This weekend I attended the Women’s March in Washington, DC. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by so many people passionately expressing their beliefs in a whole host of causes, and I was proud to be included in what I know deep my bones will be regarded as a historic event in the years to come.
The March in DC was largely touted as a pro-choice event. Of course pro-lifers were welcome to march, but they were not represented among the list of speakers for the pre-march rally, and pro-life organizations were not allowed to be listed as partners on the official Women’s March website. Many of the signs at the March proclaimed pro-choice messages that largely pertained to the idea that women ought to have the right to make their own choices when it comes to reproductive health.
All of this has inspired me to share my own complicated feelings about abortion, since to be honest I took issue with many of the pro-choice signs I saw. The more I consider this controversial issue, the more I realize how terribly complicated it is, and how difficult it is to develop a view on abortion that is morally consistent.
Growing up as a conservative Christian, abortion was one of those many issues in which there is only one “godly” position to take: it is nothing less than murder, and as a Christian I am obligated to support legislation that would make abortion illegal, since a fetus is a human being entitled to all the same rights that an infant, child, or adult would have.
I first started to question this belief when I stumbled across the blog of Samantha Field. She wrote a six part blog series called the Ordeal of the Bitter Water, and at the time I stumbled across it I believed in the divine inspiration of the Bible enough that if the Bible taught certain things, I believed that teaching should hold true in my life in some form. So when I learned God mandated abortion among the ancient Israelites as a form of punishment for an unfaithful wife, I was shocked. Reading about this caused my first tailspin into doubt, because I realized that the Bible is more complicated than I thought when it comes to scriptures about abortion. If God mandated abortion in ancient Israel, how could I say that my pro-life stance is in line with God’s will? If God could justify abortion, then why shouldn’t I?
The more I learned, the more confused I became. At first I thought it was pretty clear that the root issue that determines whether a person is pro-choice or pro-life is the personhood of the fetus. After all, if you believe a fetus is a human being, you can’t really regard abortion as anything less than murder.
I have a few problems with this, though. The first is that natural abortion – a.k.a. miscarriage – happens all the time. It is a natural part of the reproductive system. The reason this complicates things is this: who gets to decide whether a woman has had a self-induced abortion or a miscarriage? There have been women who have been wrongfully incarcerated for as many as 30 years in prison when their miscarriage was determined in court to be an abortion. This is a travesty, and it is an injustice someone who is pro-life will need to come to terms with if they believe abortion should be criminalized.
That is the problem with taking a hard line on treating a fetus as a human being. One cannot regard a fetus the same way that they would an infant because that fetus is growing inside a woman who also has rights. That is not a nuance I have ever seen in a pro-life stance, and it’s because they can’t take that stance; you have no choice but to place the rights of a fetus over the rights of its mother if you end goal is making abortion illegal. And that is a big problem.
The second problem I have with the pro-life stance is that it takes for granted that life begins at conception. This is also illogical when you really think it through. From what I understand, the most widely accepted definition of cconception is when an egg becomes fertilized by a sperm. If you are hard-line pro life, it is from that moment on that abortion becomes murder. Yet, women naturally dispel approximately 80% of these fertilized eggs before they plant on the uterine wall. How can one possibly say that a fertilized egg that is naturally dispelled suddenly becomes murder when it is expelled through medical means? I would never be able to wrap my head around charging a woman with murder for having such a procedure done, when it is one that her own body does naturally. Yet that is what you must do if you believe a zygote ought to be endowed with the inalienable rights of a human being who has been born.
Thirdly, I cannot accept the pro-life stance because it deprives women of choice. For a long time I never fully understood the gravity of this. I bought into the conservative lie that women always have abortions for selfish reasons; they are not responsible enough to be abstinent, and they don’t want the responsibility that comes with having a baby were the two biggest reasons I heard for why women have abortions.
This is not true. There are many cases in which a pregnancy is not viable, and the woman must have an abortion to save her own life, or cases when the pregnancy is not viable. When I reach of one such case, it just about broke my heart. This woman named Karen conceived, and she and her husband were joyful with anticipation. They found out she was a girl, and they named her Evelyn. Twenty weeks into her pregnancy, Karen discovered that her unborn daughter had a disease called skeletal dysplasia. Not only was the disease lethal, Evelyn was also in terrible pain. Karen and her husband had a choice to make: carry the baby to term with excruciating pain and the very small chance that she may live up to a few hours, or terminate the pregnancy and spare Evelyn that pain as well as lower the health risks to Karen.
This couple chose abortion. In my mind, there is no argument one could make in which the government would be justified in charging Karen with murder for aborting her child. She wanted this child, she was this child’s mother. By choosing abortion, she believed that she was making the best possible choice available not only for herself, but for Evelyn as well. It was her right as a potential parent to make that choice, and no one – especially not the faceless legal system – has any right to make that choice for her.
I chose this story as the last and biggest problem I have with the pro-life stance because it also highlights the problem I have with the pro-choice stance as well. Often, among those who are pro-choice, I see the unborn child stripped of all humanity; it is a collection of cells, it is a developing fetus; it is not a human being. It is almost as if an unborn child is not human at all – just a thing developing in a woman’s womb – until that child is born. Women should feel empowered about abortion; they should not feel guilt, or angst, or have any negative emotions.
This is troublesome to me because like it or not, a fetus developing in a womb is potential human life. That is something that should be taken seriously, because every single human being on the planet was once a developing fetus. They are so much more than a collection of cells, and I think the idea of abortion on demand undermines the sacredness of that potential life.
A world in which abortion is freely accessible to anyone, anywhere, for any reason is a world that is, in my opinion, freakishly unbalanced. Just as the pro-life stance does not value the woman enough, the pro-choice stance does not value the unborn child enough. Especially when I see those rare few stories of late-term abortions, I am horrified that we have compartmentalized humanity so much that we justify ending the life of an unborn baby as old 7 months.
