Thursday, July 31, 2008

surprised by my own bias

In this gruesome story about Anthony Hopkins, an "evangelical minister" charged with the murder of his wife and abusing his daughter, we see (once again) that "the world" (as opposed to the church) does not have a corner on sin and depravity. This story is surprisingly depraved and, in my opinion, surpasses even the recent tragedy in Knoxville. My comments on that story apply, mutatis mutandis, to this story as well.

I'm blogging about this story for a completely different reason, however, one that is unimaginably less important than what the people involved are dealing with as they learn the details of the tragedy that has launched them into the national and (I should think) international news. Specifically, I'm interested in the normally subconscious processes by which we imagine the world around us, especially when we lack certain details about that world. For me, this story raises questions about how we imagine the identity of a person who could, allegedly, abuse his daughter, murder his wife when she discovered his abuse, and hide her body for three years in a freezer while continuing to engage in ministry.

I'll be honest here, and I ask for some sympathy as I admit to things that aren't politically correct so that, perhaps, we can understand those things and think critically about how best to deal with them.  When I first read about this story in my RSS feed, the image that came to my mind was or a Robert Duvall-style preacher: a middle-aging White man of dubious moral and theological accomplishment. I'm not sure where this pre-fabricated image comes from, whether it was the description of the suspect (an evangelical preacher), the location of the crime (the American Southeast), or the nature of the crimes (incestual abuse, murder, hiding/mutilating [?] a corpse). But for some reason, I was surprised when I saw the photo of Mr. Hopkins included in CNN's report of the story (see above), and specifically that he is a Black man. I'm not exactly sure how to interpret my apparent bias; I'm not even sure who it's a bias against. (Certainly it isn't a bias against other races/racial minorities that I didn't automatically associate this crime with a Black man!) What I am sure about is that some potent social forces are at work here, and that these forces are all the more powerful for being, usually, invisible. If a White preacher had perpetrated this crime, I doubt I would have noticed the way my biases worked to portray the world in the absence of further information.

And, of course, this makes me wonder how these forces work in other areas of my everyday life. And, finally, I wonder what difference my biases make for my own interpretation of the biblical texts and my own reconstruction of early Christianity. Given the overwhelmingly likely probability that my biases are substantially different from those of ancient (Judeo-)Christians, I also have to wonder what historical and exegetical problems these biases inevitably bring to bear on my own academic and pastoral work.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

sad news

Poor, poor Winnie the Pooh. As if we needed it, this is just more proof that, Yes, you can love honey too much.

"Reimaging the Covenant"

Genesis 16.1–19.38:

As we saw in the previous post, Genesis’s narrative develops a tension of sorts between, on the one hand, God’s faithfulness in covenant, and Abra[ha]m’s unfinished and imperfect faith, on the other. The themes continue in the four chapters we’re reading today, and if anything that tension is only exacerbated. And yet these four chapters introduce an intriguing twist: we begin to see some surprising features about God and his own dealing with humanity, features that, perhaps, we haven’t seen since Genesis 6 and that play a formative role in Abra[ha]m’s unfinished, imperfect faith.
  1. 1. In light of chapter 15, and especially 15.6’s notice that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” Genesis 16 begins on a very peculiar, if not quite discordant, note: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children” (16.1). Narratologically speaking, this verse is unimpressive and, frankly, redundant. Abram has already asked God about this, has already complained that one of his slaves, Eliezer of Damascus, will be his heir, and has already been promised that a son and not a slave shall be his heir. This is what Abram believed when he believed God and when his belief was reckoned as righteousness. In other words, what Genesis 16 presents as an obstacle in the narrative’s plot, Genesis 15 has already taken care of. So we have a choice to make here: Either this section of Genesis is poorly put together, perhaps from multiple and disparate sources, or the problem introduced at 16.1 is not about Abram’s and Sarai’s childlessness but about, again, their unfinished, imperfect faith (with whatever, if any, consequences for source criticism).

  2. 2. At this point another problem arises, one that I’m uncomfortable describing but one that, I think, the text strongly if still implicitly intends. In 16.2 Sarai takes a more active role in the narrative, and I think the narrative presents this, along with Abram’s lack of activity, as a failure of faith. In 16.2 Sarai speaks up: “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” Two things jump out at me:

    • a. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time since Genesis 3 that a female character has had any lines in the story. Now, of course, other female characters will play speaking parts in Genesis before the story is over. But up to this point, when a woman speaks God’s plan for humanity has been interrupted. In Genesis 3 God has left humanity with a task (tending the garden) and a command (singular): Don’t eat from the tree in the center of the garden. By speaking with the serpent rather than listening to God, the woman has subverted both the task and the command. And if all this the man was strangely silent, until, that is, he found the words to rat out his wife in 3.12. Similarly here in Genesis 16: God has left Abram with a promise, and by speaking Sarai threatens to subvert that promise. And again the male character is speechless (“And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai”; 16.2). Of course, my cynicism here leads me to point out that the silent Abram is being told by his ninety year old wife to sleep with her Egyptian slave-girl; his silence is scandalously self-serving.

    • b. Despite this clearly androcentric perspective, the text presents Sarai’s failure as Abram’s failure. Abram, not Sarai, has been promised an heir. Abram, not Sarai, capitulated to his wife when she (and he, if we’re honest) looked upon her slave-girl as a commodity rather than as a human being. And Abram, not Sarai, fails to take any decisive action whatsoever, so that when Hagar becomes pregnant and resents Sarai (for being barren? for handing her over to be raped?) all Abram can muster is a pathetic, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16.6). In Genesis 3, the man’s disobedience was just as striking as was the woman’s; so also here in Genesis 16, Abram’s wickedness (isn’t this the right word?) matches Sarai’s.

    • c. I’m not trying to discount the clearly male-oriented perspective of the text by suggesting that Abram, like Adam, comes out as poorly as Sarai. While I think this may be, Abram’s coming-out-poorly is achieved precisely through the text’s androcentricity. In terms of the narrative, Sarai, like Eve, should not have spoken up, and Abram, again like Adam, should not have listened to his wife. And while I think the text’s perspective — misogyny doesn’t seem an inappropriate word here — is clear, I’m less confident that the point the text is making depends on that perspective. The text isn’t advocating that wives should be silent and husbands more in control; the point here is that both should speak less and listen to the promise of God more. Those who would perpetuate the narrative’s orientation risk, I think, missing its point.

  3. 3. Even so, I find the next scene touching, as God deals tenderly with Hagar and her plight. Even in the midst of his instruction to “return to your mistress and submit to her” (16.9), God enters into covenant with this slave-girl and her son (note the resonances between 16.10 and the promises given to Abram). I can’t help but think that Hagar — the victim of Sarai’s and Abram’s machinations — comes out better here than do her masters!

  4. 4. And yet, in Genesis 17, God reaffirms once again his covenant with Abram, laying claim upon this Chaldean twice: once by renaming him Abraham and once by commanding him to be circumcised and to circumcise every male of his household. The contrast between Abraham’s faith[lessness] and God’s faith[fulness] could hardly be starker.

  5. 5. In the midst of this “laying claim,” a narrative which legitimates and explains Israelite identity and election, Abraham’s new name should give us pause. The mention of “a multitude of nations” (17.4, 5) and the promise that “I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (17.6; my emphases) form a litany that emphasizes the relation between Israel and her neighbors. This emphasis, of course, will be tempered later in the Pentateuch when the Lord commands Israel to completely destroy the nations she dispossesses. But that makes such internationalism at this point in the narrative all the more striking. [I should also say explicitly that Christianity is not the only expression of Abraham’s heritage that has embraced this relation; neither has Christianity always and everywhere avoided the particularist views that denigrate everyone else as “other.”]

  6. 6. In light of all this (esp. points 1–3, above), I think the narrative intentionally shifts in chapters 17 and 18 to explicitly name both Abraham and Sarah as the parents of the child through whom God’s promise will be kept. Both Abraham (17.17) and Sarah (18.12) laugh at the promise of the Lord, a surprising contrast with Abram’s faith in 15.6.

  7. 7. As suggested above, in these chapters we begin to see another side of God, a side that was hinted at in chapter 6. After receiving Abraham’s hospitality and restating the promise that Sarah would bear a child, God deliberates with himself and reveals and element of possibility within God himself. This is important precisely because our Greek-philosophical heritage, pervasive in the West, has emphasized the perfection of God to such an extent that words like impassibility and immutability define for us what God must be like. These words have no place in Genesis 18. Here, as in the beginning of Genesis 6, we see a God who wrestles with moral issues, who enters into humanity’s struggle to walk righteously, who grieves wickedness rather than living above it (and unaffected by it). Perhaps paradoxically, the Lord’s dilemma (18.17–19) provides the opportunity for Abraham to fulfill God’s election and call: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” I think this is important, especially because we could read the negotiation in 18.23–33 in terms of Abraham’s mercy and compassion eclipsing the Lord’s. I think this reading would be mistaken for two reasons. The first, as I’m currently arguing, is that Abraham’s mercy and compassion are provoked by the Lord’s decision to involve Abraham in his plans. We should bear in mind that, at other times, we’ve seen people victimized (e.g., Pharaoh [12.10–20] and Hagar [16.1-16]) by this same Abraham. The second is that Abraham successfully bargains God down to sparing Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of ten righteous persons, but God intervenes on behalf of Lot and his family, six righteous persons at the absolute most and arguably, by the end of Genesis 19, none at all.

