Archives For A Better Conversation

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The Woman Caught in Adultery Homosexuality.

In discussing homosexuality in the Church, I often feel as though those with whom I disagree read a totally different bible than me. I’m sure they feel the same way.

From my perspective, when you hold scripture to be the literal Word of God, you flatten out the texts so that they’re all equally authoritative.

Now the holiness codes of the Mosaic Law or a rhetorical vice list from Paul are on par- authority wise- with the witness of Jesus’ gracious welcome of sinners. A subject which Jesus himself never addresses now has the status of gospel.

The logic of biblical literalism allows all the texts of the bible to be mashed together into one voice, even if that voice is dissonant with the words of Jesus.

What you get, I think, is a bible passage, in this case John 8 (the woman caught in adultery) that might read something like this:

3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery homosexuality; and making her stand before all of them these straight men, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery homosexuality.

5Now because God clearly ordained sex to be within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman the scriptures command us to stone such women sinners. The scriptures clearly say:

{add a pinch of Leviticus}

“If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman [and vice versa], both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.”

Now what do you say? Are you soft on sin, Jesus? Do you not believe the bible to be the inspired Word of God? What other authoritative teachings are you willing to throw out the window because the cultural wind?

6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him reveal his lack of biblical faith and the purity of their own doctrine.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground tweeted about it. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without as grievous a sin be the first one to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote updated on the ground his Facebook status.

9When they heard it, thinking he was just being rhetorical, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the sinner standing before him.

10Looking around disappointed, Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ That can’t be right. Liberals.

11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Well, I do not condemn you.

{a dash of Romans}

For the my wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth…by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s my righteous judgment will be revealed. 6For he I will repay according to each one’s deeds.

[Just this once- because you caught me in a good mood] Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

{come back around with a little Joshua}

Remember, I am a holy God…I will not forgive your rebellion and your sins.

{and bring it home with Romans}

For he I will repay according to each one’s deeds. 

This is the Word of God for the People of God.

Thanks be to God.

rainbow-cross_aprilThis past weekend my cranny of Methodism in Virginia, clergy and lay, gathered for our annual conference. The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Doing Bureaucracy Better than the IRS.’

Actually, it had something to do with the Holy Spirit, but you get the idea. The Spirit does blow where it will (John 3) but I’m pressed to think of any scripture where the Spirit blows as slowly or trepidatiously as United Methodism.

The most only anticipated item on this year’s agenda was Resolution 1, a move to petition the larger denomination to amend its official language about homosexuality at it’s global gathering in 2 years.

After the flurry of whereas’ the salient portion of the resolution read:

“Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”…from the Book of Discipline…”

As soon as the motion was opened up for debate, a counter-motion was offered to table, ignore, stick-our-head-in-the-sand, push-to-the-back-burner, pull the blankie-over-our-eyes-and-pretend-this-issue-is-not-under-our-bed suspend discussion indefinitely so that we could instead engage in a ‘conversation’ on homosexuality in our denomination.

Even though this conversation has already gone on for decades and the respective sides have long since calcified and even though the ‘let’s have a conversation instead’ motion strikes me as not unlike those clergyman who tried to persuade Martin Luther King to ‘wait’ (‘this “wait” has almost always meant never’ King replied from his cell), here’s my ‘conversation-starter:’

If Paul can contradict Jesus on divorce, why can’t we reevaluate Paul on homosexuality?

Brian-BlountIn his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, biblical scholar Brian Blount advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective.

Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for the ethical re-evaluation of homosexuality.

For example, Blount points out, the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce.

Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce.

Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus allow the stipulation of divorce in cases of sexual infidelity (5.31-32).

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (1 Corinthians 7.10-11).

Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.

In other words, when it comes to divorce, Paul offers up his own ‘You’ve heard it said (from the lips of the Word Incarnate) but I say to you…’

The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.

In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ.

Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery.

Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ teaching in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to re-evaluate Paul today.

When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount.

If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner.

It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.

It’s possible for Christians today to say faithfully ‘You’ve heard it said (from Paul) but, with the Spirit, we say to you…’

 

5058886937_3bcf357e06_zThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

First today is this piece by John Milbank.

John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is without a doubt one of the most influential works of theology of the last 50 years. It sparked the Radical Orthodoxy movement and is the jumping off point of another nearly as important book: David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. 

Here’s Milbank’s argument:

During the course of recent debates in the British Parliament over the proposed legalisation of gay marriage, it has gradually become apparent that the proposal itself is impossible. For legislators have recognised that it would be intolerable to define gay marriage in terms equivalent to “consummation,” or to permit “adultery” as legitimate ground for gay divorce.

Thus, despite the telling squeamishness in much contemporary conversation on homosexuality, which invariably steers away from its physical aspects, the legislators have been forced tacitly to admit the different nature of both gay sexuality and of gay sociality. But such an admission destroys the assumption behind the legislation and the coherence of what the legislation proposes to enact.

The assumption behind the legislation is that “fairness” must involve the application of universal rights to each individual in the same way and in the same respects. But this admission reveals that, in the current instance, such application would prove grossly unfair, inappropriate and unrealistic.

The coherence of the legislation depends upon erasing the clear distinction between civil union (which is already available for both straight and gay couples) on the one hand, andmarriage on the other. But if the binding and loosing of gay and straight marriage are stipulated in different ways, then in effect such a distinction has been reinstated.

The suspicion arises that the proposed legislation before the British Parliament seeks only an empty change in nomenclature – this is borne out by the fact that the intended circumscription of gay marriage is so diluted as to render it indistinguishable from gay civil partnership.

Why, then, should Christians worry, if this is all just a matter of terminology? Can we not live with differing definitions of marriage? Perhaps, in order to safeguard the churches from pressures to conform to the norm, we should now welcome a withdrawal from the churches of their rights as a civil marriage broker. This would leave the churches free, in their turn, to claim that only natural and sacramental marriage are genuinely “marriage,” while state marriage is mere civil union. They could trump secularisation by declaring that the era of civil marriage had been a failed experiment.

This may, indeed, be the direction that the churches now need to take. However, the graver fear surrounding the new legislation is that secular thought will not so readily let go of the demand for absolutely equal rights based on identical definitions. In that case, we face an altogether more drastic prospect. Not only would “marriage” have been redefined so as to include gay marriage, it would inevitably be redefined even for heterosexual people in homosexual terms. Thus “consummation” and “adultery” would cease to be seen as having any relevance to the binding and loosing of straight unions.

Many may welcome such a development as yet a further removal of state intrusion into our private lives, but that would be to fail to consider all the implications. In the first place, it would end public recognition of the importance of marriage as a union of sexual difference. But the joining together and harmonisation of the asymmetrical perspectives of the two sexes are crucial both to kinship relations over time and to social peace. Where the reality of sexual difference is denied, then it gets reinvented in perverse ways – just as the over-sexualisation of women and the confinement of men to a marginalised machismo.