In many cases, I can see why women might believe abortion is the best choice available for themselves. But on the other side of the coin, I can’t help but wonder if having an abortion chips away at the heart of the woman. After all, abortion is not a routine medical procedure no different than a minor surgery; it is the end of what would otherwise one day grow up into a boy or a girl as beautiful and unique and full of personality as you and I are. It is no small thing to make that choice, and I believe that the psychological damage caused by abortion is often underestimated among those who are pro-choice.
As I said in the beginning of this post, this is no easy issue to navigate; it is very complicated and the more I think about what is at stake for both sides, the more I realize that neither really has an answer that would grant autonomy to a human being because before a child is born, that unborn child and its mother are one. To argue for the rights of the unborn baby denies the rights of the mother, and to argue for the rights of the mother denies the rights of the unborn baby. And what is more, the concerns that both sides of this issue have are valid and worth considering.
Typically when one writes a post like this and hashes out the “for” and “against” reasoning behind an issue like this, they conclude with taking a stand one way or the other. But for all the reasons stated above, I truly can’t. What I can say with conviction is that I believe with all my heart in minimizing abortions. At least half of abortions occur because the woman cannot financially afford a child, did not have access to affordable birth control, or is too young to be ready for motherhood. Under the Obama administration over the last eight years, abortions have reduced to an all-time low in this nation precisely because the pressures of all the above factors were alleviated.
So if there is any stance that I have on abortion, it is this: for the sake of women everywhere, and also for the sake of unborn children everywhere, let’s make it our primary goal to reduce abortion by improving the condition of the pregnant woman instead of taking hard-line stances that dehumanize mother or child. Investing our efforts in that cause will achieve a result that everyone can get behind.
This blog post is my review of the third chapter in Peter Enn’s brilliant book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. You can find the previous two under the Bible tag.
So far, I think this has been my favorite section of the book. After deconstructing what our expectations should be when we read scripture—especially the Old Testament—Peter Enns builds on these concepts and constructs something meaningful for us as readers. He peels back another layer of these ancient stories and reveals the depths of what the writers were trying to communicate when they penned some of the greatest stories in history.
Enns begins by really tackling the hard truth: there is no such thing as “straight” history! It doesn’t exist in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter. Anyone who takes pen to paper and writes out an account of something that happened in the past, whether it was yesterday, or fifty years ago, or two thousand years ago, is going to write it from a particular angle. A different person might tell the exact same bit of history in a completely different way.
To illustrate this very important point, Enns explores the four Gospels and the choices each writer made when describing various key moments in Jesus’s life, such as his birth, the miracles he performs, his death, and his resurrection. Enns writes:
“Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority. All four Gospels are connected to history, but each also tells us a lot about how these writers saw Jesus, what they believed about him, what was important to them and their communities.”
He gives a few examples of how the three synoptic Gospels especially build off each other and tell the same miracle stories, but sometimes in different sequential order, or with different details that highlight a particular point that is in line with that particular Gospel’s overarching theme. Each writer shaped their telling of Jesus’s life in a way that was tailored to their own audience.
The implications of reading the Gospels in this manner are fascinating. For example, Luke’s Jesus is very kingly. The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary that is only present in Luke’s Gospel, immediately tells the audience that this baby is a descendant of David and Israel’s rightful king. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth reveals a different goal; he is echoing the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. God used a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert; God used a star to guide the Magi to the infant Jesus. The historicity of some of these details may be questionable, but their implications for the significance of Jesus’ birth certainly is not!
After providing several more of these examples, Enns shifts his attention from the Gospels to the Old Testament stories and evaluates them using the exact same framework. In the Old Testament, as well, we can see plentiful examples of how the writers shaped the events of history to reinforce a particular overarching agenda. He walks through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Chronicles, and Kings. Just as with Jesus in each of the Gospels, we see in these books that very different images of Solomon and David are presented. In the Chronicles, David is the charismatic, brave, bold king that Israel needed most at the time. The Chronicles’ David is a symbol for Israel’s future: promising and full of hope.
In the Kings and Samuel books, however, we see a more human David; he has an affair with Bathsheba and murders Uriah, and at the end of his life he disrupts the order of succession by naming his younger son Solomon as his heir (speaking of which, the theme of younger sons being favored over their older brothers is also peppered all throughout the Old Testament). He also begins the process of building the temple despite God’s clear command to the contrary. He is, in short, a very different person from the heroic figure in 1 and 2 Chronicles.
Enns rounds out the “God Likes Stories” chapter in an incredibly fascinating manner. As the final chapters of this section unfolded, I became amazed at the intricate way that so many of the Bible’s most iconic stories are interconnected. The same themes emerge again, and again, and again throughout these stories. Applying this lens of the “present shapes the past” helps to bring these themes to light.
Reading these stories in this way also helps us place them within a genre appropriate to their content. All of the connections and interplay between them point to the reality that each of these stories are myths. And before you start thinking that myths are just wild fairy tales spun out of thin air, just read Enns’ definition of a myth:
“Myths were stories that were part of ancient ways of describing ultimate reality, which is found not here and now but on a higher and more primal plane of existence, the behind-the-scenes actions of the gods in primordial time.”
The myth of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis is a perfect example of this. In this story, Adam symbolizes Israel; God creates him, makes him a promise, and fulfills that promise until Adam disobeys God, along with his wife Eve. The two are then exiled—cast out from the garden. If that doesn’t echo Israel’s own relationship with God I don’t know what does!
Likewise, in the Genesis story, there is an ancient Mesopotamian myth that the god Marduk violently murdered the goddess Tiamat, rent her body in half, and formed the waters above the firmament and below from her carcass. In Genesis, God performs the exact same creative act, except he does it by his own spoken Word; he is uncontested among gods.
Speaking of water imagery, the connection between the Genesis story, the Noah story, and the Exodus story are fascinating. By separating the waters, God is creating order out of chaos (the untamed sea was a symbol of chaos in the ancient world). And when God flooded the world in Noah’s story, he unleashed the waters to their chaotic fury, but created a vessel of safety for Noah and his family. Likewise, Moses is rescued as an infant when his mother forms a basket for him to navigate the waters of the Nile. And later, we once again see the imagery of God parting the waters when he rescues the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptians. The connections are endless!
