Book Review: The Friendship of God

933721I finished 2017 by reading Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language by Sallie McFague. That title is terrible; it obscures and deadens what is easily one of the most compelling and thought-provoking theological works I’ve read in a long time.

I probably used up most of a highlighter on this book’s 194 pages. Published in 1982, it feels as relevant as ever. Here are some highlights:

  • McFague starts by exploring the importance of metaphors for human learning. We tend to think of metaphors as poetic and rhetorical – “your eyes are deep pools” – when in fact they are essential building blocks in the creation of our respective worlds.
  • She uses the intentionally absurd example of a chair. How do you know a chair is a chair? Because it has the same characteristics as things you identify as chairs. That’s a metaphorical move. Just as you use “deep pools” as the reference for describing “eyes,” you use “chairs” as the reference for this new object you’ve never seen before. This new object is both like and unlike “chair.”
  • Thus metaphors are inherently relational: They forge connections and enhance learning by describing relationships between understood concepts and new ones.
  • Metaphors are also inherently uncertain and filled with tension: They are incomplete and even inaccurate to some degree. Eyes are not actually deep pools. This chair is not identical to previous chair examples. God is not actually our father.

Oops. I gave it away. McFague uses this argument about the essentiality of metaphors to build what she calls a metaphorical theology – a way of talking about God that understands and relies on the importance and tension inherent in metaphors. Continue reading

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Alabama and the Power of the Vote

Capture

Sixty million years ago, what is now south-central Alabama was the shore of an ocean. Over time, the continents shifted, sea levels receded, and the nutrient-rich mud deposited by those waves eventually became nutrient-rich black dirt perfect for planting crops like cotton.

Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of textile manufacturing made cotton an increasingly vital part of the Southern – and the American – economy. The children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans, kidnapped and brought over the ocean to harvest tobacco in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, were torn from their families, chained together and marched southwest to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to expend their bodies scooping bowls of cotton from thousands upon thousands of plants growing in that ancient shoreline. The modern American economy, from which some of us benefit more than others, was built on their backs.

War. Emancipation. Reconstruction. Segregation. The well worn story, still somehow not told often enough or understood well enough. When I visited Alabama to do thesis research two years ago, I was struck by the extent to which the history of those slaves and their descendants has simply been ignored. Jefferson Davis, traitor to his country, has his statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Montgomery. Down the street, where men and women and children were chained and sold like animals – where their descendants were beaten and brutalized and ghettoized – no marker stands.

At the risk of generalizing too much, Alabama seems to have a knack for ignoring. Forty years after KKK members bombed a Baptist church, killing four black girls, it took a prosecutor named Doug Jones to finally bring them to justice; their identities had long been known to authorities. They were just … ignored. That bombing, in Birmingham in 1963, occurred as the South convulsed with marches and demands. Martin Luther King Jr., a young preacher in the first capital of the Confederacy who every Sunday delivered sermons extolling the need for equality almost literally in the shadow of the statue of the man who led a war to deny that equality to men like King. By 1965, King led a march for voting rights up the same steps where Davis had delivered his inaugural address as president of the nation founded explicitly on the denial of humanity to dark-skinned people.

For decades, the descendants of the enslaved had been denied their voice. In a nation that preaches the power of the vote and the principle of democracy, black men and women had been stripped of that power, and with it their place as true citizens of a country they had been forced to inhabit. Even after the march from Selma to Montgomery left bloodstains in the 60-million-year-old dirt, African Americans found themselves struggling to make themselves heard. Restrictions on voting for convicted felons. Voter ID laws. No early voting. No online registration. Police intimidation at polling places. Voting, the one measure of power granted to every person born in the United States, the primary tool of self-governance, was granted only reluctantly to those who arguably needed it most desperately.

Ignore it or dismiss it how you will, history is always there. That long chain of events leads directly to yesterday’s election of a new senator from Alabama. Yesterday, people of color – many of them residents of that “Black Belt” of south-central Alabama that once was a seashore – overcame obstacles, waited in line for hours and cast provisional ballots after being wrongly classified as “inactive voters.” They did so because, for the first time, the established power structures of the state – which for so long had domineered and silenced them – were vulnerable. That power structure long had said they were unfit to vote because they were black, or because they were female, or both. Today, they told the power structure it was unfit to represent them on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Against a candidate who embodied everything wrong about the current American political moment – a likely serial sexual abuser of teen girls who, according to his spokesman, “probably” believes homosexuality should be illegal and rejects the rights of Muslims to hold political office, who just this week pined for the days of slavery – people of color, and especially women of color, rose up. As they have been doing for the past year. As they have been doing for generations.

They rose up to take one of the most powerful actions any person in our society can take – an action so consequential its potential use by African Americans sparked dread among white Alabamians for more than a century: They voted. And in so doing, they pulled down a bastion of power that said they should stay in their place, the place carved out for them as women, as people of color.

By all accounts, it wasn’t easy. Progress never is. It takes a long time for that sea to deposit its grains on the beach, imperceptibly building a fertile land in which freedom and equality can eventually take root, even if only after violence and oppression trample it first. It takes persistence, against long odds, against a bloody history too often whitewashed and denied. It takes being assaulted and insulted and gaslighted by monsters who claim the backing of God and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while you dismantle their corrupt edifices.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends – with difficulty – toward justice. Nevertheless, they persisted.