Secondly, it would end the public legal recognition of a social reality defined in terms of the natural link between sex and procreation. In direct consequence, the natural children of heterosexual couples would then be only legally their children if the state decided that they might be legally “adopted” by them.

And this, I argue, reveals what is really at issue here. There was no demand for “gay marriage” and this has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.

Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.

For the individual, the experience of a natural-cultural unity is most fundamentally felt in the sense that her natural birth is from an interpersonal (and so “cultural”) act of loving encounter – even if this be but a one-night stand. This provides a sense that one’s very biological roots are suffused with an interpersonal narrative. Again, to lose this “grammar” would be to compromise our deepest sense of humanity, and risk a further handing over of power to market and state tyrannies supported by myths both of pure human nature and technocratic artifice.

It is for this reason that practices of surrogate motherhood and sperm-donation (as distinct from the artificial assistance of a personal sexual union) should be rejected. For the biopolitical rupture which they invite is revealed by the irresolvable impasse to which they give rise. Increasingly, children resulting from anonymous artificial insemination are rightly demanding to know who their natural parents are, for they know that, in part, we indeed are our biology. But this request is in principle intolerable for donors who gave their sperm or wombs on the understanding that this was an anonymous donation for public benefit.

The recipe for psychological confusion, family division and social conflict involved here is all too evident and cannot be averted. In this instance we have sleep-walked into the legalisation of practices whose logic and implications have never been seriously debated.

From this it follows that we should not re-define birth as essentially artificial and disconnected from the sexual act – which by no means implies that each and every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, only that the link in general should not be severed. The price for this severance is surely the commodification of birth by the market, the quasi-eugenic control of reproduction by the state, and the corruption of the parent-child relation to one of a narcissistic self-projection.

Once the above practices have been rejected, then it follows that a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage.

The fact that this optimum condition cannot be fulfilled by many valid heterosexual marriages is entirely irrelevant, for they still fulfil through ideal intention this linkage, besides sustaining the union of sexual difference which is the other aspect of marriage’s inherently heterosexual character.

n-t-wright

ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to those of you who don’t use Greek, is the theological term for:

“things indifferent.”

How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?

As John Wesley is reputed to have said about Christians and their beliefs:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.

Of course, proving that we Methodists get our doctrinal slipperyness honestly, how do you determine what is ‘essential?’

Who determines what is essential?

And perhaps most important of all: how do they determine it?

Historically, essential doctrines have always been discerned and debated over time by means of ecumenical councils. Think Nicea or Chalcedon and the creeds which they produced as a result of their consensus.

Presently, as any sentient creature knows, issues of marriage and homosexuality divide the ‘big C’ Church with passion and biblical motivation on both sides and no small amount of fatigue in the middle.

As much as those in the middle would like to move on from the issue and get about the Church’s ‘mission,’ we can’t.

As much as those on the ‘progressive’ side would like the Church to hurry up and get with the times, we can’t.

And as much as the traditional side would like to persist in its tradition and ignore the segment of her Body which believes the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction, we can’t.

That’s because marriage- and sex within marriage- is not ἀδιάφορα. It’s a belief about which the universal Church has always held a particular, universally-held view.

It’s too important a belief, in other words, for individual churches (or individual Christians for that matter) to chart their own path.

Likewise, it’s too important a belief to ignore what many Christians believe the Holy Spirit has persuaded them about the matter.

Marriage is not ἀδιάφορα; therefore, marriage is a belief that necessarily calls out an even more essential marriage: ours to Christ. The Church’s unity.

And so, like any marriage, we’re stuck with each other for the long haul and, as in any marriage, we need to figure this out together. In conversation.

Here’s how NT Wright put it in his final address as bishop:

“Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. 

The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. 

Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate. 

But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.

No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other…to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart.”

 

_44832997_churchwithrainbowbanner “This story is the shadow side of the way the world works. It is, to me, the flip side of the coin of Phillip’s story. One pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his partner of 19 years when it becomes legal, and he must retire and rescind his credentials so as to live in peace. Another pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his mistress after being brought up on charges, and he is permitted to retire and serve a really great church. These things do not balance for me on the scales of justice.”

This is a snippet from a sermon by Mandy Sloan Flemmingreverend mama.icon

Mandy was one of the few Methodist compatriots I had in the Calvinist confines of Princeton. She’s a good writer and preacher. Here’s a sermon I saw her post recently, reflecting on the occasion of her senior pastor retiring- turning in his ordination credentials- in order to marry his partner of 2 decades, a union allowed by DOMA but forbid by the Methodist Book of Discipline.

Adding a needed nuance to the debate over gay marriage/ordination in the Church, Mandy contrasts the forced retirement of a gay clergyman who is faithful to his partner with the hushed shuffle and promotion of an unfaithful bishop she and I both served under in New Jersey.

Indeed, ironically, the adulterous bishop actually guest taught one of our United Methodist polity classes.

That is, he instructed us on the ins-and-outs of our Church’s laws.

Here’s her sermon. It’s worth the read:

———————————————

1 Samuel 16:1-13
            Friends, last week, we received some startling news. Even for those of us who might have known that our beloved Phillip Thomason was considering retirement, I don’t think any of us were prepared for the powerful vision of our beloved pastor taking off his stole and laying it on the altar. To be clear, this is Phillip’s choice, and one that he celebrates. He has gotten married to his beloved partner of 19 years, and they share this crazy and wonderful notion that they should be able to live together in holy matrimony for the rest of their lives. For those of you who don’t understand why he needed to give up his credentials, it is because the United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being ordained. You and I can talk all day long about the ignorance that’s implied in this description, but they are the rules by which we must abide for now. Phillip has gladly chosen to give up the credentials he has earned and honored; no one has taken them from him. It might have been unexpected, but “No one expects the Spanish inquisition!”
I am so proud of my colleague, but I am so furious at the Methodist church.
Much has happened since the last time I was in this pulpit, which was the Sunday after DOMA was struck down. Since June, we have heard of countless couples heading to California or Washington or … Provincetown to make their vows to one another. The only sad thing about this is that all of my beloved friends are holding destination weddings, and I keep missing them. But, this is the way the world is working right now. The IRS is officially more progressive than the church on this issue, which might be the most bizarre evolution to date.
But, the last time I preached, I told you about the story of Ruth and Naomi, and how these women took vows to one another, and managed to create a new family together. In Ruth, Chapter 4:13, we hear that, “Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! … 17The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.”
            Today, our story picks up during this generation, as we hear about the youngest child of Jesse, the handsome, ruddy boy named David who is anointed king. Since Obed was born to Ruth and Naomi, the Israelites have found themselves in dire need of someone to rule over them. They have begged the Lord for a king, that they might be ruled as other nations are ruled. They came to Samuel, who was the prophet born of a faithful, yet barren, woman named Hannah. She prayed for a child, and the prophet at the temple, named Eli, ensured her that God had heard her cries. When Samuel was weaned, she brought him to Eli at the Temple, where Samuel lived and served God.
When he was very young, Samuel heard God’s voice calling him, and he did not comprehend that it was God, and not Eli calling to him. Eli said, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening'” (1 Samuel 3:9). From that time on, Samuel became the messenger of God’s will to others. After many years of defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the Israelites finally came to Samuel and said, “you are old, and your sons to not follow in your ways. Give us a king to govern us” (1 Samuel, 8:6). Samuel was despondent, fearing as though he had failed to be a leader for his people, but God said, “Listen to the voice of the people in all they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). Because of this, God told Samuel to warn the Israelites that the king they would receive would be greedy, unyielding, self-serving. They refused to listen to this caution, and God anointed Saul as king.
Now, when evaluating the merits of leadership, a story cannot help but be political. Ten years ago in May, I was on the verge of graduating from seminary and was hopeful that a small, United Methodist Church in New Jersey would have the need for a pastor. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, and it is the heartland of American Methodism. Our annual conference gathering was so large it had to be assembled at the Convention Center in Atlantic City where the Miss America pageant was held. There was no shortage of people in New Jersey, and the last thing they needed was one more person trying to noodle her way into the conference.
And yet, one week before I graduated, I got a call from a woman who was serving as a District Superintendent. She had a church near Jackson, NJ that she was wondering if I would like to serve. A few days later, I met with the good and kind folks at West Farms UMC, and a month later, I was their pastor.
Now, I tell you this story because it relates, not to me, but to the leadership at that time. My District Superintendent was not dearly beloved by my congregation; they feared she was trying to merge them or close the doors of their tiny church home. But, she had some great gifts for ministry. She was an elegant writer and a beautiful pray-er. I have her to thank for entrusting me with my first pulpit, my first congregation. You can imagine my surprise when, two years later she retired and married our former Bishop. He had retired under allegations of inappropriate behavior, and now, they live in New York City, where he serves as the lead pastor for a United Methodist Church in the village. MG_5743-199x300
This story is the shadow side of the way the world works. It is, to me, the flip side of the coin of Phillip’s story. One pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his partner of 19 years when it becomes legal, and he must retire and rescind his credentials so as to live in peace. Another pastor, serving faithfully for 20 years, chooses to marry his mistress after being brought up on charges, and he is permitted to retire and serve a really great church. These things do not balance for me on the scales of justice.
But, if there is one thing we know about God, it is that God’s justice does not calculate like ours. In the story of Saul, God is persuaded by the Israelites to give them a king, and so he offers them a very poor choice. Saul does, in fact, attempt to lead the Israelites. He even builds an altar (just the one) to the Lord after decades of serving as king, countless battles with the Philistines, horrific bloodshed, and irrational behaviors (14:35). The Lord is unimpressed, because time and again, Saul is disobedient, following God’s commands only in part, leaving Samuel to come in and clean up his mess, account for his behavior, or do his awful, dirty work. There is no justice in this.
In the passage just before our text today, Saul receives word from Samuel that he is to “utterly destroy the Amalekites,” for what they have done to in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Saul summoned the people and killed every living soul, except for the valuable livestock, as well as the Agag, king of the Amalekites. The Lord is furious, and tells Samuel that Saul can no longer serve as king. When Samuel shares this news with Saul, he tries to defend himself, saying that his plan was to sacrifice the sheep and cattle to the Lord, but Samuel explains that “to obey is better than to sacrifice, for rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (15:22-23). It is then Samuel’s job to assassinate King Agag, a task he is mournful to complete. When Samuel retreats to Ramah, he grieves Saul and all that has occurred. More interestingly, the text tells us the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. God has regrets; God is mutable – changeable – persuadeable. God lives with guilt and grief.
            This is where we find Samuel, a tired and lonely prophet, who had done his best to stop the anointing of Saul and explain to the Israelites that they had no need for an earthly king, for the God of all heaven was already their king. But, God, who never ceases to listen and be moved by God’s people, allows another king to be anointed. He tells Samuel to cease his grieving over Saul, and to go to Jesse, Ruth’s grandson – the son of Obed  – a man from Bethlehem. One of Jesse’s children has already been chosen by God to be the next king of the Israelites. Samuel comes to Bethlehem with a heifer, so as to offer a sacrifice before the Lord, he finds Jesse and his sons.
The first son to greet him is Eliab, and Samuel thinks that this man will be the next king, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord!” But, God offers this insight to Samuel, his trusted prophet, “Do not look on his appearance or on his height, because I have rejected him; the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). After rejecting Jesse’s seven sons, Samuel asks if he has met all of them. In a story that has a comical similarity to Cinderella’s, the young boy who is tending the sheep is brought to Samuel. It is David, young, ruddy, and handsome, who is in possession of the monarchical glass slipper, and this child is the one whom the Lord tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, and Samuel departs for Ramah.
The story line we follow from Ruth to Obed to Jesse to David is filled with utter humanity and God’s never-failing attempt to stay in relationship with God’s people. But, there is something more than a monarchy that leads us from one generation to the next. It is the Prophet, the go-between, the means by which we hear both the word of God and the advocate for the people. This story is about God and Samuel. This relationship is the means by which God and the Israelites maintain their ongoing connection. Samuel is the faithful hearer and the brave voice.
It may seem, today, as though our beloved friend and pastor is being taken from us by an unjust system, but, my friends, there is something we have not yet considered. We, ourselves, are the faithful hearers. Phillip may be for us an irreplaceable voice of love and acceptance, but we have being willing to listen. So, what does that make us? The new king, ruddy and handsome, anointed to lead, and pray and dance before the Lord with glass slippers in our pockets? No, because we are not a simple Cinderella story. We are not the underdog, the unexpected, the overlooked. Perhaps, but what is true is that we are to be a continuation of Samuel’s lineage. We are to be the prophets, the go-betweens. We are to be the ones with the courage to speak up, to witness to injustice, to petition God with our prayers, and who are willing to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Amen and Amen.

largeThat liberal Christians do not pay appropriate deference to scripture is certainly a common assumption among Christians on the other end of the spectrum, and, as Derek Penwell points out, that assumption is something of a hermeneutical dodge.

A friend brought this article to my attention:

I’d had a long day talking to young ministers and seminarians. So, when I lowered myself into the jacuzzi at the hotel, I wasn’t looking for conversation. I just wanted to let the heat work its magic.

Apparently, though, the gray haired man in an over-sized NASCAR t-shirt misread my closed eyes and generally round-shouldered posture as a signal that I was in the market for a little friendly fellow traveler chinwag.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Louisville.”

“I love how you people from Looey-ville say it. Say it again.”

“Looh-a-vul,” I said, playing along.

“That’s it! I love that! What brings you out to California?”

“I was giving a talk to some young ministers and seminarians at Claremont.”