  8. 8. Finally, the tragic story of Lot and his family demand some comment. Lot’s offer to the rioting populace — his daughters in place of his guests — is detestable and, in my view, indefensible. And I hope I am not reading my own biases into the text when I think the text presents Lot’s actions as detestable and indefensible. I had never noticed that, after offering his virgin daughters to the mob, Lot pleads with his daughters’ fiancés (!!!). In other words, Lot wasn’t just offering up his daughters’ dignity and their futures nebulously conceived; these women had specific hopes and plans for their lives. Other than his hospitality, it seems that in this story Lot’s one redeeming virtue is his relation to Abraham!
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is, of course, legendary (I am making a theological rather than historical point here). But this story is not about the virtues of hospitality or the condemnation of sexual — and especially of homosexual — depravity. The story is still about election and covenant, and about God’s choice of Abraham as the object of both. When we remember God’s promise in 12.3, that “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” the angelic provision for Lot and his family and the judgment against Sodom come into different (perhaps even crisper) focus. Lot and his family are spared because of their relation to Abraham, which is to say more than simply that Lot was Abraham’s nephew. Sodom’s king, on the other hand, had tried to have his own way with Abraham (cf. 14.17, 21–24) and had been rebuffed. I suspect more needs to be said here, but at the very least I think this is a better direction for our reading of Genesis 19 than is the traditional perspective on Sodom and sexuality.

One last point, this one perhaps more inappropriate than the rest: A friend of mine recently asked me if I knew what Lot had said to his wife as they were fleeing Sodom. Since I hadn’t read the narrative in some time, I told him that I didn’t know. The answer? “Hey babe, what’s that behind you?”

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Knoxville in the news

It's never a good thing when a small city like Knoxville makes the national news, unless we're talking about a UT team making the sports page. Unfortunately, it's in the former vein that the story of a shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church made headlines Sunday morning. I would like to add my own sympathies with the public outpouring of grief and support for this congregation and express a sense of grief and loss not simply for the two fatalities but for the fallen conditions that allow for such heinous and inexcusable events.

At the risk of saying too much, I would like to add two more comments. First, as a member of a conservative faith tradition that otherwise has very little in common or agreement with the Unitarian/Universalist tradition, I would like to make explicit that these differences do not in any way diminish the grief and support I feel for this congregation and its families. From my perspective it seems the U/U tradition does not take seriously things that are vitally important to me. But these things pale in comparison with the tragedy and heartbreak that any community face when dealing with such robust and salient indicators of the sin and wickedness that have plagued creation since at least the Third Chapter.

Second, still as a member of a conservative faith tradition, I condemn the motivations that have, apparently, motivated Mr. Adkisson to such depraved behavior. By a strange twist of fate, I have close connections with people who grew up with and know personally Mr. Adkisson, and in their view (by which I mean to acknowledge that this could be wrong) he did not consider himself a Christian, neither was he reacting against liberal Christianity in some ill-conceived "defense" of conservative Christianity. Though his beef was, on the face of it, with "the liberal movement" (whatever that means), I am amazed (and offended) by some comments (such as this one) that immediately associate this tragedy with "bad (= conservative) theology." As we wrestle with our faith in God and our experiences in the world, I would hope that we could allow for the very genuinely held perspectives among us that do not necessarily or inevitably lead to violence, hatred, enmity, or strife. Could we acknowledge that evil actions are evil without respect to the theological and/or ideological beliefs that legitimate those actions? And could we lay aside just for a moment our compulsive need to label people and ideologies so that, again just for a moment, we might grieve together?

UPDATE: Mark Nelson, a friend of mine, has just commented on this tragedy here. If you follow his link to the story in the Knoxville News Sentinel, you'll see exactly the kind of opportunistic political name-calling I would have thought both sides would be interested in avoiding. We can be so pathetic . . . 

“Father Abra[ha]m Had Many Sons”

Genesis 12.1–15.21:

Of course, the title of this post is a bit premature; at this point “Father Abra[ha]m” hasn’t had any sons. But here we read that YHWH has provided for Abram’s descendents by giving his promise. In fact, it is the element of promise — or covenant — that interests me most in these four chapters, though perhaps I am driven more by my own prejudices here than by the text itself. I’d like to make a couple points about covenant here and see where they might lead.
  1. 1. I had learned years ago that God’s calling of Abram in Genesis 12 and his promises in 12.1–3 is reaffirmed in Genesis 15. I had expected, then, to read two accounts of God’s covenant with Abram sandwiching some narrative about Abram’s high-maintenance nephew, Lot. And while the link between chapters 12 and 15 is undeniable, I eventually found my anticipated reading strategy for these chapters inadequate and incomplete.

  2. 2. As I read Genesis 12–15, I see three iterations (not two) of the Abrahamic promises: Gen. 12.1–3; 13.14–18; 15.1–21. The 13.14–18 text strikes me as especially important, given that a major component of the Abrahamic covenant is the land (especially here), and this text comes immediately after Abram has ceded to Lot his choice of the land. Of course, there is some tension between the narrative’s perspective and that of the storyteller and his/her audience. Inside the story Lot has chosen the choicest and most fertile land; the narrator and audience, however, know this area to be barren and inhospitable (cf. 13.10, 13).

  3. 3. Of course, centuries later, Paul of Tarsus would focus his attention on the promise of blessing to and through Abram (and his descendents) to the “families of the earth” (12.3). I would like to ask, however, if the narrator of Genesis maneuvers to focus the reader’s attention on this very element. Here’s what I’m thinking.

    • (a) First, there is the promise, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12.2–3). For Paul, this text would be refracted through his story of Jesus, “Abraham’s seed” (cf. Gal. 3). But here even in Genesis 12, the element of blessing is emphasized by virtue of being redundantly narrated. The reiterations of God’s covenant with Abram in chapters 13 and 15 don’t mention the element of blessing; they affirm the promises of land and seed.

    • (b) Second, I notice that the story after the first account of the covenant doesn’t begin well. After being blessed in order to bless the rest of the families of the earth, Abram moves on to Egypt and lies to the Pharaoh about his relationship with his wife, Sarai. The result is well-known: “The Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (12.17). Pharaoh restores Abram’s wife to him and sends them away in order to ameliorate the curse. Here we find the covenant unfulfilled, especially in light of Pharaoh’s favorable treatment of Abram (12.16).

    • (c) Third, after the restatement of the promise in 13.14–18 (which is perhaps more significant given the failure of the covenant in 12.10–20), the story begins to change course. In Genesis 14 we read of the war of the five kings against the four, a war that results in Lot’s capture and (presumably) enslavement. When Abram gets word of what’s happened, he takes action and rescues Lot as well as the people and possessions of the five defeated kings. In terms of the narrative, I wonder if this is intended as the first fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Of course, the promise is given again in chapter 15, and the promise in all three iterations demands a future-oriented perspective. The Abrahamic promise cannot be kept during Abram’s life. But here we find the five kings “being blessed” by Abram and his “trained men” (14.14). What is more, within the Genesis narrative itself, Lot is the ancestor of Moab and Ammon (cf. Gen. 19.30–38), Israel’s neighbors and rivals later in history. But here’s the point: In Genesis 14 Moab and Ammon, present in their ancestor Lot’s loins, are blessed by Abram. Of course, this doesn’t result in the “cleansing” of Lot’s descendents, either as characters in the narrative or nations in Israel’s historical consciousness. But we wouldn’t expect it to; rather, the election of Abram and, through him, the blessing of “all the families of the earth” create tension in Israel’s theology and international policy. This tension is rooted in Genesis itself, from the very beginning of the promise.

  4. 4. Maybe I’m reading too much into the text here. But either way, the contrast between Egypt’s experiences with Abram, on the one hand, and the peoples of and around Sodom and Gomorrah — including Lot — on the other is certainly striking. And in the midst of this striking contrast we find the enigmatic figure Melchizedek [מלכי־צדק; malki-ṣedeq; “my king is righteousness”]. Remember that the similarly enigmatic Enoch, who was said to “walk with God” and of whom it was said “then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen. 5.24), became a vehicle for later Jewish speculation about heavenly realms and apocalyptic visions. Melchizedek, too, became a canvas upon which later theological visions could be vividly portrayed (cf. Psa. 110; 11QMelch [11Q13]; Heb. 5–7). Insofar as Melchizedek is a Jew, he is an honorary Jew (i.e., he is not a descendent of Abram). But I think the we mis-hear the narrator if we neglect the connection between Gen. 12.2–3 (God’s promise to bless Abram and those who bless him) and 14.19–20: “He [Melchizedek] blessed him [Abram] and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’”

  5. 5. In this vein, I have to think that Abram’s refusal of the king of Sodom (Gen. 14.17, 21–24) is specifically not blessing, in either direction. Abram maintains his role as the superior to the king of Sodom, neither under his authority nor in need of his provision. Again, contrast: Abram receives bread and wine — table fellowship — from Melchizedek and in turn gives him one-tenth of everything; the king of Sodom, on the other hand, received rescue and safety from Abram and was selective about what to give Abram. Abram refuses the wicked king’s (cf. again 13.13) gesture and retains his honor (and blessing?).