That Business about Women Keeping Silent in Church – What if Someone Else Added It In?

0800637712hI’m reading through Eldon Jay Epp’s book Junia: The First Woman Apostle, which has succeeded in blowing my mind, and we haven’t even gotten to Junia yet.

Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.

Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:

31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.

(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)

37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.

The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.

But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:

This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)

So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).

But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.

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A Letter to Three Daughters

you_cant_scare_me_i_have_three_daughters_card-p137304788121685777envwi_400Last year for International Women’s Day, I wrote a letter to my three daughters. International Women’s Day was last week, so here is a slightly edited version of that letter.

Dear J, G and H,

This world will tell you lies. It will lie to you about your value, about your appearance, about your place. It is filled with people who will see you as weak, who see you as less valuable – to them and to God – and who see you as an object, all because you are female.

I pray you keep this letter in mind when you hear those things. I am afraid that, though the world is changing, it will not do so fast enough to spare you from the warped wisdom and twisted value system that prioritizes, above all things, the gender of a person.

Because you are more than women, as I am more than a man. We are children of God, three daughters and a son. We are loved, valued, respected, prized by the one who made us – the parent of the entire world, the one who is big enough to breathe life into existence, small enough to weep with us when that life goes awry.

But you are, in fact, women. And you should be proud of that. I pray you never accept the attempts of men to make your gender a cause for shame, embarrassment or pity. You are women. Congratulations!

This is my prayer for you:

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What if the Writers of the Bible Were Just … Wrong?

Caravaggiothe_inspiration_of_saint_matthThe Bible says some unpopular things – many of them true and important, necessary for us to live better, more Christ-centered lives. Many of them go against the grain of our culture, calling us to reject, for example, materialism and greed and to embrace generosity and compassion. These are difficult, and they are often unwelcome, but they are right and most Christians accept them, even if they do so reluctantly or with personal struggle.

But not every unpopular thing the Bible says is so clear-cut. And this leads to some acrobatics that I feel might not only be unnecessary but may actually be damaging to the way we read these ancient texts we value so highly.

Of course, I speak about two topics much discussed on this blog: women and homosexuality.

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A Final Word (for Now) on Abortion

I just finished working on a package of stories for our school’s alumni magazine about integration – a profile of the two men who integrated our college 50 years ago, as well as a sidebar about white students who pushed for integration years before it happened and one about race relations are like on campus now. The whole time I was writing these stories, I couldn’t help but think: “Wow, I have no idea what it’s like – and never will – to be black.”

This is not a new revelation, of course, but it’s made more painfully clear when I write about people in minority groups that I am in no way a member of any minority group. I’m white, I’m straight, and I’m male. And so I try to make it clear when I interview or when I advocate for racial and sexual minorities that I have no idea what it’s like to be in their shoes, so they’re going to need to help me out.

It’s not an overwhelming feeling, just a little tug – a healthy reminder that whatever I write, I’m doing it for others, people whose experiences I can’t ever truly know.

That tug has more recently shown up when I write, as I did last week, about abortion. Because while I often call abortion a human rights issue, it is also an issue that affects women far more than men. After all, who is actually pregnant? And who is going to be caring for the child, more likely than not? The old line is that if men could get pregnant, abortion would no longer be a controversial issue.

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Changing How We Approach Abortion

The political world is all atwitter (pun intended) this week with the comments of Senate candidate Richard Mourdock from Indiana, who made the mistake of saying what he really thought on the topic of abortion. Secifically, Mourdock was asked about any cases in which he would allow abortion, and he responded only in the case of the mother’s life being in danger, but not in the case of rape:

I struggled with it myself for a long time. But I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Ensue kerfuffle.

There have been a lot of crazy things said about abortion and rape in this election cycle, but this really isn’t one of them. Mourdock’s belief that God “intended” for life to arise out of a horrific event like rape may not be theologically sound, but it’s not something we should be terribly surprised at hearing.

Amy Sullivan, like myself a former conservative evangelical who now has a not-so-passing interest in progressive politics, agrees:

Despite the assertions of many liberal writers I read and otherwise admire, I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape. I think most don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body. But if Mourdock believes that God creates all life and that to end a life created by God is murder, then all abortion is murder, regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy came about.

That last sentence is especially significant for this conversation; Mourdock simply is outspoken and consistent about the natural ramifications of his belief that abortion ends an innocent human life.

But the reaction to this impresses on me that perhaps we need a few more Christians, conservative and progressive, to do on abortion what people like Justin Lee and Rachel Held Evans are doing around the issues of homosexuality and women’s roles in church, respectively – that is, speaking out for a renewed effort to understand each other and foster constructive dialogue.

Because it should be clear by now that our national conversation about abortion is toxic. Both sides are to blame, though one side more than the other, and it’s not helping foster a constructive dialogue about how to fix what both sides agree needs to be solved – the fact that abortions are necessary in the first place.

Here’s how I see the current dialogue failing us. Continue reading