He gave me a knowing look. “If you’re a church guy, you don’t want to spend any more time in California than you have to. It’s Obama country out here, full of liberals. And I’ve got a pretty good idea about your politics, being a church guy and all. I suspect your political leanings are pretty much like mine: starts with an ‘R’ and not a ‘D.’

Apparently finding a response from me unnecessary, he plowed on. “Yeah, this state is a Mecca (sly wink) for lefties. You probably heard we got gay marriage here again (exaggerated eye-roll). And I know how you feel about that. Am I right?”

This time I didn’t wait for him not to wait for me: “Actually, I’m proud to be in California on this historic day when marriage for all people begins again in earnest.” And, being unable to help myself, I said, “I suspect God’s proud of California today, too.”

At that point, the discussion hit something of a lull, which wasn’t my intent, but a fact I considered serendipitous nevertheless. My conversation partner quickly excused himself, and I went back to staring at the inside of my eyelids.

As I sat there soaking in the jets of heated water, I recalled an exchange I’d had with a seminary president about this very issue earlier in the day. The seminary president made the comment that those Christians who support the full inclusion of LGBT people have done a lousy job over the past twenty years disabusing people of the mistaken notion that one can be supportive of LGBT people or one can believe the Bible — but not both at the same time.

He’s right, you know — the seminary president. My exchange with the jacuzzi conservative only served to illustrate the casual assumption that Christian support of LGBT folks is a hermeneutical dodge … “because, you know, everybody understands that the Bible says God hates gay people (Well, God doesn’t hate gay people; God hates the sin and not the sinner — just like we do. You know what we mean.).”

Unfortunately, all too well.

But here’s the thing: Liberal Christians love the Bible. No, seriously. We love the Bible. We just refuse to treat it as though it is a set of timeless golden tablets that says all that needs to be said once and for all about everything of importance. (It doesn’t say anything, for instance, about why the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years.)

We liberals refuse to treat the Bible as a casuistical rule book for every conceivable eventuality, or as a precise blue print for every possible organizational contingency.

Liberal Christians aren’t liberal in spite of the Bible, but because of it. They don’t pursue justice for LGBT people because they haven’t read Scripture, but precisely because they have. And in the arc of the narrative of God’s interaction with humanity, liberal Christians find a radical expansiveness, an urgent desire to broaden the embrace of God’s hospitality to include those whom the religious big shots are always kicking to the sidelines.

In fact, on behalf of liberal Christians, I’m calling for a moratorium on the Liberals-hate-the-Bible meme. I’d like to suggest that the burden of proof should be on those who would read the Hebrew prophets and the Jesus of the Gospels and come away thinking that God has no problem tightening the screws on the abused and the powerless:

“Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden … and I will make sure that, until you get your life together to suit Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee, your weariness and heavy laden-ness will increase exponentially.”

Look. If Christians are ever going to establish credibility with anyone besides themselves, they’re going to have to start reading the Bible through the same eyes as the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time–those folks whom the religious power brokers are convinced don’t quite measure up.

The problem with assuming liberal Christians hate the Bible isn’t just that it fails to take liberals seriously, but that it fails to take the Bible seriously.

Cue eye-rolling.

 

largeA number of you have asked me my thoughts on the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling last week. I’m not sure if I have anything new to say on the topic. You can search for previous posts on the blog or scroll through the ones here.

Rather than rehashing previous essays, I thought I’d offer you these thoughts from Adam Hamilton, the de facto pontifex maximus of the UMC. Usually, I’m left nonplussed by the fiercely moderate tone Hamilton strikes in his writing and speaking; it’s often pastoral to the point of being vanilla.

Here in this pastoral letter, however, I think Hamilton hits just the right notes while being both clear and bold.

I’m sitting in front of my computer today finishing a chapter on the New Testament epistles for my new book on Making Sense of the Bible. The chapter is called, “Reading Someone Else’s Mail.” In it I am trying to help the reader understand the importance of reading and interpreting the 21 New Testament epistles in the light of the culture and circumstances in which they were written. The New Testament letters were written to answer questions, to give instruction and pastoral guidance, and to address concerns among first century Christians living throughout the Roman Empire.

To help readers think about what a difference time and culture make in one’s perspective and the kind of advice, guidance and instruction one might give, I invited readers to imagine a Christian leader writing a letter to Christians in America in 1950 versus the same leader writing today.

In 1950 the Cold War was going on and the Soviet Union was our enemy. In 1950, 3 out of 4 college grads were men and women were seldom found in leadership positions even in the church (women could not be ordained pastors in the Methodist Church until 1956). Separate But Equal had been the accepted norm for the races since the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson so that even in Kansas City African Americans could not swim in the public pools with white children. This norm was accepted by most white Christians. Though in 1948 the Supreme Court rendered them unenforceable, deed restrictions continued to keep Jews and other minorities from purchasing homes in many of the more desirable neighborhoods in our city. All of this in a “Christian” culture where more than 90% of the people who wrote the laws considered themselves Christians.

The world has changed a great deal in 63 years. The Soviet Union no longer exists, more than half of all college grads today are women, “Separate but Equal” is unthinkable to most Christians, and no one would dream of deed restrictions to separate people of different religion or race from a community. But many Christians could not imagine the world we live in today back in 1950.

How different our world is today from the first century Roman world. Yet often we read the New Testament as though the letters of the apostles were speaking directly to us. They do speak powerfully to our time, but there are elements of the letters that are clearly shaped by the cultural norms of the times. Slavery and the subordination of women are two of these norms reflected in the New Testament which 21st century Christians no longer believe reflect God’s heart and character even though they are recognized in the New Testament epistles.

One of the things that precipitated my decision to write this book on scriptures is the conflict over homosexuality in the church. As I’ve taught our congregation, within the Christian faith the question of homosexuality is not a question of biblical authority, but biblical interpretation. Both conservatives and liberals agree that there are places where the Bible reflects the cultural norms and needs of the times rather than the timeless will of God. Even the apostles recognized this, as we see in Acts 15 when they decided that most of the Law of Moses – the early church’s Bible – was no longer binding upon Christians. The apostles were recognizing that the needs of the children of Israel, and the expectations of God for his people were different in the first century than when Moses had led the Israelites 1,300 years earlier. The apostles continued to value the law of Moses and saw much of it as timeless, but there were sections they believed were no longer applicable.

The question conservatives, moderates and liberals in the church disagree upon is whether the handful of verses on same-sex intimacy, are like the passages on slavery, women’s subordination and those sections of the Law of Moses the apostles set aside.

This week there were three news making events that were focused on this issue. The first was a week ago when Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International, publicly apologized for the ways that Exodus had hurt gay and lesbian people in its work. It’s board then voted unanimously to close down the ministry. Exodus International was founded 37 years ago and was the leading advocate in America of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy in which they held out the hope that same-sex attraction could be “cured.” You can read Chambers’ remarkable apology here. This created waves within large sections of the Christian community.