  6. 6. This retention of honor (and blessing?) results in the re-affirmation, again, of the covenant between Abram and the Lord. And despite Abram’s failure to believe the promise of 12.2 and 13.16 and his complaint against God, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave, born in my house is to be my heir” (15.2–3), God once again persists in his dealings with those he calls his people: “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir. Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be” (15.4–5). The promise restated, regiven, reaffirmed. And finally, on the third try, Abra[ha]m “believed the Lord,” finally trusted in the promise of God, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15.6). Of course, this belief was not without its problems, as the subsequent scenes of the story will illustrate. Abram hasn’t arrived at anything like respectable faith, but he is moving in the right direction. “And the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Moving in the right direction, after all, is all that God had expected of Abram in the first place (cf. 12.1).

Abram’s faith is paradigmatic for the rest of Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the entire Bible precisely because his faith is incomplete, unfinished. This is explicitly captured in the litany of Hebrews 11, but even in passages such as 1 Chron. 29, where David dedicates the Temple offering and describes Abraham’s descendents as “aliens and transients” (29.10–19, esp. v. 15), Abraham’s promise has still not found its final expression. In Abraham, like in Genesis as a whole, we find the beginnings of a story that continues even in our own time. Abraham’s story does not simply anticipate our story; it is our story, including all its imperfections, failures, potentials, and moments of breath-taking faithfulness. Even today, then, father Abraham continues to have many sons and daughters.

Monday, July 28, 2008

“The Same as it Ever Was”

Genesis 9.18–11.32:

The post-diluvian narrative is striking, to me, for this one remarkable reason: The intense energy the narrator has expended recounting the story of the Flood — God’s execution of judgment on human sin and restoration of creation through Noah and his sons, who “alone [were] righteous before me in this generation” (7.1) — is followed immediately by the account of Ham’s sin and Noah’s curse on Canaan, Ham’s son. And of course the story of Babel follows immediately after the genealogies of Noah’s son. Do we describe this as God’s failure to eradicate sin? or does this simply illustrate the radical failure of humanity to faithfully be the image of God? If the latter (which I prefer), I am struck by God’s patience persistence in dealing with his recalcitrant creation. I am similarly struck by God’s faithfulness here; he has laid aside his weapon of vengeance in 9.12–17, and despite humanity’s continued depravity he leaves his weapon aside and chooses another course of action to handle human sin: election and covenant (cf. the next post, on Gen. 12.1–15.21).

As I read about the tower of Babel and the thoroughly comical account of humanity’s humbling, I notice the usual features of this oft-commented upon story. There is the contrast between humanity’s efforts at ascending into the heavens to make a name for themselves (11.4), on the one hand, and the Lord’s descent to earth to scatter and confuse the people (11.7), on the other. Similarly, there is the human concern that “we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11.4), which results in their efforts to build the fabled tower, and the result that “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth” (11.8) precisely because they we, in their our pride, had sought to ascend to the heavens and make a name for ourselves. The all-too-human fear of anonymity and meaninglessness (have I phrased this inappropriately? I don’t know.) have motivated action that has resulted in the very things we fear.

I’m reminded of the woman’s deception and the man’s rebellion in Genesis 3: the serpent promises, “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (3.5), and the woman sees “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (3.6). But, like the Sumerians in Genesis 11, the man and the woman sought to “be like God” without speaking with and listening to God. The results in both stories are disastrous. In Genesis 3 the result is alienation (especially from God, but also interpersonally), which continues through the narrative until at least Enoch and through to Noah. In Genesis 11 the result is the frustration of human communication (again, I think especially with God, but this time explicitly interpersonally). At the risk of prematurely anticipating the narrative’s next scene, both of these issues will be addressed in the story of Abram’s call and covenant.

As with the preceding stories from Genesis (as well as those yet to come), these stories begin and define the traditional heritage of both Jews and Christians. As a Christian I read these stories refracted through the themes and ideologies of the gospel. Abram anticipates Christ; the Abrahamic covenant is the promise that antedates Moses and Torah and guarantees the place of the nations at God’s banquet (cf. esp. Romans 4). And inasmuch as the biblical narrative is a unified narrative, these connections and interweavings (between Abram and Jesus, Abram’s family and the Church, Abram’s promise and the gospel) instantiate at least some of the rich possibilities of layered potentialities and resonances that continue to make this ancient narrative meaningful to me millennia after they were originally told.

But I am intrigued by the possibility of navigating these connections and interweavings in the other direction. Not simply what Jesus can teach me about Abra[ha]m but also what Abra[ha]m can teach me about Jesus. And here the Jewish (better, Judaic) heritage of my own faith plays a vital role not just in understanding but in exploring my connection to the God who scratched his head and wondered what those silly people were up to with their baked bricks and architectural plans. My unimpressive gesturing after spirituality, like my efforts at everything else, remind me not to put black hats on Babel’s builders (neither on Cain, Lamech, Ham and Canaan). Neither do Abram and his descendents don dazzling white hats. Like our forebears in the narratival world of Genesis, we, too, strive after God, sometimes to be frustrated and scattered, but sometimes to be called and blessed. Nevertheless, like the Sumerians as they abandoned their plans no less than Abram as he traveled westward toward the land of Canaan, our striving after heaven always awaits the next scene of the story.

Friday, July 25, 2008

orthodox hairology

This sermon isn't new. Unfortunately, neither is it the worst. At least it's funny (and not scary; click here).

is this us?

This hits just a little too close to home. (Thanks,

"Singin' in the Rain"

Genesis 6.1–9.17:

The story of Noah’s Flood is particularly thorny when we insist on reading Genesis from a narrowly historical perspective. (See the recent series of posts on Robin Parry’s blog, Theological Scribbles, asking, “Did Noah’s Flood Happen” [historical overview; evidence says “no”; theological reflections (I); and theological reflections (II)]; nb: Parry, like me, is committed to the Bible and its message.) I’m not here claiming that the Flood didn’t happen, but I am trying to nestle into the space between the event to which the text bears witness and the discursive and narratological maneuvers through which the text bears that witness. In other words (and this is important here; if you don’t understand this you won’t understand the rest of the post), I’m not here making claims about the Flood as an historical event but rather about the Flood as a literary event. My focus here is not the deluge that happened sometime around 2300 BCE (for the young-earthers) or in primeval history (for, basically, everyone else); my focus is on the deluge that happens in Gen. 6.1–9.17. As ever, let me start with some observations.

  1. 1. My spidey senses are triggered from the very first verse (again, not about historical problems but rather about literary ones, viz., that the way the Flood narrative is told differs significantly from the way twenty-first century Americans narrate the world around them). The account begins, “When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose” (Gen. 6.1–2). Had I started reading Genesis here rather than at 1.1, this verse would make me suspect that, up to this point in history, all children were sons. Indeed, in some significant ways this is exactly what we found in Genesis 1–5; remember that, except for Eve and Lamech’s wives, there were no named females in the opening five chapters, and the only words to come from a female character thus far were Eve’s tragic conversation with the serpent (3.1–5) and her self-serving deferral to said serpent (3.13). Even so, the text is sufficiently clear that the sudden appearance of “daughters of men” in 6.4 is not an historical appearance but rather a narratological one.

  2. 2. The Flood is God’s response to the epic increase in humanity’s sin (cf. Gen. 6.5), such that we find the shocking declaration, “The LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” (6.6–7). What a dramatic moment in the story, especially when we remember that this humanity [האדם; ha’adam; twice in 6.6–7] that God now rues is his own image! The marker that God put in his creation as a sign of his sovereignty over the universe brings sorrow and grief to the Creator’s heart. The icon that God placed in the garden as an authority over the whole creation no longer turns creation’s gaze heavenward.

  3. 3. Significantly, in light of the previous point, I was surprised that God’s judgment against humanity is meted out upon the whole creation. I guess this makes perfect sense, given the connection between creation-ha’adam-Creator; these are so intricately symbiotic that catastrophe for one is catastrophe for them all. And the Flood is catastrophic not just for creation and humanity but for God himself, who nearly weeps throughout this whole episode. Even so, the expansion from “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” to include “people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air” (6.7) is shocking. Why must the water buffalo innocently grazing in the savannah suffer the condemnation incurred by humanity’s wickedness and evil? The narrative doesn’t address this question; as before (cf. my earlier comments on Gen. 4.3–5), I suspect the text’s opacity stems from its status as a “high-context narrative.”

  4. 4. I think the most intriguing comment of the Flood narrative is found in Gen. 6.9: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” (my emphasis). This same language was used of Enoch in 5.24, where Enoch was taken up by God. Obviously the idea of “walking with God” is an honorific (hence its infrequent use). In both passages the LXX doesn’t provide a literal translation [περιπατέω; peripateō = “I walk”] but instead reads that they were “well-pleasing to God” [εὐηρέστησεν τῷ θεῷ; euērestēsen tō theō]. This is not the same Greek word that is used of Jesus after his baptism and at the Transfiguration, but it is conceptually similar [εὐδοκέω; eudokeō].

