct symbols and ritualizations of an all-male Lord's Supper that is a betrayal of true Christian discipleship and ministry. Or, in the words of the artist Judy Chicago, 'All the institutions of our culture tell us through words, deeds, and even worse, silence, that we are insignificant. But our heritage is our power' (xiv).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Praises and prayers for Darfur

The following news report tells of the discovery of a massive underground lake in the Darfur region of Sudan, which is said to be the size of Lake Erie, the tenth largest lake in the world. The extreme shortage of water in the Darfur area is a primary impetus for the ongoing violence and bloodshed, which has claimed at least 200,000 lives (by conservative estimations). The proposed 1,000 new water wells could spell a serious shift in the direction of the regional difficulties, certainly improving the lives of the 2 million refugees scattered in camps all over the area and neighboring Chad. So far, diplomatic solutions, including economic sanctions and a small Africa Union force, have proved impotent.

Let us pray that the newfound water source propels a movement for peace in the region, so that justice may roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:24).

BBC News-Africa: Water find 'may end Darfur war'

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Great River...of Death

"Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed...A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters...The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." - Genesis 2:8, 10, 14-15

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers rise from two principal sources in the Armenian mountains of Turkey. The Tigris is estimated to be 1146 miles in length, excluding its many windings. It receives, along its middle and lower course at least five important tributaries: the river of Zakko or eastern Khabour, the Great Zab (Zab Ala), the Lesser Zab (Zab Asfal), the Adhem, and the Diyaleh or ancient Gyndes. All these rivers flow from the high range of the Zagros.

We find sparse mention of the Tigris in Scripture, although it was an exceedingly important water source. It appears under the name of Hiddekel among the rivers of Eden (Gen 2:14). In the Babylonian captivity, the Tigris becomes well-known to the prophet Daniel, by whom the river is called "the Great River." Under the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia, it is from the banks of the Tigris that Daniel receives a vision of a glorious angel and is told of the angelic conflict raging in the midst of his prayers (Dan 10). (See also the apocryphal references: Tobit 6:1; Judith 1:6; Ecclesiasticus 24:25).

Presently, the Tigris river flows through the center of Iraq's capital, Baghdad. You may remember grainy, green-tinted footage of the first "shock and awe" bombing in Baghdad, which featured numerous scenes of a nameless river, with silhouettes of majestic buildings crumbling and palm trees quivering in the darkness. That nameless river is the Tigris. Indeed, what was once a great and mighty sign of God's provision in Eden and revelation in Daniel, is now the scene of tremendous violence and bloodshed in war-torn Iraq.

I don't imagine that we--American Christians--think much of the way in which the war in Iraq has affected the land and people of Iraq. I cannot speak for all, of course, but I know that I rarely give it a glancing thought in the span of a 24 hour day.

Perhaps it is because they look so different from us. Black hair and dark, olive skin recalls the images of 9/11 attackers and other painful memories of terrorist bombers. Now we can add the empty faces of the attempted London and Glasgow bombers to our fearful mental picture of "those people." (Dare I say it seems easier for me to see pictures of dead black-haired, olive-skinned people than those with blonde hair and blue eyes? What an indictment of my racism.)

Perhaps it is because their religion has become inexplicably repugnant to us. Odd rituals like repetitive bowing, extended fasting, dietary laws, and scarving, are off-putting to "enlightened" Western observers. If we are honest, we will admit that their culture and religion is gratuitously backward to us, something to be pitied and certainly not worth protecting or defending.

Despite appearances, I am not trying to instigate a collective guilt trip with this line of thought. I am exploring why I observe the daily goings-ons in Iraq with detached apathy, instead of fervent compassion and grief. When I discovered the connection between the Great River, the Tigris, and modern Baghdad, I felt I had stumbled across a way to situate the current conflict in our collective faith history. The river that was a life-giving headstream in the Garden of Eden has (again) become a witness and, indeed, a victim of human violence.

It is a normal day on the grey-blue waters of the Tigris for two fishermen near Suweira. The catch they have made is nothing new to them, but to outsiders, the grim incident would be enough to ensure abandonment of fishing in the river entirely.

The first fisherman shouts to his partner after he finds a body in the river. They conclude that his body is so decomposed, with his belly cut open, that he can't be lifted out. As the men bring the stinking corpse closer to their boat, they realize his head has been severed as well. They rev the engine and strain to drag the swelled body of a headless man into their diminutive boat.

