Monday, December 28, 2009

Adventures In The Spirit: Ch.2

In chapter 2 of Philip Clayton's new book "Adventures In the Spirit", he makes the case that religious truth and scientific truth have significantly overlap, yet remain distinctly different. To get there, he compares three perspectives.

First, there is a common modernist view that religious truth is subjective, passionate, mythical, and intrinsically perspectival while scientific truth is objective, dispassionate, rational, and natural. Scientific opposition to religion (as advocated by people like Richard Dawkins) is therefore justified. It's clear Clayton sees a false dichotomy lurking within Dawkin's reasoning.

Second, there is an emerging post-modernist view that scientific truth and religious truth are ultimately the same. This view, a much stronger view in Clayton's opinion, says that "both [religion and science] involve a critical use of hypotheses and doubt within a subjective human framework pervasively influenced by personal, societal, and historical factors....the physics of special relativity and quantum mechanics have made observer limitations central to the epistemology of science, as well as to its view of reality...a massive literature now treats scientific theories as myths, models, narratives, and stores, and ascribes to them only the truth proper to such accounts...religion and science are identical: both are symbolizing activities aimed at making the world meaningful through the creation of a symbolic universe....scientific truth might need to be reconceived from the standpoint of coherence rather than correspondence." Indeed, religious studies majors like myself notice that religious truth is similarly described in the context of post-modern academic study. In an interesting transitional comment, Clayton notes that the modern Western religious person (whom he calls the "secular believer") is much less dogmatic in practice than many scientists like Dawkins and Dennet are about their scientism.

Third, Clayton shows how this more extreme post-modern view, while a correction to the old rigid modern view, goes too far by sacrificing essential phenomena of both fields in an effort to equate the two perfectly. I list his reasons for objecting to the extreme post-modernist view below:

1)While objectivity and a theoretical attitude remain the ideal goal of science, religion is guided by the value of subjectivity in faith and response. While scientists might be passionately attached to their theories as matters of ultimate concern, the religious phenomenon is all about providing hypotheses as foundational to the subject's "ultimate concern".

2)While science is characterized by an ideal of the progressive mastery of nature ("possession"), religious truth is characterized by unpossessability. "When worship strives after possession, religion crosses the line into the realm of magic...Where scientific truth is 'for us', religious truth remains 'beyond us.'"

3)Similarly, religious truth "is not found in a specific object of experience but in the ground of all experience. In contrast to the scientific mind, the religious consciousness will never countenance the divine as one object among other objects in the world...[while] there is a sense in which believers will accept specific events or doctrinal teachings as adequate, [they still insist] that, at the more general level, the ultimate truth exceeds all abilities of human language. The appeal to a knowledge beyond words - or to the limiting, self-negating function of parables, myths, and symbols - is the constant theme of the religious teacher."

4) While scientific theory is not immune to the influences of contextual perspectives, it nevertheless is structured with powerful mechanisms "for avoiding, or recognizing and eliminating, errors and prejudices in the construction of theories." While cultural/cultic/individual/group differences in religion and art "add to the richness of artistic and religious truth, the constant goal in science is to transcend perspectival differences."

Clayton wraps things up nicely: "Having discovered the significant overlaps between scientific and religious activity...the four distinctions [above] can no longer be construed as signs of a fundamental religion-science dichotomy...Though one must grant important differences between science and religion, one can do so as part of a nuanced understanding of the two, one that eschews black-and-white distinctions in favor of careful gradations that are more truly representative of the complex realities of the phenomena themselves."

Adventures In The Spirit: Ch.1

The first chapter of Philip Clayton's new book "Adventures In the Spirit" sets out in a very clear manner to show how science and theology can work together as related, complimentary, yet distinct fields. Theology today must be willing to change according to the best results of the sciences, and while this is uncomfortable, it is absolutely necessary for the ongoing life of the Christian faith.

We are not relativists, those of us who advocate this reformation. We are not willing to hold to absolute certainty - doubt and questioning are vital to faith. Certainty leads to fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism...ultimately irrelevance. We hope for what we believe to be true without knowing for sure that it is. We are committed to humble but intelligent and active dialogue to defend and explore theological convictions. Clayton describes the appropriate response as "hope-plus-faith, that is, a stance of sincere hope for a particular outcome, combine with the sort of religious life that acts as if that hope were a certainty." Clayton believes this response is possible even in the absence of certainty that our beliefs are superior to other religious beliefs. Like the best scientists, we hope that we are moving towards a final goal, even as we maintain a healthy skepticism about our results. In a quote of Charles Sanders Pierce: "Undoubtedly, we hope that this, or something apporximating to this, is so, or we should not trouble ourselves to make such inquiry. But we do not necessarily have much confidence that it is so."

Clayton endorses the theology more in line with the reformation's concept of semper reformata, "revisions are a constant requriement for any tradition that wishes to speak to its contemporary intellectual and social context. While costly, they are also necessary." Today's context of the successfully persuasive sciences and increasing awareness of religious pluralism, where there are truly other viable options for spiritual seekers, requires robust engagement with other religious traditions (not just dialogue, but openness to correction and learning actual truth) and similarly robust engagement with the sciences. To refuse to engage in the pursuit of truth with other religions and science is profoundly arrogant and extremely ignorant. We must avoid the temptation to use science to prove the existence of God - intelligent design is profoundly confused. Any move beyond the scientific method's engagement with the empirical world is inherently metaphysical, and therefore philosophical - and while philosophy is good, it is NOT science. Philosophy is of course more aligned with theology.

But should we take the risk of seriously engaging theology with science? To do so is to risk forming bad theology in conjunction with bad science - as was done in the past at times. Clayton believes that the alternative is worse: "...to put forward and embrace theologies that are based on outdated scientific cosmologies and empirically false claims about the world, rather than basing theological reflection on the best available knowledge we have about the universe. Surely the scriptures of one's religious tradition should not function as a dike that serves to protect one against advances in human knowledge. Therein lie the Dark Ages indeed!...It is far better to accept the risks of aligning oneself with the best human efforts at knowledge, and then when necessary to admit mistakes and move on, than to remain 'suckled on a creed outworn.'" Theologians should hold firmly that all means of discerning truth are valid. Theologians should engage the sciences because we recognize that knowledge moves along an unbroken line from empirical/scientific results to philosophical/metaphysical results. The two inform each other and need each other: "Empirical results raise urgent metaphysical questions, and metaphysical positions frame empirical research."

A great start to an exciting book of fresh theological inquiry. More to come...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Transforming Christian Theology




I just finished Philip Clayton's important new book Transforming Christian Theology, and it's a must read for all who are concerned about the future of the Christian church. The book itself reads easy and is meant for non-specialists like pastors and even laypersons. Clayton offers a blueprint, in my opinion, for the way-forward for progressive Christianity, including the Emergent Church and the struggling Mainline church. This is not your book of theological answers, but rather a book to help the progressive Christian community develop their theology in the most productive manner. He emphasizes the need for the Christian Church to present transformative statements of belief that are sensitive to the challenges of pluralism, post-modernity, and the advances in science. Buy this book, read it, discuss it, and apply it. It's that simple. Philip intends to make theologians out of all of us, in the most practical sense of things. Taking theology out of the ivory towers of the academy and putting it into the hands of individuals. Exciting stuff!!!


