Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 16: Summary

While I consider whether I really have anything useful to add to the Chick-fil-A wars, and whether the fact that I probably don’t will keep me from saying something anyway, you get the second-to-last installment of this incredibly long series about the virgin birth.

I suspect most people just joining the series don’t have time to go back through 15 posts, and those who have been following along since March(!) might not even remember all that we’ve discussed, so before we get to the conclusion next week, here’s a summary of where we’ve been:

God Keeps Choosing Us

We’ve had some birthdays in the Disoriented household this month; I have now been a father for four of my 30 years of life. I was not prepared for the numerous ways in which fatherhood changes a person. It’s not the same for everyone, I’m sure, but having children, especially daughters, changed the way I look at everything from movies and advertising to the Bible and God.

The latter is especially significant. The Bible describes God as a parent numerous times, ascribing to him the characteristics of both mother and father (we tend only to focus on the latter, to our discredit). Certainly, we have picked up that mantle. We often address God as “Father,” we talk about divine correction, we often analogize God’s actions with the actions of a parent.

But I don’t think you can really get a handle on God’s love until you experience what it’s like to love unconditionally as a parent – at least I couldn’t. My view of God has been radically reshaped by finally understanding the parental perspective on the actions of my children.

Perhaps one of the most damaging doctrines with which I was raised is the notion that God does not hear/listen to the prayers of those who have sinned. This notion is taken, as far as I can tell, from a single verse, Isaiah 59:2: “Your misdeeds have separated you from God. Your sins have hidden his face from you, so that you aren’t heard.”

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‘God Lets His Children Tell the Story’

Not much time for posting this morning, but I highly recommend you go on over to Peter Enns’ blog and read this post:

I remember telling my middle school mates that my father was an engineer who left a promising academic career before coming to America. He also knew a lot about guns, since he was in World War 2, and killed bad guys left and right.

That story was genuinely connected to my real father, but honor was at stake. How I told the story was dictated, unwittingly, by rules of the schoolyard.

My father was a blue-collar machinist (not engineer) who wanted to be a school teacher (not academic), but World War 2 got in the way. He was in the war, but I didn’t dare let on that he did not fight for our side. He was born in Russia, was captured by the Germans, and was forced to be a German-Russian translator (and therefore a German soldier). He also hated guns, since his community in Russia was pacifist Mennonite. But he won a turkey shoot when I was young, a fact I exaggerated and incorporated into my narrative.

But I never mentioned the many things my father did that were also heroic but not quite as exciting—like coming to all my little league games, working long hours to make sure we kept a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and cars to get around in even though money was very tight. Had I talked like that, it would have fallen on deaf ears.

When God lets his children tell the story, the way that story is told is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the “rules of the schoolyard”; in the case of the Old Testament that means ancient tribal societies that valued in their people and in their gods such things as taking land, vanquishing (i.e., killing or enslaving) their foes, and generally bragging about who has the best gods and the best kings.

That is how people thought, and this “rule” is stamped all over the Old Testament. This is a way of understanding why the Bible behaves the way that it does. It bears the marks of the limitations of the cultures.

Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 15

I think we’re finally reaching the end of our journey through the various cases for and against the virginity of Mary when she conceived Jesus. We’ve looked at the texts, the history, the defenses. One thing we have not looked at yet is, now that we’ve explored the conservative case for why the literal virgin conception is necessary, why more liberal theologians argue it isn’t.

I do not think [the birth stories of Matthew and Luke] are historically factual, but I think they are profoundly true in another and more important sense. … I do not see these stories as historical reports but as literary creations. As the latter, they are not history remembered but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus’ significance.

That’s Marcus Borg in his response to N.T. Wright’s defense of the virgin birth in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, the pair’s literary debate about all things Jesus.

Similar, Thomas Boslooper in his 1962 work The Virgin Birth takes great pains to lay out the historical case against the literal historicity of the Matthew and Luke narratives, yet in his introduction says:

If the church continues to deny, neglect or misinterpret the virgin birth, it will continue to fail to employ one of its chief tools for building a well-ordered and moral society. A truly catholic and ecumenical understanding of the virgin birth of Jesus is demanded by the religious issues and moral climate of the twentieth century. Such an approach to an important Biblical narrative may also help to produce a truly catholic and ecumenical church.