  5. 5. It seems to me that the patterns according to which the story uses universal language are also surprising. Words like “all,” “every,” and “whole” [כל; kol] pepper the narrative (e.g., at 6.5, 12, 13, 17 [twice], 19 [thrice], 20 [twice], 21; 7.2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 14 [six times!], 15, 19 [thrice], 21 [thrice], 22, 23). Indeed, this language is an important part of the argument for a literal, global Flood. But the text itself demands us not to push the significance of this language too far. As an example, God announces to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh [כל־בשר; kol-baśar; LXX = πάντος ἀνθρώπου; pantos anthrōpou], for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth” (6.13). But the destruction of all flesh is precisely what God does not mean here, since his entire conversation with Noah is expressly for the purpose of intervening and saving the life of Noah, his family, and his cargo (which certainly comprise a portion of “all flesh”)! A significant amount of the kol language in Genesis 6–7 falls under this category (e.g., 6.17; 7.4, 21, 22, 23). An even more significant portion of the kol language describes Noah’s rescue of “every” living thing, kind of bird, etc. Should the not-quite-universal connotations of the first use of kol be applied to the second use? I’m not sure. Even more significant is the statement at 7.19: “The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains [כל־ההרים הגבהים; kol-heharim haggebohim] under the whole heaven [כל־השמים; kol-haššamayim] were covered.” Should these uses of kol be pressed universally? Perhaps; perhaps not. The appearance of the “freshly plucked olive leaf” in 8.11 makes me think probably not; here we find flora that survived the deluge that so emphatically killed all the fauna. I’m not sure how that works, but I am confident that the this language is not as clear-cut as some would like. [NB: Again, I’m not making an argument about whether the Flood, as an event in history, was or was not a global phenomenon; rather, I’m asking whether the text intends us to understand its language — here, kol — universally or hyperbolically. And it will not due to dismiss the possibility of hyperbole here as “watering down” the narrative; I’m not aware of anyone who would seriously (let alone convincingly) suggest that Jesus’ own use of hyperbolic language in the Sermon on the Mount was “watered down.”]

  6. 6. If I’m being polemical, I think the Flood narrative also illustrates the contextual and situational (rather than systemic, at least as some understand the term) nature of theology. I have in mind the notice at 7.1, where God tells Noah, “I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation,” a comment that fits well with what we read of Job, and even David, and even Paul. But this jars with a too-strong reading of Psa. 14//Psa. 53 and the catena in Rom. 3.8–18. As in the previous point, the statement that “There is no one who does good” (Psa. 14.3//Psa. 53.3) should not be pressed too literally, especially since the point of the psalmist’s lament seems to be that there is none who do good other than Israel. We should recognize that it is the situation that warrants the declaration of Noah’s (or David’s, or Paul’s) righteousness or of humanity’s depravity, rather than some ontological status revealed by God.

Six points may be five too many, so I’ll draw it to a close. Once again we find the tension between God’s judgment and God’s mercy pervasive in the text. Recall our discussion of Cain; who was both protected by God and yet removed from him. That tension only increases in the Flood narrative: God destroys the “whole earth” and enters into covenant with creation (Gen. 8.20–22; 9.8–17). Similarly (though not exactly the same), immediately after the climactic judgment of human sinfulness we find an affirmation of humanity as the bearers of God’s image: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Gen. 9.6; my emphasis). Sin has marred the image of God (cf. 6.6–7), but God has redeemed that image. With judgment comes vindication — judgment against sin and those who oppress God’s people (to use an image from later in the biblical narrative), but vindication of those who trust in his name and are obedient to his command.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

“All in the Family”

Genesis 4.1–5.32:

Though Noah’s story in Genesis 6 continues the story of the family of Adam and Eve, it is its own important moment in the Genesis narrative. Apart from some etiological moments (Lamech’s son by Adah, Jabal, “was the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock” [4.20], while his other son, Jubal, “was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe” [4.21], etc.), these chapters seem to “fill the space” between the Fall and the Flood. I’m sure this is unfair to this passage, but nevertheless I haven’t yet been able to shake this impression. But there are some points I would like to make here.

  1. 1. As I noted in the previous section, where Adam and Eve’s original sin covering [= clothes] was made of fig leaves but God provided a sin covering made of “skins,” here Abel’s offering of roasted lamb was accepted by God whereas Cain’s fruit and veg tray was left uneaten on the table. Here is an excellent example of a “high context narrative,” in which the text’s meaning is accessed via extra-textual sociocultural patterns that contextualize the text. I expect that Genesis’s original readers/hearers understood exactly what was going on in Gen. 4.3–5; I’m much less confident that I understand. But my own cultural context frames this story differently than would an ancient Israelite context. In twenty-first century America, I’m slightly offended that an honest offering from a man’s stores is rejected without explanation (Did Cain bring only spoiled or bug-ridden produce? Were previous instructions given to bring meat? etc.). This story was originally told, however, in a cultural environment that did not similarly regard the individual. God accepted Abel’s gift and rejected Cain. Period. It’s good to be confronted with the stark reality that this text, like all biblical texts, speaks obliquely rather than directly to my own sociocultural location. Such a reality does not remove me from the God who speaks through the text, but it does remind me (and every reader, even the original ones) of the distance that already separates me and God and of the ways God has covered that distance (through word, Spirit, and Son).

  2. 2. Despite all this, the story of God’s dealing with Cain is remarkably personal, affectionate, compassionate, and even merciful. The LORD warns to Cain that sin “is lurking at the door” and challenges him: “you must master it” (4.7). Echoes of Yoda taunting Luke ring in my ears. The infamous “mark of Cain” is meant not for his disgrace but for his protection. Cain becomes “untouchable,” not in the sense of the Indian caste system but more like Eliot Ness. Even so, like the serpent in Genesis 3, Cain exits the stage after Gen. 4.17, and his family after 4.24 (except inasmuch as they live in tents and have livestock, or play the lyre and the pipe!).

  3. 3. This last point actually highlights another problem with certain reading strategies that people like me (conservative evangelicals, broadly speaking) employ. In the descriptions of Cain’s descendents as the ancestors of herding nomads (4.21), musicians (4.22), and metallurgists (4.23), the narrative of Genesis 4 is explicitly concerned to explain the origins of people who live in the world of the storyteller (whether Moses or a later monarchical Israelite community does not matter here). But in Genesis 5 we have a genealogy that goes from Adam to Seth (Cain’s younger brother) and eventually to Noah. Of course, in the next scene of the Genesis story, everyone dies except Noah, his wife, and their three sons with their wives. If we press a historiographical reading of Genesis too firmly, we run into the problem of how Cain’s descendents continued to live in the storyteller’s world after the Flood. The only possible historical arguments I can imagine (short of Cain’s descendents clutching the side of the ark and eating hand-caught fish until the deluge subsided) are these:

    • (a) Cain’s descendents were the wives of Noah’s sons. But this is incredibly weak, not simply because it sounds so strikingly like special pleading but also because the text nowhere is interested in suggesting this. So far as I can see, at this point all genealogical descent is being figured through the male ancestor, so we would need Cain’s sons on board, not his daughters. If this way of reading the text were faithful to the way the text was originally read (an important part of evangelical bibliology, I believe), then how would we account for the fact that the narrative itself is nowhere concerned to make explicit that Cain’s descendents survived the flood and continued to wander with their livestock, to release new albums, and to run the bronze mills?

    • (b) Or, the Flood wasn’t a global deluge, and Cain’s descendents, who now lived “in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (4.16), were unaffected by the torrents that ravaged Noah’s part of the world. This argument, of course, contradicts the very reading strategy it was intended to defend, so we don’t even need to deal with it here. If the Flood wasn’t a global catastrophe, then neither is there any need to justify how Cain could have descendents in the post-diluvian period.

  4. 4. Regarding the “distance” the separates humanity from God that I noted above, I wonder if Gen. 4.26 makes a similar point here. The notice that “At this time [when Seth had a son, Enosh; cf. 4.25] people began to invoke the name of the LORD” is enigmatic. But does the invocation of God’s name suggest a growing separation between God and his image? I can pose the question, but I don’t have any answers.

  5. 5. Finally, I notice that the genealogy of Genesis 5 begins with a striking review of Gen. 1.27 and then becomes very “rhythmic” (note the very strict pattern in 5.3–20, 25–27), with two exceptions. First, the story of Enoch (5.21–24) breaks the pattern and ends with the abstruse comment, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (5.24). What this means, I’m not sure. But later Jewish speculative thought would turn to Enoch and expand this “God took him” theology to develop a lengthy corpus of apocalyptic and revelatory traditions, the height of which is probably the pseudepigraphical 1 Enoch (which is part of the Coptic [Egyptian] Christian canon). Second, Noah’s introduction in 5.28–31 is similarly expanded by including the explanation of Noah’s name (cf. 4.1, 25). I note these simply because exceptions to established patterns are typically significant, and in Genesis 5 the text establishes the very pattern it breaks.