Under the surface, each of these stories is declaring the sovereignty of God and his unrivaled power over the other gods of the day. The ten plagues, for example, are essentially a slap in the face to Egypt’s gods: they worshiped the Nile as a god of life; Yahweh turned its waters to blood, a symbol of death. The Egyptian goddess of fertility was depicted as a frog; Yahweh multiplied the frogs of the land himself. And on it goes.
If we value these texts for nothing more than what we believe they can tell us about Israel’s literal history, we are missing the forest for the trees. We are overlooking the broader, deeper things that were going on when these writers immortalized these stories in writing. Enns explains this with wonderful clarity:
“The Bible, then, is a grand story. It meets us and then invites us to follow and join a world outside of our own, and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process. Maybe that’s really the bottom line. The biblical story meets us where we are to disarm us and change how we look at ourselves—and God.”
The writers were comfortable with changing, adding, erasing and exaggerating history to create meaning in their contemporary age, and the result is a Bible that doesn’t always behave how we expect it to, but is full of so much more dynamic retellings of God’s part in the history of Israel than we could imagine.
This will probably be the longest blog post I write in this series, because the issue of violence in the Old Testament carried out in the name of God has been one that has plagued me for years. It caused me to fear the Bible, to question the nature of God, and live in the apprehension of one, hard question that I couldn’t shake: What if I just can’t stomach a God like that?
Ever since I read these stories for the first time, it has boggled my mind that so many faithful readers of scripture stand by these stories and insist on believing that they reflect the God of the Christian faith. When I truly read these stories and let them rest in my heart, I found that I just couldn’t grasp them in the way I was taught to grasp them.
These stories felt barbaric and archaic to me, so far removed from the picture of God that we see in the New Testament person of Jesus Christ. And they are supposed to be one and the same, are they not?
Reading how Peter Enns tackles these troublesome verses in The Bible Tells Me So was such a comforting experience for me. Here was a reading that was genuine, and did not attempt to gloss over these violent texts with an explanation that justifies God’s choices. Here was a reading I could believe.
Enns uses the most famous example of genocide in the Bible—the genocide of the Canaanites by Joshua and the Israelites—as an example for how to read such stories. He outlines the views on Canaan depicted in the Bible, beginning with the curse of Canaan that occurs in Genesis 6, and continuing with example of how the Canaanites seemed to be doomed for destruction every time they are mentioned in Genesis.
The next section proceeds to summarize in detail the gory details of the destruction that Joshua and the Israelites inflict on the Canaanites, including conquering thirty-one towns, beheading kings without mercy, and slaughtering surrendered enemies. This is all trotted out as the methodical fulfillment of the convenant God made with Abraham. Enns writes:
“Bottom line, the extermination of the Canaanites is not an afterthought. According to the Bible, Israel’s God planned it from the days of Noah and the flood, and he carried out the plan with bracing determination and precision, patiently encouraging and even training the troops to get it done.” (p. 40)
After laying the groundwork facts, Enns then goes on to outline several different approaches for how we can fit this story into the larger narrative of the Bible, and a God who in later OT passages and often in the NT is a God of peace and mercy who charges his followers with turning the other cheek when met with violence.
One argument that Enns lays out claims that God has a “nice side”, and that the compassion of God is the overriding theme of scripture. The destruction of Canaan is just an exception to the rule. And yet if that is your perspective, does it really justify that one instance of violence? If a man is benevolent his entire life, and in a moment of passion commits a murder, is that murder any less egregious because of his blameless life up to that point?
The most common way that people justify this story and others like it is to point out that the Canaanites deserved retribution because they had been living irredeemably wicked lives. God had to make an example of them and purge them from the land he had promised to Israel as a way of maintaining the purity of his chosen people and as a lesson for us about the seriousness of rebellion against him.
Ultimately, though, this argument also breaks down when you study scripture carefully and within the context of everything Enns has laid out about God’s covenant thus far. He writes:
“They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them.” (p. 51)
There was nothing special about the Canaanites themselves, and everything special about the particular land they occupied. We would be reading of God’s wrath if any other people group had settled there, and that group would have likewise been transformed in a scapegoat to justify the manner in which God fulfilled his covenant to the Israelites.
There is more. In the Old Testament narrative of Joshua’s conquest, there are instances when the Israelite army encounters towns of non-Canaanites. There is no indication that these towns are subject to the judgment of God in a manner similar to the Canaanite. Yet under God’s command, these people are to become slaves of the Israelites if they surrender. To be internally consistent in a “Canaanites are wicked” approach, you must also contend that it is God’s divine judgment to divide up innocents as spoils of war (For an example of such an occurrence, see Deuteronomy 20:10-15).
If we read the exact same stories in the Koran or any other religious text, we would denounce that god as utterly reprehensible, or at the very least archaic and irrelevant. Likewise, we must contort the biblical texts in order to defend God’s genocidal commands in our scriptural canon.
After laying out all the wrong ways to approach Old Testament violence, Enns spends his final sections of this chapter describing how we can apply an informed, holistic reading of these texts that takes cultural limitations into account.
We cannot pull these texts out of their historical context and treat them differently, despite being part of the canon of scripture. Enns writes:
“So much of Israel’s culture looks very similar to what we see elsewhere in the ancient world. Israel’s system of laws, worship practices, notions of kingship, style of poetry, attitudes toward women and slaves, ideas about how the cosmos was created, and on and on, were unquestionably shaped by its time and place—which is to say, Israel’s culture developed the way every other culture in the history of humanity developed: as part of a larger cultural environment.” (p. 56)
This larger cultural environment that Enns refers to is one in which you must conquer or be conquered, kill or be killed. It was a violent world in which mass slaughter was rampant, and a victory in battle was often attributed to the power of the god the conquerors believed in. Read in this light, it makes perfect sense that the story of Israel and its conquest of Canaan unfolded the way that it did.
