Botham Jean: The Suffering Servant

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Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight.
– Isaiah 42:1a

Jean was 26 and a native of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean. He worked with at-risk boys there, visited orphanages and ministered to the sick, his mother said. … Friends and family remember Jean as someone who loved to help others and volunteered his time, as a man with a beautiful smile and a beautiful voice. (Dallas Morning News)

But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”
– Isaiah 49:4

Guyger described the apartment as being dark and she thought “she had encountered a burglar, which was described as a large silhouette, across the room in her apartment.”

Guyger drew her firearm, “gave verbal commands that were ignored by (Jean),” and then she fired two shots. Jean was shot once and died. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
– Isaiah 53:7-8a

While the arrest warrant describes Jean as being “across the room,” the search warrant says he confronted Guyger at his door. (FWST)

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
– Isaiah 53:9

As hundreds gathered Thursday to pay tribute to the beloved man from St. Lucia, a search warrant for his apartment was made public. The document states that officers found several items in the apartment, including two fired cartridge casings, a metal marijuana grinder and 10.4 grams of marijuana.

The search warrant indicates that officers went inside the apartment looking for drugs the night of Jean’s death, his mother, Allison Jean, said during a news conference Friday with her attorneys. She accused authorities of defaming her son. …

“Twenty-six years on this earth he lived his life without a blemish. It took being murdered by a Dallas police officer for Botham Jean to suddenly become a criminal.” (CNN)

He who vindicates me is near.
Who then will bring charges against me?
Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser?
Let him confront me!

It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.
Who will condemn me?
They will all wear out like a garment;
the moths will eat them up.
– Isaiah 50:8-9

“Botham Shem Jean was not a silhouette,” family friend Dane Felicien said, garnering a standing ovation from the packed sanctuary, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall. “Botham Shem Jean was a fine man. And Botham Shem Jean deserves to be with Jesus.” (Dallas Morning News)

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
– Isaiah 53:12ab

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A Brief Review: ‘Texts of Terror’ by Phyllis Trible

Image result for texts of terror phyllis tribleQuick, name the absolute worst parts of the Bible.

Chances are, you thought of one of these four stories [TW]:

The rape and dismemberment of the concubine in Judges, the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in order to fulfill a vow he made to God, and the use, abuse and expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.

These stories – all of them describing violence against women without overt condemnation by either God or the narrator(s) – are what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”

Somewhat surprisingly, she analyzes these passages not to explain them away or redeem them with a pro-woman retelling, but to simply sit with them, to understand the fully the depth and breadth of the horror these passages inflict on the characters – and therefore on us, the readers who cannot help but sympathize with them.

In so doing, Trible hopes to memorialize them. These four women – two of them nameless, one of them voiceless, all of them utterly vulnerable to the whims and lusts of powerful men – do not get preached from pulpits, featured in liturgies or adhered to flannelgraphs. Yet they are essential parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If nothing else, they personify, as Trible expertly highlights, the qualities of the “suffering servant” in Second Isaiah’s famous prophecies.

Although originally referring to Israel, Christians, taking cues from the gospels, have appropriated the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 to describe Jesus – “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” etc. Trible moves in the opposite direction, identifying these four women as suffering servants, and given the longstanding Christian confession of Jesus as the sufferer, implicitly identifying them as Christ figures.

Most poignantly, Trible makes this association explicit in her analysis of the concubine in Gibeah. Echoing the more famous tale of Lot in Sodom (do these stories reflect a single event buried deep in Israel’s memory and adjusted as needed for different contexts? I’d say it’s likely, but that’s not Trible’s concern here), the concubine and her master spend the night in an old man’s home, where men of the city arrive and demand the male guest be given to them to rape. The man offers the concubine instead, and she is raped and tortured until morning (and potentially killed, although Trible points out the text seems to indicate the concubine’s master actually murders her once they arrive back to his home in Ephraim). Trible describes the key moment this way: “Truly the hour is at hand, and the woman is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

Trible’s insight and deft handling of the texts make Texts of Terror a swift and insightful read – I’d almost call it a joy, but the subject matter makes that an impossibility. She refuses to get bogged down in questions of authorship, redaction or historical criticism, all things I enjoy getting bogged down in, but which would serve to distract from the women at the center of Trible’s focus. Her goal is to dig as deep as possible into the texts as they are, under the assumption that the text we have is there for a reason, no matter how it got that way.