Cain’s story is significant, I think, not least for readers concerned to “help people find their way back to God.” The paternal (in a positive sense) chiding, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (4.7; my emphasis) illustrates God’s unwillingness to abandon flawed and imperfect people to their own desires and machinations. Even so, sin isn’t something to be accepted as integral to the human condition. Sin may be ubiquitous, but it is still aberrant. God challenges us to master sin even as he prepares a way to protect humanity from their own failures (cf. 4.13–15). But Cain’s story still ends in separation; he settles in Nod, east of Eden, “away from the presence of the LORD” (4.16). Sin separates God from his image.

I think it’s appropriate that all of this is communicated in a story so intricately bound up with familial relationships. Where else but in our families can we experience such exciting potential (4.7) and such loneliness (4.16)? Genesis 4 especially touches on all the raw emotion of real life, not least the anguish of separation from a God who calls out to his people. Cain was estranged from the God with whom he spoke; Enoch walked with God and was taken by him. This tension will only be heightened in the next episode.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

one more reason I love my job

Michael Pahl reports that Peter Enns and Westminster Theological Seminary have issued a joint statement announcing that the Old Testament scholar is "discontinuing his service" to WTS amidst the controversy stirred by his book, Inspiration and Incarnation. I'm not an Old Testament scholar, nor have I read Enns's book. But this issue strikes a bit close to home, especially since there are doctrinal and theological expectations placed upon myself and my colleagues as a condition of our employment here.

I would, with great timidity and caution, compare my own humble institution with WTS and the educational and theological traditions streaming out of Philadelphia (among other places). But I would like to, again humbly, suggest that the spirit and freedom of my own institution of employment provides me greater comfort (and freedom) in my efforts to strive after God, to understand and be faithful to him, and to equip others to do likewise as they minister in various national and cultural contexts around the globe. I'm not sure why this; perhaps it has something to do with the personalities of the men (mostly) and women in positions of decision-making and power here.

But I suspect that another reason is found in my own faith tradition's commitment to theological principles rather than to theological statements. [NB: My encomium-of-sorts for my institution and my faith tradition is not meant to imply the negative of other institutions and traditions; what I say here about my own community is undoubtedly true, in various ways and to various degrees, of other communities.] In particular, I have in mind well-worn slogans that have, perhaps, been recited more than they have been observed but that still orient me and my colleagues. I have in mind here, "No creed but Christ; no book but the Bible," and "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." At its best moments, my faith community seeks to root its understanding and practice of God in the Bible and to allow freedom (of thought as well as practice) in those places where biblical teaching warrants leeway. True, we have also been ungracious at times when interpreting where freedom is appropriate; we have also struggled to know how to interact with people who are less concerned for what the Bible might have to say to us and our world. But I would like to suggest that, in our most Christ-like moments, commitment to principles rather than to (merely) propositions have motivated our thinking and behaving.

Having taken the time to express my own gratitude for my current situation, let me also wish Prof. Enns all the best as he seeks to provide for his family, his faith, and for his interaction with the wider biblical and theological conversations going on around the world. And may God bless WTS, though I have to admit that my sympathies at this moment, barring further information, are squarely with Prof. Enns.

"The Rise and Fall of Humanity”

Genesis 2.4b–3.24:

Technically I think the second creation account is found in Gen. 2.4b–25, but notice that, unlike the first creation account, this isn’t a free-standing literary unit. Therefore, though 2.4b–25 may be a “second creation account,” I think Gen. 2.4b–3.24 is better understood as a mythological (= etiological) account of humanity’s current situation as estranged from God. Again, I’ll start with some basic observations:
  1. 1. We do violence to the literary and theological integrity of this account when we harmonize it with Genesis 1. Some people, due to their high view of Scripture (with which I am sympathetic given my own commitment to the Bible and its teachings), have argued that Gen. 2.4bff. is a more detailed account of “Day 6” from Gen. 1.24–31. But we create a number of subsequent problems when we harmonize these accounts. (NB: These problems arise because of an extra-textual interpretive procedure rather than because of the text itself; the problems I list here are not problems with the Bible so much as they are problems with our reading of the Bible. This is a very important distinction.)

    • (a) The order of creation resists harmonization. In Genesis 1 we find the animals of the land created on day 6, followed by the creation of humanity [ha’adam; 1.27] after the creation of the flora and fauna on days 3, 5, and 6. In Genesis 2, however, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up” when God “formed man from the dust of the ground” (2.5, 7). Confusingly, the creation (or better, formation) of man (not humanity) is on “the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens” (2.4b); is this a reference to day 1?!

    • (b) The account of gender differentiation resists harmonization. This is actually a sub-point of the previous point. In 1.27 the emphasis is entirely on the “image of God” and the function that humanity, as God’s image, performs. The language is strikingly equalizing: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1.27; my emphasis). Here the only distinction between male and female is “male ≠ female” and “female ≠ male.” (Perhaps the point here, moreover, is that “male ≠ image of God” and “female ≠ image of God,” but rather “male/female = image of God.”) This is not the case in Genesis 2, where “the man” [האדם; ha’adam] — not “humanity” — is formed from the dust of the earth (2.7) and “the woman” [אשה; ‘iššah] is only subsequently “taken” from the man (2.22). The male/female distinction is further emphasized in Adam’s act of naming. In 2.19–20 Adam’s domination over creation is typified in his naming all the creatures the LORD God brings before him; in 2.23 Adam similarly names his former “rib” “Woman” [‘iššah], “for out of Man [איש; ‘iš] this one was taken.” Adam once again names the woman at 3.20, just as he had previously done with all the animals. By way of contrast, notice that God himself named “humanity” [אדם; ’adam] at Gen. 5.2. Additionally, notice that at this point only Adam has a speaking role; “woman” (she isn’t called “Eve” until 3.20) is passive until the serpent addresses her. Though 2.24–25, I think, goes some way to level this hierarchy (or, better to contextualize it such that the woman isn’t merely the man’s servant), the second creation account encodes a hierarchical order that differs significantly from the first account of humanity’s creation.

    • (c) Finally, the function of each account resists harmonization. The first account, as we have seen, explains the origin of creation in the will and word of God and ensconces humanity within creation as the image of God. The second account, as we shall see shortly, explains the origin of the human family, its functioning (with the male as its head), and its relation to the rest of creation. If we broaden our scope to include Genesis 3 as part of the second account, as we are doing here, then this account also explains why life is more a bed of briars than it is a bed of roses.

  2. 2. According to Gen. 2.15, I think humanity was created to work. There is a tempting reading of Genesis 2–3 that work (especially “toil” or “labor”) are the result of sin and God’s subsequent curse. But I don’t think the current text makes precisely that point. Of course, I want to generalize the concept “work” beyond agricultural effort, but I think I can marshal Paul as an ally here (cf. Eph. 2.10).

  3. 3. I see a chiasm in Gen. 3.9–19, where God comes looking for the man (2.9–11; = A), who defers to the woman (2.12; = B), who defers to the serpent (2.13; = C); God then curses the serpent (2.14–15; = C´), then the woman (2.16; = B´), and then finally the man (2.17–19; = A´). I’m not sure what significance this might have; certainly I don’t think C–C´ (the middle of the chiasm) is the main point, especially since the serpent is then whisked off-stage and the narrative continues with Adam and Eve and the adventures of the first family.

  4. 4. But I do notice that at 3.7 the man and woman “knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves”; that is, they covered their own nakedness. After God’s judgment upon them, however, “the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (3.21). Maybe it is significant that their clothes, which cover their nakedness/sin, are now made of animal skins [עור; ‘or] rather than vegetation; remember that Abel’s acceptable sacrifice in the next chapter was one of sheep while Cain’s rejected sacrifice was vegetarian. More importantly, I think, is that after the curse it is the LORD God who covers the man’s and the woman’s nakedness/sin, which the pair had previously sought to cover themselves.

Once again, a number of NT traditions pick up the traditions inscribed in Gen. 2.4b–3.24. Perhaps most significant, at least for me, is Jesus’ promise to the Asian churches in Rev. 2.7: “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” Despite appearances, the reference to “the paradise of God” isn’t pointing to “heaven.” The Greek word παράδεισος [paradeisos] means “garden”; when Jesus refers to “the tree of life that is in the garden of God,” then, we see that what he offers the churches is the undoing of the curse of sin, the hiding of the tree of life (cf. Gen. 3.22–24).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"The First Week"

As I've already mentioned, I'm currently reading Genesis for a couple of different projects. One those is for Crossings, the church with which my family and I worship and minister. For this project, I'm reading Genesis and dividing the text into 12–25 segments that "will preach." As I get to this "divying up" of the text, I'll post my comments here.

Genesis 1.1–2.4b:

I would use this passage to introduce the entire series on Genesis and focus on the ways that this creation account (the first of two, of course) is the anchor of the Genesis narrative in particular, of the biblical narrative more generally, and of a theo-centric conception of history at the broadest level. Some very basic observations, most of which I’m shamelessly stealing from other, brighter lights:
  1. The notice in Gen. 1.2 that “the earth was a formless void” presents the problem to which the rest of the account is the solution. On days 1–3 (1.3–13) God (אלהים; elohim) solves the problem of formlessness by bringing order and structure to the heavens and the earth; on days 4–6 (1.14–31) he solves the problem of voidness by populating crea-tion with good things at every stage (1.18, 21, 25, 31; cf. Matthew 7.11).