If you asked them, the fishermen would describe how their huge nets, intended to catch floating plants and garbage, retrieve dead bodies instead as they drift downstream from Baghdad. Their headless catch this morning is one of three today. Indeed, on an average day, as many as thirty bodies are found by fishermen near the small town of Suweira, which is 62 miles south of Baghdad. In the past two years, at least five hundred mutilated bodies dumped into the Tigris River have been washed up. Fishermen have become make-shift coroners, examing the bodies for identification, mutilation, and cause of death, then sending them on to the nearby hospital. The fishermen have a routine: retrieve the bodies from the river banks in the early morning, prepare the shrouds--a plastic bag--and then meet the messender from Suweira, who will take the bodies to the hospital.

The Kut hospital serves a busy city of about 300,000 people. There forensic scientists question the police officers who deliver in the latest bodies. Gender. Cause of death. Signs of torture. Identifying marks. All important information for the administrators of a very busy morgue. The bodies are mostly male, ranging from 20 to 45 year-olds. There have been some women also, ranging from 20 to 35. According to the forensic scientist, most of them have been shot or tortured, or both. All of them are in an advanced state of decomposition because it takes at least three days to float downstream from their dump site.

When a relative disappears, families in Baghdad now know that this is where he might be found. Usually, the phones opposite the forensic department are lined with desperate relatives calling home to check on descriptions of clothing and distinguishing features, hoping something will trigger the memory to aid in identifying their loved ones. To have to utter the physical description to fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, is almost unbearable: Handcuffed and blindfolded. Shot three times in the head. Signs of torture.

Sadly, many of the bodies found by Suweiran fishermen remain unidentified. Because of the size of the morgue and the unrelenting heat, the corpses must be buried quickly. Officials and volunteers take care of decent burial arrangements as best they can with limited resources and financial help. They dust the bodies with sand and leave their clothes so that they might be recognized at a later time. Pictures are taken and numbers assigned for easy exhumation. Short prayers are uttered in Arabic.

Why am I describing this horrific state of affairs? Despite my typical callousness to the pain and suffering of the Iraqi people, I am unnerved by the fact that the Hebrew Bible's "Great River" has become a river of death in present-day Baghdad. Indeed, people of faith like me go to sleep at night unaware that as the sun rises over the beautiful Tigris River, thirty of God's image-bearers will wash up on the banks, their bodies bearing the signs of a violent end. For many Iraqis, what was a source of life has become a turbid, dismal grave.

I do not share this story for political ends. I am not making a statement about American war policy. As I see it, this goes beyond the kingdoms of this world, with their posturing, wrangling, and unending quests for power. In the end, it is not the will of God that his earth would bear witness to such brutality. It is not the will of God that we overlook human pain and devastation. So, as I seek to walk in the reign of God, I am compelled to pause and reflect.

I am saddened beyond words, with a gnawing pain in my gut for the loss felt by my fellow human beings. I offer this story so that we may open our eyes, see the pain of others, and weep with them. I offer this story as a catalyst for us to beseech the Prince of Peace for justice and eternal shalom.

(The reader is referred to the following news stories for the initial reports from Suweira, Iraq, which formed the basis for my descriptions: Iraqi river carries grotesque cargo (BBC News); Imams issue fatwas banning fishing in the Tigris (Uruknet).)

Monday, July 16, 2007

An invitation to discover Natasha Trethewey

The 2007 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry is Natasha Trethewey, who holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. Her previous work includes two poetry collections, Domestic Work (Graywolf 1999) and Bellocq's Ophelia (Graywolf 2002), as well as appearances in numerous journals, collections, and reviews.

Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin 2006) is her winning collection of poetry, named for a series of poems about two units of black Union soldiers who guarded Confederate prisoners off the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Trethewey also draws on the life of her murdered mother and the history of Mississippi, where she grew up as the daughter of a black woman and white man (an experience punctuated by the night her family discovered a burning cross on their lawn). The concluding poem condenses her mixed feelings about her heritage:

Mississippi, state that made a crime
of me—mulatto, half-breed, native—
in my native land, this place they'll bury me.

This morning, I listened to Trethewey read several of her poems on the NPR program, Fresh Air. I was riveted by her story and her words. I would encourage you to sample some of Trethewey's poetry and enjoy a superlative example of what is an increasingly marginalized art form in American culture.

Here are two of my favorite poems so far, the first from her first collection Domestic Work and the second from the latest, Native Guard:

Domestic Work, 1937

All week she's cleaned
someone else's house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper--
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she'd pull
the lid to--that look saying

Let's make a change, girl.

But Sunday mornings are hers--
church clothes starched
and hanging, a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the rooms in light,
buckets of water, Octagon soap.

Cleanliness is next to godliness ...

Windows and doors flung wide,
curtains two-stepping
forward and back, neck bones
bumping in the pot, a choir
of clothes clapping on the line.

Nearer my God to Thee ...

She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.

(Vicksburg, Mississippi)

Here, the Mississippi carved
its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
above the river's bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.
Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her
listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become
of all the living things in this place?