Therefore, Trible points out patterns and structures of the original Hebrew that have become invisible under the layers of translation and interpretation that have accumulated over the millennia. Some of these are brilliant and beautiful; others feel like more of a stretch. But all of them are fascinating and demand careful consideration. Almost uniformly, Trible ends up highlighting how the original text mercilessly marginalizes and degrades these women.

But that’s the point: Trible is “telling sad stories,” as she puts it in her introduction. That they are sad does not mean they are worthless. Indeed, sad stories often tell us more about ourselves than happy ones. They force us to wrestle with the world as the world is, with God as God is, and with the Bible as the Bible is – not as we wish those things would be. For wrestling with them, we hopefully emerge stronger, with greater insight on what it means to be a “suffering servant” in whom we should see the life and work of Jesus.

Published 34 years ago in 1984, Texts of Terror remains a vitally important work, one that should be on the bookshelf of every preacher, every counselor and every church leader. In a day where many women are finding their voices for the first time, we would all do well to return to Trible’s classic, in which she helps four ancient women cry, “Me, too!”

How Clear Is the Bible Anyway?

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To some, the Bible is a brook – a refreshing stream that flows gently through a meadow. Its waters are clear: Anyone can look into them and understand what they must do to get across safely to the other side.

Image result for flooding riverBut I wonder more and more whether the Bible is something else entirely – a swift river, dark and cloudy, its depths hiding potentially treacherous rocks that could unbalance the unwary traveler and send her tumbling downstream. Venturing into its waters is best done with someone who knows the path and can show the traveler where to step and how to avoid the deepest, darkest areas.

I wonder, in other words, whether the Bible should be treated much differently than we typically do in American Protestantism, where we assume anyone can crack it open and learn who God is and how to “get saved” in Jesus’ name. Maybe the Bible requires more care – and more community – when we read and interpret it.

What I’m talking about is the perspicuity of scripture. For something to be perspicuous is to be clear, like that gentle brook. (Why don’t we just say the clarity of scripture? Because obviously there’s no reason to use a 10-cent word when a five-dollar one will do.)

To explore this topic, we need to answer some questions:

  1. How do we define scriptural perspicuity?
  2. Does the Bible claim perspicuity for itself?
  3. Has the church historically affirmed its perspicuity?
  4. And what historically have been the results of belief in scripture’s perspicuity?

Today, I’ll look at the first two questions.

How do we define the perspicuity of scripture?

No one knows!

OK, that’s not entirely true, but a brief search of the internet finds a lot of people recognizing that the term itself is, ironically enough, unclear – and then spending a LOT of time and words trying to define it.

I don’t get the sense that anyone argues that all parts of the Bible are perspicuous; rather, perspicuity is a general sense that the Bible is clear in its primary teachings, particularly the gospel message of sin, salvation, and Jesus’ role in saving us from the one and facilitating the latter.

As usual, the best popular-level definition probably comes from Wikipedia (yes, I could use a theological dictionary, but the point is to have a definition as popularly understood today, not as scholars understand it). I’ll underline some key phrases:

The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (often called the perspicuity of Scripture) is a Protestant Christian position teaching that [quoting the Westminster Confession] “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” …

Lutherans hold that the Bible presents all doctrines and commands of the Christian faith clearly. God’s Word is freely accessible to every reader or hearer of ordinary intelligence, without requiring any special education. Of course, one must understand the language God’s Word is presented in, and not be so preoccupied by contrary thoughts so as to prevent understanding. As a result of this, no one needs to wait for any clergy, and pope, scholar, or ecumenical council to explain the real meaning of any part of the Bible.

