Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Dread Pastor Roberts

Over the last month, I've instituted something new in both the email newsletter and the worship bulletin of my little church. That new thing is fairly simple: a worship headcount. It's a pretty straightforward thing, really, and is a way of illustrating a bit of data that is easy to miss in the gracious intimacy of our little fellowship.

That bit o' empirical reality is this: after six years of a group of diligent and hardworking folks working together to revitalize a dying suburban church, we're not at the point where we're self sustaining. Yes, membership has grown. Worship attendance has doubled. Our giving has nearly tripled. But after all that time, we're still not a self-supporting congregation. We're still significantly reliant on the small endowment of the church, and that endowment has taking a brutal beating over the last year.

Unless something shifts dramatically in the near term future and the trend-lines run in a different direction, we'll run smack up against an inescapable reality: we can't support the institutional structures of our church. Our building isn't quite the money pit it was a few years ago, thanks to some major repair projects and maintenance. But it's too big for us. Our staffing level--and by that I mean me--is too costly for the community to maintain without the endowment, even if my salary is 10% less than Presbytery minimum and slightly below what the average Metro bus driver makes.

If we really stretched it out, we could go for a few more years. We could spend down to zero and then walk away. But that's just not an acceptable option. We've got to be aware of the realities that we face, and we've got to respond to them mindfully.

I really, really like my church. The fellowship is great, and the praise team rocks, and our Bible studies are both fun and places of spiritual growth. But I feel increasingly like I'm compelled to become the Dread Pastor Roberts, who at the end of every Sunday says to his congregation,

"Wonderful worship! I really felt the Spirit moving here today! That comment in Bible study was really insightful! Keep up the good work, and I'll most likely kill you in the morning."

I understand that can be quite the motivator.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Save the Whales

Every Sunday on my way to my bitty church, I pass my local up-and-coming independent mini-mega church. They've been running a sermon series for the last month or so on heaven, and the question posed on their signage today was a simple one: ANIMALS IN HEAVEN?

The purpose of such a question is rather simple...will there be a doggie door on our heavenly mansion for Mr. Barky? Anyone who has a pet to which they've had deep emotional ties really doesn't want there to be any question: Captain Fluffykins will be there forever and ever.

Of course, I tend to find that way of understanding heaven a bit simplistic, but when you get right down to it, I think...sure. Yes. Of course animals are there. If you're OCD about scriptural references, it straight up says so in Ecclesiastes. Not the cheeriest of prooftexts, but hey, it answers the question.

Animals, of course, tend to be simpler creatures, and one could argue that they're considerably less aware than we are of their surroundings. As beings that have less self-awareness, they aren't prone to the type of destructive self-seeking that defines human sin...and therefore they'd just automatically get in. That, I would think, would be the theological position that a thoughtful pastor consoling a churchgoer at the loss of a companion animal might provide if pressed.

There's a deeper fuddle to this, though. Not all animals lack self-awareness. Higher primates like chimps and orangutans and gorillas clearly demonstrate memory, awareness of themselves as selves, and are even capable of grasping and expressing certain forms of human language. They can show compassion towards one another, and are also capable of intense brutality. But can they sin? If they have self-awareness, the answer would seem to be yes. If so...then are they somehow inherently unsaved according to the evangelical rubric? Koko the Gorilla never signed that she had accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, after all.

A solid counterargument would be that even the brightest of the "lesser creatures" are like children, and thus not fully culpable for their actions. But...what about creatures that aren't meaningfully "lesser" than many folks who've responded to an altar call. Elephants have fairly sophisticated infrasonic language, and have brains and vocabularies that meet or exceed those of most reality TV stars. Cetaceans are clearly our equals, although the forms and structures of their intellects are very different from ours. That doesn't matter, though.

If they have sentience, and they have will, and they are aware...then from the basic underlying assumptions of orthodox theology, they should be capable of sin. But they don't know nor can they know Jesus, as they're not able to read the tracts we earnestly press up against the glass wall at SeaWorld.

Does this mean they're inherently damned? Or just that the contemporary evangelical understanding of sin and Christ's purpose isn't quite adequate to the task of explaining it's way through this conundrum?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Drink His Blood and Live Forever

Me and the missus watched Twilight last night, despite the fact that neither one of us is currently a bookish 15 year old girl.

It was generally well done, with solid acting and only the occasional drift into mawkish hyperemotive teen goonyness. That piano scene really did hurt a little bit to watch. Backlighting! Moodiness! Schmaltzy Keyboard Stylings!

And the high-speed scampering effect...well...it somehow failed to convey a realistic sense of superhuman power. More a sense of "being zipped along waggling your legs while suspended in the air," and not even in the cool Hong Kong chop-socky wirefighting way. I kept thinking about that hysterically funny chase scene from Kung Fu Hustle, which didn't exactly lend itself to the seriousness of the moment.

Outside of it's conflation of the restraint of vampiric hunger with the restraint of sexual desire, the film offered up yet another opportunity to muse on the whole concept of immortality. What strikes me most whenever I watch these films is what a stunted view of what it means to live forever.

What baffles me is the temptation that invariably surfaces in these films, that "golly-wouldn't-it-be-cool-to-be-immortal" sub-thread that weaves it's way through films about the children of the night. That desire for power over life and death...and, by extension, power over others...has created a peculiar subculture within the already peculiar goth community. There are folks whose fascination with the idea of vampirism has extended into actually practicing it. Besides being eccentric and more than a widdle biddy bit on the pretentious side, it's also kinda narsty. Yeah, I know, as a good liberal I should be totally fine with folks cutting one another and drinking each other's blood. Free to eat you and me, and all that. But for some reason, it strikes me as willfully and unnecessarily dysfunctional. Ah well.

It also seems strangely unnecessary.

We all do live forever, at least if you take Christian faith as the ground for your understanding of being. The nature of that eternity depends entirely on how we live...but eternal existence is an inescapable part of the way Christians view ourselves.

Whenever I watch movies like Twilight, and the peculiar promise of temporal immortality that they dangle in front of us, I find myself thinking...why would that be even vaguely tempting? We've already got something better than that.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Do I Have to Say that Satan is Our AntiLord and UnSavior

It might be worth giving a watch to last night's Nightline, in which Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle argued vigorously for the reality of Satan. Pastor Mark, who I think I've described in past as "a great bellowing meatsock," managed to come across as less than bellowing, although there's not much he can do about His Pervasive Meatsockness. It must be the tendency towards professional wrestler inflections.

It was a pretty impressive PR coup, I must confess. Mark and a "Hooker for Jesus" were strongly in favor of Satan's just-barely-defeatable-power, and a recovering fundamentalist and the inescapable Deepak Chopra were in the other corner. More oddly, I learned about this through Fox News and Bill O'Reilly, who was pitching an ABC News show...a sure sign of the end times if ever there was one. To snag two diametrically opposed media outlets and have them pitch folks towards an event held at your church is quite a victory.

I, of course, completely disagree with Driscoll about the whole Satan thing. I've reposted my "Demonology" series here today, but the long and the short of it is that Driscoll places a great deal of emphasis on the power of this personal Adversary. I don't. I just can't find a place for it in a cohesive monotheism, and it isn't necessary for Christian faith, either. In fact, I think the whole "Satan" narrative defeats the purpose of the Gospel.

The struggle isn't between us and Satan, with Jesus being the one we call in as Divine Close Air Support. Ultimately, the battle is between ourselves and God, with Jesus being the one who brings us into reconciliation with our created purpose.

Satan is...well...irrelevant.

Applied Memetic Demonology 103

I suppose it's inevitable in any talk about demons that a Christian has to mention...
satan. Sssh. He's very sk..sk..skk..scary.


Here's where I talk smack to the Lord of Hell. Yeah, I'm talking to you, you sorry little meme. You want a piece of me? Come get some. What? No power? C'mon, Daystar. You're the Ruler of the Fallen Angels, a Man of Wealth and Taste. Whup my uppity primate behind. Yeah, Bible says not to put God to the test, but you ain't God, and I'm a-testin'. Bring the rain, baby.

I'm waiting.


Helloooo? Jeopardy Theme's all finished playin', and I don't see no deviltry going down.