Then on Wednesday of this week the Supreme Court issued two decisions related to homosexuality. The first was concerning a case brought by 84-year-old Edith Windsor who was partner with Thea Spyer for 44 years. They married in 2007. When Thea died in 2009 the Federal Government did not recognize them as married because of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that the State of New York did recognize their marriage. Consequently Edith had to pay estate taxes on half of their shared property – something that married couples do not have to do when one mate dies. Edith paid $363,000 to the IRS and $275,000 to New York (who recognizes gay marriage but follows IRS tax practices).

The Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that applied to this case and thus the Federal Government had to recognize a legal marriage because it was legally recognized in the State of New York and must return the taxes paid.

Had Edith lived in Kansas or Missouri she would have still been required to pay the estate tax as though she and Theo were not married because neither state recognizes same sex marriages from other states. The Supreme Court’s ruling has no effect on what happens in Kansas and Missouri.

The second Supreme Court decision was that private parties do not have “standing” to defend state constitutional amendments that the state itself refuses to defend. This related to Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional amendment that was passed in California with strong support from conservative and evangelical churches in 2008 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman thus overturning a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 allowing gay marriage. In essence the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday turned the case back to the lower courts, refusing to rule on its merits which had the affect of reinstituting gay marriage in California.

Because these are both limited decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court there will be more cases brought before the court in the years ahead.

There’s a major sea of change happening in our culture and world regarding our understanding of sexual orientation. Conservatives believe the church must stand its ground – its ground being an opposition to same-sex relationships. The basis for this are two Old Testament passages and three New Testament passages condemning same-sex intimacy as well as the broader model of heterosexuality found throughout the Bible.

Yet a large number of Christians are beginning to see the issue differently. This is particularly true for a younger generation of Christians.

I was recently in a meeting with ten pastors of large evangelical churches. Every one of them was wrestling with this issue in their congregation. Some were committed to “holding the line” while others were questioning, as I have been for some time, whether these passages in the scripture actually capture the heart of God toward gay and lesbian people, or if they might be more like those scripture passages that accepted slavery and the subordination of women – a reflection of historic cultural norms not necessarily the heart of God.

You can try to pretend that the issue will go away, but, as we’ve seen this week, that is highly unlikely. You can leave churches that are open to wrestling with the issue like ours in order to find churches that “hold the line.” But it seems unlikely that even those who “hold the line” will see this issue the same in the years ahead.

As a church we don’t all see eye to eye on this. Your pastors don’t all agree about this. And we’ve learned to be okay with that. We have to learn to agree to disagree on this issue as our society and the broader church are going to continue to wrestle with this issue – it is not going away and greater change is coming. As a church we’ve committed to be a place that welcomes everyone. We’ve committed to be a church where thoughtful, committed Christians on both sides will agree to disagree with respect and love.

I personally believe that twenty years from now most churches will welcome gay and lesbian families, will call gay and lesbian people to live lives of faithfulness and sacrificial love in their relationship just as they call heterosexual couples to do, and that they will see the passages on same-sex attraction as reflecting cultural norms just as the passages on slavery and on the subordination of women reflected cultural norm and not God’s heart and timeless will.

imagesIf you’re a theology nerd like me, trolling Christian blogs into the wee hours, you notice how many Christians are obsessed over the homosexuality issue. Perhaps rightly so.

Either way, the arguments tend to run one of two ways.

One line of argument is suggest that the progressive perspective runs counter to what Christians have believed over two millennia.

Another line of argument harvests writing from Paul and Acts to hold that current cultural shifts are the ongoing work of God.

Karl Barth might respond to both these arguments by asking: “Who cares?”

In concluding he prolegomena (§1.7.2-3) of his Church Dogmatics, Barth takes a last stab at keeping theology thoroughly biblical in a way that contrast with both Catholic and Modernist theology.

While Barth is aware of how theology is a deeply contextualized endeavor, he’s equally sensitive to how this fact is subject to losing the plot in one of two ways.

In one way, there is the (Catholic, Fundamentalist) danger of turning theology into a repetition of the past. Good theology becomes merely repeating what Thomas Aquinas said, say. Our understanding of what scripture is shackled to what John Calvin believed scripture said. Historical Christianity becomes tantamount to what the church today- and always- should believe and preach.

In another, equally fraught way, theology is always done within a particular culture, which can lead to us simply listening to culture as our defining standard.

This is the mistake of liberal modernism, of unreflectively assuming that what is happening in the world or in culture is equivalent to what God is doing in the world. Eventually, the danger is real that we end up with something that is no longer recognizably Christian.

The work of theology, as Barth understands it, is never simply or uncritically to affirm either what the Church once said and believed or what the world presently says and believes.

Because Christianity is always embodied by sinful people in particular locations, the faith of the past and the present must always be open to correction and criticism.

The Christianity of the past can never become what scripture is, our canon. Rather scripture must always bring the Christianity of the past and the present into critical, revealing light.

I think this is the refreshing both/and manner of Barth’s theology: a recognition that we must never be content with the faith as its been passed down to us because the Bible, as the living word of God will always correct where we have screwed up and carry us to fresh expressions in new times and places.

As you may know from this blog, I spent the Memorial Day weekend at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. That place is just one example of how the Christianity of the past got ample wrong and should not be accepted or rotely repeated without examining it in light of the converting, living Word.

We’re done with chapter 1 of the Dogmatics…on to chapter 2 and Barth’s treatment of ‘revelation.’

METHODIST1-articleLargeThe NY Times story about the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree has been all over the web (at least the church nerd part of it). Ogletree is a United Methodist clergyman and professor of ethics at Yale Divinity School.

Ogletree recently performed a wedding ceremony in New York for his gay son, which obviously violates the current law of the United Methodist Church.

Ogletree is hardly the only Methodist pastor to preside over a heterodox wedding ceremony but, given his post at Yale and his former work in the Civil Rights movement, he’s the highest profile pastor to do so.

Ogletree’s move has set off the predictable- and, to me, increasingly uninteresting- condemnations. Some Methodist leaders in the New York area are pushing for a court trial.

Considering Ogletree’s age and retired status, such a trial would be a symbolic- and expensive- charade. But I’ll get off my soapbox.

You can read the story here.

Since yesterday’s Times story came out, I’ve seen numerous FB postings about it.

A few of you even forwarded the story to my email, asking me for my response.

My initial responses had nothing to do with the issue per se. They came to me in this order:

1. It struck me as (morally) gross that someone would refer to a father presiding at his own son’s wedding as ‘a crime.’ Making a father’s love sound like colluding with the holocaust is just bad character. Enough said.

2. I don’t think pastors should be performing religious rituals for their children or family members- baptisms, weddings, funerals. Dads should be dads, moms should moms etc. Don’t confuse one role with another.

After thinking about the article some more and what my requested ‘response’ would be I settled on this: 

Arguments in favor of gay marriage need to be more theological.