This whole city is a grave. Every spring—
Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle

with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders
in the long hallways, listen all night

to their silence and indifference, relive
their dying on the green battlefield.

At the museum, we marvel at their clothes—
preserved under glass—so much smaller

than our own, as if those who wore them
were only children. We sleep in their beds,

the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped
in flowers—funereal—a blur

of petals against the river's gray.
The brochure in my room calls this

living history. The brass plate on the door reads
Prissy's Room. A window frames

the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,
the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Photo: Today I've found the courage to be

A good friend once told me: "Emily, you are a human being, not a human doing." This is self-evident, of course. But, so often I tend to focus on what I do, instead of who I am. His gentle reprimand comes to my mind often when I find myself obsessing over what I do instead of focusing on who I am.

One of my spiritual guides over the past two years is Dallas Willard. He also reminds us that who we are becoming in Christ is more important than what we do. Above all else, we must seek, through the grace of God, to become the kind of people who have hearts like Jesus. This means receiving God's grace to be exactly who we are and recognize God's abundant love for us in that very state. There is nothing I can do or not do that will make God love me any less. In that, I find the courage to be and not do.

In that spirit, and with a grin, I submit the following photo as a pictorial representation of me finding the "courage to be" on Friday, July 13. This is who I am today and God loves me anyway. I would encourage you to find the courage to be yourself today and rest in the abundant grace of God.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

My thoughts on a baccalaureate concentration in Homemaking, Part 2

(For those of you just joining this conversation, please read Part 1, especially my two-part preface, so that there is no misunderstanding regarding my intentions.)

As I return to my critique of a baccalaureate concentration in homemaking, I would like to address what I see as the ideology driving the recent decision at SWBTS. To some, this may seem like stating the obvious. Perhaps. But, the reason I desire to state the obvious is that I differ from Dr. and Mrs. Patterson in their views of gender roles and family life. My perspective on this matter is informing my difference of opinion with the Pattersons on the relevance of the homemaking concentration for Christian women seeking a baccalaureate education. I will explain in more detail below.

By now, it is no secret to most observers that the Pattersons have a decidedly uncompromising view of gender roles and the family. The propagation and defense of what has been termed "complementarian" gender roles has been a lifelong commitment of Mrs. Patterson, in particular. Her corpus of publications rarely departs from this subject and her teaching record has focused in this area as well. I reiterate that I am not critical of her for this commitment. Mrs. Patterson is convinced of the truth and importance of her perspective and her sincerity is evidenced by her tireless effort to convince others. Anyone who would conclude otherwise should consider the following on-line resources: Southern Baptists Lead the Way: An Interview with Dr. Dorothy Patterson; The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective (pp. 371-383); and Sarah Sumner's Men and Women in the Church: A Review Article (pp. 39-50). One might also take a look at the following resources in print: The Women's Evangelical Commentary on the New Testament and The Family.

It is certain that one cannot determine another's motivations with certainty, but I think in light of the widespread documentation of the Pattersons' desire to forward the cause of complementarian gender roles, it is safe to conclude that an underlying agenda or ideology is at work. To be clear, I do not use the term "ideology" in a derogatory manner. A definition of an ideology is "a system of ideas or beliefs that forms the basis of a program or policy." I think the Pattersons themselves would gladly affirm that their view of traditional gender roles is a, if not the determining factor in their decision to forward and vehemently defend the new homemaking concentration. You may recall the impassioned response of Dr. Patterson at the SBC this past June, when questioned about the program. It was clear to me, at least, that he genuinely believes the instruction of women in the tasks of homemaking is essential to the maintanence of the Christian family, Christian churches, and the nation as a whole.

Mrs. Patterson believes it is every (married) woman's calling to be a homemaker in the traditional model she represents and teaches. This is what I call a 1950s-style model because of its similarities with the conventions of that age. Some may see this comparison as unfair, but I am unable to come up with another illustrative comparison that does justice to the model. In one-on-one interaction and in print, Mrs. Patterson has been unequivocal in her affirmation that a woman's God-ordained place of service is the home, as a helper to her husband and full-time mother to her children. Frankly, it seems silly to me to conclude anything else but that Mrs. Patterson desires for the legitimization of the homemaking program at the College at Southwestern to forward her cause of solidifying the traditional model of the family in Southern Baptist life. The institutions of higher education is where the next generation is trained. In order to ensure the survival of a certain perspective, one must ensure it is taught. (This was the reason behind the motivation to shuffle the trustee boards of the major seminaries during the "conservative resurgence" [or "fundamentalist takeover," whatever descriptor you prefer].)