To boil that down, we might say the perspicuity of scripture is the doctrine that the Bible is clear enough about the basics of the gospel that any person of reasonable intelligence can understand them without mediation from an authority figure. 

But let’s be honest: That the phrase is so hard to define, and that its implications have to be cordoned off with multiple caveats and conditions, is a big red flag that this stream is far muddier than we might assume.

What does the Bible claim for itself?

Of course, “the Bible” does not claim anything for itself as such because the authors typically did not realize their texts would become canonized, but several of them did recognize other texts as bearing that kind of weight. Typically, this involved early Christians, including Jesus himself, quoting from the Hebrew scriptures with a sense of their authority, but it also includes later New Testament authors adding special weight to Paul’s letters.

So, for example, 2 Tim 3:14-17:

But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing. You know who taught you. Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.

In this most famous of passages about the nature and purpose of scripture, referring to what Christians now call the Old Testament, the author clearly sees the texts as being mediated through teachers – perhaps parents or synagogue rabbis (“since childhood”), perhaps even Paul (“you know who taught you”), to whom this letter is traditionally attributed.

Other New Testament verses commonly cited as referring to scripture paint a similar picture – or don’t actually refer to scripture at all despite how they’re frequently used. For example:

Heb 4:11-13:

Therefore, let’s make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following the same example of disobedience, because God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.

Although many cite Heb 4:12 (“sharper than any two-edged sword”) in a scriptural-authority context, it’s clearly talking about the actual word of God, or God’s voice; it comes after an extended riff on the power of that word in sparking the creation of the universe and establishing the Sabbath.

There are many passages like this. Google around for a list of verses talking about scripture, and you get a host of references, especially in the OT, to “the word of God” or “God’s judgments” that actually refer to God’s verbal commands. Of course, some of them were eventually recorded and became part of the Hebrew scriptures, but I don’t see these passages as being intended to describe the authority of the text itself.

Deut 6:6-9 does discuss what Israel should do with God’s commands – namely, write them down, “recite them to your children,” and talk about them constantly. Assuming these commands eventually became part of the Hebrew scriptures, this passage envisions a mediated relationship with them, where their meaning is initially delivered by parents and other members of the community.

Back in the NT, the author of 2 Pet 3:15-16 discusses the writings of Paul, which have rapidly gained authoritative weight among the early assemblies:

Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation, just as our dear friend and brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some of his remarks are hard to understand, and people who are ignorant and whose faith is weak twist them to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.

Paul’s letters are explicitly given the same weight as “the other scriptures” yet they are certainly not described as perspicuous! Rather, they are “hard to understand,” opening them to pernicious misinterpretation. Yet many Christians today consider Paul’s letters, especially Romans, to be quite clear in establishing a large number of doctrines, ranging from salvation by grace alone to the alleged sinfulness of gay sex.

Not surprisingly, Paul himself had something to say on this topic, in Rom 15:4: “Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures.”

This doesn’t really say anything about the perspicuity of scripture, but it’s worth pointing out that Paul frequently engaged in creative reinterpretation of his scriptures, engaging in exegesis that often turned the plain-text reading of certain passages on their heads (the moving rock in the wilderness in 1 Cor 10, the respective connection of Israel and the gentiles with Ishmael and Isaac). He did not act like, nor did he ever argue that, scripture was so abundantly clear anyone could understand it without help.

But of course why would he? The Bible was written in an oral culture; few people had the ability to read what was written, and those who could did so aloud so others could hear it. The scriptures we have were written with the assumption that they would be mediated through an educated elite to the illiterate masses.