Honestly, there's very little room in my theology for Ol' Scratch, unless you want to call him Mr. Concupiscence. The classical Hebrew ha-satan was just an angel, after all, one whose purpose in the divine court was to serve as the prosecutor. He was the accuser, the wise-cracking cynical detective on CSI - Heaven who never met an innocent perp yet. What Satan wasn't was this almost-all-powerful anti-God, whose control of the universe was almost...but not quite...as great as God's.

That dualistic view of Satan's role in the universe only entered Judaism's uncompromising monotheism after Israel's deep exposure to the dualistic religion of Babylon. Suddenly, this formerly minor figure was elevated to a higher status, the Jewish equivalent of Tiamat in eternal battle with Marduk.

Now, of course, Satan is a staple of dualistic Christianity, arch-nemesis of Jesus and the excuse your pastor gives after he's wandered off with the mission funds for the third time to go tour the
Bangkok fleshpots. I don't so much mind the personification of sin, and I think the idea of our accusation and unworthiness to stand before God as the root and aim of all evil has some merit.

But I don't think that Satan has any authority...or any reality...that isn't given to him by human beings. He might be Sin Itself, but if we were all filled with God's Spirit, there'd be no place in the universe for Satan to go.

He may indeed be the ruler of the darkness of this world. But he is also less than the least of us.

Applied Memetic Demonology 102

If demons are memetic in character, then how do we fight them? This is Applied Memetic Demonology, after all. So...where's the application? (If you want the more abstract theoretical stuff, you'll have to wait for my Arcana Daemonica 301, which isn't offered again until Fall 2010.)

There are a variety of tools that are efficacious in the battle against those self-perpetuating threads of thought and cultural darkness that shatter us individually and cause our societies to devour creation and neighbor. Those tools include the following:

1) To Kill A Demon, Starve A Demon. Memes reinforce themselves through repetitive control over our actions. The more often we engage in a particular behavior or allow our actions to be controlled by that thread of thought, the stronger that thread becomes. At a personal level, cycles of addictive behavior, anger, jealousy, and bitterness can become so deeply entrenched in us as to completely control our actions. Resisting the urge and undercutting that pattern is one essential step in breaking the cyclical character of a controlling meme. This can be immensely difficult for us to do alone.

So pray over it. Meditate over it. Supplant and subvert that pattern of behavior at every level. Replace it with actions that are healthy and in the service of others.

Don't just briefly stop yielding to it. Leave no room in your life for it to feed.

Also...don't give it power. Don't say, "I'm in the grasp of a mighty spiritual power." Say, "I'm in the grasp of something that is nothing." We want our own struggles to be part of a great war that is raging across heaven. We want this sense that we're part of a great life or death struggle for the cosmos itself. But we only want that because we are selfish. God already rules everything but us. Our own struggles...our own demons...are tiny. Call 'em on it. They are practically nothing.

Those controlling patterns of behavior are even more ferocious at a collective level. Resisting social compulsions towards hyperconsumptiveness or xenophobia is a huge challenge. There, the church and communities of faith can respond. We can provide prophetic witness. We can provide a community that nurtures countercultural alternatives to the demonic ethos that consumes us with consumerism and stokes the fires of nationalistic fervor.

Or not, depending on the church. But the battle is worth waging.

2) Apply Light. Demons rely on darkness for their survival. Enveloping them with shame and silence is just what they need. So don't give it to 'em. Open yourself up to the love of God and neighbor.

Praying, meditating, and allowing yourself to stand before your Maker helps give a foundation for taking the little buggers out. That doesn't mean crying out "The Power of Christ Commands You" over and over again while wearing big billowy vestments. That's a movie, folks.

The awareness of God's presence that comes from prayer provides a sacred space in your life, an awareness of the presence of the holy that can act as a beachhead in your efforts to drive out the darkness. That radical kenosis or "self-emptying," if done regularly, connects you to the truth of God's absolute power and transforming love. The more transparent you are before God, the less shadow you cast. And those memes only live quivering in the shadows of your soul. Fill yourself with light.

You need to open yourself to neighbor, too. That means sharing. Confessing. Find a friend or loved one you can speak to who will support you. Find a mature person in the faith who will hear without judging and hold you accountable. That connection, that opening to another, makes for a connection in the Spirit that transcends the reach of the pernicious little memelings within you.

There are plenty of groups that can help with this. 12 Step programs, though often maligned, are of tremendous help. Church accountability groups are also very effective. People of faith often reject the assistance of professionals...but a good, faith-sensitive psychologist or psychiatrist is yet another weapon in your own struggle and an aid to overcoming those things within yourself that oppress and subvert you.

Applied Memetic Demonology 101

One of the things about being a pastor is that you get all sorts of interesting questions. Having been brought up in a slew of moderate to progressive churches, in which social justice talk, service missions, and the life of the mind predominated, not a lick of that experience tells me how to respond when another soul comes up to me and asks about demons.

Demons? The very word is pretty much anathema to progressive Christians. We generally think of demon-talk as the theological kissin' cousin of snake-handling, the sort of thing that only gets taken seriously by large sweaty men in ill-fitting suits who bellow at you in intermittent all caps while they point at a large and OCDetailed hand-drawn chart of demonic names and functions.

"..and THIS is p'a'AArgasheh, the Demon of Excessive CHOCOLATE COATED Macadamia Nut Consumption, who RESIDES in the LOWEST QUARTILE of your PINEAL GLAND..."

As I think back carefully over the seven years I spent in seminary, I can think of perhaps one or two discussions on the topic, always from a clinical remove. We want to approach evil only on psychological terms, as just a manifestation of a clinically treatable disorder right out of the DSM IV. But the concept persists, and tends to weave deep into the theology of many churches. So folks come up to me and ask me about demons. Or about the demons they are sure are assailing them. What to say?

When folks ask, I say that demons are real. And that they are not real. Typically cryptic of me, but that serves a further purpose.

When I say that demons are real, I'm saying that they only exist in memetic form, as memes, those transferable and self-replicating patterns of thought that can be passed from one sentient being to another. They only exist in the shadows cast by human separation from God. The "power" that they have...their reality...does not extend beyond us into the created order. That belongs wholly to God. That doesn't mean that these fragmentary entities don't have power, or a form of reality. Addictions and compulsions and hatreds and bigotries are intense and destructive things. They shatter individual lives and poison whole societies.

Still, theologies that assume that evil goes beyond that, that it's somehow woven into the fabric of heaven or creation, that it has a reality that extends outside of humankind, those theologies are...well...dangerous. If you assert that something has more power than it actually does, then it becomes harder to kill it. And as the battle to establish the Kingdom of God rages across our souls, slaying demons is kinda a priority.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Milkshakes Bring the Boys to the Church

As a progressive pastor, I struggle mightily with how to respond to the incursion of certain cultural expectations of appearance and dress into the life of a congregation. I tend to believe that church should be an informal place, in which we do not strive and struggle with one another to "dress right." This is partly theological, and partly because I have apparently inherited the fashion sense of my British forebears. Recently, for instance, I wore a tan shirt and khaki pants, meaning I'd disappear completely in some desert settings. My fashion sensibility is painful to behold.

But my complete lack of fashion sense is not at issue here. The question I've been mulling over for a bit was stirred by a recent post over at FreeThinker777: Is there even such a thing as inappropriate attire for women in the church?

Men..even Christian men..have trouble not thinking with Mr. Johnson. An attractive woman will still draw the attention of a man's little brain even if she dresses like an Amishwoman.

If you're a Christian man, and a woman's appearance inspires you to violate Matthew 5:28 in surprisingly creative ways, you've just got to look past it. Get over it. Do not judge her, and see past that halter top...past, not through, sinner...to the child of God that she is. It takes some effort, but if you're going to claim to be a Jesus follower, the responsibility lies entirely with you, my friend.

Then again, what is culturally expected of young women in our [begin bad Russian accent] decadent capitalist society [end bad Russian accent] is that...well...they need to be "hawtt." Or perhaps that's "sexii." I can never keep up with the lingo these days.

Wearing clothes that are specifically intended to draw physical interest is something deeply and intensely socialized into most females of the species. I'm convinced that the relentless media bombardment of gyrating pop tarts, airbrushed celebrities, and product spokesmodels has taken that deeper, to a point at which "casual" for many American women and girls doesn't mean "casual" at all, unless casual means uncomfortable. Many will then dress into that societal expectation, which is reinforced by their peers and by those of us with XY chromosomes.