Of course, for many reading this post, such an ideological agenda is fine and maybe even laudable. Certainly, if you agree with the Pattersons, you have the right to feel that way. Yet, as one who's perspective is not in keeping with the Pattersons, I am uncomfortable with a baccalaureate concentration that forwards such an agenda. You may say this is a non-issue ultimately, and you would be right. It doesn't matter much that Emily Hunter McGowin doesn't appreciate the homemaking concentration at Southwestern because of theological differences. It certainly isn't a good argument against the program of study as a whole. But, in order to be honest with my readers, I feel its important to "tip my hand," so to speak, and tell the whole truth. I will reserve further explication of my views for a later time.

Now then, I anticipate some objections to my perspective. To the conclusion that the baccalaureate concentration in homemaking is unwise and unnecessary, some may say: "Many women don't know anything about homemaking. If they need the instruction and they want to take the courses, why not provide it for them at the College?"

I affirm the fact that many women enter marriage unprepared for the responsibilities of managing a household. This is especially true of women who grew up in a two-income home or single-parent home. That said, I affirm as well that many men enter marriage unprepared for the responsibilities of managing a household, for many of the same reasons as the women. In my view, the Bible does not explicitly instruct all women in all places to be the primary managers and caretakers of the home. So, I take issue with the idea that women alone need to learn such skills. Perhaps I would be more inclined to support the homemaking concentration if it were intended for men as well as women. If so, I imagine I would recommend adding courses in small engine repair, car maintanence, carpentry, and accounting. (Dare I say that those men who turned up their noses at the prospect of taking a homemaking course reveal more about their views of homemaking than my blog ever will?)

Also, I take issue with the idea that homemaking is a course of study appropriate for an institution of higher education (meaning, a college or university). I know this is going to come across as elitist or snobby to some, but that is not my attitude or intention. I am not denigrating the homemaking responsibilities, only pointing out what I believe to be true. As a part-time homemaker, with all due respect, planning and preparing nutritious meals is not the same kind of academic pursuit as debating ethics or studying WWII. I think I could understand and support these kinds of courses being offered in a "continuing education" program or weekend seminars (as Mrs. Patterson has done for some time with her etiquette conferences), but to put such studies on the same level as music, humanities, etc, seems unmerited, even in the most charitable analysis of the issues.

Some may say: "But, homemaking is vital to the ministry of women in most Southern Baptist churches. Women need to know these things before they launch into ministry with their spouse."

Outside the rural areas of the South and Southeast, I am not convinced that traditional homemaking, as Mrs. Patterson envisions and models, is as vital as it has been argued by some. In contemporary America, where the mission field is predominantly suburban and urban, homemaking is no longer a significant concern to most. What I mean by this is that ignorance in matters of clothing construction and entertainment are not going to hinder the advancement of the good news the way they would have some years ago (see my discussion of Titus 2:3-5 in Part 1 below for more information). I cannot produce "evidence" for this assertion, so this is merely a statement of my studied opinion. As I interact with contemporary women, especially young women in generations X, Y, et al, homemaking is not at the top of their list of concerns. (Of course, there are exceptions. In a small, rural town, the pastor's wife needs to know which is the dessert fork, how to prepare meals on a budget, etc. But again, this information could be provided through another avenue and does not need to be a part of a baccalaureate program.)

Some may say: "Homemaking is a valuable skill and should not be frowned upon."

I agree completely. As I have said before, I consider myself a part-time homemaker and there is no doubt in my mind that the preparation of meals, management of the budget, and, most importantly, child-rearing, are vital to family life in the Kingdom of God. But, again, I do not think instruction in such matters belongs in a baccalaureate program of a Christian educational institution.

At this point, I think I have exhausted my thoughts on the matter. (I'm sure some of you are thinking, "Thank God!") I don't pretend to have figured out everything or deeply considered all the possible relevant issues involved in the College's decision to offer a homemaking concentration. It is my conclusion, however, that the decision is unwise and unnecessary, as well as ideologically driven. I welcome input and interaction with my conclusion, but I would ask that comments be respectful and kind-spirited.

(I hope to post something at a later time detailing my specific view of gender roles and the family, but for now, I'm going to give my fingers and my brain a break. Good night.)

My thoughts on a baccalaureate concentration in Homemaking, Part 1

In recent weeks, there has been a significant amount of discussion and debate on the new homemaking concentration at the College at Southwestern. The most recent coverage of the controversy is featured in this ABP article: Criticism of Southwestern homemaking courses angers professor, radio host, which was brought to my attention by Paul Littleton at SBC Outpost.

I have remained purposefully silent on this matter. There are a number of reasons for this, the most important of which is my desire to refrain from addressing what could be construed as issues of SBC politics on my blog. Of course, the new homemaking concentration has nothing to do with SBC politics on the surface, but observers of SBC internal conflict in recent days are aware that in this environment everything can be construed as a political statement. Yet, as a woman who has been following the blogosphere discussion for some time, I am compelled to say what I think.