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Following Jesus Through The Eye Of A Needle

Looks like a great book based on this stimulating short clip:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rethinking Hell (pt.2): Jurgen Moltmann's "The Logic of Hell"




Rather than summarizing an already brief, punchy set of words from the amazing Jurgen Moltmann, check out his essay "The Logic of Hell" for a strong argument for a form of universalism. He tackles the old argument (put forth strongly by CS Lewis) that there has to be a an eternal hell because we have free will to choose our eternal separation from God - who in turn must supposedly honor our decision of hell over unity with Christ. He reveals the dogmatic bullshit here, calling this kind of "logic of hell" a kind of atheism. Brilliant stuff.

Click HERE to read it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (pt.7): Romans 1:18-32

The final "clobber passage" in the first chapter of Romans is the most important to consider, precisely because it is the most difficult to interpret. What needs to be considered here is Paul's very typical 1st century Jewish understanding of idolatry and stereotyping of Gentiles. Many commentators assume that what Paul calls "unnatural" sexual behavior is simply another symptom of the Fall – but nowhere is this really the case in the passage. For Paul, homosexuality is actually a symptom of something quite different: the later invention of idolatry and polytheism by the Gentiles.

Considering the passage: for what reason did God give "them up" (the idolatrous Gentiles) to their "unnatural desires"? Because the Gentiles worshiped animals and other idols rather than the one God. So Paul is not talking about the consequences of the Fall, but about the later (mythical) invention of idolatry and polytheism. He specifically accuses the Gentiles ("they"/"them") of being idolaters – and therefore, by his curious logic, capable of giving in to homosexuality. For Paul, homosexuality is a symptom of being a polytheist and idolater.  Gay monotheists - Jews or Christians - essentially do not exist for Paul because homosexuality is intrinsic to polytheism.  As such, he clearly does not address homosexuality as we understand it today in this passage.  The core of Paul's critique is of polytheism and idolatry, not homosexuality.

There is no mention in this passage of Adam, Eve, Eden, or universal sin (not until later in Romans in a different context). Paul is not talking about the Fall and the entrance of sin through Adam, but about the invention of idolatry and polytheism with the entrance of an even deeper sin: sexual perversion, which is embraced by the Gentiles. Paul had no reason to consider Adam a polytheist - he was, of course, a monotheist who made a bad choice against the one God.  Polytheism entered the world only later through the evil of the Gentiles, after which God punished them by allowing them to pursue their sexual desires to what he believed to be an extreme end: homosexual behavior. A roughly contemporary Jewish text of Paul called The Wisdom of Solomon reflected this common belief: "For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication." (Wis 14:12). Homosexuality and idolatry are both characteristically Gentile for Paul and the writer of Wisdom. Pamela Eisenbaum comments about this view:

"The 'degrading passions' are the by-product of idolatry, and Paul's mention of it is almost incidental - the result of an instinctive Jewish association between idolatry and 'unnatural' sexuality, which itself derives from nothing more than the Jewish stereotype of Gentiles in antiquity."

Of course, Paul does not despise all Gentiles as long as they are not idolaters, but these were at that point in time rare. According to Dale Martin, Paul's understanding of idolatry went something like this:

"Once upon a time, even after the sin of Adam, all humanity was safely and securely monotheistic. At some point in ancient history most of humanity rebelled against God, rejected the knowledge of the true God that they certainly possessed, willfully turned their collective back on God, made idols for themselves, and proceeded to worship those things that by nature are not gods. As punishment for their invention of idolatry and polytheism, God 'handed them over' to depravity, allowing them to follow their 'passions,' which led them into sexual immorality, particularly same-sex coupling. Homosexual activity was the punishment meted out by God for the sin of idolatry and polytheism."

It is a historical fact that it was common in Paul's day for Jews to believe that idolatry was invented only after the Fall, despite the reality that historians of religion now place polytheism before the development of monotheism (in fact, so does the Bible itself!). Polytheism and idolatry were not a part of the Garden of Eden narrative, so Jews of the day filled in the invention of idolatry with other mythological stories. These myths are glimpsed in various rabbinic sources and apocryphal books like Jubilees and 1 Enoch. 1st century Jews had a literary tradition of blaming the evils of the Gentiles on some key moment in history, as illustrated by their various myths of evil angels corrupting civilization. Jewish traditions used them to show Israel's relative purity compared to the corrupted Gentiles. These kinds of myths are called "decline narratives", as they are common enough amongst Jews and Greeks to merit their own category.

Paul's primary ground for condemning homosexuality in this passage is by way of common Jewish xenophobia towards Gentiles combined with rather odd Jewish myths to explain the invention of polytheism and idolatry that most Christians do not believe anyways. This is, it seems to me, a completely unsustainable way to continue to condemn homosexuality. As Martin writes:

"Most of us do not believe that all of humanity was once upon a time neatly monotheistic, only later, at a particular historical point, to turn to polytheism and idolatry; nor are we likely to believe that homosexuality did not exist until the sudden invention of polytheism. According to his etiology of homosexuality, Paul must not have believed that it ever existed among the Jews, at least those who abstained from idolatry. Importantly, when Paul finally indicts the Jews in Romans, he does not accuse them of idolatry or homosexual immorality; Jewish immorality is revealed, at most, in adultery and dishonesty regarding the property of temples (2:22). This is perfectly consistent with Paul's assumption that homosexuality is punishment for idolatry and polytheism: the Jews have not been so punished because they have not, in general, been guilty of that particular sin. If we were to follow Paul's logic, we would have to assume that once idolatry and polytheism were forsaken, homosexuality would cease to exist, which is probably what Paul believed; after all, he never even hints that any Jew or Christian engages in homosexuality...Heterosexist scholars alter Paul's reference to a myth that most modern Christians do not even know, much less believe (that is, a myth about the beginnings of idolatry), and pretend that Paul refers to a myth that many modern Christians do believe, at least on some level (the myth about the fall). Heterosexism can retain Paul's condemnation of same-sex coupling only by eliding the supporting logic of that condemnation."

Even if one were to argue that we should accept Paul's logic derived from this myth, the argument falls apart when you consider ancient Jewish understandings of sexuality - "natural" vs. "unnatural." In contemporary evangelicalism, many moderate writers like Tony Campolo and Richard Hays will admit that homosexual orientation is normal and not sinful, but homosexual practice is still problematic (Campolo recommends that Christian gays and lesbians live together but refrain from sex). On the other hand, for Jews of Paul's day and for Paul himself, "sexual orientation" was a foreign concept. Homosexuality was partly understood to be an extreme example of heterosexual lust gone out of control – a man or woman gets bored with normal heterosexual sex and uses homosexual sex to fulfill their burning desires. Everyone was heterosexual, and homosexuality was a sign that someone was unable to remain satisfied with "normal" sex anymore (this out-of-control lust, of course, is itself rooted in polytheism/idolatry for Paul). Just as gluttony was too much eating (beyond the limit prescribed by nature), homosexuality was too much sex (the Greek for "unnatural" more accurately translates to "in excess of what is natural"). As Martin comments, "Degree of passion, rather than object choice, was the defining factor of desire." Though same-sex coupling is "unnatural", the sexual desire that leads to it had its origins in completely "natural" desires. This is difficult for our modern minds to grapple with, as we now think about sexual orientation as a highly complex phenomenon, but ancients definitely thought quite differently about it. Walter Wink comments:

"....Paul really thought that those whose behavior he condemned were 'straight,' and that they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them. Paul believed that everyone was straight. He had no concept of homosexual orientation. The idea was not available in his world. There are people that are genuinely homosexual by nature (whether genetically or as a result of upbringing no one really knows, and it is irrelevant). For such a person it would be acting contrary to nature to have sexual relations with a person of the opposite sex."

