Sunday, September 23, 2012

Did Jesus Have a Wife? Probably Not. But, Here are My Thoughts Anyway.

The blogosphere has been aflutter for the past week over the publicizing of a newly translated shred of 4th century Coptic papyri, which appears to read, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife..." Karen L. King is a well respected historian of early Christianity and Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She presented her findings  in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies. Despite the flurry of interest and sometimes truly wild speculation surrounding this discovery, King is to be commended for her restraint and professionalism. She submitted her findings to a number of reputable colleagues before taking the papyrus translation public and she has repeatedly cautioned against sensationalism. The New York Times article about King's publication describes her comments as follows:

She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.
“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” she said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

In the midst of the discussion regarding this lightening rod of a papyrological discovery, a friend of mine, David Sessions, who writes for The Daily Beast and Newsweek (and founded the Christian culture and politics blog, Patrol) contacted me to ask my point of view. He was thinking of writing a piece on the subject and wanted my opinion. I typed up my best off-the-cuff response and sent it on. Later, he asked if he could quote me, sent me the portion of my statement that he wished to quote, and I agreed. David's op-ed has now been published on The Daily Beast and will be appearing in the print edition of Newsweek. Please take the time to read the whole piece (it is quote short). But, the pertinent part with my quote is as follows: 

Even if Jesus didn’t have sex with the woman mentioned in the new fragment, a close female partner in ministry would undermine the Christian tradition of seeing women as temptresses who should be kept under male authority. “It certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg up among the saints—maybe even over the Virgin Mary,” said Emily McGowin, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Dayton. “Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?”

I have no problem with David's piece as it stands. He has a particular "take" on the discovery that he wanted to tease out and part of what I said helped him to say that. What I said was definitely a provocative turn of phrase (!) especially, I would imagine, for my Catholic brothers and sisters. In retrospect, I fear that what I said, appearing as it does without the larger context, may give the wrong impression as to my meaning. So, I'd like to use this blog post to explain myself. I am a scholar, after all. I make a living explaining and explaining and footnoting and qualifying just about everything I say. So, here goes...

First, I want to say that in my opinion, it is highly, highly improbable that Jesus was married. Certainly the existence of this and a number of other late documents on the life and teachings of Christ suggest that there were some differences of opinion within some later Christian communities regarding Jesus' marital status. Most of the late gospels that suggest Jesus had a female consort of some kind are grouped into the (rather broad and often inexact) category of Gnosticism. That being the case, these gospels represent, in my opinion, aberrant versions of Christianity that do not hold anywhere near as much authority as the four Gospels of the New Testament (all of which are essentially silent on the matter of Jesus' marital status). So, I am rather unbothered by this new finding and don't find it particularly unsettling. Interesting?--yes. Helpful for better understanding the variant groups within early Christianity?--yes. Going to change anything having to do with the central tenets of the Christian faith?--not a chance. 

Second, I want to say more specifically that I find it highly, highly improbable that if Jesus was married, the Gospels writers would have intentionally left out that biographical tidbit. There was just no good reason to do so. It was typical for a Jewish man of Jesus' age to be married. Moreover, we hear later in the NT letters of the apostles having wives and traveling with them. Even though Paul was an advocate of remaining unmarried, he did not find married persons shameful or somehow less Christian than unmarried ones. Although the church would later come to have some significant debate over the comparative value of marriage versus celibacy, the writers of the NT were not, in my opinion, yet concerned with those matters. So, I think the idea that the authors of the NT intentionally suppressed the truth that Jesus was married (and to Mary Magdalene, no less!) is, frankly, absurd. (I'm looking at you, Dan Brown.) To come to this conclusion requires a level of suspicion regarding the NT writers and the early church that I simply don't possess.  

Third, even if we were to somehow come across totally incontrovertible, undeniable evidence that Jesus was married (and that's a big if), then I don't think that such a finding would jeopardize any of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Certainly, it goes against the way Christians have imagined Jesus for 2,000 years. A change of imagination would certainly be in order. And, yes, it might call into question the Catholic commitment to celibacy for its priests. But, because the NT simply doesn't speak of Jesus' marital status, it won't call into question the trustworthiness of the NT; nor will it change the facts of the Gospel. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again. That doesn't change just because the Son of God had a spouse. 

So, I must say that theological speculation about what the discovery of a wife for Jesus would mean to Christianity is just that: speculation. It's highly, highly unlikely. Dr. King's 4th century Coptic papyrus fragment certainly doesn't prove anything. And, even if Jesus did have a wife, it wouldn't change the core of the Christian faith. But, if I were asked to say what impact the possibility of a married Jesus would have, I would offer the following thoughts.  

First, it seems that a married Jesus would be able to identify with the struggles of married Christians, the demands of family life, and more. A married Jesus would open the possibility of having a married life without sin--something most of us can't imagine! Now, even if Jesus were married, some scholars have suggested that he could have been a part of a celibate marriage. (Don't shake your head in disbelief. These things were real in days gone by. Just because our oversexed culture can't imagine married life without sex, that doesn't mean it did not and has not existed.) For reasons of purity and devotion to God, it is possible that a married Jesus could have refrained from sexual intercourse with his spouse, particularly given the stringencies of his calling to travel and preach the Gospel. That said, if it were not that way and Jesus did engage in what we would call a "normal" married life (with sex included), then it certainly changes the way most Christians think about sex (almost always, I think, tainted with at least a touch of sin). If the God-man could have a wife without sinning, then that says something about the goodness of married life and married sex. It is admittedly jarring to think of Jesus in this way. But, it is not necessarily bad.

Second, if Jesus were definitely married and if we found incontrovertible evidence that he was married to Mary Magdalene (two major ifs!), then as I said rather indelicately in the Newsweek piece, "it certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg-up among the saints." What I meant by this is that the union (whether spiritual or sexual or both) with Jesus might place Mary Magdalene in a different "classification," if you will, among the communion of saints--particularly in the Catholic tradition where the saints play a much more prominent role than in the Protestant tradition. It seems to me that she would have to take on greater importance if she were someone who shared an intimate life with God incarnate. She would, it seems to me, become at least as important (if not more) as Peter, James, and John, Jesus' so-called inner circle. And, she might even become as important as the Virgin Mary. 

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear to me that the last part of my statement about the Virgin Mary is unnecessarily hyperbolic: "Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?” I overstated things--something I have been known to do at times.  In the Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary did much more than simply birth Jesus. Speaking christologically, she provided the human flesh with which the divine nature of Christ was united. Moreover, Mary's "yes" to the announcement of the angel Gabriel was the narrative reversal of Eve's "yes" to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Mary's active cooperation in the redemption plan of God, offering her own body and soul for the sake of the mission, deserves honor and reverence. Thus, even if it could be proven that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife, I don't really think she could possibly surpass the Virgin Mary in importance within the Christian tradition. Mary Magdalene would become important. Very important. But, her relationship with Christ would remain qualitatively different than that of Mary's. 

In conclusion, I want to say that I'm grateful to David for being interested in my perspective. (Who am I to be quoted in Newsweek, anyway?) Of course, he's not to blame for my lack of clarity and ill-advised hyperbole. I hope that this post helps to clarify the context of my thoughts from his Newsweek piece and explain more fully what I think about this new papyrological discovery. And, of course I'm happy to discuss the other aspects of this recent discovery with any interested readers.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Baptizing Infants: Thoughts from Peter Leithart

Of all the changes that Ronnie and I have gone through over the past few years, the acceptance of infant baptism has probably been the biggest--or, at least, the most difficult. And, it seems that when we speak to friends and acquaintances about our shift into Anglicanism, the practice of infant baptism is the biggest concern in their minds, as well. This is understandable. Baptists are called such because of their insistence on adult baptism and this is a position we championed for many years.