Essentially, the Israelites wrote their own version of history that glorified the God they served and created an identity for themselves: God’s chosen people, inheritors of a land where they could establish themselves as a nation with roots. In the pages of the Old Testament, we see a perspective of God that is limited by the perspective of His chosen people. God let his children tell their own story about Him in a language they could understand, a language heavily influenced by their own cultural understanding.
I’m taking what I hope will only be a one-post break from my review of The Bible Tells Me So to share a long summary of an event I attended this weekend. Hopefully sometime soon, I’ll be back with part two of my review series!
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Eight months ago, after a summer away from church and a good deal of soul-searching, I started attending Thoburn UMC. I had only had minimal experiences with United Methodism before, but they had all been more or less positive. And I had heard a lot of great things about Thoburn, so I figured I would give it a shot.
At first, it was all very different to me. It is as if Christianity were like a metal ball within a transparent glass globe, and that globe has many angled flat surfaces, kind of like a disco ball. Depending on what surface you look through, the metal ball might appear large, small, wide, narrow, etc. The ball is the same, but every angle skews it differently.
So the surface through which I saw Christianity had shifted as a result of being immersed in Thoburn culture, and largely in an incredibly positive way. Here was a faith community that challenged me to step outside myself. I have learned so many new things about Christianity since I’ve been going to Thoburn, and that really could be a blog post in and of itself.
Today, though, I want to narrow in on one of the newer things I have learned. This weekend I attended an all-day lecture event titled “Reclaiming Our United Methodist Heritage.” The speaker, who wrote a book of the same name which the small group leaders at my church are currently studying, is Paul Chilcote. The insights he shared were so life-giving, so profound, that I thought I would write a summarization of them here. I apologize in advance for the length, but since I’m already planting this post in the middle of a series, I didn’t want to break it out into separate posts like I probably should have!
Session 1. The Message: A God of Grace and Love
Paul began his first lecture by defining grace as understood by John Wesley, whose theology and work of revival in England formed the foundation of United Methodism. Wesley challenged the Calvinistic view of grace in that day, which claims that God has predestined certain people to accept His saving grace, and others to reject it.
For Wesley, God’s grace is universal; all may receive it, and none are excluded from it. It is an all-encompassing grace (which, by the way, makes perfect sense to me since that is the very definition of grace itself!!). Paul defined this Wesleyan grace as God’s unconditional movement toward all created things in His desire to draw us into his loving embrace.
After giving this broad definition, Paul went on to describe how there are two components to this kind of grace: creation and restoration. It is foundational to the Christian faith that God created the world ex nihilo—out of nothing. Therefore, God’s very first act of grace was creation itself. God is self-sustaining, so giving us life—and such a diverse, enormous, complex life at that!—was an act of grace and not an act of necessity.
The second broad component of grace is restoration. To kick off his exploration of this, Paul began by describing how this theme is woven throughout orthodox theology in a way that is beautifully unique to Christianity. The very concept of a Trinitarian God—three-in-one, father, son, and spirit—is entirely unique to the Christian faith and points to the fact that (this is SO cool!) the very nature of the triune God reveals his desire for reconciliation, for relationship. God himself is a relationship, a nexus, a model for how he desires to interact with his creation. What a powerful concept!
This grace of restoration is not only an individual movement, but as Paul put it, has a “cosmic dimension”. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul the apostle declares “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”(NIV) This is restoration on a corporate scale, concerned with the redemption of the world as well as the redemption of the individual.
Here, Paul transitions into a description of the Gospel that dovetails perfectly with this two-prong grace, and brings into light the ways many Christians fall short of telling the whole story of the Gospel. In light of Wesleyan grace, the Gospel has four chapters: creation, fall, forgiveness, and restoration. Too often, especially in the evangelical tradition, the gospel is watered down to concepts two and three, and we forget where we came from, and where God is leading us in the broader scheme of things.
Chapters one and especially four are crucial to the Christian life, for restoration is the process of imbuing us with the capacity to love others in the way that God has loved us. It is the beginning of the journey described in 2 Corinthians 5:17. It is the process of sanctification in which followers of Christ are vessels of clay to be shaped into something new, something that has a purpose in the Kingdom of God.
Session 2. The Community: A Family in Which to Grow
The second lecture of the day transitioned into a discussion of the necessity of community in the Christian walk. If our ultimate purpose as Christians is to love, he argues, then we need community to do it well, because loving well is something that cannot be a solitary task. The Church is meant to nurture and deepen our faith, which then manifests itself in a love that is action-oriented. This is key: if there are no such acts of love in our lives, then our faith has no meaning (a concept that is very clear in scripture). And the Christian community is the force responsible for propelling that outward manifestation of love.
Embracing the Four-Chapter Gospel as described in the previous lecture is also key to developing a rich community. To illustrate this, Paul walked us through a history of the Church’s development in the United States. When the Great Awakening swept through the nation in the mid-eighteenth century, Protestant Christianity as a whole became fixated on individual salvation. We began asking ourselves the question “am I saved?” when in reality the more poignant and important question is “what am I saved for?” And the answer to that question, of course, is what the fourth chapter of the Gospel is all about.
Paul then went on to share a brief illustration about Billy Graham, and how conversion is never enough to sustain growth in Christ. As an incredibly successful evangelist, Graham spent many years converting many people to Christianity. What he found later in his life, however, was that many of his converts were not remaining within the faith. Much like the seeds that fell on rocky ground in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, they had an incredible conversion experience but did not grow roots in the Christian life. As a result, they gradually fell away.
Graham came to realize what Wesley had already encouraged centuries before; Christian community creates retention, it creates Christians who develop and grow roots in a way that a single recitation of the sinner’s prayer can’t. In essence, small groups (which I should point out are quite different from institutionalized Church!) are vital to spiritual development.