To head off any misunderstanding, though, let me begin with this two-part preface:
(1) I am not, nor have I ever been, a student at Southwestern Seminary. I do not have anything personally against Dr. and Mrs. Patterson, nor do I have any underlying "agenda" to harm or belittle their ministry. My personal criticism of the homemaking concentration does not mean that I question their integrity or sincerity.
(2) I find enjoyment in certain aspects of traditional "homemaking," including cooking and entertaining guests. Because my husband and I have full-time jobs--he is a youth pastor and I am a full-time graduate student and part-time graduate assistant--we have found a healthy balance of sharing most "homemaking" responsibilities. So, the following critique is not the repressed contempt of a scorned housewife, or the anti-marriage rant of an angry feminist (though this description of feminists is mostly caricature, I assure you). I am not belittling homemaking as a practice or denying its importance in family life.

With the preface behind us, then, let me sketch Part 1 of what I perceive to be the problems with a homemaking concentration in an Christian educational institution's baccalaureate program.

Our primary purpose as followers of Jesus Christ is to make apprentices to him of all nations, immersing them in the Trinitarian reality, and teaching them to carry out all that Jesus commanded. Of course, this purpose assumes that we ourselves are apprentices to Jesus, whose character is being conformed into Christ's more and more every day. Although seminaries and other formal schools of education did not exist in the early church and are not addressed in the NT, it would seem to me that, above all, institutions of Christian education should be commited to preparing their students to be equipped Jesus-apprentices and Kingdom citizens, possessing a core of wisdom, knowledge, character, and skills necessary to be catalysts for God's reign in the world. It seems to me, therefore, that every program of study should be evaluated in light of this purpose and a concentration in homemaking is no different.

There is something to recommend a course of study in caring for the home, especially as it relates to raising children. Although many changes have beset the American home in recent years, it remains the central hub for family activities and the so-called "nuclear family" is still very much the norm. Moreover, for biblical support of their program, both Pattersons routinely refer to Paul's instructions in Titus 2:3-5, where older women are exhorted to teach younger women "to love their husbands and children, to be...good homemakers..." (HCSB).

The content of this verse is undeniable, but I wonder if the interpretation employed by the Pattersons gives proper credence to the motivation behind Paul's instructions. Paul clarifies exactly why such instruction is needed at the end of v. 5: "so that God's message will not be slandered." Now this is a strange reason to teach women to be homemakers, isn't it? Why would Paul say this? The answer, I believe, is in the missional, Kingdom-focused direction of Paul, who read all things through the lense of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom (including marriage, women's roles, and slavery). The homemaking skills of the women in Titus' congregation were essential so that the good news would not be slandered by outsiders.

In the Roman world, the wife's vital role was as administrator of the husband's (pater familias) household. She oversaw slaves, financial books, entertainment, and, yes, cooking and cleaning. Roman wives were expected to fulfill such tasks as a duty both to her husband and to the Empire. In the mind of most Romans, the security of the Empire rested upon the faithful administration of the home.

So, if a non-Christian Roman encountered a household like mine, where the husband and wife shared responsibilities, it is certain that the non-Christian would assume, not only that the couple is treasonously out of sync with Roman society, but also that the Christian message is simply backward nonsense. Therefore, in order to be sure that the good news is not slandered and the Kingdom is not thwarted, Christian wives in Titus' assembly must be faithful to do what is culturally necessary.

I think a comparable situation is in the roles of missionary wives in middle eastern countries. For a Christian family living in Syria, it is essential that the wife learn to adopt the patterns of wives in Muslim households so that the witness of the couple is not hindered by her apparent lack of homemaking skills. In some situations, the husband simply cannot help his wife with dishes or clothing or cooking because such actions on his part would shame her and bring reproach on him as a man. For the sake of the good news, therefore, the wife and husband adopt the appropriate cultural roles and perform them to the best of their ability.

For this reason, I think the use of Titus 2:3-5 as a support for the importance of a homemaking concentration in a Christian institution in the US is sorely mistaken. As I see it, Paul is not teaching the universal, inalterable responsibilities for all women at all times. (If it were so, surely they would have shown up in more places than Titus.) He is teaching the right way to submit to the expectations of the surrounding culture in order for the good news to be advanced. This is not uncommon for him, as you know (see esp. 1 Cor 9:19-23; cf. 1 Cor 10:23-33; 1 Thess 4:11-12; 1 Tim 6:1).

(In fact, I think an argument can be made that the view of women's roles and homemaking propogated by the Pattersons and others may actually do more to hinder the reception of the good news in the US than help it [albeit, in a relatively limited way]. I know, I know, this sounds terribly wrong. But I would urge you to think about the status of women in the US and the new cultural norms that have developed in the past fifty years. Paul's principle is that things like occupations, household roles, food choices, etc, are to be submitted to the mission of the good news. Is it possible that in our context, the insistence on a very "traditional," 1950s-style model of the family is serving to drive some young women away from the Kingdom? Would Paul intend for us to slavishly repeat the culturally-rooted model of the family present in the NT when we have the good news to preach and people to disciple?)