The Ogletree article, and Ogletree himself, largely views the issue through the lens of Civil Rights. That’s fine and that’s one (secular) way to approach it; however, Christians should be thinking Christianly about the issue.

What’s more, since the conservative argument for ‘traditional marriage’ trades heavily in scriptural and theological jargon, it’s all the more important for a counter proposal to employ the resources of scripture and theological reasoning.

Gene Rogers was my very first teacher of theology, back when I was an undergrad at UVA. As a theologian, he’s ‘conservative’ or, better put, he’s ‘post-liberal.’ He also happens to be gay.

Here’s an excerpt from him making precisely the sort of theological argument- one that is ‘conservative’ in its respect of and adherence to the historic tradition- I wish more Christians and clergy attempted to make:

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke.

Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it.

The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke? Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question.

And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness? Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others. Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another. Says Williams:

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates.

But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings. I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion.

I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

You can read the full of Rogers’ here

 

barth_1_3Okay, so my blogging worlds collided this week as my ‘Surrendering My Wedding Credentials’ post provoked questions from people about how I understand scripture and homosexuality.

Meanwhile, my posts about ‘Barth, Piper and the Word of God’ prompted questions about whether Barth’s construal of scripture’s authority allows room for an acceptance of committed homosexual relationships.

At least those aren’t, like, loaded, controversial questions. Psyche.

Barth’s understanding of the word of God functions not only as a program of rethinking  what the word of God itself might be, but also of deconstructing common ways of conceiving the word that allow us to presume that we have mastered it–rather than always being in a position for it instead to master us:

‘Is it clear to our generation in life as well as thought that the serious element in serious theological work is grounded in the fact that its object is never in any circumstances at our command…?’ 

Behind the curtain of the Church Dogmatics, I think, is Barth attempting to assert a Doctrine of the Word of God (as living and authoritative) after the advent of modern, critical study of the Bible.

Over and against modern, critical scholarship which approaches deconstructs scriptural texts as dead, historical documents, Barth paves a middle way, acknowledging the human element in scripture’s authorship- and thus its imperfect nature- that is central to modern, critical scholarship, yet all the while stressing the freedom and power of God to incarnate afresh today the fallible human words of texts and people.

Here’s the crux of the matter as I see it:

If Barth’s understanding of the “word of God” is on target, it frees room for God to speak differently at different times through the same human words.

If scripture is human testimony to the One Word of God, which God can put to use in different times and different places, then there is no reason why God cannot speak a different word using the very same words of scripture.

Indeed did God not do this in the first century as the first disciple communities went back to their old familiar Hebrew Bible and discovered that God was using them to speak a much different and surprising word of a crucified Messiah?

For Barth then, there is both the binding of God to the story of Scripture but also the freedom of God in its use and reception in the church. 

Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God contains resonance with how my teacher, Brian Blount, advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective. Blount1

In his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for such ethical re-evaluation.

Blount points out that the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce. Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce. 

But in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (7.10-11).

Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.

The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.

In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ.

Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery. Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ tradition in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to such discernment today.

Or, as Barth might say: God didn’t speak once for all in scripture. God spoke definitively in Jesus Christ, the One Word of God, but God still speaks today. 

When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount.

If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner.

It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.

What’s important in Barth’s and Blount’s views is that the Church’s discernment on the topic of homosexuality cannot be a one-dimensional ‘the Bible says X,Y or Z’ assessment. What Barth and Blount would caution, I suspect, is that in the name of fidelity to the word of God (scripture) Christians inadvertently shackle the freedom of the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

0*d2f2HygwLJiosgbZMost of you are probably familiar with Fred Phelp’s Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the image of angry ‘Christians’ picketing funerals with signs reading ‘God hates fags’ will most certainly ring a bell. In fact, I’d wager that the evangelism dollars spent by all of Christendom over the last 10-15 years have been a waste when compared to the ubiquity of Phelp’s hate-mongering. To a huge proportion of the unchurched public, Phelp’s message and methods are Christianity.

Even though they’re not.

My first encounter with Westboro Baptist Church came when I was in seminary and Phelp’s crew was in town to picket a local Episcopal Church. Their level of anger seemed almost alien. I mean, no one’s that angry, all the time, right? Only self-righteousness could provoke such contempt.

So I was surprised to discover this story floating under the radar. Fred Phelp’s two granddaughter, Meghan and Grace Phelps, have left Westboro Baptist Church.

They’ve left the church. They’ve left the church’s teachings, They’ve left the endless schedule of protests and pickets, which they’d participated in since childhood. They’ve left their hometown. And their family.

What happened?

According to Meghan, she finally discovered how wrong her family and church had been by listening to a rabbi talk about Jesus.

It’s a great story. No, it’s a hopeful one that has the potential to be great.

This story a warning that not every church and not everything in church is holy, and it’s a reminder that God’s grace can and does come to the most unsavory of characters.

Just after 11 last Sunday morning at Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter is starting the Sunday service as he always does. He runs through the opening salutation and the collect for the day, and then he welcomes everyone to church as he always does, introducing Old First “as a community of Jesus in Park Slope where we welcome people of every race, ethnicity and orientation to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.”

The congregation—some eighty strong on this sunny but cold February morning—is the usual mix of Park Slope churchgoing types: a smattering of journalists, a few artists, a handful of old ladies, some rambunctious children. But in the back row of the tin-ceilinged, wood-floored hall, there’s a visitor. It is Megan Phelps-Roper’s first time not only at Old First but also at any church not called Westboro Baptist. Yes, that Westboro Baptist, the Topeka, Kansas, congregation that has become famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for its strident views on sin (and the abundance of it in modern America), salvation (and the prospective lack of it), and sexuality (we’re bad, in far more colorful terms).

For nearly all of her twenty-seven years, Megan believed it: believed what her grandfather Fred Phelps preached from the pulpit; believed what her dad Brent and her mom Shirley taught during the family’s daily Bible studies; believed (mostly) what it said on those signs that have made Westboro disproportionately influential in American life—“God hates fags”; “God hates your idols”; “God hates America.”

Megan was the one who pioneered the use of social media at Westboro, becoming the first in her family to go on Twitter. Effervescent and effusive, she gave hundreds of interviews, charming journalists from all over the world. Organized and proactive, she, for a time, even had responsibility for keeping track of the congregation’s protest schedule. She was such a Westboro fixture that the Kansas City Star touted her—improbably, as it turns out, because a woman could never have such a role at the church—as a future leader of the congregation.

Then, in November, she left.


I first met Megan in the summer of 2011, when I went to Topeka to spend a few days with the Westboro folks for my book project. During that visit, we talked about faith, we talked about church, we talked about marriage (and Megan’s feeling that, given the prospects, it would require no small amount of divine intervention in her case), and we talked about Harry Potter (for the record, she’s a fan). She seemed so sure in her beliefs, that I could not have imagined that some fifteen months later, we’d be having a conversation in which she tearfully told me that she was no longer with her family or with the church.