I'm never sure how to respond to that when it manifests itself in a congregational context. On the one hand, I uncategorically refuse to be judgmental. What you wear does not make you more or less loved by God, and if God is omniscient and omnipresent, we're all nekkid before the Lord all the time anyway.

On the other, I've already told my praise team I'd rather they not sing Hillsong's "My Milkshakes Bring the Boys to the Church." Yeah, I know it's catchy. I don't care. When someone shows up at church showing a whole bunch of leg...and by that I don't mean me, because the psychological trauma that would inflict on my congregation would be deep and lasting...I do struggle with how to respond. Can I even mention it without coming across as somehow belittling them or singling them out for condemnation?

That our consumer culture has hypersexualized women don't make it ok, and at a pretty deep level, I want church to counterculturally resist the relentless marketization of womanflesh. The answer to that is not some Christian version of the hijab. The era of gendered oppression within the Body of Christ needs to be put well behind us.

The answer is also not the peculiar embrace of consumer sexualization that comes from some corners of the progressive movement. Those academic feminists who view aggressive sexuality (for women) as a means of empowerment seem, at some pretty fundamental level, to be articulating a sexuality that is fundamentally at odds with the agape love ethic articulated in the Gospels.

I would suggest that the goal for Christians is not to be judgmental towards individuals who are simply reflecting their culture...but rather, to ask the community as a whole to consider the depth to which our society has driven women to carefully, assiduously present themselves as having primarily surface-level value.

How individuals respond to that realization is entirely up to them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I'm Rather Fond of Trebuchets, Actually

There was a fascinating editorial in the WaPo this last week written by Robert J. Samuelson, a conservative economic commentator whose writings are always thought provoking. It was a description of what he perceives as an assault on the foundation of American capitalism, entitled "Capitalism Under Siege."

Most of the article referred back to the work of eminent economist Joseph Schumpeter, who felt that capitalism contained within itself the seeds of it's own destruction. In addition to it's dynamism, which we enjoy during the boom times but that seriously bugs us during the busts, capitalism's creation of excess resources establishes:

...an oppositional class of "intellectuals" who would nurture popular discontents and disparage values (self-enrichment, risk-taking) necessary for economic success.

As I read this, I found myself agreeing, but thinking that perhaps it isn't just "intellectuals" who are the problem for capitalism. The threat to the core values of capitalism does not just come from leftist professors on campus and busybodies who need to get out there and have a real job.

It comes, I think, from Christianity as well. Working diligently is a Christian virtue, sure. So is being willing to take risks and not cling to the things that this world values. Complacence and indolence wouldn't have gotten the apostles very far.

But self-enrichment? Not really. Christian faith has very little use for self enrichment. If it happens to us as a collateral result of our hard work, then...well...you have more responsibilities in terms of how those resources are used. As a goal towards which we orient ourselves, though, it is rather explicitly and repeatedly rejected by our Lord and Savior.

It's why folks like Ayn Rand despised Jesus people...because within His life and teachings, there lies something very very incompatible with the competitive culture of self that is at the beating heart of the free market.

Monday, March 23, 2009

There Was No Point At Which He Was Not

I'm going to spiral back to my previous thread on the Christian assertion of the pre-existence of Christ and how that relates to the flesh-and-blood of Jesus of Nazareth. We say he's part of creation from the very beginning...but how? And which part of Jesus is eternal? Lil' Baby Jesus, Eternally Asleep on the Hay? Tweener Jesus eternally wowin' 'em in the temple? Jesus the carpenter's apprentice? Teaching Jesus? Jesus dying on the Cross? Jesus strangely shrouded and unrecognized at the tomb, or walking the Emmaeus road?

But that big mess o' Jesuses gets too confusing. Instead, most of us carve ourselves out an eternal Christ that is separate from the man who lived and died, that familiar and resplendantly white-robed Caucasian with a neatly trimmed beard and feathered, touchable hair who floats smiling towards us from a golden cloud. But that seems to make the life and the death and the cross a brief and tangential codicil to Christ's eternity, a blip, a 33 year flicker of flesh instead of the central fulcrum of God's self-expression to humanity.

As I struggle to wrap my head around this, it's always a useful caveat to remember that when it comes to talking about things that are eternal, our language is a fumbly and clumsy thing. Our words are imprecise symbolic instruments, and while they're useful for describing the structures and movements in the world around us, they're far less helpful when we wrassle with the transcendant.

That said, I've found the distinction between the Greek terms chronos and kairos to be helpful in understanding the eternity of Christ. To which you might say, rolling your eyes, there's nothing like bringing in Greek philosophical terms to clear things up. Fair enough, but hear me out. Where English only has one term for time, Greek has several. Chronos time is clock time, the generic passing of moment to moment. Kairos, on the other hand, is best translated as "God's time," or a time set aside in which something is fulfilled. (see Luke 21:8) It's not about the ephemeral, but about the permanent.

I see the life of Jesus of Nazareth as a life lived as an indwelling of the eternal God's self expression into the flow of our time. The moments of His life are all kairos moments, not fleeting and substanceless, but of God and part of God's plan for creation since the dawn of creation. From the moment our universe was spoken into being, that Jesus-event was already part of it. Every instant of that life reflected God, and every instant of that life is part of God, eternally.

Angels on the Head of a Pin, Shakin' Dey Booty

I know this doesn't matter much to most contemporary Big Stadium Christians, but I find myself struggling now and again with the question of Christ's pre-existence. This tends to come after I've done any significant reading in the Gospel of John. Christ is the Word, the Logos that is God's own creative power and self-expression. This, I get. Fine.

But in what way does that relate to Jesus of Nazareth? This is Jesus the human being, who wept and taught and laughed and went potty like the rest of us. Without the event of that particular life, I can't see any way to meaningfully parse out where the pre-existent Christ begins and the Holy Spirit ends. I can't say Christ without seeing Jesus, nor do I think that term has any meaning without the specific phenomenon of his life.

Part of my wrestling is that I do grasp...and conceptually embrace...the foundation of Trinitarian doctrine in Aristotelian categorical structure. Yeah, I know. Take a deep breath, and try to bear with me. When the early church was struggling to articulate who Jesus was, the Cappadocian fathers (following Tertullian) used the philosophy of their day to show how he was essentially united with God. That ancient articulation, found in the fourth Century Nicene Creed, used the Aristotelian principles of "substance" and "accident" to express how the persons of the Trinity interrelate. When they say that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father, we're saying that He shares an ineffable "Godness" with God the Father. At his very core, he is God. All of the particulars of who Jesus is are "accidents." His height, his skin tone, his genetic composition, the way his vocal cords vibrated to produce Aramaic in his unique voice...all of those things do not get us to his "Godness," to his substance, which is shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is in those "accidents" that we are able to distinguish the persons of the Trinity.

As I assess the role of Christ in my faith, I find that all of the accidents that define "Christ" revolve around the life, death, and strange return of that first century Judean. Without the particularity of those events and that life, I have great difficulty seeing my way to a meaningful Trinitarian faith. How do I resolve this? More later...

The Scandal of Universality

What is salvation? Salvation comes when we stand in right relationship with God. It's a healing of the rift that exists between we selfish, solipcistic creatures and our Creator.

All of the terms and images that are used throughout the Gospels and Epistles point to Jesus of Nazareth as the One who fully manifested the self-emptying servanthood that is required if we are to conform our wills to God. He's the physical reality of the logos that underlies the universe, so woven up into who God is that parsing out where the man ends and God begins is a fools errand. Or the errand of theologians. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

More importantly, through him we come to see that this logos isn't just the disengaged Enlightenment clockmaker or the abstraction of an Aristotelian unmoved mover. Instead, Jesus expresses the logos to us as love. He has soteriological power..that means savin' power, kids...because he is God's own self-expression. He's not the Ba'al of a neo-Canaanite Trinity, sacrificed and raised by El like a subordinate mediator god in a tripartite pantheon. At his most essential, substantial level, Jesus is God.