  2. There is also something interesting going on with the “image of God” emphasis of 1.26–31, and especially as that emphasis is paired with the notice of authority/stewardship given from God and over creation (the prepositions are important here). Remember that all the nations of the earth worship images of gods while the descendents of Abraham are commanded not to create any image of their God YHWH (cf. Exod. 20.4–6). I wonder if that proscription against idols/images is as much anthropological as it is theological. That is, the problem with graven images is not simply that they fail to understand that God cannot be reduced to a statue or figurine of a bird or an alligator or a many-breasted woman. In addition to this, the problem with graven images is that they fail to understand that humanity itself is the image of God and receives honor from the created order as God’s representative and steward over creation (cf. Psa. 8). Recognizing humanity’s place as the crown of creation is not a way of honoring humanity and dethroning God; rather, this recognition honors God, whose image we are. But when God’s image bows before a humanly fashioned image, it demeans both God and his image (humanity) and reverses the hierarchical order inscribed into the fabric of creation itself (note that this is precisely the problem that arises in Gen. 3 when the serpent [beneath humanity] charms the woman [beneath the man], and all three rebel against God and are punished.

  3. The notice at 2.4a, that “These are the generations [תולדות; tōldōt; LXX = ἡ βιβλος; hē biblos] of the heavens and the earth when they were created,” brings the first creation account to a close. Genesis 1.1–2.4a is a self-contained literary unit that is independent of the creation account in 2.4b–25. More importantly, I think, the first creation account is emphatically about creation and its relation to the Creator God. I think pt. 2, above, is perhaps the main point of this account. Thus, Gen. 1.1–2.4a primarily makes the point that all of creation, including humanity, is the Lord’s; “[the] humankind” [האדם; ha’adam; 1.27] that God created — in both its male and female expressions (1.27) — both worship God as their creator and reign over creation as his surrogate. As we will see, the second creation account, by way of contrast, is explicitly anthropocentric.

There are, of course, many New Testament themes and ideas we could incorporate here. John obviously picks up on the Septuagintal reading of Gen. 1.1 [ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς; en arkhē epoiēsen ho theos] in the Prologue to his gospel: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος [En arkhē ēn ho logos; John 1.1]. The mention of logos reflects a popular Jewish understanding of the Genesis tradition that God spoke creation into existence.

Paul, too, picks up on these very ideas in Col. 1.15–20. Notice that in Col. 1.15 Christ is the image of the invisible God. On first glance this appears to displace humanity as the focal point at which creation has access to its creator, and perhaps this is the point. But I wonder if the point, rather, is not to displace humanity as God’s image but to portray Christ as the epitome of humanity. Not just the perfect human but the quintessential human. Christ, the human-est human there ever was, both offers perfect worship to his Father and mediates perfectly between creature and Creator. This latter point is supported, I think, by the second half of the hymn: In Col. 1.18, where Christ is now not “image of God” but “head of the church,” the “access point” function of the “image of God” between God and creation is emphasized. As “head of the church” Christ leads the church, defines its existence and guarantees its future. Of course, “church” here isn’t specifically a religious institution; when Paul calls Christ the “head of the church” he is identifying Christ as the “head of all humanity” (cf. Col. 1.20). The church, then, is that body of people who have experienced the connection (“reconciliation”) with God that is mediated through Christ. Notice how well this fits with Crossings’ vision: “Helping people find their way back to God.”

windfall recovery

It's nice to have your faith in humanity restored from time to time. Since I'm currently reading Genesis 1–3, it's especially encouraging to read about "Good Samaritans" helping an elderly man and sparing him some very real difficulties. I think the best part of the story is that these "Good Samaritans" seem to have vanished back into the wind from which they rescued Mr Geier's money. Their reward awaits them.

BIBL 5107 Lesson 2:
the alluring empire

First, a quote:
One of the most obvious but important points to be made in this course is that all of New Testament history transpired in the shadow of the Roman Empire. While many of the social and cultural elements of the New Testament period (e.g., language, religious traditions, literature) originated in the Hellenistic age, all of the New Testament personalities lived, worked, and died in a world that was under the political, military, and legal control of Rome.

This observation has been borne out in numerous ways, not least in the effects that consideration of the Roman political environment has had upon the interpretation of specific New Testament texts and traditions. (One of the first books I read in this vein was the very interesting Paul and Politics.) Throughout the pages of the NT, Rome and the power she wielded over the peoples of the Mediterranean basin provide the background — and, often enough, the foreground — for the events and ideas inscribed on the page. From Jesus' crucifixion to John's revelation and at all points in between, Rome was like the hovering chaperon whose watchful presence affected both the content and form of earliest Christian theology and history.

And Rome's presence isn't flattering. Even in Luke-Acts, which famously portrays the interaction between central Christian figures (esp. Paul) and the Roman authorities in surprisingly conciliatory hues (e.g., Acts 13, 18, 21–22, 25–28), the narrative doesn't seem to me to suggest Rome is the crown of human civilization so much as to argue that Rome isn't an impediment to the church's mission. It was, after all, Roman and Roman-sponsored power (Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas, respectively) that had Jesus crucified, even if the gospels stress the influence of the Jews and/or the Jewish authorities. I think Acts 4.23–31 captures this perspective in microcosm.

But my thoughts are less historical here and more theological. I wonder, given the pervasive and pervasively negative presence of Rome in and behind the pages of the New Testament, what are we to make of the United States of America? In many ways this country was founded with thoughts of the New Rome dancing in the Founders' heads (e.g., the Senate; the [bald] eagle as our national symbol; a republican system of government; etc.). And certainly Rome made positive (rather than simply negative) contributions to human history and civilization. I should also say that my questions about American power and the policies according to which it wields that power aren't motivated by any desire to be like some other country, whether European or two-thirds world or whatever. Without necessarily throwing America under the bus, is there room for confessing Christians to think critically about American power and how American expressions of Christianity relate to, perpetuate, and challenge that power?

Answers here are undoubtedly complex, variegated, and at times probably contradictory. Many of the books currently being marketed by publishers of biblical and religious scholarship are in some way engaged in pursuing this question, as are many of the [biblio]blogs listed here and elsewhere. But my first inklings are that, inasmuch as judgment against Rome and Roman power are evident in the pages of New Testament texts, we American Christians — and Western Christians in general — should engage ourselves in asking whether our own participation in the exercise of power will be similarly judged before God.

Monday, July 21, 2008

reading Genesis

I am currently participating in two different projects that involve me reading the book of Genesis (in part or as a whole), and I plan on posting some of my thoughts on that text here on Verily Verily in the coming weeks. This post is merely meant as a disclaimer: My reading and comments on Genesis are those of an amateur who is thinking out loud and exploring any thoughts that happen to present themselves, often without any idea how fruitful said thoughts will ultimately be. Consider this your warning. And I would welcome any comments and feedback from interested and, especially, better informed readers.

Brian in the news

The BBC reports that the mayor of Aberystwyth, Sue Jones-Davies — who played Judith Iscariot in Monty Python's The Life of Brian — is trying to overturn a 30-year ban on the movie in her western Welsh town. I came across this story because of the discussion at the end of Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show today. Like every caller into today's program[me], I have to say I'm a bit surprised that a ban on a movie can still exist today; it seems the ban was simply forgotten at some point in the last three decades.

As I listened to the story, and as I read Ben Myers's review of Kotsko's book on Žižek and theology — specifically, that "a certain humourlessness could be said to dominate the entire Christian tradition" — I remembered Kathy Griffin's "offensive remarks" at the Emmy Awards show last year.

In the cases of The Life of Brian and Kathy Griffin, I think the church's "humourlessness" has become acute and manifested severe symptoms. It seems to me that we Christians have a hard time distinguishing between attacks on Jesus and attacks on Christians and/or the Church, though this distinction is vitally important. When Brian pleads with his followers, "Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me, you don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!" only to have have them agree in unision, "Yes! We're all individuals!" the satire and irony aren't making a theological point (or aren't necessarily doing so) so much as a cultural one. When Kathy Griffin accepts an Emmy and says, "A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. Suck it, Jesus. This award is my god now," we should recognize the shot taken not against Jesus or even the Church but against celebrities who thank Jesus for their award in a, frankly, meaningless gesture.

The actual insult against the Church, I think, comes from the Church itself. How often do we here someone complain, whether rightly or wrongly, something like, "It is a sure bet that if Griffin had said, 'Suck it, Muhammad,' there would have been a very different reaction," (Bill Donohue, president, Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights)? For the sake of argument let's accept Donohue's point. Does this legitimate a similar Christian response? Instead, it seems to me that Christians can't complain about violent protests against cartoons depicting Mohammed in a Danish newspaper and mobilize protests against offensive or uncomfortable images of Jesus and the Church in the wider world. We either speak out in support of Islamic offense at unfavorable depictions of what they hold sacred or we accept similar offenses against Christian institutions and beliefs.

