People sometimes look at me a little funny when I tell them my favorite book of the Bible was when I was growing up was Revelation.
Yes, that Revelation. The one with the beasts and fire and blood and war.
Here’s the thing. In the Plymouth Brethren tradition in which I was raised, the worship time includes a lot of dead space – stretches of silence while everyone waits for a man, believing he is led by the Spirit, to rise and offer a scripture or a hymn for us all to sing or a prayer.
And when you’re only allowed a Bible with you to fill those interminable spaces, you go to the most action-packed book of the canon, the one that is literally apocalyptic.
Unfortunately, when Revelation is your favorite book and you grow up in the religious tradition begun by the man who literally invented the rapture-tribulation interpretation that forms the basis for much of the way people view Revelation today, your view of the book – and consequently your view of God – can get a little dark.
So when the opportunity arose to teach a class on Revelation at my church – well, OK, I’m a member of the adult education committee, so maybe I carved out an opportunity for myself – I jumped at it. What better way to understand a misunderstood book than by having to explain it to others?
I expected the class to be fun. I expected to learn something. I didn’t expect to finish it with the feeling that Revelation is once again my favorite book.
So how did that happen? How can a 10-week class so thoroughly redeem a book that scares so many people?
Well, since Revelation is filled with sevens – seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls – here are seven, um, revelations that came from the class, mostly courtesy of the excellent “textbook” we used: Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester.
We all know Revelation, whether we realize it or not.
Revelation never intended its message to be hidden from its audience.
Noah’s flood might have required 40 days to drown the world, but the Methodist General Conference of 1844 nearly matched it, with the tide of slavery washing over the denomination and leaving it shattered after 41 days of acrimonious debate.
For decades, the question of slavery festered within the body of the nation’s largest denomination; by 1844, only one American organization was larger than the Methodist Episcopal Church: the federal government itself.
And like the government, Methodists were paralyzed by their divisions over the ownership of human beings. Initially one of the strongest anti-slavery voices in American Christianity – inheriting the convictions of its founder, John Wesley – Methodism in the South, like all of southern Christianity, had become increasingly tolerant, even supportive, of the institution as it became increasingly vital to the regional economy.
Northern bishops, however, became increasingly convinced of slavery’s evil, following in the tradition of evangelist Francis Asbury, who relied more on natural law than the Bible when he argued that “every perfection [God] possesses must be opposed to a practice contrary to every moral idea which can influence the human mind.” Likewise, slavery was “totally opposite to the whole spirit of the gospel.”
Methodist slaveholders took a different approach: using the plain text of the Bible – especially the Old Testament, which provided justification not only for slavery but also for the enslavement of Africans, descendants of the cursed son of Noah, according to a literal reading of Genesis.
Further, proslavery Methodists – again, like southern Christians as a whole – pointed to the several places in the New Testament where Paul sets out conditions of a master-servant relationship. It would be unscriptural, these slaveholders argued, to go beyond the plain, literal text of scripture.
As one southern Methodist bishop put it, there existed “no warrant from apostolic precept or example” to upend this relationship, and to do so would “go beyond the [biblical] charter and transcend the bounds of our commission.”
When Bishop James Andrew of Georgia inherited a slave through his wife – and with no way to easily free him under state law – abolition-minded northern Methodists were outraged. Andrew proposed resigning, but fellow southerners insisted he stay and fight. After 41 bitter days, the General Conference of 1844 requested his resignation – and within a year the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was born.
Reunification would not occur for nearly a century.
History does not repeat itself, the saying goes, but often it rhymes. History rhymed pretty clearly last week.
Originally posted to Facebook on Sept. 21, 2016. It has only suffered minor edits in transplanting it here.
I just finished reading Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch, a book about the devil and spiritual warfare for people who question, if not totally reject, literal notions of demons and angels.
It cautions against overpoliticizing and over-metaphorizing those concepts because the Bible talks about them not just in relation to political power, but also to internal moral struggles found within each person. Fighting for social justice is spiritual warfare, but so too is loving others – emptying yourself for them, fighting daily against the fear of death and the fear of loss and the love of money and country and possessions that militate against radical, sacrificing love. Lots of food for thought in that book, for those who believe in a literal Satan, and for those who don’t.