As such, being Christian..and being saved...is less about emulating Christ and more about participating in Christ. It's not about our own heartfelt emo conviction that we've been adequately spattered with His plasma and corpuscles. It's not measured by our ability to memorize and recite scripture or the doctrinal assertions of our particular tradition.

It's measured by our participation in that love that is God the Father, which Christ expressed through his life, and which the Spirit struggles every day to manifest in us.

Word Up, Y'all

The Greek phrase "En arche en ho Logos" begins John's Gospel. It's the soaring start to John 1, and Jesus People have heard it a trillion times. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

For John of course, the Word with a capital W was Jesus. We hear that easily. It's nice and familiar. What is harder for us to do, living outside of the first century Greco-Roman world, is for us to hear the beginning of John's Gospel in the same way as the people who would first have heard it read in a small assembly of early Christians.

The term logos can be translated to mean a verbal utterance. It does mean that. However, the reason we slap a great honking uppercase Dubyah onto it has everything to do with the broader meaning of that term in the philosophical movements of that time. Logos was a term that had deep roots in Greek philosophy, having been used since the time before Socrates to describe the underlying order and nature of the universe. It can equally well be translated as "reason," or "meaning" or "thought."

During the time of the early church, it was used by the Stoic movement to describe the creative power that caused all things. The Stoics believed that fragments of that power, the logos spermatikos, resided in every human being as the power of reason.

At it's very outset, John's Gospel is making a stunning claim for Jesus...that he is, in fact, the embodiment of the underlying creative power that formed the universe.
"Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." If you heard that in the first century, you knew exactly what that meant. Logos. The Word.

Just as the universe was spoken into existence, Jesus is God's own self-expression, in human form. Can we call him Rabbi? Does he teach? Sure. Can we call him prophet? Does he proclaim God's justice? Yup. But the most essential assertion we make about Jesus is that Jesus is integrally woven into the Creator's intent for the universe, that he manifests that intent, that in some ineffable way he was and is that intent.

How, if at all, does this relate to the way we Christians understand salvation?

The Baked Good from the Sky

While the three synoptic gospels do tell us a great deal about who Jesus was, the primary focus in each of them is his 'splainin' to us what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.

If we want a more intimate discussion of who Jesus is, we go to John's Gospel. The witness of the Beloved Disciple comes to us from a different set of oral and written traditions about Jesus, which focus much more intently on Jesus himself. Who is he? Well, let's ask him.

John contains a series of what are called ego eimi, or "I am" statements, in which Jesus tells us who he is. So who are you, big guy?

"I am the bread of life. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. I am the light of the world. I am the gate for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the true vine."

To which we might say, huh? You're a baked good from the sky? A gate for livestock? A plant that does well on polygraph tests?

But we'd only say that if we were metaphorically challenged. Jesus speaks about who he is in ways that demand thought, that use symbols and language to force us to see him in a more complex way. He's what sustains us. He's what lights and guides our way. He's what gives us life and growth.

Why is he all those things? The answer is found in this Greek phrase: "En arche en ho Logos."

Where do we find that, and what does it mean?

Who Is This Guy?

So just who is He? Who is this peculiar figure around whom we Christians build our entire worldview, and in whose name we make such intense claims?

Among those who respect him, there are many who view him as a teacher of wisdom, a sage, a rabbi. Certainly, there were many times he was called rabbi (for example-Mark 9:5; John 3:2), and he did fulfill many of the roles of a rabbinic teacher. But delimiting his function to that alone just makes him one among a thousand other voices of wisdom. If we take that route, eventually, we end up Unitarian. Which, as we've all been told, is just half a notch on the dial away from becoming a Wiccan, or worse yet, a...Democrat. And we all know what awaits Democrats in the afterlife. Shudder.

There's also the "he's a prophet" meme, which I think also has some merit. This, however, only points you towards who he is if you understand what a prophet actually is. Prophets aren't primarily soothsayers, or prognosticators of future events. Neither are they only folks who make a clarion call for justice for the oppressed...although they certainly do that, too. Understood in a biblical sense, they are individuals who act as conduits for God. They don't just tell us about God, but are instead so filled with God that their voice ceases to be entirely their own.

This gets us closer, but it's still not quite it. Of all of the Gospels, which focuses most intently on who Jesus was?

Dropping the Ba'al

One of the larger challenges we have as Christians is telling the world about who Jesus is, and why we feel he's important. As important as John 3:16 is to all of us from this side of the looking glass, I think that unless we can unpack that a teensy little bit the rest of the world just hears us talkin' loud and sayin' nothing.

"He's the Son of God," we say, sounding much like Uhura on that Star Trek episode most Trekkers would rather forget. What, you mean like Hercules? Is Jesus the demi-god offspring of divine canoodling? Has the Holy of Holies, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, just become the Jewish Zeus as a goose, coming down to do the humpty hump with an underage Judean Leda? No, of course not. That's not what we say at all, but I'm not sure that most of us have an adequate grasp on the depth of what orthodox Trinitarian theology actually says to be able to fend off that sniping.

"He died for our sins and was raised again, so that we might have eternal life," we say, and we really mean it. But then some jaded former Christian with a chip on their shoulder asks us how that's different from the Canaanite Ugaritic stories of Ba'al the lifegiver, who dies in battle with Mot, the god of sterility and death. In his death, the hold of Mot over the earth is shattered, and Ba'al is then resurrected, restoring life to the earth, giving a great harvest and hope to humanity. "It's...different...,"we stammer, but they're hardly going to be convinced if that's all we have to offer. There are plenty of distinctions, but to really surface them, we have to both know the witness of Scripture and tradition.

Then...and I think this is the hard part...we have to be able to tell the story of who He is in such a way that a world that no longer is steeped in Bible stories can understand it. If all we can offer are what amount to terms of art, the language of our own in-group conversation, I think our ability to show the world who Jesus was and what He meant will fade to nothing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sex Before Marriage

I've been reflecting on the latest editorial fulmination from the good brothers over at the Layman. That organization, in case you're not familiar with Presbyterian in-group politicking, is a group of folks committed to renewing my denomination by first driving everyone from it.

They and some fellow travellers are deeply concerned that the progressives and moderates within our denomination are utterly gutting the sexual ethic we get from scripture. By being open to "adulterers and homosexuals" being a part of our church, we're consigning ourselves to collapse and failure, as the Lord God Almighty shifts his divine endorsement to nondenominational Bible-believing megachurches.

I've discussed my scriptural response to homosexuality...but what about where I feel scripture stands on premarital sexuality?

To that question, the Bible read in a literal sense doesn't give you much wiggle room. There are many folks on my side of the aisle who will try to point to the variety of acceptable sexual expressions in the Old Testament as permission. Did David sin with his many, many wives, or when he tried and failed to get Abishag to *cough* warm him up? Ruth and her possible seduction of a tipsy Boaz invariably surfaces, although I would contend that seminary grads who argue that "feet" are a euphemism for a particular part of the male anatomy need to never, ever be put in charge of a foot washing service. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, people.

They'll point to the folk tale that gleefully and approvingly recounts Tamar's sexual trickery of her father-in-law Judah. If pretending to be a ho, getting pregnant, and blackmailing your family to get revenge can make the Torah proclaim you "righteous," well, golly, all bets are off. Or so the argument goes.

I don't generally find those arguments compelling. They presume that the Christian moral imperative is somehow bound to the folk ethics of an ancient near-Eastern culture. While we have our moral foundation in that culture, I don't think you can reasonably say that such stories represent the highest governing principles of that culture. They don't really capture the moral ethos of that society, or of a Christ-centered faith.

The Apostle Paul, while no great fan of marriage, makes a sustained and consistent argument against non-connubial nookie. Paul makes it clear in a range of different places...and particularly in 1 Corinthians 7...that he expects Christians to contain their sexuality within the bounds of a covenant union.

I don't tend to view this as Paul being oppressive. He's just being consistent with his repeated articulation of the core Golden Rule teaching of Christian faith. It's better to commit to another than to use another for one's own pleasure. Marriage, even in the rather more amorphous form that existed in 1st Century Rome, could give a clear framework for that commitment. It could also, of course, just be another way of securing worldly power over another child of God. It's conflation with property rights in the ancient world certainly didn't help.