Which is why Jesus and Paul themselves served as mediators of scripture to their audiences. For example, Luke 24, where Jesus meets two disciples on the Emmaus road and “interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.” Although Jesus calls them “foolish” for their inability to understand that the OT scriptures referred to his death and resurrection, it’s probably not a coincidence that this happens all the time in the Gospels.

Over and over again, the only person who seems aware that he is the fulfillment of various prophecies about the Jewish messiah is Jesus himself. And it’s up to him to mediate those scriptures to his audiences, which included intelligent, highly educated people who struggled to find the perspicuity Jesus claimed to find in them. The Gospel of John illustrates this well: “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me, yet you don’t want to come to me so that you can have life. (John 5:39-40)” On the one hand, yes, Jesus does tell his audience to “examine the scriptures.” On the other hand, his audience here was the religious leadership responsible for teaching the scriptures to their congregations and they were struggling to find in them what Jesus said was there.

Not only is Jesus frustrated that “Jewish leaders” can’t see him in their scriptures, but he also rejects the idea that “eternal life” can be found in those scriptures, as opposed to himself. This is a statement that does not receive as much attention, I don’t think. In our bibliolatrous times, scripture is often seen as providing if not eternal life itself, at least the key to eternal life. And it may very well do that, but Jesus explicitly says here the point of scripture is to point to him, and he, not it, will give eternal life. Again, this cuts against our traditional notions that scripture is perspicuous on matters pertaining to the gospel and salvation – that in order to be saved, you must do the work of reading and understanding the text well enough to find Jesus, believe the right things and pray the right prayer.

Now, of course, people who argue for the perspicuity of scripture have their texts, too, including some of these same ones! They argue that if it can be understood by children, as Deut 6 implies, it must be perspicuous. But I’d argue the scriptures give the responsibility of teaching children its precepts not to itself but to their parents and religious leaders. Likewise, there’s a lot of reliance on references to God’s laws or judgments in the Psalms, but relying on poetry for establishing doctrine is a fundamental category error.

Before we leave the texts, I’ll point out practically how we can be led astray by the idea of the self-evident clarity of the Bible. One article laying out the case for perspicuity argues, “The Bible is clear in all that is necessary for man to know in regard to his sinful state, his need for salvation, and the means of attaining that salvation, faith in Christ (Romans 3:22).” Ah. Except it’s not actually clear that Rom 3:22 says anything about having faith in Christ. Scholars argue – persuasively, in my view – that the correct translation of the Greek grammar there is that righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Christ. Not so perspicuous!

In Part 2, I’ll combine the next two questions into a brief, overly selective history of the church’s interaction with the notion of scriptural perspicuity.

Why Genesis 2:24 Is Not Trying To Defend a Certain God-Ordained Picture of Marriage

9780802827562_p0_v1_s260x420Everyone knows Genesis 2:24 –

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.

Continue reading Why Genesis 2:24 Is Not Trying To Defend a Certain God-Ordained Picture of Marriage

The Exodus Didn’t Happen, and Why That Doesn’t Matter

Bible_UnearthedA lot of times, it seems progressive Christians get caught between two sides each screaming pronouncements at each other.

On the one hand, there are the conservatives, with their line drawing and their hard-and-fast pronouncements: The Bible is inerrant! Evolution is a lie! You’re probably going to hell!

On the other, there are the liberals, no less enamored with their own lines and declarations: The resurrection didn’t happen! Jesus wasn’t really divine!

Progressives share a lot in common with liberals – certainly more than conservatives – but are a little leery with the hollowing out of the faith that seems to occur over there, just as progressives are leery with the view of God that seems to govern the inflexible fundamentalism of the conservative camp.

So we sit in the middle, and when someone asks us a question, we tend to step aside.

“Well, that’s not the right question …” or, “It depends how you look at it,” or, “Each of us is going to have a different answer based on our own biases and experiences.”