Beck believes we should recover a language of the demonic, understanding that powers greater than humanity do indeed ensnare us. Call them what you will, but Nazism, Stalinism, systems of fascism and totalitarianism and apartheid are demonic. More, they are demons that burrow into the fabrics of societies and require active struggle, both collective and individual, to defeat and defang.
Our society, more than at any point in the past 50 years, is actively doing battle against the demon of Racism.
It’s a demon born to justify the much older demon of Slavery; together, they were carried aboard ships across the Atlantic. They planted deep roots in America’s urban centers and in southern labor camps. They joined with the demons of Materialism and Consumerism to build an economy unrivaled in the world. Together, they unseated whole nations, destroyed families, murdered millions. A physical war was required to break the partnership and loosen the hold of Slavery on our society. But Racism persisted. It persists. It is weaker than it was, but it is wilier. When Martin and Malcolm and Stokely and others helped to cast it out of our laws, it sank deeper into our cultures. It wrapped itself in a flag and called itself Heritage.
It remains the demon we are most likely to condemn – and least likely to confront.
So it’s been a few days years since I’ve blogged. I’ll talk more about that in a future post. But nothing gets the Disorientedblog-outrage juices flowing like an unexpected, vicious, evil assault on LGBT Christians.
And make no mistake, that’s what the “Nashville Statement” produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood this week is. Not only was it unexpected, but it comes at a time when LGBT people are feeling particularly vulnerable. It is certainly vicious.
And, yes, it is evil. I’ve discussed in this space before how the words of prominent Christians affect the lives of LGBT youth, who are at increased risk for homelessness, addiction, self-harm and suicide – almost all of it traceable to the shame and ostracism they feel from people who claim to love them.
Lots of people have said lots of things about the Nashville Statement (the condemnations have been refreshingly swift and fierce), but if I had to summarize the most interestingshockinghorrifying elements, it would be these:
Articles III and IV describe differences between men and women as “divinely ordained,” but does not attempt to describe what those differences are.
Article V says that genitals “are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female,” and posits a “God-appointed link” between a person’s genitalia and their self-conception.
Article VI acknowledges the existence of intersex people and affirms that they “have dignity and worth equal to all other” humans … but makes no effort to reconcile their existence with Article V’s emphasis on genitals being “integral to God’s design for self-conception.”
Article X is truly shocking, as it labels support of same-sex relationships and “transgenderism” (which isn’t a thing) “an essential departure from Christian faithfulness,” leading to the inescapable – and, to their credit, explicitly stated – conclusion that “faithful Christians” cannot “agree to disagree” on whether to affirm same-sex relationships and transgender people. This draws the line, and millions of baptized Christians who affirm the divinity and resurrection of Christ while also affirming same-sex marriages are on the wrong side.
Article XIII argues that the grace of God, rather than providing room to disagree on complex and sensitive issues like transgender identity, “enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions … that are at odds with God’s revealed will.”
And, going out of order, because this is the crux of my post: Article VII says a person’s notion of their masculinity or femininity “should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.”
But, um, where is the Scripture in the Nashville Statement? Article XIII discusses “God’s revealed will.” Article V mentions a “God-appointed link.” Articles III and IV mention “divinely ordained” sexual differences.
But where are the actual words of God?
Here, so far as I can tell is a complete rundown of all of the Bible verses directly or indirectly quoted in the 14 articles of the Nashville Statement:
Article VI quotes Matt 19:12 regarding intersex people: “… our Lord Jesus in his words about ‘eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.'”
That’s it. One verse that likely was never intended to address the subject the CBMW rips it out of context to address. For a group with “Biblical” right in the name and 14 articles discussing what they allege are biblical views of gender and sexuality, that’s awfully skimpy.