While not rejecting Paul's gracious intent, I tend to go directly to our Man in Nazareth for advice on the issue. When we listen for Christ's sexual ethic, we get something that is...to be frank...even more challenging than Paul. Jesus makes it clear that Christians aren't called to just attend to the law. We're called to go well beyond it. Mechanistic chastity or by-the-book fidelity within the bounds of a marriage between a man and a woman means exactly jack to Jesus. Thinking that's our unbreachable bulwark against sin is the error of Pharisees, because Jesus here turns it up to eleven.

It's not just our practice. It's our desire. If you look at Halle Berry with lust in your heart, you are an adulterer. That is equally true of Scarlett Johannsen. It is exponentially more true of some creative combination of the both.


Where was I? I seem to have lost my train of thought. Oh yes...

What Jesus lays before us is a sexual ethic that both affirms marriage and transcends marriage. It affirms commitment to another, but it also forces us to admit that the reason that commitment is meaningful rests in our love for the other and an honoring of the other that goes to our purpose as human and sexual beings. Ultimately, I think that's where the heart of scripture leads us. The boundary that defines acceptable sexuality is love.

When I say that, though, I'm not saying that this is an easier standard. The "love" I describe is not to be confused with erotic desire. It also isn't fervid romance-novel emoting or the we're-celebrating-our-two-week-anniversary puppyness of adolescent infatuation. It is agape love, Essential Nature of the Almighty God love, Our God is a Consuming Fire love. It is an awareness that the way in which we interact with other souls has eternal weight. We are each accountable for how our actions impact the other, and if you have even the tiniest sliver of awareness of the nature of God's love, it can scare the pants right back on you.

I would hold that our actions as sexual beings are judged against the same essential standard as our other social and interpersonal relations. That means absolute injunctions against sexuality in it's predatory form or any sexual expression in which the other becomes primarily an object and not a Thou. Any authentic Christian sexual expression is fundamentally opposed to the culture of the hookup and the culture of sexual objectification.

Can sexual expression exist outside of marriage and not be inherently sin? I believe so. But if we take our role as disciples seriously, we're not going to take this intense and intimate part of our created nature lightly.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Once Again Into the Breach

I've spent chunks of time here and there over the past few days continuing the migration of my old xanga site to this little bit of blogosphere real estate. Xanga being what it is, I can't do that as a simple xml export/import. It's cutting. It's pasting. Whee. It's not tedious at all. No sirree. Then again, that means that I have to do some reading. I have to pick and choose. What's important? What's worth bringing over here? It's an interesting opportunity to reassess and examine some of my own theological babbling.

One of the things I'm most interested in having here is my perspective on the hot-button issue that has driven such a deep divide into so many of the oldline denominations: homosexuality.

My own little corner of the Christian faith is about to go back at it within the next month or so, as a proposal to re-change our Constitution to be more open and affirming of gay and lesbian partnerships comes before us. On the one hand, it's a good thing to be talking about this. On the other, I think it's easy for these conversations to become shout-fests, as the opposing sides lob mortars at one another from their deeply entrenched positions.

A while back, I compiled all of my thinking on this subject at a topical mini-blog entitled "Pastor Strangelove," which I've now re-re-updated to reflect my new location in the blogosphere. As I read through my thinking on the subject, that I find myself agreeing with myself is no surprise. We're all great at agreeing with ourselves.

The greatest challenge as we move into these exchanges is to remember to be open and gracious to those who disagree with our stance. We're going to have some difficult conversations...but if those conversations aren't governed by grace, they're going to serve no purpose. It's far too easy to demonize, to condemn, and to curse. But if we're to move forward on this issue, and do so according to the Spirit, we're going to need to show grace and forbearance...even to those with whom we vigorously disagree.

Homosexuality, Orientation, and Choice

During the hurly burly of the summer of 2008, I managed to read this article, which details a recent study on the neurophysiology of homosexuality. Obviously, the researchers in question are interested in doing more research, and make no definitive claims about causality between orientation and brain structure. But that there is a seemingly meaningful correlation between gay male brains and heterosexual female brains is nonetheless fascinating. That a similar correlation exists between lesbian brain structure and the structure of heterosexual males just adds to the sense that there is in fact something real at work here.

As my own denomination prepares to plunge once again into the fray over the ordination of gays and lesbians and the gay marriage issue, the continuing witness of objective neurobiological research like this makes the assertion that homosexuality itself is a choice seem more and more tenuous. On the radical left, there are many "queer" activists who are utterly unwilling to accept that homosexual orientation is not something chosen. On the fundamentalist right, homosexuality is declared a "lifestyle choice," something analogous to being drawn into a cult, and from which you can be deprogrammed.

Both of these perspectives don't seem to reflect the reality of homosexual orientation, and are instead rooted in an existing bias. The "choice" that gays and lesbians face has very little to do with orientation itself. It has more to do with the way that they respond to their orientation. Individuals who tend towards same-sex attraction have to find a way to respond to that orientation...and it is there that Christendom needs to determine what responses are permissible within a Christian moral framework.

If you've read my previous blogging on this issue, you'll know that I reject the two extreme positions. I reject the idea that any and all expressions of human sexuality are acceptable in the eyes of God. Here, I part ways with the radical left, which asserts that morality is contingent and essentially meaningless. Sexual behavior that is predatory or radically self-seeking is inherently sinful. It tears not just at the fabric of society, but also represents a radical violation of the love ethic, which is itself an expression of God's nature. I apply that standard evenly to heterosexuals and homosexuals. If you act sexually in ways that treat another child of God as an object, you sin, and God will hold you accountable.

I also reject the position that holds that homosexuality is inherently sociopathic, that any and all same-sex interactions are automatically evil. Here, I am explicitly rejecting the position of Biblical literalism. That does not mean that I reject Holy Scripture as the rule of life and faith, but that I understand it's authority in a radically different way.

From the core principles of scripture, I hold that either celibacy or covenant relationships are acceptable ways to set boundaries around our sexuality. As not all of us are called to celibacy, covenant relationship is a more viable approach. Those covenant relationships allow us to express our hardwired sexuality freely within their boundaries, and give us the moral basis for stepping away from destructive and disrespectful desire. That moral core is something that Christians should apply to all human relationships.

Will You Will or Will You Won't Be Mine?

"There is no deadlier weapon than the will! The sharpest sword is not equal to it! There is no robber so dangerous as Nature...yet it is not nature that does the damage: It is man's own will." Chuang Tzu

Sin is, at its essence, a corruption of the will. The orthodox Christian position is that our desire is flawed, not our bodies. Sin is a matter of software, not hardware. Our flawed desire takes the form of that "blind self-love" that Calvin describes, or the pride that Augustine condemns. Whenever love of self is placed above love of God and neighbor--we sin. That is at the heart of what Paul speaks about when he describes sin as living kata sarka, or "in the flesh." (Romans 8:5) We orient ourselves towards our own physical desires, and allow our own needs to rule over the needs of others.

That can't be understood to mean that the fulfillment of physical needs itself is evil. It isn't wrong to be hungry, or to eat. But the Ultimate Colossal Burger at Ruby Tuesday's has more calories than most sub-Saharan-Africans get in a day...and that's before your side of fries and half-gallon of soda.

It isn't wrong to feel sexual desire. Sharing that intimacy with a partner is good, and the potential for the creation of new life is a blessing. But when other human beings become just a means to our own pleasure, and all we think about all day is bangbangbangbangbang, then we live not according to our physicen kresin, our "natural functions" (Romans 1:17), but according to sin.

So now I'll weave this thread into my prior musings--where does this leave us relative to homosexuality
? The condemnations of the "homosexual lifestyle choice" that arise from many Christian leaders have at their heart this understanding of sin as a flaw of the will. That's why the emphasis on homosexuality as a choice must be vigorously repeated and defended. This, of course, flies in the face of what science and our God-given ability to examine our world shows us-but so what?

Common sense on sexual identity seems to have a sharper edge here. Take me, for instance. I'm a heterosexual male. I have always been attracted to women. Sometimes--sophomore and junior years in high school come to mind--that attraction has been so intense as to be almost a form of madness.

I could no more choose to be attracted to another man than I could choose to be a duck. It isn't how God made me. If you're similarly heterosexual--ask yourself the same question. Could you make that choice? Didn't think so. Choice, volition, and will have nothing to do with orientation itself.