Mostly, the tears have subsided—“in public, anyway,” she says one afternoon, as we sit in a Tribeca café. “I still cry a lot.” Forget what you know of the church. Just imagine what it is like to walk away from everything you have ever known. Consider how traumatic it would be to know that your family is never supposed to speak to you again. Think of how hard it would be to have a fortress of faith built around you, and to have to dismantle it yourself, brick by brick, examining each one and deciding whether there’s something worth keeping or whether it’s not as solid as you thought it was.

As we talk, Megan repeatedly emphasizes how much she loves those she has left behind. “I don’t want to hurt them,” she says. “I don’t want to hurt them.”

Her departure has hurt them already—she knew it would—yet there was no way she could stay. “My doubts started with a conversation I had with David Abitbol,” she says. Megan met David, an Israeli web developer who’s part of the team behind the blog Jewlicious, on Twitter. “I would ask him questions about Judaism, and he would ask me questions about church doctrine. One day, he asked a specific question about one of our signs—‘Death Penalty for Fags’—and I was arguing for the church’s position, that it was a Levitical punishment and as completely appropriate now as it was then. He said, ‘But Jesus said’—and I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus—‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And then he connected it to another member of the church who had done something that, according to the Old Testament, was also punishable by death. I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”

To some, this story might seem simple—even overly so. But we all have moments of epiphany, when things that are plate-glass clear to others but opaque to us suddenly become apparent. This was, for Megan, one of those moments, and this window led to another and another and another. Over the subsequent weeks and months, “I tried to put it aside. I decided I wasn’t going to hold that sign, ‘Death Penalty for Fags.’” (She had, for the most part, preferred the gentler, much less offensive “Mourn for Your Sins” or “God Hates Your Idols” anyway.)

What “seemed like a small thing at the time,” she says, snowballed. She started to question another Westboro sign, “Fags can’t repent.” “It seemed misleading and dishonest. Anybody can repent if God gives them repentance, according to the church. But this one thing—it gives the impression that homosexuality is an unforgivable sin,” she says. “It didn’t make sense. It seemed a wrong message for us to be sending. It’s like saying, ‘You’re doomed! Bye!’ and gives no hope for salvation.”

She kept trying to conquer the doubts. Westboro teaches that one cannot trust his or her feelings. They’re unreliable. Human nature “is inherently sinful and inherently completely sinful,” Megan explains. “All that’s trustworthy is the Bible. And if you have a feeling or a thought that’s against the church’s interpretations of the Bible, then it’s a feeling or a thought against God himself.”

This, of course, assumes that the church’s teachings and God’s feelings are one and the same. And this, of course, assumes that the church’s interpretation of the Bible is infallible, that this much-debated document handed down over the centuries has, in 2013, been processed and understood correctly only by a small band of believers in Topeka. “Now?” Megan says. “That sounds crazy to me.”

In December, she went to a public library in Lawrence, Kansas. She was looking through books on philosophy and religion, and it struck her that people had devoted their entire lives to studying these questions of how to live and what is right and wrong. “The idea that only WBC hadthe right answer seemed crazy,” she says. “It just seemed impossible.”


The act of leaving Westboro is as weird as the church itself. Sometimes it’s described as a shunning process, but that’s not entirely apt. It is, in the eyes of the remaining members, a sort of death, but it’s a gentle one, because the carcass isn’t just dumped or ignored. One church member, who has lost two of his kids to the outside world, told me that he still loved them and that he set them up as best they could with what they’d need to start their new lives—some money, some household goods, even a car.

Megan didn’t leave alone; her sister Grace decided to go with her. They stayed just one night in Topeka. Then, after returning to their family home to retrieve some things they’d not packed the night before—“it was so weird and horrible to ring the doorbell,” Megan says—they left town.

They decided to disappear for a while, and found rooms in a house in a tiny Midwestern town. They needed space—to think, to read, to imagine what had previously been unimaginable. Their lives had largely been scripted, and “now that we’re writing our own script, everything seems a lot more tenuous,” Megan says. “We needed to think about what we believe. We need to figure out what we want to do next. I never imagined leaving, ever, so I never thought about doing anything different. I have no idea what kind of work I want to do, or where to live. How do people decide these things?”

Once a constant Tweeter, she hasn’t posted anything online since October. “I don’t know what I believe, so I don’t know what to say,” she explains. “I haven’t been ready to talk about any of this.” She’s only doing so now, and briefly, because, she says, “I was so proactive before and vocal about the church. My name means something now to others that it doesn’t mean to me. I want people to know that it’s not now how it was.”

But how is it going to be? She’s still not sure. They’ve been trying new things; one of their housemates made sushi one night, the first time Megan tasted raw fish (“yum!”). They read a lot—“I liked ‘The Sun Also Rises.’ There was a quote that was perfect for where we were: ‘Wonderful how one loses track of the days up here in the mountains.’ And you know what else I loved about it? I could be completely mistaken about what the book means, but where the book began and where it ended was the same. It makes your problems seem like small things. It gives you perspective—well, it gave me perspective, that my problems in the grand scheme of things are not as horrible or monstrous as they seem.” They talk to each other for hours each day, about religion, about God, about the Bible, about the future, about how to treat people, about “what’s right and what’s wrong—capital R and capital W.”

Click here to read the rest.

 

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da

In 2005, Matthew Fox, a disaffected Dominican, posted his own, new 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany- the same door Martin Luther famously nailed 95 Theses of his own, an act of defiance against Mother Church which supposedly ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Casting himself in Luther’s role (talk about self-important ego), Fox declared that it was time for ‘a New Reformation.’

And then with his theses in the church door and the media’s eye upon him…

Nothing happened. 

In fact, unless you have a remarkable memory for minor, two-bit media stories, the only Matthew Fox you’ve ever heard of is the dude who played Jack, the hero in Lost.

This is my point. Christians, Protestants at least, imagine the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. We have an Idealist assumption that Great Men and/or Great Ideas change the tide of history. And so, Luther, armed with hammer, nail and his individual conscience made the world something it would not have been without him.

But, as anyone who didn’t sleep through every minute of AP European History in high school knows, that just isn’t the case. The Protestant story was but one component of a much larger cultural shift.

The Reformation wasn’t sparked by Luther’s 95 Theses; Luther’s Theses were a product of the cultural phenomenon of reformation.

During this same period, Western Europe experienced massive political change as it transitioned from feudalism to nation-states. That shift was occasioned by the rise of a new economic system, mercantilism, which was made possible by vastly more efficient means of travel. The period we call ‘the Reformation’ with our in-house church lingo was actually the first Information Age, sparked by the advent of the printing press. What was happening in the church was only a small part of what was happening culturally.

Rather than Luther changing the tide of history, as Protestants like to imagine, Luther was swept up by the tide of history, taking the shifts and discoveries of the culture and applying them to his religious context. 