Paul concluded his lecture with a fresh interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Typically, when we read this story we see Mary as someone to be admired; she knew learning from Jesus was more important than carrying on with the house work, and her sister Martha would do well to worry less about hosting Jesus. Paul, however, used this story to illustrate the duality of the Christian life; we can’t always be like Mary, sitting and listening and learning and doing nothing. We must also be like Martha, who took on acts of service in a practical way. We as individuals and as a corporate body need both: Mary’s heart and Martha’s hands.
Session 3. The Discipline: A Pilgrimage of Accountable Discipleship
This lecture focused on different practices of the church and individual Christians as we grow in Christ. Paul began by introducing several helpful concepts that we must understand in order to carry out these practices, which he defined as “the things we do to address fundamental needs in response to God’s active presence in the light of the world.”
We then broke down these practices into smaller sets. Works of piety encapsulate the broad categories of worship and devotion, while works of mercy involve acts of compassion and justice. There are both corporate and personal dimensions to each of these practices, and the two must be balanced in sync if healthy growth is to occur within the life of the Church.
Another aspect of Methodist practices that I found to be particularly interesting was the emphasis on song. Indeed, Song is so central the United Methodism that in England it is known as “the singing church.” John Wesley’s brother, Charles Wesley, composed many great hymns during his lifetime. Often throughout the lecture, Paul would read through a few stanzas of one of Charles’ hymns and then draw out theological insights from them that meshed beautifully with the Methodist ideas he was sharing.
We spent a great deal of time on the final practices that Paul explores in this lecture: that of the Word and the Table; i.e., scripture and communion. Paul framed his discussion of the Table within the concept of time: we can see it in the dimension of the past, in which the focus is the Lord’s Supper and its significance in preceding Jesus’ crucifixion. For us it is an act of “anamnesis”, of reenacting the past to bring its reality into the present moment. It is a commemoration of the most significant story in all of history: story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The present dimension is most easily defined in the word the Eucharist. Growing up, I had never referred to the Lord’s Supper as such, so I looked up the word to see what distinguishes it. Far more than a commemoration, when we refer to sharing the bread and the wine as the Eucharist, we are adding a dimension of gratitude. Paul took this even further, and described the Eucharist as a practice of joy and celebration. I loved this concept, especially since it was so new to me.
Finally, the future dimension of the Lord’s Supper focuses on the hope we have in God for the restoration of the world. The ultimate purpose of the table, in the grand scheme of things, is press us outward, to move us into a world in need of the hope we have.
Session 4. The Servanthood: A Mission in God’s World
The final lecture of the day was largely about our relationship with our mission field: the world. Paul prefaced his introductory statement with the warning that it would be controversial, and indeed it was: we are part of the Christian faith not for our own salvation but to be God’s ambassadors for love and service. The entirety of our life is meant to be an offering to God: a very high calling indeed!
This concept has ultimate clarity in the story of the gospel and what Paul calls “kinosis theology.” This is the idea that it is the nature of God to empty himself. For example, when Jesus came to the world as a human being, he emptied himself of all Godly qualities save one: Love. And since Love is the essence of God, Jesus remained wholly human and wholly divine.
Of course, we as a church are called to live in a similar manner. Paul used the metaphor of a hurricane to illustrate what this would look like in the life of the church. The strongest hurricanes are the ones with a powerful centrifugal force: that is, an outward force that spirals wider and wider. If a hurricane shifted to focus inwardly—centripetal force—it would die quickly.
The Church must always be that centrifugal force. We cannot be an introspective people, concerned with preserving our own traditions and maintaining our own small way of life. If we do, we would be as dead as the eye of a hurricane. The Kingdom would move forward, because God is at its head, but it would move forward without us.
Instead we must be concerned with the world around us, and attuned to its needs. Paul talked about two dimensions to these acts of service. The first is what we most often think of: acts of compassion. This type is generally something personal, and it involves being present in the midst of those who are suffering.
The second type is justice, which is of course generally a more corporate approach. This type recognizes the mistreatment of others, and translates empathy for them into an effort to improve their circumstances. As Paul described this form of service to others, I couldn’t help but remember a quote that I had read once. Tony Campolo, an influential and very wise minister, declared that “justice is nothing more than love translated into social policy.” And likewise, Paul made it clear to us that justice always has a political dimension. It is about doing God’s work in the world by changing the systems in place that oppress.
The final session of the day was rounded off with the plea to listen. So often, injustice is something subtle, worked so deeply into the fiber of our culture that it is only by being attentive listeners that we can see the problems that plague others and realize the need for change. And again, this is something we must do on an individual level and as the corporate body of Christ.
In all, the day was full of so much learning, and exposure to new ideas and fresh ways of thinking about the Christian walk. But I really believe that if I remember anything from this event five years down the road, I think I will probably remember the way we participated in communion at the end. We sang a hymn and read some liturgy, as well as reciting the Lord’s Prayer. But what struck me about it most of all was how intimate it all felt. Having grown up in the church, I’ve participated in communion more times than I remember, but always as part of a large congregation and usually by being served in my pew.
Communion that day was a pretty small group, so small that we could have all lined up together at the same time to come to the front and receive the bread and the wine. And in keeping with all the lectures Paul presented over the course of the day, Paul spoke words that reminded us of the future aspect to these elements we were receiving. This was a reminder of God’s love for us, and we must in turn go and extend that love to those around us. It is what we were made for, and it is what God’s purpose is for each of us.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading this new book released by Peter Enns called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Let me just say up front that this book is fantastic. I’m enjoying it immensely: so much, in fact, that I’ve decided to do a chapter-by-chapter review of the entire thing. The perspective Enns brings to the table is such an important one, and I think that if we all read the Bible in this way we would find that we can read it with reverence and intellectual integrity without forcing it into a mold it was never meant to fill.
Right out of the gate, Enns makes it pretty clear that this is no typical perspective on how we as Bible-believing Christians ought to read the scriptures. He writes:
“In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. But they were also ancient—and that explains why the Bible behaves the way it does.