As a result, it is my opinion that a Kingdom-driven mindset, one that puts the propagation of the good news first and foremost, will lead us to pursue other means of education for women in American Christian institutions. With wisdom and discernment, we will focus on the things now expected of American women that are essential so that "God's message will not be slandered" (Titus 2:5b).

What are these areas? I cannot be exhaustive at this point, but I would suggest that the American milieu demands that our women have the same well-rounded education that is essential for college educated men. At least in theory, American women are deemed of equal value as men and just as capable of functioning in all aspects of public life. So, for their education, how about we ensure our women learn mathematics, sciences, literature, world history, world religions, foreign languages, and political science? And, for the distinctly Christian context, how about biblical languages, OT and NT, historical theology, ethics, and philosophy?

(This is not to suggest, of course, that the Pattersons do not advocate women learning such things or that they propose all women enroll in the homemaking concentration. But, I think the attempt to elevate the homemaking curriculum to the same academic level as other curriculum is unwarranted and, ultimately, ideologically driven.)

Although I have much more to say, I must wrap up an already lengthy post. Please check in later for Part 2 of my critique, where I will address what I believe to be the multi-faceted and misguided ideology behind the defense of the homemaking concentration.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"For all the ladies in the house tonight"...

(I know this may be a little too much "girl power" for the gentlemen who frequent this blog, but I feel compelled to share something with the ladies. Thank you, brothers, for indulging me.)

All right, ladies, I have a "newsflash" for you: God didn't make a mistake when he made you a woman.

I know that seems silly. You may be thinking, who really thinks God made a mistake when he made them female? But, I assure you it is not silly. In fact, I have encountered many women in the past few years who are decidedly, though normally not admittedly, disappointed that they are women. I can't unlock the many reasons why this is so. Often, they are too personal and complex for any outsider to discern. But, those of you who struggle with your identity, who long to have the apparent freedom that men have, this post is for you.

Let, me say it again: God didn't make a mistake when he made you a woman. God is not disappointed that you are female. You are a hand-crafted reflection of God's image--a beautiful testimony to God's grace and goodness. Yes, even you, the one with a dark and difficult past, with painful regrets and hidden weaknesses. You are a woman of God, a disciple of the Great Teacher, a follower of the Man who truly loved women. I challenge you to reclaim the joy of being a woman.

Now, this is not one of those posts where I will dictate for you what being a woman means. Plenty have tried in the past, but in my reading of scripture, there is no one, timeless and inalterable standard "woman." I know this is going against the grain a little bit. No one calls into question the reality of so-called "biblical womanhood" without picking a fight.

But, I ask you, if there were a paradigm for biblical womanhood, which woman would we choose? Sarah, who bossed her husband around as much as he bossed her? Rebekah, whose scheming subverted the proper birth order of her sons and alienated them from one another? What about Tamar, the abandoned widow who took advantage of her father-in-law's lust to secure a place in the family? Or, perhaps we should look to Deborah, the wise prophet to whom the Israelites came for judgment and through whom God incited Barak to battle? Or, maybe Abigail whose intelligence and bravery caught the eye of King David? The list could go on, of course. What about Naomi, Ruth, Michal, Bathsheba, Huldah, Esther, Susanna, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Phoebe, Priscilla, Tabitha, Chloe, Junia, or the Elect Lady? Indeed, it would take a tortuous amount of historical wrangling to squeeze these diverse and complicated women into one "biblical" mold of "womanhood." As I see it, it is a fruitless endeavor.

So, don't be afraid. Short of sin, from which God wants to liberate you, there is nothing in you that is inherently un-feminine or un-womanly. Being female, being feminine, is something very personal. Of course, there are many characteristics and tendencies that unite women in general. Hence, the market for the numerous self-help books dealing with the supposed universal nature of women (Women Are from Venus, anyone?). But, in the end, not all women are alike, just as not all men are alike. You are a unique representative of the female gender, one for whom femininity may or may not conform to the status quo. I assure you, our definition of what is womanly in the southern United States is going to look quite a bit different from what is womanly in north-western Russia or southern Peru. And, that's ok.