If that is so, then how is homosexuality itself a sin?

I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up

Defining sin, of course, is a favorite Christian pastime, coming in a close third after macrame and Salem-style barbeque. We're all sure we know what it is, and we're all double extra sure plus to let all the sinners around us know that we know.

As the caricature would have it, Christians fall into two distinct camps on the subject. On the one hand, you have progressive, social justice, organic Guatemalan llama's milk Christians. For them, sin is primarily a corporate thing, something systemic and thus a bit on the amorphous side.

On the other, you have the fundamentalist, bible-believing, it's either Jesus or H-E-double-toothpicks Christians. For them, sin is primarily a personal thing, something to do with your own walk with God and whether or not you've had your altar-call card punched enough times.

That's the caricature, anyway.

But the Christian view of sin isn't just about our collective injustices or our individual moral failings. Sin isn't a particular behavior or pattern of behaviors, but something somehow integral to the human condition. Scripturally, sin begins before the word sin is ever used.

It starts, of course, at the beginning, so to the beginning we must go.

So we traipse back to the beginning, to our two stories of creation. Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3—the ancient priestly story of creation, told as part of the temple liturgies—is all about the goodness and power of God. God makes and affirms all of creation as good, and while one Hebrew text includes a caveat in Genesis 1:31 that specifically excludes Howard Stern, scholars are divided on the authenticity of that codex.

It’s in Genesis 2:4, with the beginning of the second story of creation, that we see scripture’s explanation of why God’s good works seem so freakin’ messed up. It’s the story of the Garden and the Fall, even more ancient than the priestly tale, a story that would have been told and retold around the campfires of the nomadic Abiru peoples. Here, God isn’t towering and glorious, spoken of in rhythmic liturgical cant. He is close, intimate, One who walks through the garden at the cool of the day. He creates the ‘adam, meaning “creature of earth,” not through a divine command, but with hands crusted with the loam of the earth and the warm life of his breath. He sets him in the garden to care for it in all of its goodness, warning him only to stay away from the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.

When the ‘adam needs a helpmate, God creates the ‘adamah, (the feminine form of adam) and things are briefly hunky dory. Then comes the passage that bugs the bejabbers out of every committed herpetologist.

The serpent—not Satan, that’s a later theological construction--arrives, and settles down to chat with the adamah. Interestingly, the snake doesn’t actually ever say anything that isn’t technically true, nor does it tell the adamah directly that she should eat from the tree of good and evil. It poses one question: What may you eat? Then it truthfully tells the adamah that the fruit won’t kill her (not right away, anyway), but will give her the knowledge of good and evil, just like God. So she chows down, and the adam, who’s been standing around the whole time listening in, eats too. Boom. There we have the root of sin.

But what is that sin? Is sin a flaw in how we are made, in the bodies that God knitted together from dust and breath? Or is sin something wrong with our minds, more a matter of our will?

The Doctrine of Differential Authority

One of the most maligned aspects of religious traditions is the role of doctrine and dogma. Being called "doctrinal" or "dogmatic" isn't usually considered a statement of respect. Instead, those terms are pitched out at people whose "faith" seems to serve as an impenetrable outer shell, a carefully constructed wall of tradition and received teachings that insure that there's no chance anything outside could ever touch or change them. As the common wisdom holds it, such souls are safe from the the pernicious influence of things like other human beings, reason, and the Spirit of the Living God.

This isn't entirely fair, of course. We all "take things on authority," and holding to doctrines and dogmas means little more than that. Abandoning doctrine entirely means essentially dismissing the insights of everyone who has come before you. For Christians, that would mean you're trashing several thousand years worth of insights from brilliant, thoughtful, Spirit-filled Jesus people. I just can't do that. I love Paul. Augustine is my brother. Walks through the woods with St. Francis would be marvelous. It is only out of the strange, self-centered arrogance of this age that we're able to delude ourselves into imagining that our "personal relationship" with God doesn't connect us to all those other souls who've rejoiced in Him through the ages.

But we don't like doctrines. Bleh. And because doctrines are so stinky, I'll..ahem...offer up another one. I've expounded on this a few times here before: The Doctrine of Differential Authority.

The rule of thumb...the "doctrine"...coming out of the Protestant Reformation regarding the reading of Scripture has always been that Scripture interprets Scripture. The intent of the reformer's approach was to liberate the interpretation of the Bible from the institutional church, and to allow it to speak for itself. If you read Calvin in particular, that liberation was intended to unfetter the Holy Spirit, which is the source and root of Scripture's authority.

This has taken us down two unfortunate paths. First, many Christians allow themselves to accept what I like...in my usual non-provocative manner...to call Satan's Method of Scriptural Interpretation. We've all seen it used. You take a random assemblage of unrelated texts that seem to prove your point, and count 'em all up to prove whatever point you wanted to make. Old Scratch used that one on top of the Jerusalem Tower. Whoever's got the most verses...wins!

Second, there's the tendency to view every single text in our canon as equally full of transforming power. Unfortunately, this lends itself to a level of cognitive dissonance that most sentient life forms can't endure. Let's say I'm in conversation with a woman, and she lets slip that she's a practicing Wiccan. Do I obey the infallible Word of God and immediately stab her? (Exodus 22:18) Or do I obey the infallible Word of God and engage her in an open and respectful conversation that surfaces my theological disagreement but remains guided by love? (Romans 12:17-18)

Many Christians get around the disagreements in Scripture by saying there is no disagreement. I understand this perspective, but I just can't do it myself. At a basic level, it doesn't seem to respect the authors of the texts...or the Author, for that matter. Instead, I prefer to interpret using the Doctrine of Differential Authority, which assumes that not all Scripture speaks with the same amount of God's power. To put it bluntly, some Scriptures are more rich with the Spirit than others, and those scriptures must be used to define those below them.

Well, you say, that leads us down the slippery slope of subjectivism! Though I appreciate your alliterative reply, I beg to differ. The Bible itself tells us that some passages are more important than others. Torah can be condensed into 10 Commandments. Those 10 Commandments can be condensed into the Great Commandment, the Love commandment, which is itself an expression of God's own nature.

As we approach scripture and seek its guidance as the rule of life and faith, it is this understanding that needs to govern our interpretation. Why approach it this way?

The point of such an approach is to do two things. First, to recognize and accept this innate hierarchy within canon. Second and more importantly, it's to help unlock the movement of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, which is its ecstatic source and the foundation of its authority.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Time To Move On

‘tso…what’s the point of all this? We Presbyterians have spent much of the last 25 years spinning our wheels over this issue. Folks on the left and folks on the right have been lobbing theological mortar shells at each other, in a deeply entrenched spiritual battle of the Somme. Back and forth we’ve gone, battling in blood and mire over the same 40 yards of theological turf.

At the recent General Assembly of the denomination, a panel of conservatives and progressives brought us a different way of approaching this issue—essentially declaring a truce, and making the issue one that is adiaphora for the church. In other words, it is an issue on which people of good conscience can disagree.

Progressives and liberals are challenged to accept that conservative Christians may not, in fact, be simply acting out of bigotry and repressed hatred, but out of an honest desire to stay true to God’s will. Conservatives have been asked to accept that progressives aren’t just culturally corrupted pseudo-Wiccans, but might be acting out of an honest desire to fulfill God’s scriptural commands of love and justice.

We’ve been asked to set our swords aside and listen to each other, and to pray with each other. I don’t know, honestly, if it’s going to work. It’s a whole bunch easier to fight than it is to forgive.

My personal position on this—which a critical and dispassionate assessment of scripture indicates—is that the issue is not of central importance within the Bible.

But weaseling out of expressing the voice of my conscience would be annoying, so I’ll spit it out. I’m convinced that those who want to set aside the dysfunctional isolation and deception that have defined homosexual lifestyle and live instead in open partnered, covenanted same-sex relationships are doing something new, and that that new thing that is pleasing in God’s sight. That position is drawn from my own observations of partnered gays and lesbians working in ministry.

It is grounded in my wholistic approach to scripture, which places greater emphasis on the central principles it teaches and the Spirit that fills it.