Currently, Ronnie is reading a very good book on the sacrament of baptism by Peter Leithart, a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology. Although there are other issues on which Leithart and I disagree, I found his section addressing the Baptist concerns surrounding infant baptism to be very helpful. I offer them here for my readers as "food for thought." For those who might dismiss our new convictions around paedobaptism as egregious heresy (something that would apply to the majority of the Church for most of Christians history!), I hope you'll ponder Leithart's words.

Protestants have always emphasized that salvation comes through faith, yet most Protestants have baptized babies. How can these two things hold together? Luther and Calvin held together their insistence on faith with infant baptism by claiming that infants can believe. Baptists see this as the Achilles' heel of the paedobaptist position, an example of absurd lengths to which paedobaptists are willing to go in defending an untenable practice.

Is infant faith absurd? "Faith" is the human response of trust toward God, a response of allegiance, in a personal relationship, and this has large consequences for our understanding of infant faith. The question of infant faith is not: "Are infants capable of receiving this jolt of divine power?" The question is: "Can infants respond to other persons? Do infants have personal relations?" And the answer to this question is obviously, yes. Infants quickly (even in utero) learn to respond to mother's voice; infants quickly manifest "trust" of their parents; infants quickly distinguish strangers from members of the family. If infants can trust and distrust human persons, why can't they trust in god? Behind the denial of infant faith is, apparently, an assumption that God is less available to an infant than other humans. But this is entirely wrong because God's presence is mediated through His people. When parents say to their newborn, "Jesus loves you and will care for you," they are speaking God's promises.

Parents, moreover, establish relationships with their infants through symbols. We talk to our infants, and we show our love through gestures such as hugs and kisses. If there is nothing irrational or absurd about humans establishing a personal relationship with infants through symbols, there is nothing irrational about God doing the same. As we establish loving and trusting relations with our infants through symbols, so God speaks to infants and establishes a relation with them through the "visible word" of baptism. Thus, the question "Should we baptize babies?" is of a piece with the question, "Should we talk to babies?" Paedobaptism is neither more nor less odd and miraculous than talking to a newborn. In fact, that is just what paedobaptism is: God speaking in water to a newborn child.

If the child cannot understand what a parent is saying, is it rational for the parent to speak to him or her? Baptist parents as well as others speak to their infants and do not expect the child to understand or to verbally respond for many months. They see nothing irrational in this. They speak to their children, that is, they employ symbols, not because they think the infant understands all that is being said or because they expect an immediate response. They speak to their child so the child will learn to understand and talk back. So too, we baptize infants and consistently remind them of their baptism and its implications so they will come to understanding and mature faith. We name them so they will grow up to respond to that name; we speak to them so they will begin to speak back; we name them in baptism so they will begin to live in and out of baptism.

The sociologically consistent Baptist should, it seems to me, allow children to name themselves. Otherwise, they are inevitably "imposing" an identity on their little boys and girls. Karl Barth, who loudly protested the "violence" of imposing a Christian identity on a child through infant baptism, would undoubtedly be pleased. In fact, Baptists don't do this, but they do impose a language on their children. They do, in spite of themselves, often treat their children as Christians, teaching them to sing "Jesus Loves Me" and to pray the Lord's Prayers. And if they do all this, what reason remains for resisting the imposition of the covenant sign?

-Peter Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2007), 9-11.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Thoughts on The Hunger Games, Part 2

In Part 1 of "My Thoughts on The Hunger Games," I explained three ways that I think the series speaks truth about the depraved nature of our world. I argued that THG accurately depicts the cyclical, never-ending nature of violence, as well as the devastating effects of human violence on the people perpetrating it. And, I argued that the series calls into question the possibility of a truly just war. In all these points, I think THG speaks in concert with the Christian tradition, though the third point works only within the nonviolent or pacifist stream of Christianity.

There is no doubt, however, that even as THG speaks truth about our world, it does not offer a real "solution" for the problem of human sin and evil. There is no Christ-figure in the series, the heroine is fault-filled and broken, and the conclusion of the tale is not "neat and tidy" or "happily ever after." Still, I would not agree with those who argue that the series is entirely without any good news. I think there is good news that can be recognized as contiguous with the Christian tradition, even if it is subtle and somewhat underdeveloped. The way I'd summarize the "good news" of The Hunger Games trilogy is this: Subversive acts of love are powerful tools against oppressive systems.  

What makes THG so sad and depressing at points is that the world Suzanne Collins created is a closed system. In the world of Panem, there is no escaping the human tendency to pride, power-grabbing, oppression, abuse, bloodshed, and exploitation. Even the "good guys" do "bad guy" things and many of the "bad guys" are shown to be mixed characters, as well (neither entirely bad or good and never fully and wholly responsible for their ignorance and blindness). This closed system can feel oppressive for a reader looking for that tidy, "happily ever after" ending, with a clear winner and loser and resolution of the ethical conflicts. But, I would argue that Collins' closed system is an accurate depiction of real life on our postlapsarian planet earth.

According to the Christian tradition, sin is the state in which we find ourselves. And, this sin is a closed system. There is no escaping it. Nothing and no one remains untouched by the desperate grab for autonomy perpetrated by our ancestors. We are born with a bent toward disordered and disoriented lives and we live in a world gone awry. Indeed, the Apostle Paul says that the creation itself "groans" under the weight of it's burden, longing to be set free. Moreover, all aspects of our identities are formed within this brokenness. We cannot escape the fact that from the moment we are born, a sin-sick world has been telling us who we are, why we matter (or don't matter), what we value, what we love, what we hate, and much, much more. Not only is our identity and sense of reality constructed for us by our environment, but also this environment is itself poisoned at its source by sin. I think THG trilogy "gets" the truth of this reality in a profound way. 

So, you ask, how on earth is this good news? Well, recognizing that we live within a closed, sinful system is essential to realizing what can be done about it. In book one of The Hunger Games, Peeta aspires to be more than just a pawn in the games. He voices a desire not to lose himself to the Gamemakers and their ruthless search for an entertaining and bloody show. The problem is, how to do this. How can he work within the arena--within the games designed to pit tribute against tribute until everyone but one is dead--and still not play by the "rules" of the Gamemakers and the Capitol? The answer, I think, is self-sacrifical love. Even though it is never explicitly stated in the text, I think that Peeta realizes (even before the heroine, Katniss), that self-sacrificing (one might say, agape) love is the way to work within the system and yet subvert and undermine the system at the same time. 

If you think about it, Peeta's undying love for Katniss runs against the current of the entire series. While even the heroine is plotting, scheming, and thinking of her own survival, there's Peeta, constantly seeking what is best for Katniss and needed for her preservation. That's why what happens to Peeta in the third book, Mockingjay (which I won't give away here)is so jarring--the perfect move by the Capitol against Katniss and the rebellion. They manage to darken (albeit temporarily) the one truly pure ray of light in the entire storyline.

And, I think herein lies the key to the "good news" we find in THG trilogy. In a world gone awry, we employ subversive acts of love as our tools against oppressive, sinful systems. Examples of this are numerous in the first book. We see a subversive act of love in Katniss' devotion during Rue's death and then the decoration of her body with flowers. This act acknowledges the value lost in Rue and the significance of her body as a fellow human being. She wasn't just another pawn in the Capitol's games. Also, we see a subversive act of love in the gift of bread from District 11, a sign from Rue's people that they saw and understood Katniss' loving care for Rue. (And, just as a side note, this is one of the things I wish the director had put into the movie. I think leaving out the gift of bread in the film was a bad choice.) And, of course, we see a subversive act of love in the way Katniss chooses to bring an end to the games. She chooses to accept death alongside of Peeta rather than take his life and this subversion of the rules forces the hand of the Capitol. In fact, we know that this last act of subversion is the thing that serves as the beginning of the rebellion among the districts. They loved (albeit imperfectly). They didn't treat each other as pawns. They protected each other. They survived the games together.