But, I didn't write this post to debate gender identity. Getting back to where I started, allow me to bless you, my sister, by pointing out what is beautifully obvious to our Creator: You are a phenomenal woman. The way you think. The way you laugh. The way you smile and frown and weep. The way you walk and talk. The way you care and give. The way you find joy and fun. The way you wield power. The way you love. You are a phenomenal woman. Praise God for that.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Angel hair pasta and Jesus of Nazareth

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

As I enjoyed a steaming plate of angel hair and marinara tonight, I found myself considering this verse. Its strange, I know. Italian food doesn't normally translate into theological reflection, at least not in my experience. Certainly, I have yet to stumble across a brilliant idea with a fork-full of pasta and marinara in my mouth. But tonight, the taste of tomatos, basil, and garlic, some of my favorite flavors, sent my thoughts drifting to the truth that "the Word became flesh," the way good aromas drift through a happy home.

Really, what did it for me was this thought: "I wonder what food tasted like to Jesus." This may seem totally inconsequential to you, but think about it for a moment. What did it taste like for Jesus to share fresh baked flat bread with his disciples? How did he enjoy the flavor of the exquisite wine he created from water at the Cana wedding feast? What about the pan-fried fish he cooked up over good conversation with a puzzled and shamed Simon Peter?

I have to believe that Jesus really enjoyed the food he encountered. Why? Jesus of Nazareth is the only human who ever lived in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, completely surrendered to the will of the Father at every moment. He was the Word--the will, message, wisdom, mouthpiece, person, incarnation of God. When he put the harvest of the earth to his lips and wet his tongue with the fruit of the vine, however simply and mundane those flavors may have been, he understood exactly from where his sustenance came. I imagine that makes for an amazing meal every time.

I love the humanity of Jesus. I know this isn't popular to say today. Most of the time, we're very concerned to stress the divine nature of Jesus. And, that's ok. But tonight, as strange as it is, my angel hair pasta made me awed at Jesus' humanity.

Jesus of Nazareth--the one through whom God inaugurated the Kingdom of God--the one through whom life poured forth like a rushing river--the one through whom God saw fit to reconcile all things--this Jesus is remarkably, scandalously human. His flesh bled. His nose ran. His tears made his face puffy. His fingernails became dirty. He got eyelashes in his eyes and picked slivers out of his hands. He bit his tongue and scraped his knees. Sweat ran down his face. Sun burned his neck and sand harrassed his calves. He laughed, he cried, and he became angry.

And, getting back to my original point, he enjoyed mouthfuls of food--some good, some bad, I'm sure. But, with each bite, he savored the flavor of the material world with which God was sustaining him and carrying him to his ultimate act of obedience. Our Savior is the Word became flesh. Human flesh. Living, breathing, eating, drinking flesh. What a wondrous thing. What a fabulous way to redeem the world.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Another baby photo...

Here's another "baby photo" just for fun. This one has two "babies" in it: our oldest cat, Jezebel, and my husband, Ronnie. I adore both of them.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Theology, ideology, and disciple making

My first post on this blog was An Evangelical Consideration of Feminism and Feminist Theology. It was based upon an article I wrote for a layperson's Christian apologetics resource to be published in the next year or so.

My interest in feminist theology began before this article, however, and has been growing for some time. At first, I knew not why I was collecting feminist volumes at Half-Price bookstores, but I think the Lord knew I would need such resources to satisfy my curiosity as my interest grew. Perhaps it is the "danger" involved that excites me--the sense that this subject matter is what all my undergraduate professors warned me about. Perhaps I am sympathetic with the social concerns of feminist theologians (which I am). Perhaps it is the deception of the Evil One leading me astray (said with tongue in cheek). Whatever the reason, I have been thinking deeply about feminist theology and feminist theological method in particular for some time.

Perhaps the best criticism I have read of feminist theology comes from theologian Donald Bloesch. He argues in The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language that feminist theologies, along with other liberation theologies, have become “consciously ideological” (84). That is, their driving agendas overshadow their theologies to such an extent that theology has become ideology. Bloesch explains further: “When a theology becomes consciously ideological, as in some forms of feminist and liberation theologies, it is bound to lose sight of the transcendent divine criterion, the living Word of God, by which alone it can determine the validity of its social valuations."

Let me explain this in other words: Broadly speaking, feminism is a global movement and social program that directs its efforts toward the emancipation of women. This is accomplished primarily by seeking for women the same rights as men in modern society, especially in the political, social, and economic realms. Often, these efforts are focused upon the removal of obstacles, such as beliefs, values, attitudes, and social structures, which hinder the process of women’s liberation.

In feminist theology, this feminist commitment to women's emancipation is the ultimate authority, even more authoritative than the Bible or the person of Jesus Christ. As a result, women’s experience, a relative and subjective conception (even though immensely valuable), becomes the norm for theological inquiry and construction. Bloesch argues that in their rejection of all sources of authority outside of women’s experience, feminist theology turns into ideology—an intellectual system based on a social program. Feminist theologians affirm allegiance to gender-equality as their foundational premise and then subject God and the Bible to this commitment.