In summary, to align with Paul’s single condemnation of homosexuality in the New Testament is also to align with an ancient misunderstanding of sexual orientation, as well as mythological "decline narratives" about idolatry and polytheism. With that in mind, Paul never condemns homosexuality as we understand it today. If Paul were alive today, I really believe that he would affirm LGBT people - to do so today is to be consistent with the very message of Paul (and Jesus!) about the kingdom or commonwealth of God.

This concludes my analysis of the various clobber passages. I hope that my honesty here shows that I am not looking for easy explanations. Paul was a radical apostle who has much to teach us today, but his view on homosexuality found only in Romans must be left behind for much larger theological and cultural considerations. We must sometimes disagree with the Bible, particularly in regards to ethics if they are tied to presuppositions that we cannot maintain in light of what we know now.  Still, the Bible continues to have a vital story to tell.  It has its problems and inconsistencies, but even more truth and wisdom.  It is our “community library”, as Brian McLaren calls it, not our “constitution.” We should interpret the Bible through the lens of the person of Jesus – who, by the way, was silent on the matter of homosexuality.  Furthermore, sin is inherently destructive (that is what the Bible means by the "Wrath of God"), and I find nothing destructive to society or individuals in homosexuality within the context of a committed, loving, adult relationship.

In closing, philosopher John Caputo has the following to say about Jesus and LGBT people:

"Jesus systematically took the side of the outsider, of those who are excluded and marginalized and made to suffer for their marginalization by the powers that be, those whose names are blackened by their difference from the mainstream. Based on the gospel of love by which he was driven, he would today have found love in homosexual love and a mission among advocates of gay and lesbian rights...there simply are no arguments to show that homosexual love is of itself anything else than love, and that therefore, since the essence of the Torah is love, it hardly falls afoul of the law...To be sure, when it is not love, when it is promiscuity, or infidelity to a sworn partner, or rape, or the sexual abuse of minors, or in any way violent, then it is indeed not love, but that is no less true of heterosexuality...We need be no more guided by the letter of what the Scriptures say about homosexuality than we are by what they say about slavery or geocentrism, which reflect the circumstances of their composition, not the spirit of the kingdom that comes to contradict the world."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Philip Clayton: Transforming Christian Theology

I am becoming a huge fan of Clayton - an absolute genius theologian. Check this out:

Monday, November 16, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (part 6): Andrew Marin interviews Phyllis Tickle

I'm holding off on the Romans 1 deconstruction for a bit longer and adding an extra part to this series with the below two videos (about 10 minutes long total between the two). Andrew Marin has written a great little book called "Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community" while Phyllis Tickle wrote one of my favorite books in the Emergent Christian movement called "The Great Emergence".

I thought these videos were quite interesting on the topic of GLBT issues. Take a look:



Wednesday, November 11, 2009

PREVIEW: LGBT Persons and the Bible part 5 (Romans)

I'm hoping to have a post up this weekend for the final passage in Romans, but for now here is a preview of my approach. I am uncomfortable with the easy answers on this one, so I will offer a couple of views on this passage I think. The view I plan to present first does not so much explain away Paul's negative view of homosexuality as it contextualizes it and dismantles it of any relevance for Christians today. What Paul is not talking about in Romans 1 is The Fall (in other words, homosexuality did not enter the world through the sin of Adam), but it entered later through the invention of idolatry, which had divinely-inflicted consequences (of which homosexuality is one). If this sounds far fetched, stay with me. It is based on good scholarship analyzing apocryphal Jewish sources that contain this viewpoint, and Paul would have likely accepted it. Indeed, rereading Romans 1 with this in mind brings the pieces together quite nicely. While this view crushes the conservative viewpoint of homosexuality as just like any other sin, it unfortunately also leaves us in the position once again of having to part ways with Paul because of the logic he uses to support his ancient viewpoint. It is understandable for his context - and forgivable too. But it is unforgivable for us to maintain such a view today.

A quote from Dale Martin sums it up:

"What for Paul functioned as a sign of the boundary separating idolatrous civilization from monotheistic faith has become a symptom par excellence of what is wrong with 'all of us'. Homosexual desire now lurks somewhere within us all. The fear of its outbreak motivates the current interpretive politics of heterosexism."

Monday, November 9, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.4): Leviticus

This post will wrap up the Old Testament passages that are used to clobber the GLBT community. While the two passages in Leviticus that I will briefly discuss here are rarely used in a serious scholarly debate to defend a traditionalist view on homosexuality, biblically uninformed people regularly throw these passages into a conversation to defend a traditional view of homosexuality. In context, the passages are just not persuasive.

Here are the passages under consideration:

1)"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22)
2)"If a man lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them." (Leviticus 20:13)


Let's see what else Israel is held to under Levitical law: no sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24) - anyone in violation of this was to be "cut off from their people" ('kareth;, Lev. 18:29, a term referring either to execution by stoning, burning, or strangling, or else to flogging or perhaps expulsion). The penalty for cursing your parents or adultery is also death.  "Round" haircuts are not allowed, neither are cattle inbreeding, wearing garments made of two different kinds of materials, the sowing of fields with two kinds of seed, and on and on.

The reasons for these covenant laws are complex and will not be explored in detail here, but the context is generally threefold: cultural identity, protection of the group, and procreation. The Hebrews are to be distinguished from the Canaanites, whose land they are moving in to inhabit, and this required a strict moral/purity code.  The purpose of this code, then, is to create and preserve a uniquely called people from being absorbed into Canaanite culture and religion. The goal was to facilitate the building of the nation of Israel on Canaanite soil. Within the story of the Old Testament, if this plan were to be thwarted, it would spell disaster for God's covenantal relationship with Israel to carry out the divine purposes. God's chosen people must have land and peculiar identity.

I also want to consider two possibly competing views of these passages. Which one is the best explanation, I do not know. Either way, the point is clear - Levitical law cannot be used as our ethical norm for today. The first perspective of some scholars is that the word 'abomination' actually does not describe something intrinsically evil but is about ritual impurity. I tend to think the matter is more complex than this explanation. Walter Wink comments on the second scholarly perspective in "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith":

"The Hebrew prescientific understanding was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space. Hence the spilling of semen for any non-procreative purpose - in coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:1-11), male homosexual acts, or male masturbation - was considered tantamount to abortion or murder. (Female homosexual acts were consequently not so seriously regarded, and are not mentioned at all in the Old Testament (but see Rom. 1:26). One can appreciate how a tribe struggling to populate a country in which its people were outnumbered would value procreation highly, but such values are rendered questionable in a world facing uncontrolled overpopulation.