This from someone who believes the virgin birth is purely metaphorical!

So let it be rejected that those who reject the historicity of the virgin birth are not strong defenders of it in some sense. The question is: How do they get there? How do they argue for truth apart from fact?

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P.O.D., Christians and the F-Word

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them shit, that I may gain Christ. – Philippians 3:8

Translators are clearly uncomfortable with the fact that the Apostle Paul uses a word in Philippians 3:8 whose most accurate translation in modern English is a four-letter word. The closest I’ve seen any translation get is “dung” (KJV) or “sewer trash” (CEB). But, in fact, Paul is using a first-century cuss word, and if we were going to accurately bring his context forward to our own language, we’d say “shit.”

Alex Heath has a good explanation for why Paul would do this:

I believe Paul uses the word “shit” in this passage because he is trying to create an incredibly stark and extreme contrast between the the “things” of the world, and the pursuit of Christ. It’s serious business.

This is the same Paul (well, potentially) who in Ephesians says, “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth.” But Ephesians is a boilerplate epistle, written as general encouragement and instruction to any churches who might need it (the oldest versions of the letter have a blank where the addressees should be), and so Paul is speaking generally there, whereas in a specific letter to a specific church, he uses extremely strong language because he’s making an extremely strong point.

So the lesson seems to be: Generally we should avoid trafficking in the crude language of the culture around us, but occasionally the situation might call for a well-placed profanity to get people’s attention.

I’ve been thinking about this because the rock group P.O.D. has stirred up a kerfuffle on their latest album, Murdered Love. Continue reading

Book Review: ‘A Better Atonement’ by Tony Jones

Confession: I don’t care much for theology.

That would seem to be a problem, given I’m getting a degree in history and theology, but my problem is not so much the study of God (the strict definition of the word) but how hard those who know a lot about theology make it for the rest of us.

Sometimes when I read the Homebrewed Christianity blog or listen to their podcasts, or when Daniel Kirk quotes at length from Karl Barth, or when Richard Beck gets deep into the weeds with William Stringfellow, my head starts to hurt. I don’t think I’m an unintelligent person, but it seems the best theologians wind their thoughts into sentences of unimaginable length, using inaccessible words and phrases almost as a sign of how theological they’re being. I don’t care for that kind of writing, and I don’t think it does a service to the study of theology – which, granted, is a fairly complex subject.

So I am very much appreciative of Tony Jones’ short e-book, A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin. In it, Tony tackles a complicated subject – atonement – and makes it easy to understand.

Jones breaks his argument into three parts – an argument against the doctrine of Original Sin, an interlude in which he defends the historicity of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, and an overview of alternatives to the dominant theory of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).

The value in Jones’ book lies in the final chapter, his overview and analysis of the various atonement theories. He runs through eight of them then concludes with his own. This section is clearly written and easy to understand, which is a refreshing break from typical theology writing. Close behind it is the interlude and its defense of Jesus’ actual bodily resurrection. This might not be fair to the more liberal among us, but this section gives Jones an immense amount of credibility as he questions the dominant atonement tradition of the modern church. Let’s face it: It’s not terribly surprising for someone who rejects the physical resurrection of Christ – the oldest, most central doctrine to orthodox Christianity – to question a newer, less central doctrine. But Jones is a passionate and eloquent defender of the resurrection and the miracles of Jesus, which gives what he has to say about the work being done through those miracles, through that resurrection and through the crucifixion added weight.

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Whoops

So I fully intended last week to write a “going on vacation” post. But the stress of getting everything packed up and into the car drove it from my mind, and though I brought my laptop with me, never even opened it until this morning. So instead this is a “sorry I went on vacation and didn’t tell you” post.

I’m pretty sure dropping off the face of the earth without warning for a whole week isn’t right up there on the list of things you should do to sustain your blog traffic, but the average hits per day actually increased when I was gone. Apparently, the masses have spoken: We like your blog better when you don’t say anything.

Undaunted, I’ll continue posting anyway, starting tomorrow. Be warned.