(There are more examples of these loving acts of subversion in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, as well. But, time and space prevent me from going into more detail. Maybe you can pick some out and leave them in the comments.)

I think this employment of subversive action against injustice ties in quite well with Christian practice. The life of Jesus is indicative of what a life looks like lived entirely devoted to the Father's will and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And, over and over again, Jesus does things that powerfully subvert the sinful systems of his day. Jesus touched those who were considered unclean, thereby marking them as clean. He spent time with "sinners and tax collectors," proving that it is not sin that is contagious, but holiness. Jesus allowed his feet to be caressed by the hands, hair, and tears of a "sinful woman," thereby proclaiming her worthiness. He marched into Jerusalem in a mock coronation parade, symbolically announcing his reign in obvious opposition to the reign of Caesar. Jesus turned over tables in the temple and ran off money changers. Although this only stopped the trade of merchandise for a day (or even less), this subversive action proclaimed condemnation upon the Temple system and the beginning of something new. 

And, of course, the greatest act of subversive love is found in cross of Christ. Rather than employ the violent, self-serving, and oppressive methods of this sin-sick world to bring about his Kingdom, Jesus was obedient to the Father and exemplary of his love, even unto death. By absorbing in his own body all of the sin and evil this world could inflict upon him, Jesus disarmed it, destroyed it, and found victory over it in the resurrection. In fact, it is Jesus' resurrection that offers us the promise that even the smallest subversive acts of love are indestructible tools against the systems of this world (Paul called them the "powers and principalities"). Love really does win. The resurrection guarantees it.

The primary sacraments of Christianity can be understood as defiant acts of subversion, too. By submitting to the waters of baptism, one declares him or herself a citizen of God's Kingdom and a loyalist to Jesus Christ as Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. And, if our Kingdom is "not of this world," then our loyalties lie beyond the bounds of nation, culture, language, and kin. The breaking down of these boundaries within the "one baptism" of Christian faith means that our love is no longer limited to our close friends and family. Our circle of concern now extends to include both neighbor and enemy. This is something that goes against the grain of our culture and customs. Many of us have forgotten just how dangerous and revolutionary the baptismal proclamation really is. 

By consuming bread and wine, we share amongst ourselves the body and blood of our crucified and risen Lord. Taking his presence into our bodies, we align ourselves with his life and death, his ways and purposes. This means we are living sacrifices, literally carrying within us the person of Christ and his mission in the world. This means we are fundamentally different beings, with different loyalties and priorities, than those around us. Again, our allegiance is to a King and a Kingdom not of this present evil age. And, every time we take the meal of Jesus together we are proclaiming our faith in him and his Way of self-sacrificing love--in direct opposition to the ways of the world. 

Even beyond the central rituals and rites of Christian worship, there are many ways that Christians can and do employ subversive acts of love against oppression every day. I think of the junior high student who bravely chooses to sit alongside and befriend an abandoned and "outcast" student, rather that with his usual gang of friends. I think of the mother who chooses to drive further and shop with less convenience at the shop of a local immigrant family so as to contribute to their business success in a difficult economic period. I think of the family that opens their home to the teens of the neighborhood, giving them a safe place to gather, banter, play, and eat. In all of these ways (and so many more!), Christians employ subversive acts of love in opposition to the "closed system" of sin we find ourselves in. 

Until the King returns and makes "all things new" in his time, we remain "resident aliens" in a world that has yet to recognize the triumphant in-breaking of the reign of God. Our works as churches, families, and individuals signify to the Evil One and the "powers and principalities" that they are not Lord and to the watching world that God's Kingdom is coming "on earth as it is in heaven."

To summarize, then, I have argued that the good news to be found in THG trilogy is the power of subversive acts of love as tools against oppressive, sinful systems. The only qualification I would make as I conclude is that the people employing these actions within the machinations of Panem (apparently) do so without the enabling power of God's grace and the Holy Spirit--both of which Christians acknowledge as essential to the works of love our Lord requires of us. Indeed, it is the work of God within and alongside of us that guarantees that the subversive acts of love we employ in this sin-sick world are not wasted, but truly the first-fruits of a Kingdom guaranteed to triumph by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So, what do you think? Are there other glimpses of "good news" in The Hunger Games? I'd love to hear your thoughts...

My Thoughts on The Hunger Games, Part 1

I finished the last book of The Hunger Games trilogy late last night. Frankly, I feel a bit like a girl arriving late to a party. The movie has been released for some time (which I also saw) and people have been blogging their responses to the books and the film for some time. But, I am a writer and I process things by writing. So, rather than keep these ideas to myself (or drive my husband crazy with my endless pontifications), I thought I’d go ahead and post my thoughts, even if I’m late to the party.

For those who have not read the books, the following post may be a little confusing. It goes beyond the content of the first film in significant ways. I will try not to include any “spoilers,” but I’ll definitely be dealing with narrative that occurs later in the story of Katniss Everdeen and the nation of Panem. (So, let this post be an encouragement to you to go ahead and read the series all the way through, so that you don’t miss a thing!)

I have a blogger friend, Alan Cross, who wrote an excellent post on THG series in which he claims that the series is a work of popular literature that skillfully describes the nature of sin and the consequences of that sin for our world. Here’s an excerpt:

It is not a shiny, neat, tidy story. It is full of violence, treachery, pride, oppression, greed, indifference, tyranny, and the misuse of power. It kind of looks like parts of the Bible that way. It displays what happens when an individual/group tries to create a perfect society using power, fear, and violence as their means to control others. It also shows what happens when people have no hope, how they can turn on one another, and how the desire for personal success, safety, and survival can cause us to do deplorable things to one another and how that evil can drive us mad. Basically, it is a picture of a world without any good news, without any Gospel. It is exactly the world that we would be living in, and that some do live in, if Jesus had not come.

I agree with this assessment in multiple ways and disagree in one major way. In this first post, I’ll explain the reasons I agree with this assessment: how THG skillfully points a finger to the way our world is broken. Then, in the second post, I’ll explain the one place I disagree with Alan. I don’t think that THG is a world “without any good news.” I think there’s some Gospel light in the story, however small, if we look hard enough.

First, THG truthfully depicts the cyclical and destructive nature of violence. In the course of the narrative, violence always breeds more violence, even among those who are seeking to right wrongs and bring justice to Panem. Indeed, the rebels fighting against the Capitol, despite the justice of their cause, go on to commit atrocious acts of violence against innocents—something their revolt was seeking to undo. Even the celebrated heroine, Katniss Everdeen, ends up shedding innocent blood. Toward the end of the series, she kills thoughtlessly and without much regard for the value of the lives she takes. This is true to real life, of course. A violent act leads to retaliation, which leads to retaliation, which leads to retaliation, which leads to retaliation, and on and on ad infinitum. Violence perpetrated by the Capitol leads to a rebellion and the hatred and need for vengeance stored up by the rebels leads to violence against the Capital, including many innocent civilians. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

In my series of posts on the Dexter television series, I offered this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., and I think it remains applicable for THG, too: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. ... Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" (Where Do We Go From Here?, 1967).