In addition, when a man acted like a woman sexually, male dignity was compromised. It was a degradation, not only in regard to himself, but for every other male. The patriarchy of Hebrew culture shows its hand in the very formulation of the commandment, since no similar structure was formulated to forbid homosexual acts between females. And the repugnance felt toward homosexuality was not just that it was deemed unnatural but also that it was considered un-Jewish, representing yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life. On top of that is the more universal repugnance heterosexuals tend to feel for acts and orientations foreign to them (left-handedness has evoked something of the same response in many cultures)."


I agree with Wink's view here, largely because it is also what I have encountered in my academic studies multiple times by other Hebrew Bible scholars. As far as I am concerned, I see no way to responsibly read the Leviticus passages as condemning homosexuality, especially as we understand it today. Not only do most of us no longer view the status of women in the Levitical way anymore, but nobody understands biology in such an ancient fashion, we are not a nation struggling to survive like the ancient Israelites, and no genuine Christian who follows the way of Jesus would ever argue for the death penalty for gay persons (and yes, I know that there are some truly insane 'Christians' who do hold this view, even today.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.3): Genesis

At this point in the series, we have gone over two big verses from the New Testament that almost certainly do not deal with homosexuality. Whatever Paul in 1 Corinthians, or the author of 1 Timothy thought about homosexuality, we find no evidence in those verses - only a difficult discovery of the normalcy of ancient sexism. We will now be covering the issues raised in the stories of Creation and the story of Sodom and Gomorra in this post (Genesis 1-2 and Genesis 19:1-9).

Some Christians have tried to use the Genesis creation story in various ways to prove the Bible is “clearly” against homosexuality. Even a respectable scholar like N.T. Wright uses his own (problematic) brand of narrative theology to link Genesis with Revelation's heterosexual imagery to supposedly prove God's intentions for humanity. Yes, Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. And yes, Revelation uses the metaphor of a heterosexual union of heaven and earth to imagine the healing of the world at the eschaton. But to refer to these culturally bound metaphors in order to prove the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexuality is a form of literalism that I find completely unsustainable for a thinking Christian today. It is quite a leap to suggest that just because the first and last books of the Bible happen to both use culturally relative heterosexual metaphors to explain two different events that the Bible is therefore against homosexuality. On the contrary, I do not believe that this means that heterosexuality is automatically the only acceptable form of sexuality. Again, we need to get away from that kind of textual literalism (which would frankly horrify the authors of Genesis and Revelation!) and cultural naivete.  This is about as thin and weak of an argument as I have heard. Unfortunately, Wright feels compelled to retain a traditional view on sexuality that I do not believe will remain the norm for much longer. Nor should it, biblically speaking. Harvard professor and pastor Peter Gomes comments on the Genesis story in his classic, "The Good Book":

"Heterosexuality may be the dominant form of sexuality, but it does not follow that it is the only form of appropriate sexuality. What the story does do is reflect the world experience of those human beings who wrote it. Of course they would privilege the only way available to perpetuate the race, and they would do so with the aid of their own cultural lenses...the authors of Genesis were intent upon answering the question 'Where do we come from?' Then, as now, the only plausible answer is from the union of a man and a woman...The creation story in Genesis does not pretend to be a history of anthropology or of every single social relationship...to regard it as excluding everything it does not mention is to place too great a burden on the text and its writers, and too little responsibility upon the intelligence of the readers, and on the varieties of human experience."

I think Gomes is spot on in this quote, as the creation story does not mention singleness or celibacy - both of which describe Jesus and the apostle Paul. Additionally, the narrative was compiled at a time when women were subordinated to men, which did not remain the absolute norm in Christian history. We need to be very careful to understand the Creation story for what it is and what it is not.

Now we will look at the more popular "clobber" passage in Genesis. In a nutshell, Sodom and Gomorra is not a story about homosexuality but about the sins of inhospitality (Matthew 10:14-15, Luke 10:10-12) and pride (Ecclesiastes). The city was not destroyed because of the angry mob's supposed homosexual lustfulness at Lot's door - after all, the city was to be destroyed before the angels arrived in the city to warn Lot of impending doom. The men at Lot's door in the story are not there to have gay sex with angels, but to humiliate them through gang rape - a very common, obviously despicable practice in ancient times that we find in many ancient cultures (including on the battlefield for some of the Greeks). As Gomes writes,

"The attempted homosexual rape of the angels at Lot's door, while vivid and distasteful, is hardly the subject of the story or the cause of the punishment, and no one in scripture suggests that it was."

New Testament scholar Walter Wink agrees in his book "Homosexuality and the Christian Faith":

"That was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them 'like women,' thus demasculinizing them. (This is also the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21.) Their brutal behavior has nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting adults of the same sex is legitimate or not."

To conclude this post, I want to mention something about the curious etymology of the word "sodomite." It derives from this story of Sodom and has meant a variety of things over the centuries: ordinary heterosexual intercourse in any position other than missionary position, oral sexual contact with animals, excessive heterosexual sex, male homosexuality, male prostitutes, idol worshippers of pagan fertility cults – all of this before it was ever equated with homosexuality as such.

As an added note, I feel an urgency today about this blog series after witnessing a "God hates gays" sign holder who was condemning members of the large HSU queer community to hell on the quad for some three or four hours today. My religious studies class was tense as a number of my peers are gay and were reeling from the experience.  This kind of stuff is so destructive and sad, and most of it is perpetuated because of distorted uses and readings of the Bible.

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.2): Malakos

In this second post, we will move on to another controversial and misunderstood Greek word that appears in the New Testament letters: malakos.  I intend to show that this word probably means "effeminate" – as the Biblical translations from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century actually agreed upon. It is interesting, however, that just like the shift in translation preference with arsenokoites in the mid-20th century, malakos gets retranslated as male prostitute (occasionally), sodomite, and often collapsed with arsenokoites to denote "homosexual perversion" (but hopefully we all see this as a serious mistake after our previous analysis of arsenokoites). Although some reputable scholars still argue that malakos should be translated as "male prostitute”, I remain unconvinced.  Dale Martin has persuaded me that the word "effeminate" as a translation of malakos was right all along. Unfortunately, the mid-20th century translator's shift in sexual ideology provided them with a basis to usually retranslate the word as "homosexual perversion.” An abundance of ancient sources that used malakos (in contrast to the lack of sources for arsenokoites) make the meaning of this word perfectly clear.

As a word used in the context of moral condemnation, malakos always refers to the entire ancient complex of the devaluation of the feminine.  Martin's insight is helpful here:

"For the ancients, or at least for the men who produced almost all our ancient literature…women are weak, fearful, vulnerable, tender. They stay indoors and protect their soft skin and nature: their flesh is moister, more flaccid, and more porous than male flesh, which is why their bodies retain all that excess fluid that must be expelled every month. The female is quintessentially penetrable; their pores are looser than men's. One might even say that in the ancient male ideology women exist to be penetrated. It is their purpose...their 'softness' or 'porousness' is nature's way of inscribing on and within their bodies this reason for their existence. And so it was that a man who allowed himself to be penetrated - by either a man or a woman - could be labeled a malakos. But to say that malakos meant a man who was penetrated is simply wrong...a perfectly good word existed [for that]: kinaedos. Malakos, rather, referred to this entire complex of femininity...in fact, malakos more often referred to men who prettied themselves up to further their heterosexual exploits. In Greco-Roman culture, it seems generally to have been assumed that both men and women would be attracted to a pretty boy."