Back to Pastor Strangelove


So what’s Paul doing rhetorically in Romans 1? In terms of ethos, logos, and pathos, Paul starts, appropriately, with ethos. Remember, Paul hadn’t yet visited Rome. This letter was his best foot forward, a sincere effort to establish himself and his authority in a church that didn’t really know him yet. It was like that sermon a pastor preaches the very first Sunday in their new church. You pull out the stops. Read through Romans 1:1-17, and you see him establishing common ground, and presenting his spiritual credentials.

When we reach verse 18-32, Paul moves to pathos. He’s trying to evoke a sense of indignation at the sin of idolatry, which is the root sin expressed in Romans 1:22-23. It is idolatry that drives human beings to fall from God. The link between idolatry and the practices that Paul cites is cemented by his use of the Greek word dio, which we see translated as “therefore.” One thing happens, therefore another follows on.

According to Paul, what follows on from idolatry is twofold. First, there is degradation of desire (Romans 1:24-25), and second, the degradation of the mind (Romans 1:28). As an example of the first, Paul cites the giving up of phusiken kresin, or the “natural function” between men and women. As an example of the second, Paul runs through another one of his naughty lists, in verses 29-30.

Let’s set aside for a moment the argument about the root cause of homosexuality. Most people who are so inclined will tell you that they knew they felt same-sex attraction from childhood. Very few of them—at least in the survey and scientific data I’ve seen—indicate that they began feeling same sex attraction after they set up a small shrine to Regis Philbin in their basement. The causal link between worshipping idols and gayness is, shall we say, tenuous.

But I’m willing to spot Paul that point of fact, for two reasons. First, he’s using this as an example of fallenness—and idolatry as a concept, not a practice--based on his own observations of Roman Imperial culture. Second, it’s not his purpose. This section isn’t the point of his message. It serves much the same function as that cheesy canned anecdote your preacher uses to get you laughing before he gets around to the real message. The clear effect of Paul’s use of pathos is to make his listeners nod their heads at these wretched, godforsaken souls. They lived in Rome. They knew what went on. It would have lead some of his hearers, perhaps, feel a little more sure of their own righteousness under the law.

So when Paul continues on to the point of his argument in chapter two—an argument that will be sustained through to Romans 8:39—his listeners may well expect the “Therefore..” that begins chapter 2, verse one to lead to more of the same. They’re expecting Paul to lay in to a familiar list of known sinners in a way that would do Ann Coulter proud. Instead, having used pathos to stir that feeling, Paul switches to a formal rhetorical style known as diatribe, and they get this:

Romans 2:1-5 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, "We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth." Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.

Paul's point--and a core theme of Romans--is that all of us are sinners, and that all fall short of the demands of the law. If we only nod along to the pathos, and fail to hear the sharpness of Paul's challenge to our graceless judgments that this pathos establishes, then we've missed that point.

Back to Pastor Strangelove

Will and Grace are Pauline Theological Concepts

Romans, Romans, Romans. It's the very pinnacle of Paul's theology, a complicated and passionate letter that establishes how we as Christ's people understand what it is that Christ has done for us. Here Paul lays the foundation of our understanding grace as triumphing over the condemnation of the law. Here Paul *defines* the saving power of faith. This essential book also contains--in Romans 1--the most explicit condemnation of homosexual behavior in all of scripture.

In a speech given several years ago to a group of evangelicals, conservative Bible scholar Paul Achtemeier asserted that if the church is to meaningfully wrestle with this issue, it first needs to come to terms--honestly and openly--with what Romans 1 is actually saying. So...what does it say? Here are the specific verses in question:

Romans 1:21b-27 "...although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator-- who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion."

There we go! Here we have Paul clearly--clearly--telling the church at Rome that being gay is a "shameful lust." Case closed. Right? That was the point Paul was trying to make, right?

But Romans is not a book that can be understood verse by verse. It isn't a series of pithy little proverbs and aphorisms. It isn't a *simple* book, to be easily grasped by a casual reader. To understand it, you have to read it as a whole, following the arguments as they develop. Then you scratch your head, pray, and read it again. And again. The whole book is a carefully assembled and complex argument for the necessity of Christ's grace, crafted by a brilliant, passionate, and Spirit-filled rhetorician.

For in addition to his rabbinic training and his part-time camping supply business, Paul was also clearly a master of the art of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Rhetoric gets a bad rap nowadays, but it was an essential part of any educated person's training in the ancient world. To succeed in life, you had to be able to persuade people with the spoken and written word. That's exactly what Paul is doing with the whole letter of Romans. He's persuading Rome--and us--of the saving grace of Christ, using all of the tools in the classical rhetorician's toolbox. In classical rhetoric, the many tools of a speaker or writer fell into three primary categories: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos is, in essence, laying a common groundwork with a listener. It establishes the authority of the speaker. Ethos helps an audience understand who you are, and why you're someone to be trusted.

Logos is a particular type of argument, using data and the application of logical proofs as evidence for the rightness of your position. Understood simply, it is an argument from reason, the Mr. Spock school of persuasion.

Pathos is another type of argument, which is intended to stir an emotional response in it's listeners. You stir a crowd to laughter, you move them to tears, you goad them into anger, you cajole them into uncontrollable flatulence, and having evoked that feeling in them, you lead them to agree with your position.

The educated and erudite church in Rome would have expected--needed--Paul to approach them with a letter that showed a mastery of rhetoric, and Paul did not disappoint.

So what point is Paul making, and what place does Romans 1:21-27 have in his argument?

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Beavis and Butthead Snicker When They Interpret This Verse

1 Corinthians 6:9 gives interpreters and translators something of a challenge. It's a list of sins--Paul loves firing off lists--but what exactly are those sins? Particularly, what are the last two sins listed in the verse? The King James and its updates in particular render the verse in a marvelously obtuse way...heaven is forbidden to the "..effeminate and abusers of themselves with mankind."

You're damned if you're effeminate? But...Alberto Gonzales is such a nice man otherwise.

In the Greek, the last two items on Paul's naughty list are "malakoi" and "arsenokoitai." Read literally, the verse condemns the "soft ones" and the "man-bedders." While Paul coined the word "arsenokoitai" from the Levitical injunction against homosexuality, the term "malakoi" was actually used in the Greco-Roman world to describe a young man who sells himself, typically to older, more powerful men. So why the repetition? Is Paul saying: "I condemn homosexuals, and homosexuals, too!" Or is it the professional gay v. amateur gay distinction? "It's a sin if you get paid for it, and a sin if you don't!"

Some have suggested that it refers to the passive versus the active role in the relationship. Others have interpreted it as specifically condemning homosexual practices at the time, which usually involved wealthy and powerful men indulging themselves with young men-- "arsenokoitai" and "malakoi" referring specifically to that dynamic.

But whichever way you slice it, both of those words are really tangential to Paul's point. He's not talking about sexual sin here. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 deals with the issue of lawsuits among believers, not sexual immorality. He's just firing off a list of commonly known vices, to reinforce to the Corinthians that they're being wicked when they go after each other in court. Paul's fond of "vice lists," because they make for a good, punchy spoken argument. For another example, look to Galatians 5:19-21, where Paul seems to leave being gay off the list entirely. Relying on this verse, or the deutero-Pauline 1 Timothy 1:10, just doesn't give you enough of a solid theological grounding to oppose committed same-sex relationships. 1 Corinthians is a pastoral letter, dealing with pastoral issues in the church at Corinth. Homosexuality just isn't one of the issues that Paul is centrally concerned with in Corinth. It isn't. To argue otherwise is to violate the plain and evident purpose of the text in service of a pointless and idolatrous literalism.

Not that I have any opinion on the subject.

That leaves us with only one passage left to explore, the Mac Daddy of the scriptural teachings on homosexuality, Romans 1.

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Arseno-What? Malaka-Who? Looking at Pauline Theology

Moving into the Epistles...'cause the Gospels have nothing to say to this topic directly...we find ourselves looking at three verses that deal with same-sex relationships. Two are very similar to one another, so we'll look at those first. In both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 , homosexual behavior is specifically included in lists of wrongdoing.