The violence of THG was disturbing to many who saw the film and read the books. I heard more than one person ask why we would read a volume about teenagers killing each other or see a film depicting these things. I argued in my first post on the Dexter series that depictions of violence are not, in and of themselves, bad. The real question is the intent behind the use of these depictions. In the case of THG, I think the depictions of violence, both in the film and the books, are essential to the storytelling and most definitely not intended to titillate and entertain. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Whereas the inhabitants of the Capitol, along with most contemporary Americans, are generally desensitized to human violence, THG calls our attention to its brutality in order to re-sensitize us to it again. We should be shocked and horrified by what’s happening in the arena because our society—with televised executions, easy leaps into warfare, and glorifications of “shock and awe” bombing—is not too far away. The response of shock and horror is precisely the point!

Second, not only does THG show truthfully that violence is a “descending spiral,” it also shows the way in which violence is destructive, not only for those suffering at the hands of others, but for those wielding the sword. It seems to me that this is something our society has been unwilling to discuss, even after living through a solid century of national warfare in one place or another. More people are discussing the cost of war for the soldiers who survive battle, as studies on soldier suicide rates and PTSD diagnoses are periodically released, but it isn’t nearly enough. Statistics and charts can only say so much. It isn’t nearly real enough.

THG does not shy away from revealing the way in which killing is destructive to the totality of the human being: body, mind, soul, and spirit. All of the victors of the Hunger Games are depicted as profoundly injured people. Many are sleepless, their dreams filled with fear, bloodshed, and the haunting faces of those they killed or watched die. Some are addicted to drugs, which they use to numb their minds and hearts. Some display in their bodies the way their souls have been damaged: hunched backs, dark-circled eyes, and pale skin. Katniss is the best example of this, of course, as the reader is more privy to her nightmares, flashbacks, and struggles than any other character in the series. Indeed, by the final book, Katniss is clearly a deeply wounded human being—and I think that’s putting it mildly.

These depictions speak powerfully about the human consequences of violence, more so than even our own news media cares to say. They reveal the truth that taking human life—even in the case of just causes—is fundamentally at odds with God’s created order. It runs “against the grain of the universe,” so much so that it results in our own demise. Even in the cases where most would affirm that violence is “justified” in the name of protecting innocents, people cannot escape the consequences of violence against another human being. THG shows that human nature—the entire physical, psychological, and spiritual person—eventually crumbles under the weight of taking life. Either one gives in to the cycle of violence, becoming an unfeeling, cold, and calculating killer (almost more like a predatory animal than a human [i.e., President Snow or Cato]) or one becomes a damaged and forever haunted survivor (certainly still human, but bearing in one’s body the consequences of one’s deeds [i.e., most of the victors and rebels of the resistance]). 

This leads to the third, and perhaps most controversial, point I’d draw from THG. It seems clear to me that, in the third book, THG calls into question the possibility of “just war.” In Mockingjay, the rebellion against the Capitol, led by District 13, doesn’t take long to spiral into using the same kind of vicious tactics employed by the Capitol against them. In their hunger for justice, the rebels are willing to use unjust and cruel means to achieve their end. In this way, the rebellion becomes a macrocosm of the Hunger Games arena, where despite the desire to do otherwise, most of the tributes willingly adopt the ruthless and brutal methods of the “Careers” in order to preserve themselves.

The human embodiment of this quick descent into "total war" is Gale, Katniss’ best friend. Despite his ubiquitous railing against the cruelty of the Capitol before the rebellion, Gale very easily slips into using the same logic and proposing the same plans as used by President Snow himself. And, in the end, it is one of his bombs, designed to explode twice—once to kill and maim the target population and then again when medics and other caregivers rush to the wounded—that causes Katniss the deepest and most lasting wound of the series. In his pursuit of justice, Gale uses obviously and painfully unjust means.

In this way, I think Suzanne Collins is very directly asking us to look long and hard at our practice of warfare. Is any war really just? The Christian religion has a long history of a just war tradition, which theologians and ethicists like Thomas Aquinas, Elizabeth Anscombe, Paul Ramsey, and Oliver O’Donovan (among countless others) have expounded upon at great length. I don’t have the space or time to go into this matter in any depth, but there is no doubt that powerful and insightful Christian minds have answered this question in the affirmative and argued for it winsomely for centuries.

Still, there is another tradition in Christianity, the nonviolent, pacifist, or Anabaptist tradition that has pushed against and contradicted the just war tradition for just as many centuries. They have challenged proponents of just war to show how violence can accomplish anything more than additional violence, how war can do anything else but breed more war. They have questioned whether human motive and intention to use violence is ever really just and whether any human being can be brushed off as merely “collateral damage.” And, most pointedly, they have asked whether followers of the Crucified Messiah and citizens of God’s Kingdom have any business killing human beings made in God’s image for the sake of an earthly kingdom.

These questions are very uncomfortable, no doubt. And, I’m honestly not making an argument for or against Christian nonviolence in this post. But, the critique of the nonviolent tradition is something that evangelicals do well to endure and consider thoughtfully. For too long, in my estimation, evangelicals have quickly and easily joined in the drumbeats of American warfare, with little reflection beyond patriotic platitudes and sloganeering (“God and country!”). I think THG series is a work of literature that adds to the nonviolent critique of the just war tradition (or, at the very least, popular notions of just war) in significant ways. And, it makes its case rather stealthily, within an engaging and compelling story.

I have one more thought about THG and the just war tradition before I close. And, I hope this doesn’t get me into too much trouble. If you asked an average person on the street whether or not there is such a thing as a “just war,” I think most would say “Yes” without hesitation. In this regard, World War II is often used as an obvious illustration. How can you get more just than a war against Hitler and Nazism? I’m not going to debate the relative merits of WWII as a just war here. (Really, I’m not!) But, in Mockingjay, when I read the account of the rebel bombing outside of President Snow’s mansion, perpetrated by the rebels on innocent children in order to bring a swift end to the war, I couldn’t help but think of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder how many other readers saw a parallel, too. 

Our national memory of WWII often leaves out the use of two atom bombs, the decimation of two Japanese cities, and the catastrophic loss of innocent life (not to mention environmental destruction). Even our most prominent example of a just war, waged against a truly vile and evil enemy in Hitler’s Nazism, was concluded with a horrific, cruel, and knowingly unjust (as in, violating the “rules” of just war theory) nuclear attack. Again, we’re forced to ask: Is there ever really a just war? I don’t have an answer right now. But, I think the question is an important one for American Christians to ponder.

This concludes my thoughts on the ways that THG trilogy speaks truthfully about our world. As my friend Alan said, even though it is a compelling read, THG remains a very dark and depressing tale of human depravity and failure. In this way, it is in concert with much of the Augustinian strain of Christian theology (which tends to emphasize human depravity), as well as (I think) the nonviolent Christian tradition (which calls into question the Christian use of violence). In my next post, I’ll unpack the way I think THG points toward the Light of the Gospel, even if it never fully arrives.

Read Part 2 of "My Thoughts on The Hunger Games" here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Submission and the Greco-Roman Household

In a new post today, Rachel Held Evans has done a great job explaining the cultural background to the "submission" passages in the New Testament epistles and then using it to shed light on these texts for contemporary interpreters. (If I can say so, I actually find it corresponds quite well with some of what I said in my post on Titus 2:3-5 yesterday.) Please check out her new post here. Here's an excerpt:

Here’s where it gets really cool: While following a similar organizational structure, the household codes found in the Bible’s epistles differ significantly from the household codes found in the pagan literature of the day. In a sense, they present us with a sort of Christian remix of Greco-Roman morality that attempts to preserve the apostle Paul’s earlier teaching that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Where typical Greco-Roman household codes required nothing of the head of household regarding fair treatment of subordinates, Peter and Paul encouraged men to be kind to their slaves, to be gentle with their children, and, shockingly, to love their wives as they love themselves. Furthermore, the Christian versions of the household codes are the only ones that speak directly to the less powerful members of the household—the slaves, wives, and children—probably because the church at the time consisted of just such powerless people.