This kind of Bible—the Bible we have—just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith. But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.” (p. 23)
The basic purpose of the book’s introduction is to lay the groundwork for how Enns will be approaching the Bible throughout the book. He gives a basic overview of his life and how his views of scripture shifted radically shortly after he graduated from college. He was listening in on a theological conversation between an atheist friend and a Christian friend, and the reality that they had such knowledge and conviction about what they believed, and he felt ignorant by comparison.
This triggered a journey for him in which he studied the Bible, and then began reading all the books on theology, philosophy, church history, commentaries and more that he could get his hands on. He went to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in Old Testament Studies, where he encountered some of the bizarre ways in which the New Testament writers—especially Paul—interepreted the stories of the Old Testament. And he began to learn how comfortably those stories fit among their contemporary narratives.
“I feel I have been given permission to be honest with myself and with God about a Bible that behaves so unBible-like without being told God is deeply disappointed in me for doing so and might turn on me at any second.
I gained a Bible—and a God—I was free to converse with, complain to, talk back to, interrogate, and disagree with, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust, rather than needing to tiptoe around lest a grumpy God lash out with plague, famine, and sword if I get the Bible wrong—like an abusive, drunken father you don’t want to wake from his nap.
I was learning to trust God enough to know that, like family he will come through no matter what, that his love and commitment to me is deepr than how my brain happens to process information at any given moment, to trust that God will be with me, not despite my journey but precisely because I was trusting God enough to take it.” (p. 21)
As I read through Enn’s description of coming to terms with what the Bible truly is, and not what we force it to be, I was amazed at his ability to take the biblical texts at face value and yet remain respectful of its position as an inspired scripture that can teach us so many key things about God and ourselves. What this introduction showed me more than anything else is that you don’t have to bend the Bible to your will—or even to Church tradition—to let it transform you. You don’t need to have every passage hammered out into a malleable caricature of what is truly going on.
You can read the Bible exactly for what it is: ancient literature reflecting the ancient ideas of multiple men and women throughout history. They each colored history in their own ways for different purposes. And this doesn’t render it useless to us at all today; it just means we need to approach it with its context in mind, and read it in a way that is consistent with that context. Only then will the deeper meanings in scripture jump out that perhaps you had previous glossed over with an oversimplified or misinformed reading.
After driving this point home, Enns proceeds with introducing the first difficult topic he would be covering in the book: Old Testament violence. In my next installment of this series, I will provide an overview of Enn’s treatment of stories of God-ordained genocide in the Old Testament and why it is a poor reading of these texts to treat them as reflective of God’s nature or God’s judgment.
Hey you. Yes, you who may or may not know me but have nonethleless found yourself here, reading my words.
I have a message for you. It’s a message I don’t believe half the time, and so I feel like a bit of a fraud sharing it. But I believe it today, with all my heart. Because it is true.
You have a role to play. You have a purpose.
Maybe you’re dogmatic, or maybe you a free spirit. You could be someone who is bold, or someone who is humble. You might be an intellectual, or someone who doesn’t think much about the deeper parts of life and is just very practical.
Perhaps you’re an eternal optimist, or a cynic, or someone in between who wavers between the two extremes. Maybe you are your own worst enemy, and your insecurities get the best of you more often than not. Or maybe you’re confident and comfortable in who you are, and the world around you doesn’t faze you much.
You could be energetic, or steady, or opinionated, or kind, or confrontational, or compliant.
But I just want you to know…
You have a role to play in this world. You have a purpose. YOU. Not the faint shadow of who you could be, or who you want to be. You, with all your flaws and all your strengths and all the myriad of qualities that are jumbled together to make you an incredible, beautiful, unique person. You have a place.
Perhaps your role is quite small, and you’ll spend your life making just a little impact. Or maybe it’s huge, and you wield influence beyond the dreams you had when you were young.
But here’s the cool thing. That doesn’t matter. Whether your role is small or large, you have a place. You have a sphere of influence and people to love and people who love you. You have a part in something beyond yourself, beyond the little pocket of existence that sums up who you are.
You possess this beautiful, messy blend of strengths and weaknesses and memories and personality traits and thoughts and deeds and temperaments and beliefs and convictions that no one else in this world does. You have a place in this world that no one else can fill.
I am in awe of the depth and complexity of the human being. I think about the thousands of thoughts and dreams and convictions and emotions that I go through on a daily basis, and I realize that in that way I am not unique, that all human beings experience the same thing. And it fills me with wonder every time I think about it because I realize all over again how unbelievably precious we all are. I think about how we all bring something to the table that no one else can.
And sometimes that’s hard, because it inevitably means you will clash with your fellow human beings from time to time. But you will also find kindred spirits, people whose own humanity dovetails beautifully with your own. And when you find those people, it’s magical. And when you find the people who clash with you, that’s magical too. Because often they challenge you, and bring your weaknesses into the light.
Anyway, I don’t know what the purpose of this long rant is. All I know is I’ve been in a creative funk for the last few months, and tonight as I was driving home I just started thinking about the interactions I’ve been having with people I love lately, and how complex and beautiful we all are. And before I knew it, I had to let those thoughts flow through my fingers and come out in written words.
Because it’s all true. You are precious and unique and filled with so many qualities that no one else ever has or ever will possess. You hold a place in this world that no one could ever fill. Maybe that doesn’t feel true for you today, or maybe it does.
That doesn’t matter. It is true, because you live that truth every single day.
Most of the time, I’m not much of a New Year’s resolution kind of a person. Once in a while, if I’m really into achieving some goal, I’ll decide to make it a resolution for the new year. But most of the time I’m content to just skip it, and create goals when I feel like it rather than at the turn of the new year.
This year, though, I am enjoying this feeling of new beginnings, so I want to kick off 2015 by sharing a few goals that I have. So, without further ado, here goes!