I agree with Bloesch's crticism of feminist theology. It is conciously ideological and I have yet to find a feminist theology that does not lose touch with the central commitments of Christian tradition (especially the person and work of Jesus Christ). It would seem that any theology that has a social program or commitment as its driving and controlling agenda risks turning into an ideology instead of a Christian theology.

That said, I wonder to myself if its possible to do theology without some driving and controlling motivation, commitment, or agenda. I don't mean to sound like a postmodern skeptic, but is there any Christian theology that is void of an agenda of some kind? Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez argues in his A Theology of Liberation that all theology arises out of praxis (practice) and that it should arise out of praxis. (In his case, of course, the praxis is the liberation of the poor and underprivileged.) I think I agree with Gutierrez that that theology and praxis have an interdependent relationship. For example, the early church's practice of the Lord's Supper informed their theology about the Lord's Supper (and not only their theology of the Lord's Supper, but also their Christology, soteriology, and other important issues). Moreover, our view of Scripture affects our reading/study of Scripture and vice versa. Praxis and theology are mutually influential.

So, why does this matter? Even though I agree with Bloesch's criticism of feminist theology as "consciously ideological," I am skeptical of the possibility that any Christian theology can be without some measure of ideology. If an ideology is defined as "an intellectual system based on a social program," then Christian theology does have an ideology of sorts. It is our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ to make more disciples of Jesus Christ, submerging them in the Trinitarian reality and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. This is in order that they may live rightly under the rule of God, which broke into history in the person of Jesus Christ and exists now as the "divine conspiracy" (thank you, Dallas Willard) that is working to redeem all of creation. In this sense, all Christian theology should be ideological in some sense. If the call to make disciples isn't the primary motivation and control for our theology, then what is? I see no way around it.

Perhaps the problem with feminist and liberation theologies is not that they are "consciously ideological," but that they have the wrong ideology. As I consider a career in theology, I have to wonder if being a theologian is worth anything at all if those who are reading my work or sitting in my classes are not spurred on to be better followers of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God is here. I must encourage all who will listen to live in light of this truth, with hearts submitted to the leadership of Jesus. This is my "social program," if you will. This is my "ideology."

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Something to consider as we celebrate our Independence...

In the known history of the world, the United States of America is a unique and matchless phenomenon. There has never been and, I daresay, will never be another nation like ours. The freedom and prosperity we enjoy as a whole is unparalleled, even in the developed world. This week we will celebrate the first steps toward the creation of our country in the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and rightly so. Something very significant happened in 1776, something of which I'm not sure the leaders of our proto-nation were fully aware. As the country celebrates, I will be enjoying fellowship with my church family at a picnic, with food, games, and a fireworks show at the end. I'm sure it will be a wonderful time.

As we memorialize our Independence Day, I would like to offer a humble word of caution. It has become commonplace in evangelical circles, particularly around times of intense patriotism such as these, to speak of the need for America to "get back" to the "Christian principles" upon which this nation was founded. Certainly, I am not going to argue the fact that our country was conceived with Judeo-Christian values as a foundation, nor will I debate that the majority of our founding fathers and mothers were Christians (mostly Protestants). That said, I must quibble with the belief that our nation must "get back" to a supposed pristine Christian state from times past.

Most of our early mothers and fathers participated in, or allowed for systematic violence, both physical and spiritual, against indigenous people groups ("Native Americans") whose land they conquered and then against black Africans who were in their care. Surely God was neither honored nor pleased with the mass enslavement of one race and the almost total annihilation of another, while the women and children of both were routinely abducted, raped, and mistreated. This is, of course, apart from the way Anglo women were treated as inferior and unintelligent creatures, incapable of any real contributions to society. Whatever else is right about America, claims to a "Christian heritage" cannot cover over or erase these original sins.

A further illustration of the bigotry of our founding fathers is found in the Constitution itself, in which black African slaves were to be considered only three-fifths of a person. (Yes, its really in there. I’ve read it myself.) This infamous blot on an otherwise ingenious founding document (nicely called the “constitutional compromise” by many historians) is an embarrassment and a shameful reality for patriotic Christians everywhere. I think that it is an affront to black Americans—not to mention our black brothers and sisters in Christ—for us to speak about the Christian principles we need to "get back" to, when these same principles commited such gross examples of oppression.

In conclusion, then, I would like to propose that we put aside all language of "getting back" to our Christian heritage, which unwittingly implies that the things I detail above don't matter. It seems to me that the blessings of God upon us then may have been despite our many egregious sins and failures, not because of our consistent faithfulness to God’s standards. Instead, I think we should be challenged to seek after a better, more God-honoring America in the future. There's no need to "get back" to anything for this, only to press on toward the future, praying and working in the power of the Holy Spirit to see more and more citizens of the United States become citizens of the Kingdom of God.