To dignify their positions, Peter linked the sufferings of slaves to the suffering of Christ and likened the obedience of women to the obedience of Sarah (1 Peter 2:18–25; 3:1–6). Paul encourages slaves and women to submit the head of the household as “unto the Lord,” reminding both slaves and their masters that they share a heavenly Master who shows no partiality in bestowing eternal inheritance (Ephesians 5:22; 6:5).

“When addressing those without power,” notes Peter H. Davids, the apostle Peter “does not call for revolution, but upholds the values of the culture insofar as they do not conflict with commitment to Christ. He then reframes their behavior by removing it from the realm of necessity and giving it a dignity, either that of identification with Christ or of identification with the ‘holy women’ of Jewish antiquity.” (Peter H. Davids, “A Silent Witness in Marriage” in Discovering Biblical Equality, eds. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis - Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005- p, 238.)

I cannot overstate the degree to which this remix—in which masters are reminded that they too have a heavenly master—would have been radical in the ancient world. And this is important: Peter and Paul’s use of metaphor (the husband is like Christ, the wife is like the Church, suffering slaves are like the suffering Christ) is not meant to universalize or glorify the household codes themselves but rather the *attitudes* of those functioning within the hierarchal systems of the day. Again, we cannot argue that the Greco-Roman hierarchal relationship between husbands and wives is divinely instituted without arguing the same about the Greco-Roman hierarchal relationship between slaves and masters. (See especially 1 Peter 2:18-23, where Peter provides an extended metaphor comparing slaves to Christ.)

Furthermore, if you look close enough, you can detect the rumblings of subversion beneath the seemingly acquiescent text. It is no accident that Peter introduced his version of the household codes with a riddle—“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves” (1 Peter 2:16 UPDATED NIV)—or that Paul began his with the general admonition that Christians are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21; emphasis added). It is hard for us to recognize it now, but Peter and Paul were introducing the first Christian family to an entirely new community, a community that transcends the rigid hierarchy of human institutions, a community in which submission is mutual and all are free.

Monday, June 4, 2012

"That the word of God may not be reviled": Titus 2:3-5 and Women's Proper Place

Noted Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans, is hosting a blogging event this week: "One in Christ: A Week of Mutuality." She has challenged sympathetic bloggers to write a blog post to contribute to the egalitarian bonanza. So, I offer this reflection on Titus 2:1-5 in support of her cause and to my regular readers for consideration, as well. I hope it can provide something interesting and useful for the ongoing conversation about women in the Christian church. 

(By the way, for the composition of this post I used some material from several years ago in another post, regarding a certain seminary's newly established degree in homemaking, since they used Titus 2:3-5 as support.)

Although 1 Timothy 2:12-15 gets all the attention in debates about women's proper place in the church and the home, Titus 2:1-5 is almost as important in terms of how it has been used to construct "biblical womanhood" within evangelical Protestantism in the U.S. Indeed, many a women's ministry have drawn inspiration from this passage, emphasizing woman-to-woman mentoring, calling themselves Titus 2 Women (or something of the sort), and drawing their mission statement from the list of exhortations that Paul gives to women in this passage. I have no problem with these practices and I support women's ministries in all their many varieties. I merely raise this point to say that Titus 2:1-5 is key for the discussion of what women should and shouldn't do in the home and the church. So, I'd like to address it in some detail. 

The text in question reads as follows: "But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled" (Titus 2:1-5 ESV).

(Before I proceed, I need to acknowledge that many contemporary New Testament scholars debate the Pauline authorship of Titus. Many scholars conclude that Titus (along with 1 and 2 Timothy) were not written by the Apostle Paul at all, but composed later in the first century by a student of Paul. Obviously, many evangelical scholars do not accept these arguments and are reluctant to give up Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles because, among other things, it calls into question the trustworthiness of the NT canon (in their minds, at least). Frankly, I am not prepared to weigh in to this debate on either side. Moreover, for the purposes of this post, I don't think Pauline or non-Pauline authorship makes much practical difference. The letter is in our canon. The Church has discerned that it is sacred scripture. With or without Pauline authorship, it must be considered carefully. For the purposes of easier reading, I will refer to the author as "Paul" throughout.)

The focus of the unit that begins in Titus 2 is the idea of "teach[ing] what accords with sound doctrine." The idea here is to encourage a way of life that is in keeping with right teaching ("right teaching" being defined, it seems, by conformity with the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to the preaching of Paul [see Titus 1:3]). This "right teaching" is the opposite of those "false teachers" that Paul contends with in Titus and 1, 2 Timothy. In the previous verse, the false teachers have been denounced as those who "know God" but "with their deeds deny him" (Titus 1:16 NET). So, the point is this: deeds can nullify the truth. Right living is essential for the preservation of right teaching. 

So, what is the "right living" that Paul maps out for women in Titus' congregation? Well, he suggests that older women are to be reverent, hold their tongues ("not slandering"), not drink too much (I have to giggle that he had to say this at all), and to teach "what is good" (v. 3). In doing so, Paul anticipates that the older women will thereby "train" (the Greek here implies instruction in what is prudent or wise) younger women to love their husbands, love their children, be self-controlled, pure, good managers of the household, kind, and subject to their own husbands (v. 4, 5). 

All of this is clear enough, right? There's no doubt that being reverent, kind, self-controlled, loving to spouse and children, etc., are all good things. Who would deny that? I'm certainly not about to say that this instruction doesn't apply to women today. It does. But, before we take the mention of "homemaking" in these verses and make it into a flat prescription for all women in all times and places (as many evangelicals are prone to do), we need to consider why exactly Paul stresses these particular elements for the women of Titus' church. In fact, I would argue that the why in this passage is key to rightly interpreting and applying Paul's exhortation.

Paul clarifies exactly why such instruction for women is needed at the end of v. 5: "so that the word of God may not be reviled" (ESV). Another translation says, "so that the message of God may not be discredited." Now this is a strange reason to teach women to be homemakers, isn't it? Why would Paul found the winsomeness of the message of God--the Gospel of Christ, no less!--on the behavior of women? The answer, I believe, is in the missional motivation of Paul, who perceived all things through the lens of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom (including marriage, paying taxes, circumcision, eating practices, and slavery). In short, Paul believed that the homemaking skills and holy behavior of the women in Titus' congregation were essential so that the good news of Christ would not be slandered (and therefore undermined and discredited) by non-Christians.

There is good cultural support for Paul's concerns. 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. (This is a common trope throughout most world empires, actually: women are rhetorically constructed as the backbone of the nation's common life. Thus, for women to disrupt their role was to threaten the stability of civilization. Sound familiar?)

So, it is safe to say that if a non-Christian Roman encountered a household like mine, where the husband and wife share responsibilities, it is certain that the non-Christian would assume, not only that we are treasonously out of sync with Roman society, but also that the Christian message is simply backward nonsense. In that day and age, everyone knew that women were inferior to men and, therefore, not to be considered "partners" in the household, let alone friends. Thus, in order to be sure that the message of God is not discredited and the Kingdom of God is not thwarted, Paul instructs Christian wives in Titus' assembly to be faithful to do what is culturally appropriate (just as he does in his first letter to the Corinthians in the case of head coverings and eating meat sacrificed to idols). 