These kinds of connotations for malakos are seen throughout ancient literature, and more than anything it simply reveals the horrible misogyny of the day.  It also reveals that this word was never meant to mean either "male prostitute" or "homosexual perversion.” Counter-intuitively for us today, a similar use of malakos came from Greek male homosexuals who used the word as an insult against male heterosexuals because they thought that penetrating a woman was absurdly feminine (sex with women, these gay Greek men contended, taints one with femininity - i.e., malakos).

So malakos is a sexist word from ancient times used in various ways to devalue the (stereotypically) feminine.  It seems clear that neither Paul in 1 Corinthians nor the author of 1 Timothy are referencing either homosexuality or male prostitution.  As such, how should we judge the mid-20th century biblical translators who wrongly translated malakos as having to do with homosexuality? Even contemporary scholars have disliked the idea of effeminacy as a moral category, while having no problem with homosexuality as one.  As Martin sarcastically comments,

"Today effeminacy may be perceived as a quaint or distasteful personal mannerism, but the prissy church musician or stereotyped interior designer is not, merely on the basis of a limp wrist, to be considered fuel for hell. For most English-speaking Christians in the 20th century, effeminacy may be unattractive, but it is not a sin. Their Bibles could not be allowed to condemn so vociferously something that was a mere embarrassment. So the obvious translation of malakos as 'effeminate' was jettisoned."

Clearly, we must critique an aspect of Paul's teaching here. For all of his genius in other areas and egalitarian ideals, this understanding of malakos makes Paul complicit in ancient sexism to some degree. As Martin comments,

"People who retain Paul's condemnation of effeminacy as ethical grounding for a condemnation of contemporary gay sex must face the fact that they thereby participate in the hatred of women inherent in the ancient use of the term."

Did Paul "hate" women? No. But he was certainly influenced by the negative Greco-Roman view of women in his use of malakos, even if he was indeed also advocating very progressive ideas in regards to women in church leadership.  Unfortunately, he was just not entirely consistent in his views.  However, is it realistic to expect an already radical apostle to be completely thorough and consistent on this deeply engrained cultural issue and prejudice? Not in my opinion.  Consider post-segregation 20th century America. Racism, the original sin of America, was so deeply rooted that even those who were for racial equality still struggled to shed their past prejudices. The power of the past is indeed strong, and structural sins like racism and sexism have deep roots.  All members of a society are unavoidably affected by such structural sins - including Paul, apparently.

Today, we must learn to read the Bible critically, becoming aware of our own and the biblical author's culturally relative biases.  We must also commit ourselves to read with St. Augustine's hermeneutic of love:

"Whoever, therefore, thinks that [s]he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all."

This will create tensions with in the text for us at times.  Not all parts can be harmonized as a perfect whole.  Sometimes we will find ourselves needing to critique the text on the very basis of biblical, Christ-like, kenotic-prophetic love.  And when it comes to the sexist term malakos, Paul must be criticized on the basis of his own principles of justice, love, and equality.

I conclude with a relevant quote from Samir Selmanovic in his book It's Really All About God:

"As in a relationship with a person we love, our relationship with the text would also involve disagreement and conflict and, at times, apparent disobedience to the text. To contradict and disobey specific texts on the basis of the entire relationship with the entire text can be a way to honor our texts." 

Sunday, November 1, 2009

LGBT Persons and the Bible (Pt.1): Arsenokoites

With this post, I am beginning a blog series on homosexuality and the church where I will offer some historical-critical and theological insights into the so-called "clobber passages.”  There are essentially six key verses in the entire Bible that supposedly deal with homosexuality.  I intend to offer my view on each of them in five posts. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are the passages I will deal with in the next two posts.  I will then write two posts on the Old Testament verses, concluding with Romans 1:26.

While I agree with mainstream scholarship that sees 1 Timothy (along with the other pastorals, 2 Tim. and Titus) as definitely pseudo-Pauline, they are in our sacred text and must therefore be actively engaged regardless of authorship questions. 1 Corinthians, on the other hand, is widely affirmed to be authentic Pauline material. With these issues in mind, we will be considering the two passages in 1 Cor. and 1 Tim. in the following two posts.  The primary challenge in both passages revolves around two Greek words: malakos and arsenokoites.

Below are the two relevant verses (NRSV):

1) "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes [Greek: malakos], sodomites [Greek: arsenokoites], thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor. 6:9-10)

2)"...the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites [Greek:
arsenokoites], slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me." (1 Tim. 1:9-11)

Let's start with the word arsenokoites, a somewhat mysterious word that has been translated differently throughout the 20th century. After centuries of being more particularly recognized as describing something distinctly male, biblical translators went broad in their interpretation. The word became variously translated as homosexuals, sodomites, sexual perverts, or homosexual offenders. In the case of the Corinthian passage, some translators even collapsed the two words malakos and aresnokoites into one phrase, defining it as homosexual perverts, homosexual perversion, or practicing homosexuals (an obvious attempt to separate sin from sinner...). Yale professor Dale Martin comments on this perplexing trend in his book Sex and the Single Savior (note his sarcasm):

"Between the end of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth century therefore, the translation of arsenokoites shifted from being the reference to an action that any man might well perform, regardless of orientation or disorientation to refer to a "perversion," either an action or a propensity taken to be self evidently abnormal and diseased. The shift in translation, that is, reflected the invention of the category of "homosexuality" as an abnormal orientation, an invention that occurred in the nineteenth century but gained popular currency only gradually in the twentieth. Furthermore, whereas earlier translations had all taken the term (correctly) to refer to men, the newer translations broadened the reference to include people of either sex who could be diagnosed as suffering from the new, modern neurosis of homosexuality. Thorough historical or philological evidence was never adduced to support this shift in translation. The interpretations were prompted not by criteria of historical criticism but by shifts in modern sexual ideology."

In order to uncover this peculiar word's meaning, we must see it used in a wide variety of contexts – something we unfortunately do not have the luxury of.  Using the very few sources that we do have, including uses of the word in the non-canonical Acts of John and the Sibylline Oracle, it appears to be a word that refers to economic exploitation by means of sex, but not necessarily homosexual sex. Arsenokoites appears in lists of sins that group different kinds of sins together, and it is always tied to other economic sins in these texts. This can also be seen in our canonical texts in 1 Cor. and 1 Tim., as the word is always followed by economic sins.  However, matters are somewhat unclear in these passages since sexual sins precede the word in both cases - not so in Acts of John and Sibylline Oracle!  There, the word is clearly marked off as an economic sin. In the non-canonical texts, there are clearly separated lists of sexual sins where arsenokoites does not appear – it only appears within other lists of economic injustices. A similar situation is observed in a second century document written by Theophilus of Antioch. The word there is separated by three other words that specifically refer to economic injustices. It is used once more later in that text, but it is immediately preceded by sexual sins and immediately followed by economic sins (like in our two canonical passages above).