I find myself doing this quite a bit. A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I thought Israel’s exodus from Egypt – not an unimportant part of the Bible, as you may know – actually happened. And my answer began with something like, “Well, you never know for sure,” or something like that. After all, anything can happen, right? Progressives may not be sure about miracles, but we’re not really comfortable ruling them out definitively. Maybe the exodus did happen. Maybe hundreds of thousands of men, women and children spent 40 years in the fairly small space of the Sinai Peninsula and didn’t leave a single archaeological trace of their presence. Who knows, right?

Here’s the problem, though: The exodus didn’t happen.

If any other purported event – i.e., one that wasn’t recorded in the Bible – was supported by exactly zero evidence, and in fact contradicted by whatever evidence did exist, we would say it didn’t happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive to the faith and feelings of those who might not be ready to handle the significant lack of historical accuracy in much, if not all, of the Old Testament, but if you’re here reading this, you’re probably OK with handling some hard things, so let’s talk about why the exodus didn’t happen – and why that’s not really a problem.

Continue reading The Exodus Didn’t Happen, and Why That Doesn’t Matter

It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

20130614-012013.jpgIn the end, it just hit me.

A single sentence, in an article not even about homosexuality or theology, not about Leviticus 18 or Romans 1, not about the Boy Scouts or the Southern Baptists.

In the end, what got me was a New Republic article by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz.

“The Lethality of Loneliness” describes how psychobiologists “have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Loneliness is defined as “want of intimacy.”

The story is fascinating and well worth reading. Shulevitz reports that scientists rank emotional isolation as highly as smoking among risk factors for mortality, and those most likely to feel emotionally isolated are those who are most rejected – as Shulevitz puts it, “The outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different” (emphasis hers). The lonely experience higher levels of stress, which injects the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the chronic overdosing of which leads to numerous maladies, the most serious being heart disease.

Since those who are rejected feel lonely more often, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the biggest studies into loneliness have occurred among those who are gay. Scientists studying HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s discovered this incredible fact: “The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly … was whether or not he was in the closet.”

Closeted men were more sensitive to rejection, more fearful of being outed, and therefore less intimate with those around them. Their lives were more stressful, and stress hormones feed the AIDS virus. And then came the sentence that stopped me cold:

[Researcher Steven] Cole mulled these results over for a long time, but couldn’t understand why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease: “Did God want us to die when we got stressed?”

The answer is no. What He wanted is for us not to be alone.

And there it is. Is it really that simple?

Continue reading It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

Class, Day 1 – Origen: Your God Is Absurd

origenFollowing is a summary of a lecture given yesterday by my professor in Patristic and Medieval Theology.

To understand Origen of Alexandria – or Gregory of Nyssa or almost any other Greek-speaking early church father – you have to understand the concept of theoprepes. Plato introduced the concept of theoprepes when he went after Homer’s depictions of the gods. Because the gods/god are/is the ultimate Good, Plato has a big problem with the way Homer makes them act, but because Homer’s poetry is foundational for Greek culture, Plato can’t just dismiss it outright.

So he metaphorizes it. He maintains the truth of the moral lessons but rejects the historicity of the depiction, which he considered blasphemous because the gods did not act in a fitting manner. And that is theoprepes, the concept of what is fitting for the divine.

Origen is faced with a similar dilemma.

He believes in the inspiration of Scripture, which for him writing about 200 C.E. is still just the Old Testament, but he recoils at the anthropomorphism of God found there. And with good reason, from his perspective. When Celsus writes the criticism of Christianity to which Origen responds in Against Celsus, one of his prime concerns is the anthropomorphism of God – it’s just not fitting, in Greek thought, for God to act this way, and a literal reading of Scripture was a huge stumbling block to those educated Greeks to whom Origen was reaching out.

Not only that, he finds numerous places where the text contradicts itself or describes absurdities. So he argues for a metaphorical-allegorical reading of those pieces of scripture where theopedes is violated. Continue reading Class, Day 1 – Origen: Your God Is Absurd