(By the way... It is interesting, isn't it, that Paul had to make this statement at all? Within the several decades after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost it seems that the radical message of Jesus had made some serious changes to the way women and men viewed themselves and their relations to one another--so much so that Paul [and others] had to start offering corrections. If this were not so, then why did Paul have to tell women to "pipe down" and control themselves in church meetings [1 Cor. 11, 14] or "keep silent" and "learn" from their husbands [1 Tim. 2:12ff.]? Perhaps women were taking their status as "one in Christ" [Gal. 3:28] seriously and were now living differently in light of it. And Paul, the consummate missionary, was worried about how these drastic changes in social norms would effect the advancement of the Gospel.)

I think a comparable situation to the one experienced by Paul in the first century Roman Empire can be found in the roles of missionary wives in middle eastern countries. For a Christian family living in Syria, for example, 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 submission, reverence, and homemaking. 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 support for the universal prescription that all women (or at least all married women) are to be homemakers is actually a little absurd. Read in light of his cultural context, Paul is not teaching the universal, inalterable responsibilities for all women at all times. (Indeed, if it were so, surely they would have shown up in more places than Titus!) Instead, 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 especially, 1 Cor 9:19-23; 1 Cor 10:23-33; 1 Thess 4:11-12; 1 Tim 6:1), but was a hallmark of his mission work: 

"Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." 

In fact, to press the matter further, I think an argument can be made that the view of women's roles and homemaking propogated by many complementarians (and others) may actually do more to hinder the reception of the good news in the U.S. than help it. Complementarians claim that proper gender roles is essential for a Christian worldview and inseparable from the truths of the Gospel. They use Titus 2:5 to make this claim. But I would suggest that we think carefully about the status of women in the U.S. 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, head coverings, circumcision, etc., are to be submitted to the question of whether or not they will help or harm the propagation of the good news. Is it possible that in our context, the insistence on a very "traditional," white, middle class, 1950s-style model of the family is serving to drive 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? I don't think so. 

Let me offer one more point for consideration before I bring this post to a close. When Paul provides his counsel regarding respecting governing authorities in Romans 13:1-7, he is speaking of how to live Christianly within the Roman system of government. And, when Paul provides instructions to Christian slaves (1 Cor. 7:20-24; Eph 6:5-8; Philemon), he is speaking of how to live Christianly within the Roman system of slavery. As contemporary interpreters read and seek to apply these passages, no one suggests we must re-create the historically and culturally situated system of Roman governance or Roman slavery in order to do so properly. (In fact, Christians are eager to say that democracy is clearly the preferred system of government and that it is now oh-so-obvious that slavery is inherently wrong!) So then, why is it that when Paul provides instruction on how to live Christianly within the Roman household and marriage system (Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Cor. 7:1-16; Titus 2:1-5), so many contemporary interpreters presume that we must re-create the Roman structure Paul was addressing in order to rightly apply his words? I think this is nonsensical and ultimately counter-productive.

In closing, therefore, I suggest to my readers that Titus 2:1-5 contains much that is good and wise about how women (and men!) should conduct themselves as Christians seeking to live in accordance with "sound doctrine" (v. 1). But, we must not use the cut-and-paste model of biblical interpretation that assumes the implementation of Paul's inspired instructions means the replication of the Roman model of marriage and household management. Indeed, in light of Paul's motivation "that the word of God may not be reviled," I would argue that to seek to replicate ancient gender roles in the contemporary context is not only bad hermeneutics, but also working against Paul's intention. Let us stop using Titus 2:1-5 in this manner. And, let us stop causing the beautiful and unmatched Gospel of Christ to be slandered by tying it to culturally bound and humanly devised patriarchal gender roles. There is enough about the Gospel that is offensive to 21st Century American ears. I urge my complementarian brothers and sisters to cease hanging the albatross of patriarchal gender roles on the necks of women who would seek to enter the Kingdom of God. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

I Believe in a God of Wrath and Judgment

When you've been in ministry and theological studies long enough, you discover there are a number of common issues raised by Christians and non-Christians alike regarding Christianity, the Bible, and theology, in general. When people find out that I teach theology, one of the things that I hear often goes something like this: "You know, I don't believe in a God of wrath and judgment. I just can't bring myself to believe in a God like that." Having experienced this sort of statement numerous times, it seems clear to me that many people object strongly to a doctrine of God that involves God being angry or executing judgment on sinners.

On the one hand, I find myself very sympathetic to their objections. Many times (maybe even most of the time?), the rejection of a wrathful God arises from experiences of heavy-handed,"fire and brimstone" preaching by angry pastors and evangelists or the overzealous manipulation of children by adults who badly want to see conversions. Many times, these people have been threatened with God's wrath and hellfire due to their clothing, language, behavior, or other things. The persons hurling such threats tend to be legalistic and unloving themselves and they create a picture of God who (surprise!) looks very similar to them: hating what they hate and punishing what they want punished.

I've gone through these kinds of experiences myself. Among others I could share, I have a vivid memory of an evangelist visiting our church several years ago and describing in detail the scene of a bad accident where someone had the horrific misfortune of listening helplessly as a person was burned to death in their own truck. The preacher used this terrible story to frighten the audience into converting to Christianity, offering the prospect of an eternity of conscious torment in hell if they refused. I found this both repugnant and embarrassing to the Gospel of Christ (which is beautiful beyond compare and should not be reduced to such levels).

All that is to say, I think I get it. No one who experiences such things enough times can easily take pleasure in the notion of a wrathful God. When you've been overdosed with wrath and judgment, it makes sense that you'd seek to correct that with an overdose of mercy, love, and grace. (And, frankly, if I'm going to be accused of erring on a "side" in this discussion, whether in my writing or preaching, I'd much rather err on the side of mercy, love, and grace.)

But, even as I am sympathetic to the objections made against a wrathful and judgmental God, even as I reject evangelistic methods that use fear and manipulation to make converts, even as I try to major on the love of God in my own life and work, I still can't let go of the wrath and judgment of God. I do believe in a God of wrath and judgment. Not only is the justice of God a common theme throughout the Scriptures and the Great Tradition of Christianity, but I think it is also an essential Christian conviction in light of the ever-present reality of suffering and pain. Let me explain...

Put simply, I believe in a God of wrath and judgment because evil is real. And, I believe evil is real because I've seen it--in fact, I see it all around us every day. National governments conspire to kill off hundreds and thousands of their own people and then do so unopposed. Terrorists intentionally bomb civilian locations, taking out anyone who happens to be nearby. Children are kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Women are repeatedly terrorized in their own homes, beaten and berated into submission by men who believe their penis and fists make them Lord. GLBT adolescents are bullied until they can no longer bear the pain and take their own lives. Entire ecosystems are destroyed en masse by corporations, who are not held accountable for their actions. Soldiers go off to war with bravery and self-sacrifice only to return home with debilitating brain injuries and PTSD. Elections are bought. Land is stolen. Sex is forced. Conversion is coerced. Children are enslaved. And, the list goes on and on.

I believe evil is real and I believe God is real. I believe God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. This being the case, then God must be the kind of God who sets all things right. The God revealed by Jesus is a God who reaches out to sinners, embraces prostitutes, includes the marginalized, rebukes the religiously self-righteous, drives out the money-changers, and exorcises the demonic. This loving God loves so fiercely and with such fury that wrath is the inevitable result when harm is done to one of his beloved children. In human experience, we are used to rage being the opposite of love. We cannot imagine that judgment and love can co-exist. But, I am compelled to assert that in God's nature, wrath is not the opposite of love, but a necessary expression of it. God is wrathful because God is love.