Rather than go any more at length into the manifest wrongness of the Nashville Statement – and make no mistake, it is wrong on nearly every count, whether you’re looking at it morally, psychologically, scientifically or biblically – let me just respond with a few Bible verses the CBMW maybe could have used to create a statement more in keeping with the Jesus they claim to follow:
“And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for a person to be alone.'” – Genesis 2:18
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Leviticus 19:18
“Love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. … Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.” – Song of Songs 8:6-7
“Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. … Stop doing wrong; learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. – Isaiah 1:13, 17
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” – Hosea 6:6
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? … He has shown you, oh human, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:6, 8
“So in everything do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 7:12
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30
“‘ Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40/Mark 12:30-31
“‘Which of these do you think was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” – Luke 10:36-37
“Woe to you, Pharisees, because you [tithe] but you neglect justice and the love of God. … And you experts of the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” – Luke 11:42, 46
“This is my command: Love each other.” – John 15:17
“You therefore have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself because you who pass judgment do the same things.” – Romans 2:1
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” – Romans 8:37-39
“Each of us will give an account of themselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.” – Romans 14:12-13
“Now to the unmarried I say: … If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” – 1 Corinthians 7:8-9
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The person who thinks they know something does not yet know as they ought to know. But the person who loves God is known by God.” – 1 Corinthians 8:1-3
“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I am nothing. … And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13:3, 13
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
“Therefore, my dear friends … continue to work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and act according to his purpose.” – Philippians 7:12-13
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. … And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” – Colossians 3:12, 14
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” – 1 Peter 4:8
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates a brother or sister, that person is a liar.” – 1 John 4:7-8, 16, 18-20
This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh.
It’s cited widely elsewhere in the Bible – in all three of the synoptic gospel’s portrayals of Jesus’ divorce teachings, in 1 Corinthians 6 and in Ephesians 5. And it’s lately become the crux in what I call the template argument, in which this verse provides the proof that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman.
This verse came back to my attention while reading the short – though quite dense – book The Septuagint, Sexuality and the New Testament by William Loader, professor of New Testament at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Loader is looking for ways in which the Septuagint translators changed the Hebrew text of certain Old Testament passages dealing with sexuality, and how those changes influenced the arguments of Greco-Roman Jews relying on the Septuagint, particularly Philo of Alexandria and Paul of Tarsus.
At first blush, it’s hard to think of two more opposite approaches to God, sin and judgment than Calvinism and universalism. Calvinism is all wrathful, while universalism is all cuddly. In universalism, God saves everyone from hell; in Calvinism he predestines most people to it.
Yet modern universalism – that is, universalism as expressed in the modernist era, as opposed to the previous three examples of universalism expressed in the ancient and medieval era – actually grew out of Calvinism. In fact, as expressed by the 17th century ministers Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White, universalism is simply the other side of Calvinism’s coin.
In the previous chapters of “All Shall Be Well,” we saw how Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism and meditation on the nature of God combined to produce a “minority report” of universal salvation rather than the more widely assumed doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell.
With the dominance of Augustine and Aquinas, however, universalism all but disappeared from the conversation until the Protestant Reformation, which democratized scripture reading and interpretation. Not surprising, it didn’t take much more than a century for universal restoration to return as an alternative to the dominant eschatological assumptions of the church.
Louise Hickman, in her essay “Love Is All and God Is Love: Universalism in Peter Sterry (1613-1672) and Jeremiah White (1630-1707),” also points to England’s move toward less censorship and freer discourse in the mid 1600s as a contributing factor to the dissemination of “many unorthodox and sometimes eccentric theological views” and “an atmosphere of increasing tolerance and debate.” As a result, universalism was more popular than ever by 1700.
“We know very little about her,” Robert Sweetman writes about Julian of Norwich in his entry, but we know quite a bit about the revelations she received – or, as she called them, her “showings.”
Julian of Norwich is not even the woman’s name – it’s the name of the church where she lived, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But in his essay – “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well: The Universalism of Hope in Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416),” Sweetman describes what we can discern from Julian’s thoughts about sin, soteriology and the nature of God. Although not ultimately a subscriber to universal salvation, Julian’s showings led her to get as close as she could to such a belief without crossing the consensus of the church she loved.