There are two other known sources which use arsenokoites.  These texts might imply that it is related to sexual activity. One is a Gnostic myth and the other is a letter from Eusebius in the 3rd century. Neither are clear in their meanings, but sexual activity - and not necessarily homosexual activity - could be inferred from these other two passages.

Still, scholars do not know for sure what is meant by this word.  Its meaning is permanently lost to us today, barring future archaeological discoveries of ancient texts that use the word in more helpful contexts. We have a small handful of ancient texts using it, and it seems very unlikely to refer to homosexuality more generally.  As we have seen, it probably refers to a kind of economic exploitation, perhaps of a sexual kind.  Even considering the ambiguity of the word, there is absolutely no defensible reason to translate arsenokoites as referring more broadly to homosexual sex, or in more narrow terms as sex between two men, as some earlier translators did.  Whatever the word meant, it has nothing to do with the kinds of same-sex relationships that are based on commitment, mutuality, and love between two responsible adults.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Philip Clayton on emergence and "open panentheism"

Clayton's latest book "Adventures In the Spirit" is another on my wish list. I read a lot of reviews on it and what he is proposing as a scientist and theologian is a series of challenges to Christianity, starting with a new understanding of how God works in the world. The old micro-manager God of supernatural theism that is becoming difficult to maintain for some is rejected in favor of a more dynamic God who has poured himself out through all of creation in a participatory, sacrificial mode.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

JD Crossan On Divine Punishment


"When empires clashed along a north-south axis between the Nile Delta and whoever controlled the Anatolian Plateau or the Mesopotamian Plain, tiny Israel was there in the middle. When the axis of empire changed to an east-west direction and the clash was between Persians and Greeks or Parthians and Romans, little Israel was still right there in the middle. So here is the geopolitical truth. If the people of Israel had all been saints and had spent their lives on their knees praying, the only difference would have been death kneeling down rather than standing up.
I consider it bad or even obscene theology to tell such people that invasion (or...any other disaster) is a divine punishment for sin. Nothing they could ever have done or not done would have changed a destiny of oppression - by imperialism marching north and south or east and west. Their Promised Land was simply the cockpit of empire...Divine justice as distributive and/or retributive is the first biblical ambiguity to be considered...Both strands are there from Genesis to Revelation. On the other hand, is there any evidence - apart from biblical assertions and human fears - that God ever punishes anyone? There is terribly clear evidence of human consequences, but unless one equates human consequences with divine punishments - which I, for one, do not - is there any similar evidence for divine punishments?"
-John Dominic Crossan, "God and Empire"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Paul Was Not A Christian (by Pamela Eisenbaum): Part 3

After dealing with the traditional Augustinian-Lutheran (mis)interpretations of Paul, Eisenbaum moves to modern interpreters of the early, mid, and late 20th century. Both Leo Baeck (1873-1956) and Martin Buber (1878) were Jewish theologians who in their own ways saw Jewish strains of thought in Paul but critiqued him as a syncretist (for lack of a better category, 'Romanticism' and of course Hellenism). That is, they basically both agree with Augustinian-Lutheran interpretations of justification by faith but found the doctrine misguided, creating adherents of the religion who are "hopelessly passive and incapable of living ethical lives." Other Jewish scholars basically agreed and drove home the view that Paul founded a new religion called Christianity. Joseph Klausner bluntly wrote: "[Paul] made Christianity a religious system different from both Judaism and paganism, a system mediating between Judaism and paganism but with an inclination toward paganism." These Jewish scholars attempted to offer a fresh take on Paul through a distinctly Jewish lens, but ended up just playing into the historical Christian-Jewish polemic.

Post-Holocaust however, a small group of Protestant theologians and scholars recognized the need to seriously reevaluate Christian anti-Judaism and the beginnings of the New Perspective on Paul was in place. The most serious NPP scholarship emerged only in the last 40 years. James D.G. Dunn supposedly first coined the phrase "new perspective on Paul" and wrote: "Paul's doctrine of justification by faith should not be understood primarily as an exposition of the individual's relation to God, but primarily in the context of Paul the Jew wrestling with the question of how Jews and Gentiles stand in relation to each other within the covenant purpose of God now that it has reached its climax in Jesus Christ."

There are three initial key concepts NPP scholars emphasize. The first two, that Paul's writings were to very specific groups of Gentiles (though Paul wrote as a committed Jew), and his teachings about Jewish law were about "how Torah is and is not applicable to Gentiles...God does not require the same things of all people at all times." For instance, Pamela paraphrases the always confusing 1 Corinthians 7:19 under this new understanding of Paul: "When Jews are circumcised and Gentiles remain uncircumcised, both are following the will of God, so neither group can claim superiority by virtue of the practice (or non-practice) of circumcision." The third important NPP concept is undoing centuries of misconstruals of Judaism. The post-reformation understanding that Christianity is all about "spirit, grace, and love" and that Judaism is one of law where salvation is earned, good works are proudly accumulated, and God's grace is non-existent is a deep misunderstanding of Palestinian Judaism. "This characterization of Judaism is a gross distortion, both in general terms and in the first century...grace plays a critical role in the Jewish concept of God and God's relationship to Israel, God's chosen people." This last insight was forcefully put forward by E.P. Sanders who is the final modern theologian Pamela is concerned with.

Sanders wrote in the late 70's and is enormously influential to the NPP. Israel's relationship to God is one built on covenant - which involve commandments, but are viewed as a privilege to participate in because in God's grace he chose Israel to be his people on earth doing his work in the world. In this light, commandments in Torah (circumcision for instance) are not works going toward personal salvation, but "Israel's response to God's gracious initiative on Israel's behalf." Performing the commandments in Torah cannot earn one's way into the covenantal relationship that already exists. These are not duties - these are blessings, privileges, responses to God's enormous grace for covenanting a truly unique, special relationship with Israel. Whatever "salvation" meant to Jews like Paul, it certainly wasn't earned but freely given by God as a grace - a gift - to Israel. Covenant, covenant, covenant.

In the end, Sanders still saw Paul as distinct from Judaism because of his mystical encounter with Jesus on Damascus road - Sanders bought the conversion myth. Nevertheless, his work inspired many more great works as his insights into first century Palestinian Judaism are widely respected.

Up next will be rooting us as readers in late Second Temple Jewish thought in order to more fully comprehend Paul's letters.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Floating On A Sea Of Faith




The brilliant Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was doing his work at a time when modern historiography was just beginning to make a mark on the Christian church. He was very critical of what we would today call modernism - indeed, he is an important precursor to post-modern philosophy and for many of us, an intellectual godfather of emergence Christianity.

History as a modern scientific discipline is the opposite of faith in Kierkegaard's view, because he recognized that historical research is at best only able to represent an "approximation".

"It is impossible in the case of historical problems to reach an objective decision so certain that no doubt could disturb it. This also serves to show that the problem ought to be put subjectively, and that it is precisely a misunderstanding to seek an objective assurance, thereby avoiding the risk in which passion chooses and continues to live, reaffirming its choice."

For Kierkegaard, faith is a "passion" and could therefore never rely on the approximations of historical criticism. Passion includes the suffering of uncertainty and that is where faith must reside. The nature of faith rejects the necessity for secure, objective 'knowledge' - faith is a miracle. To demand that we 'know' for sure is a rejection of faith itself.