In each of these two verses, the Greek word arsenokoitai is used. This has given conniptions to interpreters over the years, as it appears to be a word that Paul himself made up. The variance in translations of the word among the different Bibles is evidence of this. The King James renders it "abusers of themselves with mankind," and the New Revised Standard has it as "sodomites." The NIV folks can't seem to make up their minds, as in 1 Corinthians it is translated as meaning "homosexual offenders" and in 1 Timothy it is translated as "perverts."

As arsen means "man" and koitai means..well.."bedders," the most literal translation would be "man-bedders." Paul appears to have coined the phrase by combining two words that appear in the Greek Septuagint version of Leviticus 18. Although some progressive scholars have tried to suggest that this word doesn't refer to the love that dares not speak it's name, their arguments are not convincing. Paul is specifically referring to homosexual behavior here, using the Levitical codes as his clear inspiration.

In interpreting this passage, however, a more legitimate question is whether Paul is condemning any same-sex relationship, or--as some have claimed--a specific type of same-sex relationship. For that, we need to look more closely at 1 Corinthians 6:9.

Must it be chapter 6, verse 9? God's sense of humor sometimes surprises even me.

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Leviticus? We Don' Need No Stinkin' Leviticus...Or Do We?

So Sodom isn't the answer? What about elsewhere in the Old Testament? Here, I'm not talking about indirect references. It has to be directly talking to the issue. The answer here is that--well--there's not much. We've only got these two passages:

Leviticus 18:22 "'Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.

Leviticus 20:13 "'If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

Puts a whole different spin on ex-gay ministry, eh?

Of course, we don't stick to the Levitical codes now. We don't mind if women come inside a church when..uh..Red Skelton's payin' 'em a visit. So to speak. There are countless verses--whole chapters--dealing with the Monthly Messiness. There are entire chapters explaining how priests are to assess and treat skin diseases. Yet another duty that would now get turned over to the youth pastor, no doubt.

We just don't use Leviticus as our guide. We don't kill adulterers. That'd seriously cut down on membership. We don't kill kids who sass their parents. Tempting though that may sometimes be.

So we just toss out Leviticus, right? We've got Jesus, we don't need no stinkin' Leviticus. It's superceded. It's out of date. Read Leviticus 19:9-18. Are we ready to dismiss those verses as irrelevant, archaic laws? Verse 18 in particular. What about the proclamations of Leviticus 25, which prohibits us from being in debt slavery to one another, and calls out for us to care for God's creation? What about the prohibition of adultery? If you can't hear God speaking in these verses, then you're not listening very closely.

As we approach Leviticus, we need to use Christ and Christ's love as our measure. We accept those portions that are magnified in Christ's teachings, like his perspective on wealth and care for the poor, or of love of neighbor. We change our interpretation of those sections that Jesus modifies, like his willingness to forgive--not kill--adulterers. We reject those portions that seem either in opposition to his teachings or irrelevant to his teachings.

Jesus, of course, says nothing about homosexuality at all. Not a peep in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Nada. Zip.

So can we rely on Levitical codes as the foundation of Scriptural disapproval of homosexuality? You make the call.

On, then, to the Epistles.

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What Happens in Sodom, Stays in Sodom

Beyond the story of Sodom in Genesis 19--which leaves some ambiguity as to what the problem in Sodom actually *is,* where else in scripture do we find reference to that unpleasant little burg? Perhaps that'll clear things up a bit. Or not...

In the Old Testament, we hear only two references that try to explain what happened in Sodom, both times in prophetic literature.

Isaiah 3:9-15 The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves. Tell the righteous it will be well with them, for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds. Woe to the wicked! Disaster is upon them! They will be paid back for what their hands have done. Youths oppress my people, women rule over them. O my people, your guides lead you astray; they turn you from the path. The LORD takes his place in court; he rises to judge the people. The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: "It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?" declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.

Ezekiel 16:49-50 "'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

Here, neither Isaiah or Ezekiel use Sodom as an example of God condemning same-sex relationships. In fact, sexual immorality doesn't come into the equation at all. If you read the plain, straight-up text itself, it just isn't there. Sodom, for both of these prophets, is used to symbolize those who oppress the poor, as they lay a theological whuppin' on the self-absorbed Judeans around them.

Well, what about in the Gospels and Epistles? There are nine references to Sodom itself in the New Testament, and two uses of the word "sodomite."

The term "sodomite" is used in some English translations (not the NIV or KJV) to render the Greek term arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10). That word comes from colloquial English, and does not indicate any original textual connection with the city or what went on there. We'll talk about what it means later.

So what of the nine specific references to Sodom? Of these, eight don't talk at all about the nature of the sin of Sodom. Only Jude 1:7 speaks to it, and what it says varies depending on your translation:

NIV: Jude 1:7 "In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion..."

New Revised Standard Jude 1:7 "Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust.."

King James Version Jude 1:7 "Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh..."

Clearly, Jude presents Sodom's crime as sexual sin. The challenge for translators comes with the words that are in bold. What sort of sexual sin is being referred to here? What the NIV translators refer to as simply "perversion" is actually an entire clause in the Greek. "apeltheousai spisou sarkos heteras." The King James comes closest to giving us a literal translation, as what Jude is saying is "going after strange flesh" or, as heteras is in every other location rendered "another" in the Bible "going after another's flesh."

Again, there is no direct reference to same sex activity here. If this verse--as it occurs in our most ancient manuscripts--is read as it was written, then the sexual sin Jude is referring to is better understood as describing their attempted violent assault on the strangers in their midst. If we take scripture as a guide, the sin of Sodom is twofold: 1) They oppress the poor and are selfish, and 2) They engage in predatory sexuality.

If you're looking for scriptural justification to condemn homosexual behavior, you're going to have to travel beyond the Sodom city limits, and travel elsewhere. Let's stick with the Old Testament for a bit. Where else in the Torah, the Prophets, or the Writings can we find talk of gayness or..um..what's the term...lesbiosity?

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Pastor Strangelove: Welcome To Sunny Sodom!

Given my ongoing desire to explore only the simple, non-controversial issues, methinks it's time to talk a bit about scripture, the essentials of our faith, and homosexuality.

Whenever I start one of these conversations, I always feel a bit like Slim Pickens in the classic Cold War movie Dr. Strangelove. You know that delightful scene--simultaneously rousing and horrific--where Slim pounds away at a nuke that's jammed in the bomb bay door of his B-52. It comes loose while he's on top of it, and down he goes, riding it like a bronco, hootin' and a-hollerin' and waving his stetson like a rodeo cowboy. With that in mind..."Yeeeee HAW!"

The obvious starting point of any discussion of homosexuality in scripture is Genesis 19. Welcome to sunny Sodom! This little story--part of the ancient histories of the Hebrew people--is conventionally interpreted in a pretty straightforward way. The folks of Sodom were all overly light in the loafers, so God sends in an angelic rescue squad, extracts the one straight arrow and his family from the city, and then lays in with a divine game of smear the queer. This is nice, simple, Fred Phelps theology.

But there's much more complexity to the story of Sodom than first meets the eye. The angels that visit Lot have just visited Abraham and Sarah, where they were granted generous hospitality. Being welcoming to the stranger in your midst was a core principle in the Semitic world, and when the angels arrive at the gate of Sodom, Lot insists on feeding them and putting them up.

That evening, every single man in Sodom shows up at Lot's door to have a go at his guests. That's a pretty impressive turnout--I don't think even San Fran breaks down that way demographically.

Lot's reaction is--well--interesting. He offers the rapacious mob his virgin daughters instead. "Gee, thanks, Dad." Why? Why is he willing to toss his girls to the crowd?

In his attempts to persuade the assailants to back off, what does Lot say? He doesn't say "don't do anything to these men, because gay sex is unnatural, and God hates fags." He says, "...don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof." The primary issue here, as articulated by Lot, is that the basic principles of hospitality and care for the stranger are being cast aside by those seeking to do sexual violence to others. Violating a guest was..by the unfortunate standards of ancient Semitic culture..far more shameful than violating a female family member. Women were, after all, little more than property.

From this passage, that willingness to do violence to another for one's own gratification seems to define Sodom's wickedness far more deeply than same-sex intercourse.

As the text itself doesn't really provide much support for the popular interpretation of why God trashed that town, we should ask ourselves: what does the rest of the Bible have to say about "the sin of Sodom?"

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