Isaac Hayes's hypocrisy was obvious to everyone when the voice of Chef left the cast of South Park complaining that the show's portrayal of Scientology was offensive. Can't we see that our own hypocrisy is similarly obvious? Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that the Church, as Christ's body, is made of various and sundry parts — a foot here, an eye there. I'd like to ask, Where are the Church's shoulders, and could they please be broadened to handle a little bit of satire and critique without being offended at every perceived slight?! To those Christians who disagree here, I would point out that Jesus himself was remembered as having predicted this very situation. "If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first" (John 15.18). We should at least take solace that we can locate ourselves in the biblical narrative with such little effort and stop complaining about what little discomfort Western Christians may be subjected to in the public marketplace!

BIBL 5203 Lesson 2:
Irenaeus on YHWH

At the end of this post I have provided the text of Irenaeus's Against Heresies, book 1, chapter 27 [this text, as well as the rest of Irenaeus' Adv. Haer., is available on Earliest Christian Writings]. In this text Irenaeus takes on those he calls "disciples and successors of Simon Magus of Samaria" (of Acts 8 fame), especially Marcion, for their teaching that the Creator God of the Law and the Prophets is not the Father of Jesus Christ.

As far as I am aware, no one supposes that Irenaeus was, ethnically or culturally speaking, a Jew. He was born, in all likelihood, in Smyrna, in Asia Minor, and that he was "a Greek." In Smyrna Irenaeus came under the influence of Polycarp, the famous bishop of Smyrna who was said to have been a disciple of (the apostle?) John and who was martyred c. 155 CE. Of particular interest when we consider Irenaeus is the idea that he was raised as a Christian rather than having been converted in adulthood. [nb: If any of my facts about Irenaeus are incorrect or currently debated, please leave corrections (with documentation) in the comments.]

I bring up this background regarding Irenaeus because there's nothing of which I'm aware that makes me think Irenaeus was unusually (or even particularly) sympathetic to "Judaism" and/or emphatically Jewish expressions of Christianity. Indeed, in Adv. Haer. 1.26.2 Irenaeus comes down especially hard on the Ebionites who "are so Judaic in their style of life, that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God." Irenaeus is particularly well-known for continuing the heresiological work begun by Justin Martyr and which would continue to find expression in the writings of Jerome, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, and others.

In this light, I find it especially interesting that Irenaeus was emphatic in insisting on what, from one perspective at least, might be described as a "middle road." That is, Irenaeus was insistent that the peculiar Christianity practiced by the Ebionites — who rejected Paul's writings and emphasized Torah observance — was "too Jewish" (if it isn't still too early to use such language here) to be authentic Christianity (as he understood and constructed it). And yet others who identified themselves as followers of Jesus (e.g., Marcion) had, according to Irenaeus, gone too far in rejecting the God revealed in the Law and the Prophets as Jesus' Father.

In other words, even in Irenaeus' very influential writings (which, we could reasonably say, played a major role in establishing Christian identity and theology in the late second century and later), we can see that Christian identity — what it might mean to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus — was massively problematic. Like the earth orbiting the sun at a life-sustaining 90+ million miles away, Christianity in the late second century could not understand itself apart from the Israelite texts and covenants that non-Christian Jewish groups were also appropriating for themselves. But writers like Irenaeus were, I think, demonstrably anxious about circling too close to as well as about escaping the influence of "Judaism." Whatever other differences marked off "Judaism" from "Christianity," the latter worshipped YHWH, the God of the former. And though the christological pronouncements of Nicaea were still a century and half in the future (and so were unavailable to Irenaeus), Irenaeus seems to have been absolutely clear that his own adoration of Jesus did not displace YHWH as the Christian God (and the Law and the Prophets as the revelation of YHWH).

Given my current interests in the discursive work being done at this time (second century CE) to "partition" Judeo-Christianity (see Boyarin's Border Lines), I think we need to also pay attention to the ways that early Christian writers expended discursive energy to keep themselves associated with "Israel," if not with "Judaism" so-called. After all, Marcion was just as mistaken — and damned — as were the Ebionites, if I read Irenaeus correctly.

Also, I wonder what type of discursive work best suits our current situation, when "partitioning" is probably not as urgent as it seemed to be in the second century.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.27:

1. Cerdo was one who took his system from the followers of Simon Magus, and came to live at Rome in the time of Hyginus, who held the ninth place in the episcopal succession from the apostles downwards. He taught that the God proclaimed by the law and the prophets was not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the former was known, but the latter unknown; while the one also was righteous, but the other benevolent.

2. Marcion of Pontus succeeded him, and developed his doctrine. In so doing, he advanced the most daring blasphemy against Him who is proclaimed as God by the law and the prophets, declaring Him to be the author of evils, to take delight in war, to be infirm of purpose, and even to be contrary to Himself. But Jesus being derived from that father who is above the God that made the world, and coming into Judaea in the times of Pontius Pilate the governor, who was the procurator of Tiberius Caesar, was manifested in the form of a man to those who were in Judaea, abolishing the prophets and the law, and all the works of that God who made the world, whom also he calls Cosmocrator. Besides this, he mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most dearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father. He likewise persuaded his disciples that he himself was more worthy of credit than are those apostles who have handed down the Gospel to us, furnishing them not with the Gospel, but merely a fragment of it. In like manner, too, he dismembered the Epistles of Paul, removing all that is said by the apostle respecting that God who made the world, to the effect that He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and also those passages from the prophetical writings which the apostle quotes, in order to teach us that they announced beforehand the coming of the Lord.

3. Salvation will be the attainment only of those souls which had learned his doctrine; while the body, as having been taken from the earth, is incapable of sharing in salvation. In addition to his blasphemy against God Himself, he advanced this also, truly speaking as with the mouth of the devil, and saying all things in direct opposition to the truth,-that Cain, and those like him, and the Sodomites, and the Egyptians, and others like them, and, in fine, all the nations who walked in all sorts of abomination, were saved by the Lord, on His descending into Hades, and on their running unto Him, and that they welcomed Him into their kingdom. But the serpent which was in Marcion declared that Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and those other righteous men who sprang from the patriarch Abraham, with all the prophets, and those who were pleasing to God, did not partake in salvation. For since these men, he says, knew that their God was constantly tempting them, so now they suspected that He was tempting them, and did not run to Jesus, or believe His announcement: and for this reason he declared that their souls remained in Hades.

4. But since this man is the only one who has dared openly to mutilate the Scriptures, and unblushingly above all others to inveigh against God, I purpose specially to refute him, convicting him out of his own writings; and, with the help of God, I shall overthrow him out of those discourses of the Lord and the apostles, which are of authority with him, and of which he makes use. At present, however, I have simply been led to mention him, that thou mightest know that all those who in any way corrupt the truth, and injuriously affect the preaching of the Church, are the disciples and successors of Simon Magus of Samaria. Although they do not confess the name of their master, in order all the more to seduce others, yet they do teach his doctrines. They set forth, indeed, the name of Christ Jesus as a sort of lure, but in various ways they introduce the impieties of Simon; and thus they destroy multitudes, wickedly disseminating their own doctrines by the use of a good name, and, through means of its sweetness and beauty, extending to their hearers the bitter and malignant poison of the serpent, the great author of apostasy.

Friday, July 18, 2008

text of the Apocalypse of Gabriel

Over at The Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick posted a notice (which has since been taken offline and replaced with this) that the full translation (as well as the reconstructed Hebrew text) of the Apocalypse of Gabriel is available online [follow the link for the .pdf to access the Hebrew text].

I haven't looked at the Hebrew text, but after reading through the English translation (and being impressed by the amount of work still to do on this text, of course), I am even more convinced that the significance of this text for understanding Christian Origins and the earliest kerygma of Jesus' resurrection is on a par with Josephus's account of the Golden Eagle incident (War 1.648–655; Ant. 17.149–167) or Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones. That's not to say that, if authentic, the Apocalypse of Gabriel isn't still momentously important. But its significance for Christian Origins needs to be kept in perspective. Unfortunately, perspective doesn't sell news stories.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

accepting early Christian emphasis on the unity of God?

Still working through my notes, I came across this formulation, which rightfully resists the reification and retrojection of "Judaism" and "Christianity" into the earliest period of the Common Era:
Rabbinic discourse about Two Powers in Heaven is not a rabbinic “report” of essential differences between Christianity (or “Gnosticism”) and Judaism, but rather a rabbinic production of the defining limits of what the Rabbis take to be Judaism via the abjection of one traditional element in Jewish religiosity, and production almost identical, as we shall see, to the Christian heresiological naming of One Power in Heaven (Monarchianism) as “Judaism,” when, in fact, it was, of course, an internal and once-acceptable version of Christian theology. I am suggesting that for the Rabbis, the discourse of heresiology, that is, the collection of laws and narratives about minut and especially about the “heresy” of Two Powers in Heaven, is not about Christianity but may be in part a response to Christianity. (Boyarin, Border Lines, 133)

I would like to query Boyarin's assertion that "One Power in Heaven" (a reformulation of Monarchianism from an explicitly rabbinic perspective) was "an internal and once-acceptable version of Christian theology" (my emphasis). Boyarin has presented compelling evidence that binitarianism/Logos theology/Two Powers in Heaven was a Jewish theoloumenon — and a relatively common one — from before Jesus even until the Middle Ages. Here not only Philo's Logos theology (as well as his surprising reference to the Logos as a deuteros theos [cf. Questions on Genesis 2.62]!) but also the Memra theology found in the Targummim (and effaced in rabbinic literature, including the "rabbinized" Targum Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan) suggests that the rabbinic program of (and Christian collusion in) denying "Two Powers" theology to "Judaism" were discursive rather than descriptive.