1. Bike to Pittsburgh with my sister Marlia
This one gets my vote for most likely to be achieved. And if I’m honest, it’s more due to my sister’s determination than my own. Come spring, she’s going to be training for a cycling trip across Europe, and as part of that training she is apparently cycling 344 miles to visit me this spring. Then we’re going to bike to Pittsburgh together. I’m really excited about this because I have been a terrible couch potato these last few months, and my body is begging to me to get active again. So spending time with Marlia and exercising at the same time will be just the right kind of motivation I need to get back into the swing of a regular exercise routine. Or that’s my hope, at least!
2. Learn to play piano
I am the only member of my family who doesn’t play a musical instrument, and I want to change that! Music has never really been something that did a great job of capturing my attention, but I think that if there was any instrument that could hold my attention long enough to become at least moderately decent at it, it would be the piano. I just love listening to it being played, and I would love to be able to play some of my favorite songs. So I have a keyboard—left over from my last failed resolve to learn to play—and I’m going to give it another go. This time around, maybe it will stick!
3. Get back into a regular blogging routine
So it is no surprise to you that I’ve been pretty quiet these last few months. There are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is that my laptop keeps malfunctioning. Another is that the one thing that inspires me and drives my desire to write is Christianity. So when my faith is in a really dry spell like it has been recently, and I am generally dreadfully ambivalent towards all things Christianity, my writing inevitably wanes as well. My hope is that it is only matter of time before my curiosity for truth kicks in again, and I starting to process that search—wherever it may lead me—in my writing here.
4. Develop authenticity in my life
This has always been a very hard thing for me. I am easily impressionable, and easily influenced into saying things that may appease the people around me, but do not really reflect how I feel in my heart. Sometimes it is just easier for me to nod along in agreement rather than honestly reveal how much I am struggling with a certain believe or how I feel about a certain issue. But if I have discovered anything, it is that authenticity is incredible liberating and almost always good for the soul in the long run, even if it results in some painful situations sometimes. So this year, I’m going to strive to be more authentic in how I express myself.
So that is it; four resolutions for 2015! I think they are just lofty enough to be a challenge for me, but not so lofty that I’ll give them up because they’re too difficult.
I could use some drive in my life, and hopefully these resolutions will provide that!
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” ~ Matthew 7:13-14
This little pair of verses is one of the most commonly quoted among Christians. It is almost a mantra, I have heard it so many times growing up: from the pulpit, from my dad, and perhaps most often, in my own head.
When I was taught this passage growing up, it was almost always about salvation. It split human beings into two groups: the big group of people who take the easy way in life, and the small group whose lives are flipping hard because they are living for Jesus.
As a Christian, I’ve undoubtedly had to consider that I belong to the smaller group. And based on the way I was taught this passage, I’ve always understood it to be based on belief. I choose the hard beliefs; I choose the beliefs that leave people thinking I’m a judgmental asshole sometimes. I choose the beliefs that result in being misunderstood, or naive. Because of course, if this Christian life is easy and without trials and difficulties, and if my beliefs aren’t challenged and opposed by the world around me, I must not be on the narrow path after all, right?
I wish that Jesus had offered more context when he spoke this saying. But there really isn’t any; it comes right in the middle of a bunch of other quick, brief teachings: don’t judge, don’t throw you pearls before swine (a weird passage if I ever heard one!), have confidence that God will give you what you ask for.
In light of that, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we can look at these verses with an entirely different lens than the salvation/damnation paradigm. A little while ago, I read Rob Bell’s wonderful little book Love Wins. He has this remarkable way of personalizing Jesus’ teachings in the book while staying faithful to their message. He talked about heaven and hell—i.e., the narrow way and the broad way—not in terms of two places that human beings are divided into based on God’s judgment, but rather states of being that we choose for ourselves in this life—in the here and now.
So if we choose bitterness over a past wrong, we’ve chosen hell. If we choose to go out of our way to show kindness to someone, we’ve chosen heaven.
I think that same idea can be applied to this saying about the narrow way and the broad way. I think it might tie in nicely with all the stuff Paul says (in Romans I think, but probably in other letters too) about the lure of our sinful spirits, and about how difficult it is to choose Jesus. And really, choosing Jesus and choosing life are the same thing at the end of the day, aren’t they?
Anyway, tying back to what I said earlier about choosing the hard beliefs, I think the narrow way, the way that leads to life, isn’t about an exclusive set of beliefs. Or at least it isn’t just about that. I think so much of it has to do with how I view people, how inclusive I am of those around me.
At the end of the day, that is so much harder than having beliefs that “the world” thinks are silly and archaic. I’ve done that my whole life—believe me, I’ve got that down pat, and it doesn’t really faze me anymore (probably because I have come to realize that a lot of my beliefs were silly and archaic!). What is so much harder is breaking down stereotypes, seeing the people around me for the beautiful souls that they are instead of judging them based on the myriad ways of judging that human beings have invented and then passed down to their children.
That is hard. That is a narrow path that few people ever find.
But maybe, at least when looking at it this way, recognizing the path you are on is the first step to retracing your steps and finding your way back to the narrow path that Jesus desires us to take. I don’t think choosing the broad path has to be the final word, for otherwise what is the purpose of grace?
It’s so incredible when you peel back the layers of scripture like this, and unfold the myriad meanings that you can draw even from little sayings like this. That is why I love the Gospels so much; each story, each saying, each teaching can be viewed from a dozen different dimensions, and can result in a dozen different meanings. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
So yeah, I think narrow path could represent choosing a set of beliefs that most of the people around you have rejected. It could also represent the kind of radical inclusion that Jesus displayed (a path that I think many Christians today are totally not on!). Or it could be about something else entirely. You could pick your demons, really, based on what you are struggling with or what areas of ignorance or blind spots you currently have in your life. That’s the beauty of stories; there’s more than one way to read them.
Today I read an article linked on Facebook by one my favorite bloggers of all time, Rachel Held Evans. I had so many thoughts running through my head as I read, and I figured there was no better place to get them all down in writing than on my blog (at this point, I really recommend you read the article, as my post won’t make much sense otherwise).