On my most irritable days, on the days when I'm overcome by the pain and suffering all around me, I tell my husband pointedly: "Only the most sheltered and over-privileged of people have the freedom to not believe in the judgment of God." What I mean by this is that, the rest of us--the ones who have suffered and have walked through the dark valley with others who suffer--believing in a God of wrath is a vital source of hope. Maybe not everyone who has suffered or witnessed suffering feels this way. But, as for me, I find that in light of suffering, I must believe in God's judgment. I just can't let it go. With this conviction, I know that there is an end to the injustice, pain, and suffering. There will come a day, after the resurrection of the dead, when God will set everything right.

The thing to keep in mind, of course, is that God's wrath is not like human wrath. God is not capricious, petty, petulant, and self-indulgent, as we often are. When I say God burns with anger at injustice, I do not mean that he is like your rage-aholic father or harsh, domineering grandmother. And, the wrath of God is not primarily destructive (as our human experience might imagine), but actually an active, redemptive force. Like the Spirit of God hovering over the chaotic "deep" in the beginning, so also God's Spirit works powerfully to renew the face of the earth today. Righting wrongs and judging sin is part of this work, as is rescuing hateful hearts from bondage and allowing the violent to reap what they have sown ("those who live by the sword will die by the sword").

Of course, there are other reasons for accepting the idea that God is wrathful and will come in judgment. The Bible speaks of this kind of God with regularity, in both the Old and New Testaments. If you take the Bible seriously as God's revelation, then you have to reckon with these portrayals. This is particularly the case, in my opinion, when Jesus speaks of God's wrath and the reality of the final judgment. When the "fullness of God" dwelling in bodily form (Col. 1:19) speaks of God as possessing attributes of wrath and judgment, we do well to listen up. (Still, the "God said, I believe it, that settles it," approach to biblical interpretation will not work here. More nuanced thinking about God's justice and mercy is needed. The thoughts provided above are obviously just a small contribution to that larger task.)

So, I do believe in a God of wrath and judgment. I believe that God hates sin, but has a particularly strong hatred for systemic evil and wrongdoing done against the weak, innocent, and defenseless. I believe that Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead, will raise us all to resurrection life at the end of time and finally set everything right--finally completing his work to make "all things new" (Rev. 21:5). And, the furious love of the Triune God that compelled the Son to rescue creation from bondage to sin, evil, and death through his own body will further compel the work of final judgment--the eternal righting of wrongs--as God comes at last to dwell with his people.

There is much more that could be said, of course. But, I'll stop now. What do you think? What are your hang-ups about the judgment of God? What have I missed or failed to say? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Significance of the Simple (2 Kings 5:1-14): Remix

I preached the following sermon yesterday, May 20, at Central Christian Church in Kettering, OH, at the invitation of a friend and colleague, who is also a member. They are a Disciples of Christ congregation and it was my first time to worship with them. Also, this was my very first time to preach in a Sunday morning worship service of any kind. I was very blessed to get to do so, even though I had a short time to prepare. What follows is a significantly re-worked version of the message I gave several weeks ago at Holy Trinity Parish in Dayton. The text and theme are the same, but I've shaved off several pages and, I think, made the main idea more pointed. Feel free to offer your comments and/or criticisms.

The Significance of the Simple: 2 Kings 5:1-14

There’s a commercial on TV right now that I’ve seen a few times for Rosetta Stone. You’ve probably heard of it. Rosetta Stone is a language instruction software that has, according to their website, helped millions of people all over the world learn another language. The Rosetta Stone commercial that’s running right now has one particular testimony that really gets to me. A twenty-something blonde man smiles at the camera and says: “I love it when I dream in French.” Now, I have nothing against Rosetta Stone. I’m sure it’s a great program. But, I highly doubt that computer software alone, used in the privacy of your home, can so immerse you in the French language that you actually dream in French. Maybe you can—I don’t know. But, the power of that selling point for Rosetta Stone is undeniable. People know if you are dreaming in French, then you think in French. To dream in French means that the language has literally transformed your mind: you now think and dream and see the world through French.

I would argue that becoming a part of the Christian faith is similar to learning a language. There are many things that have to be learned once you become a disciple of Jesus. And, it’s not enough just to learn the stories of the Bible, the words of our worship songs, or the Lord’s Prayer. Like when you’re learning French, you actually need a total transformation of the mind. When this happens, you will see the world in light of the Gospel, think according to the Gospel, and even dream in terms of the Gospel. Unfortunately, there’s no Rosetta Stone software for “putting on the mind of Christ.” This is something that takes a lifetime for a disciple to learn. But, my message this morning is meant to use the story of Naaman the Aramean to encourage us to view the world differently. By the time I’m done, I hope that we will all feel compelled to seek a transformation of our minds so that we will see everything in light of this truth: God is revealed through simple people and simple actions.

As we encounter the story of Naaman’s healing, the first thing I want us to observe is the way God uses simple people. At first it would seem that the most important people in the story are Naaman and Elisha. Naaman is the commander of Aram’s armies and his name means “delightful or gracious,” which shows that he was highly favored. In spite of this, he has a serious skin disorder, translated “leprosy.” This “leprosy” isn’t necessarily the same leprosy that we know of today, but apparently it was bad enough for him to travel all the way to Israel for help. Elisha is God’s prophet in Israel. Elisha is the disciple of Elijah, who took his master’s place as prophet to Israel after Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind. The book of 2 Kings is filled with the stories of Elisha’s mighty works.

Naaman and Elisha are the obvious major players in the story. But, I want to call attention to the fact that the people who are truly responsible for moving the action along, the people who are key to ensuring that God’s power is revealed in this particular moment are the three nameless servants: (1) the young girl from Israel who serves Naaman’s wife, (2) the messenger of Elisha, and (3) the servants of Naaman.

First, there is the “young girl from Israel,” who appears in verse 2. Apparently, she was taken captive when a band of Aramean raiders plundered an Israelite town on the border between the nations. And, now, she serves as the personal attendant for Naaman’s wife. It’s remarkable that this young girl, violently removed from her family and forced to serve her captor’s wife, then offers counsel that will provide healing for the man responsible for her situation. And, it is also remarkable that Naaman listens to her. The word of the “young girl from Israel” is what Naaman takes to his master, the King of Aram, and it is upon her testimony that both men plan for Naaman’s trip to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom.

So, the King of Aram sends Naaman to the King of Israel so that he may seek healing. The text says that Naaman carries with him “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing” (v. 5) as payment for the services of Israel’s prophet. For those of you who are interested, that is the equivalent of 755 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold, plus ten sets of ornate, hand-made clothing. He really wants this healing!

The King of Israel responds to Naaman’s gifts and request with great distress because he thinks that the King of Aram is looking for a pretext for war. Luckily, Elisha somehow gets word of the king’s despair and sends a message with an implicit rebuke in v. 8: “Why have you torn your clothes? Send Naaman to me. I’ll show him that there is a true prophet of God in Israel.”

This is where the second simple person in the story appears: the “messenger” of Elisha, who shows up in verse 10. Naaman approaches the home of Elisha in a way you might expect from a self-important, military leader at this time: with great pomp and circumstance. I can just imagine him assembling his “horses and chariots” (v. 9), primping and pruning, awaiting the arrival of God’s prophet who will “ooooh” and “aaaaah” dutifully over him and his entourage. But that’s not what happens. Elisha sends Naaman a “messenger,” instead, most likely a young apprentice. And, he delivers the directions for Naaman’s cure: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (v. 10).