But it is precisely this compelling marshalling of evidence that makes me wonder, On what basis can we claim that Monarchianism was was a "once-acceptable version" of Christian theological expression? I'm not suggesting there isn't such a basis; I'm simply unaware of what that basis is (and a bit perplexed that Boyarin asserts this point without anything like the compelling demonstration of his point vis-á-vis the Judaic heritage of binitarianism). If any of you are aware of such evidence, I would greatly appreciate hearing it. On the other hand, I would also caution that certain evidence that has been read for an early Christian rejection of Jesus' unique (or at least unusual) status vis-á-vis Israel's God is not compelling (e.g., that Mark 10.18 intentionally distances Jesus from God; cf. Mark 10.21, and especially Jesus' instruction for the rich man to follow him).

My suspicion is this: That the anathematization of "One Power in Heaven," as Boyarin would likely agree, can indeed be read as evidence of continued Christian-Jewish interaction and even inter-identification (given that "Christian" and "Jewish" were not yet descriptors that applied to concrete "things" or groups). But I doubt that the naming of "One Power" theology as Christian heresy is the discursive mirror of the naming of "Two Powers" theology as Jewish heresy. In other words, the declaration that "Two Powers in Heaven" was heretical by would-be Jewish heresiologists projected a previously kosher form of Jewish theology outside the acceptable boundaries of Judaism (again, a discursive rather than descriptive act). But the discursively similar act by would-be Christian heresiologists, by which they declared Monarchianism heretical, was not necessarily the projection of a previously sanctioned form of Christian theology beyond the pale.

the receptionist turn?

James Crossley is currently posting a series on the future of biblical studies and the possibility that "reception history" (as opposed to historical criticism?) might be the defining perspective in just a few years. To quote from the first (of three, as of this writing; see here first, then here, and finally here) post, James says,
Reception history is becoming the next big thing in NT studies, or at least it seems that way to me. It may also be the future for the simple reason of how much interpretation of the same small collection of texts can be done without coming close to exhausting the options or doomed to repeating old arguments over and over (as Dale Allison showed)? The big advantage is that reception history has masses of material waiting to be exploited.

In my own research I am becoming more and more aware of the ways that our own myopic interest of the NT texts without much awareness of later dynamics of reading, interpreting, transmitting, and transcribing those texts have stunted our own interpretation of the NT texts themselves. (This criticism is similarly directed against my own work.) Understanding how NT texts shaped and were shaped by later Judeo-Christian discursive programs at the very least provides constraints against some of the things that have been seriously said of those texts (e.g., that John's Prologue is a non- or even anti-Jewish text; cf. Boyarin, Border Lines, 89–111).

I am not necessarily engaging in James' discussion at this point, but I would like to springboard off of it to raise a question about critical NT interpretation and reconstruction. That is, What fruit could we anticipate from shifting our reading of the gospels (all of them) from approaching them as deposits of data for the life and teaching of the historical Jesus and toward analyzing them as instances of reception of Jesus' life and teaching? In other words, rather than analyzing Jesus traditions in terms of "authentic" vs. "inauthentic," what would it look like to analyze those traditions in terms of how images of Jesus shaped and were shaped by later sociocultural milieux. This sounds a bit like redaction criticism, I suppose; but I think that discipline is overtly and explicitly concerned with issues of in/authenticity. Similarly, James Dunn's Jesus Remembered moves in this direction (with his focus on "Jesus' impact" on his followers), but again Dunn maintains an interest in authenticating Jesus traditions and also explicitly rejects a major methodological tool that provides ways of effecting this perspectival shift: social memory theory.

I think certain texts suggest themselves as, perhaps, the best place to begin working on this "new perspective" (to use an over-used phrase) on Jesus and the gospels, e.g., Mark 7.19 and especially all of the Johannine passages in which sayings of Jesus are explicitly misunderstood until after the Resurrection. Perhaps also the "uncomprehending disciples" motif throughout Mark's gospel. Funnily enough, Paul's letters, too, might be fruitful texts to read in this light; certainly approaching the so-called Deutero-Paulines in terms of the reception of Paul in the early church would be more interesting to some than rehashing the old arguments about Pauline or pseudonymous authorship.

God bless the free [e-]market

If we didn't already know, you can buy anything on eBay!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

BIBL 5203 Lesson 1:
the dangerous text

I am currently teaching two online courses for my institution's MA New Testament program, and each week I will try to comment briefly on one or two lessons from each course. Students enrolled in my courses can click on your class's label to see only those posts relevant to the class you're taking. (nb: These comments are also posted on the Discussion Board on your course's Blackboard site.)

In the first lesson of my History of NT Interpretation course, students find the following (very brief) comment regarding the concomitant dangers of biblical interpretation:
Bernard Ramm reminds us that biblical interpretation is a demanding task, since our approach and procedures must be made explicit. Quite simply, we must avoid the error of making interpretations on the basis of speculation and we must avoid making them arbitrarily and dogmatically. Proper interpretation requires allowing the text to challenge and modify our prior assumptions about its meaning. Interpretation requires a courageous commitment to pursue the truth wherever it may lead.

I would like to take a moment to make this point a bit more forcefully.

For the last few years I have been thinking on-and-off about the idea that the Bible is a "dangerous," or even "offensive" text. I don't mean "offensive" in the same sense that Don Imus or Jesse Jackson are offensive; I mean "offensive" in the way Peyton Manning or LeBron James are offensive. The biblical text moves forward; it advances; it makes claims on the lives of those who read it, and if we're not careful (and especially if we are!), we will find the text calling us into question. Though I hesitate to cite Tolkien here, Frodo's recollection of Bilbo's caution seems apt here:
Remember what Bilbo used to say: "It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Reading the Bible is similarly dangerous; studying the Bible only compounds the risk. For those of us who define ourselves in terms of our reading of biblical texts and who believe that problems attend not only to the wide world around us but also the hidden world inside us, the voice of God we strive to hear from the inscribed page continually threatens the safe and stable identities and identifications we have made for ourselves. Though "Protestant" does not define my attachment to Christianity (except to the extent that I am not "Catholic") — still less does the label "Reformed" — I have strong sympathies with the Reformation cry Reformata Semper Reformanda (in this context I intentionally elide Ecclesia, though I do not espouse an individualistic conception of Christianity). I have been transformed/reformed, yes; but that transformation has not neutered the Bible or rendered me any less prone to its discipline, rebuke, and chastisement.

Surrendering to this offensive movement of the biblical text is (or ought to be) at the heart of what it means to be a confessing Christian, and especially (if not uniquely) an evangelical Christian. In this vein I was pleased to read Donna Freitas's observation, in a vastly different context, regarding students at evangelical institutions of higher education [nb: Freitas herself does not self-identify as an evangelical]:
When I tell friends and colleagues about the different groups of students who participated in this study, antievangelical prejudices surface over and over. Many people believe that evangelical Christians are not intellectual, that there is little nuance to their beliefs, and that they are not capable of sustaining a well-reasoned argument. But there is nearly as much diversity inside evangelical culture as there is outside of it. And time after time during my interviews, these stereotypes were shattered. [Two female students] epitomize the complexity of personal and religious identities common among the evangelical students I interviewed — perfect examples of the committed Christian who grows intellectually and learns to push boundaries and think hard about her place in the world because of her own and her college's intense faith commitments, not in spite of them. Although, to be sure, I met stereotypical Religious Right types, I also encountered a wide range of political persuasions. (Freitas, Sex and the Soul, 62–63; original emphasis)

Freitas may be focusing on political or ideological diversity among evangelicals, but I would like to draw attention to her comment about "the committed Christian who grows . . . because of her" faith. This is, of course, a romantic and backward-looking description of evangelical Christians, told from the perspective of their ultimate (if still ongoing) success in negotiating their identity and location within the wider world.

But from the forward-looking perspective at the beginning of biblical research (remember, this is Lesson 1!) we need to realize that things look very different indeed. Researching and (hopefully) understanding the biblical text with greater clarity and sophistication does not bring comfort and succor. Rather, it augments the intensity with which the text calls us to account, highlights the situatedness of ourselves at the center of our lives as God looks on from outside, and warns ever more clearly that all that is chaff will be burned in his purifying judgment. Certainly the Bible comforts us, but the Bible's comfort is precisely that all this discomfort comes from the hands of a loving and merciful God.

As we examine how the church has read and utilized the NT texts throughout the last two millennia, we ought to be prepared to find ourselves in the highs and lows of the church's history. This finding, I hope, will add depth to our readings of the texts and resonance to the voice we hear speaking from the page and summoning us to incline our ear to his counsel.

My Visual Bookshelf