"...belief is not a form of knowledge, but a free act, an expression of the will."

Faith is a huge risk because it is the only foundation upon which the Christian stands - and it is a foundation built on the absolute necessity of uncertainty. He puts it like this:

"Spiritual existence, especially the religious, is not easy; the believer continually lies out on the deep, has 70,000 fathoms of water beneath him. However long he lies out there, this still does not mean that he will gradually end up lying and relaxing onshore. He can become more calm, more experienced, find a confidence that loves jest and a cheerful temperament-but until the very last he lies out on 70,000 fathoms of water."

(thanks to Dale Martin's book Sex and the Single Savior for inspiring this post)

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Rise of Christianity (by Rodney Stark): Part 2 of 3

I, along with most scholars of the NT I am familiar with, do probably disagree with his assertion that Christianity mainly attracted mid/upper class citizens and was very quickly made up of a majority of well off, educated converts. Even if mid/upper class citizens were dominantly drawn in, there are a number of problems with Stark’s conclusion. First, literacy was limited to no more than 10% of the population, even upper class citizens were often lacking, so an upper class citizen does not necessarily equal high education – this isn’t explicit in his argument, but it could lead to confusion and we know that early Christians were pretty poor at even copying down their own sacred texts until the fourth century when professional scribes took up the task more often. Second, due to efficient but oppressive Roman imperial policy, there really wasn’t a middle class. 95% of the population was made up of the “peasant” or lower class with no real middle and then a sudden bubble of wealth at the top, especially in the top 1%. Third, authentic writings of Paul (“Not many of you were wise by worldly standards” Paul writes) as well as writings of Origen and Celsus (writing much later than Paul) confirm early Christians were not very well educated and likely were not predominately made up of the mid/upper class.

Stark contends that new religious cults (breakaway religions) tend to draw in more educated, upper class converts while new religious sects (extensions of religions) tend to draw in a broader mix. He then uses this theory to claim Christianity was a middle/upper class movement because immediately after the resurrection it became a Christian cult (even if Paul didn’t think of it this way - what a strange, ignorant thing for Stark to conclude), not the Jewish sect of Jesus. His basis for this, that the resurrection sparked drastically different theological conclusions from Jewish thought, just shows a lack of understanding of resurrection theology and Paul himself as completely based within traditional Jewish thought. Certainly, Jewish Christianity was new, but it was not a cult until much later after Paul had died and Greek thought got the best of the movement.

Despite major Jewish/Christian conflicts arising at least by the writing of Luke in the 70’s (as evidenced by the author’s anti-Jewish re-writings of Markan material continued into Acts), I would contend it wasn’t until near the end of the first century that Christianity became so consciously distinct from Judaism that it became a cult and not just the Messianic Jewish sect of Jesus and Paul (for better or worse, it’s debatable I think). This is in part as it incorporated more Greek thought into the faith than either Paul or Jesus. Paul’s biggest group of converts, “the God-Fearers” (who were the primary people he focused on converting when he went to synagogues - he wasn't called to the Jews but to the Greeks) were probably the earliest converts and need not be associated with upper class citizens. They were truly Greek (avoiding the full implications of the Law), but attracted to Jewish ethics and monotheism – a hybrid that Paul was able to communicate to perfectly. Hellenized Jewish converts probably came later, although they were in a similar religious situation as the God-Fearers. Early Christianity certainly had wealthier members (like Nicodemus) and without them the movement wouldn’t have succeeded (on this much I agree with Stark – the upper class was essential to the success of early Christianity), but they were not the majority in the first century.

Following this is Stark’s lengthy chapter on why the mission to the Jews didn’t actually fail (despite what is claimed in the NT) but continued on in to the fourth century. The cultural continuity Christianity offered to Hellenized Jews was easier to swallow than for the Gentiles who didn’t connect with the Jewish ideas as well. This is key and I think I agree with him for the most part on this point – the rise of Christianity spread quickly to the Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora, who because of Paul’s ability to put Greek clothes on a Jewish message, resonated for obvious reasons. The ethnic requirements of the Law had become a burden in a Hellenistic context for these Jews and they became discontented, another ripe ingredient for conversion to new religious movements. Additionally, the earliest Jewish Christians had pre-existing relationships with these Hellenized Jews – and Stark contends that social movements grow much faster when spreading through existing social networks. The assertion in the NT that the mission to the Jews had failed may have been true at the time if I am correct that the earliest converts came mainly from the peasant class and “the God-Fearers”, and it was only a number of decades after Paul died in the 60’s that the Hellenized Jews began to latch onto Christianity in mass numbers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Paul Was Not A Christian (by Pamela Eisenbaum): Part 2

This post concerns just chapter 3 of Eisenbaum's book. The chapter is titled "How Paul Became A Christian"...just a tad provocative - and like the title of the book wasn't enough to stir things up.

In order to see Paul's Jewish identity more clearly, there needs to be a retracing of the traditional Christian lens used to understand Paul. Christianity's image of Paul - "who he was and what he did, believed, and preached developed over time through the accumulation of recounted memories and the subsequent writings of some very influential Christians of the first four centuries, who, in some cases devoted countless hours to studying Paul's letters so as to write commentaries and treatises on them and to preach on them to their communities."

Paul is absolutely critical to the development of Christianity from very early on. Over half of the NT canon is concerned with Paul, and this is significant. "Jesus may be the core of the Christian message, but Paul became the key to unlocking that message." Paul's life became the paradigm for Christian life early on. Paul's letters were gathered into collected volumes as early as the turn of the 2nd century indicating his importance to the development of Christianity fairly quickly. These collected volumes of Pauline letters were not actually standardized though and contained different versions and different actual collections. While the four gospels were in circulation around the same time to some extent, even these varied in content and in which gospels (including non-canonical gospels) were being read by various communities. Not until the 4th century was our NT canonized. All of this added up to difficulties for the early developing church. The Pastoral epistles were likely written much later to counter disagreeable aspects of Paul's circulating letters, especially in regards to the role of women. Different Christian communities definitely had differing views on the role of women, not much different than today's church environment. Debates about the "real" Paul have been raging ever since over this issue.

Eisenbaum has the following to say about the image of Paul the convert: "If Christian tradition were solely dependent on the undisputed Pauline letters, it is difficult to imagine how the image of Paul the convert could have been constructed in the first place. Paul does not use the language of conversion of himself in his undisputed writings. He never even uses the language of repentance in reference to himself. Paul only uses such language to coax his Gentile followers to repentance. To be sure Paul refers to his having persecuted the church prior to his encounter with the risen Jesus. But this appears to be his only prior behavior of which Paul feels shame. In all of his autobiographical reflections, Paul portrays himself as sinless." Contrast Philippians 3:6 and 2 Corinthians 11:22-23 with 1 Timothy 1:12-16 and this stark contrast between the Pastorals and the undisputed letters of Paul becomes clear. Eisenbaum concludes that this image of Paul the quintessential convert is not rooted in Paul's letters but in other sources.