Naaman isn’t pleased with this turn of events. He of all people should be able to get an audience with Israel’s world-renowned prophet! But, instead, he gets a little pipsqueak, messenger boy. The text tells us that Naaman “became angry and went away,” and in stark honesty he confesses: “I thought that for me he would surely come out…” Naaman admits that he thought his level of importance demanded an in-person demonstration of the prophet’s power. But, that’s not how it works this time. Elisha doesn’t even bother showing up. He just sends a simple boy to tell the army commander to go jump in a river. And, Naaman, thoroughly convinced of his own importance, turns away in “a rage.”

This is where nameless servants appear for a third time: in v. 13. In contrast to Naaman’s sputtering pride, his servants offer humble and wise counsel: “Father [which was a term of respect for a superior], if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” The wisdom of this counsel is so convincing that Naaman responds immediately: “So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (v. 14). Notice that without the intervention of his servants, Naaman’s arrogance would have prevented him from receiving God’s healing.

So, what we have seen in this story is that God uses simple people to do his work: the young Israelite servant girl, the messenger of Elisha, and the servants of Naaman. Where one would expect, along with Naaman, that God’s prophet or even royalty to be the agents of change, what we have instead is the nameless servants moving the action along. It is their humble faithfulness that provides the opportunity for God’s power to be revealed.

I think a part of us knows this truth about the Gospel and the Christian life. It was a central message of Jesus, of course: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “The greatest in the Kingdom of God is the servant of all.” Which of us is really going to deny this? But, even so, I don’t think many of us could say that this has really changed the way we view the world. With our mouths we say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but in our mind we think, “Blessed are the successful and important.” With our mouths we say, “The greatest in the Kingdom must be the servant of all,” but in our mind we think, “The greatest in the Kingdom are those that have the most, give the most, and do the most.” Our minds need a major transformation, so that we can see the people in God’s world in the same way God sees them: as persons capable of experiencing God’s Kingdom and revealing God’s ways.

The second thing I want us to observe in the story of Naaman’s healing is this: God calls us to simple actions. What Elisha’s messenger tells Naaman to do is a very simple thing. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored” (v. 10). But, Naaman finds this instruction insulting. He responds: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” His point is clear: “Did I really come all this way to be told to take a bath in your piddly little river?”

Now, if you think about it, Naaman’s expectation of an awe-inspiring work of God isn’t entirely misplaced. We know that the God of Israel is capable of jaw-dropping miracles, right? Moses met God in a burning bush and parted the Red Sea. The children of Israel were fed manna and quail from heaven in the wilderness. The walls of Jericho fell to the ground with the shouts of Joshua’s armies. So, why can’t Elisha produce a fantastic, show-stopping miracle for Naaman, when he is so important and has come such a long way?

Here, Naaman learns what we all must learn at one time or another: The miraculous is not within our control. God does not answer to us. As we seek to serve God faithfully, we must accept the fact that most of the time, in most circumstances, God calls us to simple actions. While the fantastic stories of God’s power are what we remember most vividly from the Scriptures, most of God’s people throughout most of history have exercised their faith in the midst of the mundane acts of everyday life: cooking breakfast, cleaning house, gardening, a walk to the store. God is present and revealed in all of these ordinary moments.

If you think about it, even the rituals of the Christian community are rather ordinary and unremarkable. God has chosen simple things to reveal his grace in the New Covenant. They are basic elements used in basic ways: immersion in water and consuming bits of bread and wine. We wash with water regularly (or most of us do!). And, we eat food regularly. But, in the New Covenant, Jesus told us to take these simple things and use them in simple ways, trusting that in these moments God’s presence is with us in a unique way.

So, as we have seen in Naaman’s story, God uses simple people and God calls us to simple actions. But, this emphasis on the simple, the marginalized, the nameless, and the outsider is not limited to this one story in the Old Testament. In fact, the whole of Scripture is filled with the evidence that God is revealed through simple people and simple actions.

Of course, the central place where we see this is in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the Christian faith and the reason why we are seeking a transformation of our minds today. When Jesus appeared on the stage of world history he proclaimed that the healing power of God’s Kingdom had now decisively broken into creation. The gospel announced that the power of God to renew the entire world was now present in Jesus by the Spirit. This liberating power was demonstrated in Jesus’ life and deeds, and explained by his words. By his death on the cross he battled the power of evil and gained the decisive victory. In his resurrection he entered as “the firstborn among many” into the resurrection life of the new creation. And, before his ascension, he commissioned his followers to continue his mission of making the Gospel known until he returned. He now reigns in power at the right hand of God over all creation and by his Spirit is making known his comprehensive rule through His people as they embody and proclaim the good news.

That’s us! We are the ones making known Christ’s rule through our bodies, our actions, and our words. We are the ones Paul spoke of in our New Testament reading for today: not many wise, not many influential, not many of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise and the weak things of this world to shame the strong. This is so that the one who boasts must boast in the Lord (1 Cor 1:26-31).

On the one hand, we can be comforted by this truth because many of us need assurance that we matter and what we do matters in the Kingdom of God. Although many people speak of life in terms of sacred things and secular things—holy things and worldly things—the Christian faith doesn’t allow for this kind of divide. The eternal wisdom of God has become incarnate in human flesh. The divine has been united with the earthly. This reality infuses all of life with the presence of God. Every good thing can now manifest God’s power. Simple people and simple things are now the places where God can be revealed and honored.

At the same time that we are comforted by this truth, we can also be confronted by it. Many of us may need rebuke for the ways that our approach to the world doesn’t match what God has said. Perhaps we despise the simple routines and humble works of daily life. Perhaps we overlook people we think are unimportant or unable to benefit us in a tangible way. We need to be reminded that because the whole world is alive with God’s presence, now everything and everyone matters. The boy who happily sacks your groceries, the woman at the dry cleaners who irons your shirts with a scowl, the teenage girl chattering on her cell phone in line behind you. These people are like Naaman’s servant girl and Elisha’s messenger boy. They are not only the recipients of God’s love but also all of them are capable of working in God’s story so that God is revealed and glorified.

Before we close, I think there is a way to vividly illustrate the kind of mental transformation that is required of us. Think with me for a few moments about the way we as American Christians tell our story. The events of September 11, 2001 changed the world, as we know it. We hear this all the time, don’t we? I don’t think there’s a person today, who wouldn’t agree with this in some way. The events of 9/11 are so powerful for our imaginations that many people now mark time as pre- and post-9/11. I don’t necessarily have a beef with this practice. Certainly, the world did change, especially for the U.S. But, as one Christian thinker has pointed out, what Christians—all Christians around the world—proclaim is that the world really changed in 33 AD—following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we are going to mark time as Christians and frame our lives with an event, surely it must be THIS event—-Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh. Surely it is the incarnation of Christ, and not 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination or World War II or any other event in history that should be THE DEFINING STORY for our Christian minds. Just as most Americans today look back to 9/11 and say, “That’s why I see the world differently,” Christians should be looking back to 33 AD, saying: “No, THAT'S why I see the world differently.”

What does this have to do with the healing of Naaman the Aramean? If what we saw in 2 Kings is true and God is revealed through simple people and simple actions, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, then we need a radical change of mind—a transformation of our imagination—in light of this truth. Because, in the end, there really are no simple things. If God has been joined to the world in Christ and through him the Kingdom of God has come near, then what we call simple people and simple actions are really the tools of God’s work. The question is whether we have the eyes to see and ears to hear what is happening all around us. If the incarnation of Christ is the center point of our lives and the lens through which we view the world, then it will change our minds and alter our imaginations. To do this, we need to shed our prejudices and embrace the world as God says it is. Let us be a people defined by the story of God becoming human. Because, it is this story that elevates simple people like us—like Naaman’s servant and Elisha’s messenger—to participate in the Kingdom of God.