I believe that the message of this article is a game-changer in the Christian treatment of homosexuality. Though I “came out” in support of gay marriage a year and a half ago, I’ve also been consistent in my defense of the beliefs of more conservative Christians who believe homosexuality is sinful. I am always quick to remind more militant LGBTQ allies that your capacity to love others has nothing to do with what you believe, and that we can love across the divide. I think about my parents and many of my friends, who are non-affirming yet also very loving people. I suppose in a way, it is them I am defending.
And yet. I don’t think I can anymore, because I don’t think that doing so is faithful to the Gospel that I believe in.
I found the parallels the article drew between anti-Semitism and homophobia to be incredibly alarming. To stretch the analogy further, if I lived in the time before the Holocaust when anti-Semitism was still so deeply engrained in the Christian religion, and I rejected that hatred for the Jews, how could I not believe that anti-Semitism was a toxic belief? How could I not challenge those who believe Jews are little horned devils responsible for the death of Jesus?
In the same way, I have very slowly come to the understanding that believing homosexuality is sinful is, at its core, toxic. I know the situation is a little different. But I also know that there has been no shortage of hatred for LGBTQ people throughout church history, and I think that this hatred, and the belief that homosexuality is sinful, are intrinsically linked.
This harmful belief marginalizes those who identify as LGBTQ in such incredibly hurtful ways. I understand the belief is born out of a desire to be faithful to scripture, and a desire to see God’s will carried out in the lives of others. But I think that in its underbelly, it is a breeding ground for contempt, as the article I shared explains.
I think about my life growing up, how I was implicitly taught that people who say they are gay are just freaks who are displaying a lust-filled distortion of sexuality. I think about the derision and annoyance I felt in my heart whenever the “gay agenda” was “pushed on me” by television. At the time I didn’t know there was a label for what I felt for the LGBT community, and that this label was homophobia
And now, here I am, staunchly resting on the other side of this debate. When I think about my more recent experiences with both affirming and non-affirming Christians, I have discovered that in almost every situation, I need to defend the humanity of LGBT people to non-affirming Christians in ways I never have to do otherwise.
I remember debating fiercely with a friend when the Phil Robertson debacle happened, and I remember feeling so sad and angry when she very callously told me she thought what Robertson had said was funny, and that gay people just need to grow a thicker skin. This is just one experience of many that perhaps aren’t as extreme as anti-Semitism in Europe was, but are harmful nonetheless. And my own experiences have been very mild indeed, compared to some of the heart-breaking stories I have read in which LGBT people are rejected, bullied, and hated.
My experiences have led me to the understanding that to believe that homosexuality is sinful is to believe that an entire people group’s capacity to fall in love is inherently and uniquely broken and distorted. So it comes as no surprise that the non-affirming view generates such contempt.
I never thought I would come to such a place of earnest conviction about my belief in this because I have always, always been the sort of person who desires reconciliation and mutual understanding more than winning an argument. But there is a time when reconciliation requires taking a step away from the radical inclusion of Jesus, and from the powerful message of love which is in the undercurrent of everything he teaches. And supporting gay marriage fits that message in profound ways, ways that the non-affirming view cannot.
Lately I’ve been writing all kinds of stuff about my new church, Thoburn UMC, because I am so thrilled to have finally found a home there. Tonight in small groups, things were a little bit unconventional because we watched a video on the prophets, so I don’t have much to share about our actual discussion.
Before we hunkered down for the video, though, our group leader and the church’s associate pastor, Pastor Adam, shared an update about the small group that my current group recently split off from. He said that all of them had admitted to never reading scripture cover-to-cover, and how they had all independently made the decision to do so, something they discovered last week at their small group.
And it got me thinking about how much I am growing to treasure this group I have become a part of. See, I also have never read the Bible cover-to-cover, and I had always been ashamed of that. So last year I had committed to doing so, and I got as far as Numbers 16 before I tossed my Bible away in horror and haven’t picked it up since (well, I’ve picked it up of course, but not to read Numbers, that’s for sure!).
But since these people courageously shared that they are in the same boat as me, and will likely have some of the same jarring experiences I did, I have found that I can do this. I can pick up my Bible again and continue what I started last year. And that is a gift that my old church—for all that I appreciate about it—could not give me because I knew I could never just vent my fears to them about what I encounter in scripture without it turning in to a debate.
And that is not all that happened at small groups tonight; I have saved the best for last.
Before the group started, Pastor Adam took me aside and privately asked me a question that left me entirely stunned and at a complete loss for words.
Before I explain what he asked me, let me explain the concept of small groups at Thoburn. Basically, the idea is for the groups to multiply. As a group becomes larger than 12 or so, it is the pastors’ vision that the group would split into two, with two separate leaders. And as those groups become larger, they would also split, and so on. So the groups become more numerous, but remain small and intimate.
So each group needs to have an acting leader, and a potential leader for when the groups split.
Have you guessed what Pastor Adam asked me yet? I’m sure you can, and thus understand why I was so utterly stunned. I’ve only been going to Thoburn for a few months now, and have generally been my normal, quiet, introverted yet rather opinionated self. And yet, he asked me to lead the new group when ours split.
I actually, literally asked him if he was serious, and after small groups when I decided to agree to lead it, I was certain he had asked me as a last resort, because everyone else in the room was married and had a lot of other responsibilities. And yet, he told me I was his first choice, because I seem grounded and steady in my faith, and I demonstrate a desire to grow.
And really…isn’t this what the Church is supposed to be about? Believers edifying one another? Seeing potential in one another that you might not be able to see for yourself? I felt so encouraged after our discussion, and while I am one of the youngest in our group and feel wildly under-qualified for this, I had to ask myself this question. How, after talking about how God uses ordinary people to fulfill his purposes just like he did with the prophets, could I tell my pastor I wasn’t the right person to do this?
So my introverted little self is going to leap outside my comfort zone and do something I am very, very nervous to do: in the future at some point, I will be facilitating a small group at Thoburn.
Cheers to spiritual growth and overcoming your demons of inadequacy!