Next up, Augustine and Luther's interpretations on Paul and how they changed everything for Christianity. Both of these men resonated with Paul because of (mis)perceived shared experiences. For Augustine, "Paul's religious transformation was perceived to have involved the discovery of what was essentially wrong with Judaism. Embracing Jesus meant embracing Christianity, and embracing Christianity necessitated [rejecting Judaism]". Luther's contribution to the traditional understanding of Paul is of course mainly due to his formulation of justification by faith through grace. This became the core of the gospel with Luther, and it came through his fearful, troubled conscience. At the time, Christianity taught judgment occurred on the basis of good works. Righteousness was not imputed upon faith in Christ and was therefore not the whole story. Faith only provided the basic foundation for justification through a life lived righteously. Luther, on the other hand, taught that righteousness was already received/imputed through faith and righteous living was impossible because living is itself hopelessly sinful. The law (Mosaic or any other kind of law) was not designed as a guide for living a Godly life, but only to show this truth - the sinfulness of mankind and the need for grace which can only be had through faith in Christ. "Human beings cannot draw themselves near to God, but God reaches out to human beings. This is evident through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God, through Jesus Christ, makes righteous the one who has faith."

As Catholics and Lutherans came together and reconciled this doctrine of justification in 1999 through the 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification', the doctrine has become absolutely central to Paul's message. Eisenbaum closes with another heavy statement: "...in the 20th century another trajectory of interpretation began to emerge...Paul did not reject his Jewish identity because Judaism was a religion of works, and...justification by faith is not the gospel Paul preached."

There it is, the two most important ideas Eisenbaum sets out to prove: Paul lived and died a Jew, and the traditional understanding of salvation through the Reformation's understanding is not in the text. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Rise of Christianity (by Rodney Stark): Part 1

I read this book a few months ago and never got around to posting it on here. I put together a lot of my thoughts in an e-mail to some friends and will be posting it in three parts over the coming week or two. Here's the first part:

Having just finished Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity”, I wanted to forward my thoughts to some friends as some of you have likely heard of this book. With a subtitle like “How the obscure, marginal Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the western world in a few centuries”, as well as noticing it in many bibliographies in books I have read and enjoyed (A People’s History of Christianity by DB Bass, The First Paul by JD Crossan/M. Borg, etc), I knew this was a must read. The book is almost 15 years old, and while I have some concerns, am curious to know how some of his findings have stood the test of time, and to see another sociologist engage his work, Stark has made a deep contribution to studies in early Christianity.

A small concern I have of his work is, despite his continuing disbelief in Christianity (he’s back and forth he recently hinted), he is still a deep apologist for it and the sources he uses seem to land often on the quite conservative side of the aisle. Additionally, he is not a theologian or technically trained historian and sometimes this shows, for better or worse. Still, some of the material in this book need not rely so exclusively on conservative hermeneutics and textual criticism to be extremely relevant and fair – as should be evidenced by the fact that Borg/Crossan use some material from this book from time to time. Indeed, many of
Stark’s conclusions based on particular social science methods fly in the face of traditional views…which leads me to the first chapter.

Chapter 1 tracks the rise of Christianity numerically based on the best growth models a religious sociologist can come up with – the result is pretty impressive. Despite Acts 21:20 claiming that by around 50 CE there were “many thousands” of Christians in Jerusalem,
Stark writes, “These are not statistics” but they are hyperbole, like many ancient writers tended to do in order to convey a point. If there had been many thousands of Christians in just Jerusalem at 50CE, it would have been declared the first Christian city. Stark’s growth model of 40% per decade (based partially on Mormon growth rates – one of the fastest growing religious movements) suggests that there were in fact only about 1,400 Christians in the whole Roman empire at that time (.0017% of the population). By the time of Constantine, constant exponential growth had lead to almost 34 million Christians, making up 56.5% of the empire – and at least partly as a response to this shift, Constantine converted and an already faltering paganism went into an exponential decline.

He continues to discuss social theories about religious conversion and studies he has conducted over the years with other sociologists to uncover some basic principles about the process. At the core is an open network theory of conversion for all religious conversions. One of the major ways in which Christianity exploded so fast was it’s ability to remain a relational community without closing themselves off to outsiders – even viewing Christian/pagan inter-marriages as a good way to gain new converts (indeed, this did work
Stark contends). Women, the dominant gender in the early church for a variety of reasons soon be discussed, would marry pagan men who would most often follow her lead to Christianity.

Paul Was Not A Christian (by Pamela Eisenbaum): Part 1

I picked up this book two weeks ago and am slowly making my way through it on the side of my school work. For someone like myself who is so interested in New Testament studies and particularly books about early Christianity, the historical Jesus, and the new perspective on Paul, a book like this is a treat to sit down and read in between my textbooks for HSU courses. It is a popular level book, but Pamela does uses some scholarly jargon from time to time and her writing, while clear, can be a bit involved and wordy. I've read three of Bart Ehrman's books before reading this one and he's got an accessible writing style for the popular level reader that few, including Eisenbaum, can match. Still, so far my feelings are that people need to read this book as I think it advances the discussion on Paul in new ways.

The new perspective on Paul (NPP) is first and foremost about Paul's Jewishness. To separate him from this deeply rooted identity is to misunderstand Paul, and therefore most of the New Testament. Interpretation of key doctrines like justification are significantly impacted by this re-reading of Paul through a first century Palestinian Jewish lens. Paul lived and died a Jew - a Jew who believed that Jesus was indeed the messiah, but he did not think of himself as launching a new religion but rather continuing on in Judaism as writers like Eisenbaum, NT Wright, Marcus Borg, JD Crossan, Scot McKnight, Bart Ehrman, and EP Sanders have all made the case for. It should be obvious that though these authors all belong in the NPP camp, that doesn't mean they all agree. The NPP provides a new foundation to jump off of for all of these scholars, but they still end up in different places.

For Eisenbaum, Paul is ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally, and theologically Jewish and she wants to encourage both Jews and Christians to embrace Paul under a different light. For the former, he is not the anti-Jewish heretic some have made him out to be, and for the latter he is not the idealized Christian convert who started Christianity. To take Paul's Judaism seriously is more than just paying lip-service to this fact (a clear criticism of her NPP contemporaries) and it means putting him in the context of a Hellenistic Jew from the Greco-Roman era who speaks Greek and is influenced by Greek thought and culture. Putting Paul in this context will show that the long history of Christian anti-Judaism based on poor interpretations of Paul's letters and missionary work is misguided. She makes the claim that the Pharisaic Judaism that Paul comes from would have been very familiar with Paul's claims - a belief in a messianic savior figure and the general resurrection of the dead are very Jewish ideas and not so heretical.

Eisenbaum's study of Paul relies on the seven undisputed letters of Paul, rejecting 1/2 Timothy, Titus (the pastorals), Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians on the basis of internal and external evidence showing them to be almost certainly the products of later Christians writing pseudonymously in Paul's name. This is common amongst New Testament scholars today and the evidence is quite convincing. Acts is also viewed as historically problematic as there are multiple contradictions between it and Paul's own accounts of his journey's - this is also the view of the majority of NT scholars today. There are interpretive ambiguities she highlights and what look like contradictions within the same undisputed letters that highlight the need for more sensitivity to Paul's context.

That's a quick introduction to the book that takes us through a summary of the first couple chapters. More to come.