What’s this have to do with Emergence Christianity? Or the Boys Scouts’ policy on homosexuality?

Last week, in response to a post I wrote about the Boy Scouts’ possible change in policy, in which I noted that the culture is rapidly moving away from the Church and BSA on this issue, a friend pushed back that perhaps the Church should be wary of accommodating to the culture.

I understand that caution. As a post-liberal, I have an affinity for the argument that the Church should be a distinct, alternative to the culture. And yet, I think that profoundly misunderstands (or at least misstates) how culture functions.

Culture isn’t an ‘other’ to which the Church or Christians can determine to be set apart from or independent of. It doesn’t work that way, even if we wish it did. As James Davidson Hunter puts it, culture is a thick web of structures and networks that shape all of us. It’s unavoidable. You can’t retreat from culture or out of culture; you can only contribute more culture.

So, when it comes to issues like the BSA’s looming decision, we can talk about how the Church should be an alternative to the culture and not accommodate changing trends but to do so is to live in a fantasy world. ‘Church’ isn’t an institution. It’s a movement of people and, like it or not, those people have been shaped as much- if not more- by the culture of Will and Grace as they have been by the culture of traditional (whatever that really is in the end) Christianity.

We can’t pretend to be independent of and an alternative to culture. We can only contribute more culture (Christian culture) and choose the spots, topics, issues and idols from which we call people to repentance. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I personally don’t see homosexuality as the most urgent Kingdom witness Christians can offer our culture.

And that brings me to Emergence Christianity.

In case you’ve been living in a cave (or just aren’t a pastor or youth director) Emergence Christianity names a movement/trend/shift in the traditional Church as it reacts to postmodernity. As with the seismic cultural shift that marked the Reformation, Emergence Christians see postmodernity as an analogous paradigm shift that’s only just begun and will be long-lasting.

In mainline seminaries all across the country, in typical late-to-the-party fashion professors are breathlessly trying to inculcate future pastors in the “techniques” and “aesthetic sensibilities” of Emergence. But rendering Emergence Christianity into a technique that can be taught, I think is a mistake akin to crediting Luther the author of what we call the Reformation.

The real offering Emergence Christianity has made the larger Church isn’t in techniques, aesthetics, fads or rebellious counter-theology.

It’s in their recognition that the Church finds herself in a new cultural situation. As was so with Luther, our challenge is to determine how best to incarnate the Gospel in our time and place.

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da

The husband of a friend recently asked me these questions in response to my post about the Boy Scout’s possibly changing their policy on gay leaders. Here are his questions, abridged, and then my reply. I thought they were questions others might have too so I decided I’d open up my thoughts to everyone.

“So if the Boy Scouts of America (which includes many youth and adult females too) were to allow “… chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting” to “accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs” would you:

  1. Register your sons in Scouting (if not why not)?

If the BSA changed their position and that was adopted locally, I wouldn’t disallow their participation in scouts. We’d consider it if they expressed an interest. On a simple parenting level, they probably don’t have time in their schedules to do another activity with the swimming they do.
2) Not only accept, but advocate for Scouting, since it’s mission “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath(a) and Law(b).” If you find it so abhorrent that BSA does not presently allow openly homosexual members such that you won’t allow your children or yourself to associate with them, don’t you find that you are living in personal conflict since the United Methodist Church also does not permit homosexual leaders (The UMC officially will not ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, nor does it condone same sex marriages. Ref: The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2012)? I find it odd that you won’t associate with one group, but are a leader in another group with similar stance. 

I guess I should’ve been more clear in my original post, in which I tried to make the distinction between homosexuality as theological category and a political category. Issues of gay marriage and ordination are different matters to me because they’re in-house Christian issues for the Church in how we interpret scripture. Excluding gay people from an extracurricular activity isn’t a religious question, it’s a matter of discrimination in my view. It’s true that the UMC does not ordain gay Christians nor does it perform same sex marriage. However, the Book of Discipline also stipulates:

“all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God,” and that United Methodists are to be “welcoming, forgiving and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.” The Book of Discipline also condemns homophobia and heterosexism, saying the church opposes “all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice or sexual orientation.”

Again, my own view, which I think is reflected in the Discipline is that homosexuality may preclude people from certain theological status in the Church but that it should not warrant discrimination. For example, our previous bishop broke bad on a pastor who had refused to accept a gay Christian into church membership.

My own view, as I said, is in flux on the question of marriage. I think the Church has the right to define marriage in a way distinct from the country or culture. However, I personally believe gay Christians should be allowed to seek ordination. I have a theological problem with the Church baptizing people into the ministry of Christ but not allowing them access to all forms that ministry takes. I also have many classmates from seminary and friends who had a legitimate call and obvious gifts for ministry but were not able to pursue what I believe God had called them to do.

3. Knowing the UMC’s position on homosexuality, how would you advocate regarding the acceptance of homosexuals in the Scout unit that Aldersgate charters and is legally the “owner of?”

Well, that’s not really my decision to make. Or rather it’s a decision that would be shared with the lay leadership of the church but I would be honest- as I have been in this venue- about my own view. Incidentally, I got an enormous amount of emails about the original post and only one of them was to express disagreement with the post. When it comes to this issue, the demographics are moving much faster than the Church or the BSA.

 

How Are You Not A Liberal?

Jason Micheli —  January 31, 2013 — 8 Comments

I’m not a liberal.

I’m a post-liberal. What in the hell is that, you say?

Postliberalism was first articulated by Hans Frei, who was inspired by the work of the theologian Karl Barth, in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. Frei argued that modern conservative and liberal approaches to the Bible undermine the authority of scripture by locating the meaning of biblical teaching in some doctrine or worldview that is more foundational than scripture itself.

Prior to the Enlightenment, Christians read the Bible primarily as a “realistic” narrative that told the story of the world. That is, the coherence of the scripture story made figural interpretation possible. Jews and Christians made sense of their lives by viewing themselves as participating within the story told in scripture.

Frei argued that during the Enlightenment this sense of scripture as realistic narrative was lost. People’s own rational experience increasingly defined for them what was “real.” As a result, theologians sought to understand scripture by relating it to their own supposedly universal “reality.” They sought to determine the truth within scripture by translating it into the truer language of their own world.

Frei argued that because of the Enlightenment, Christians overlooked the narrative character of scripture. Liberals looked for the real meaning of the Bible in the eternal truths about God and humanity, while evangelicals looked for the real meaning in the Bible’s factual references.

Both lost sight of the priority of scripture as narrative. Scripture was no longer a story by which Christians narrated their lives. The Bible was turned into a source of support for modern narratives of progress or for doctrinal propositions.  As Frei writes:”Interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story.”

Postliberalism seeks a third way, apart from Protestant liberalism and from evangelicalism, which itself is also theologically liberal.

Postliberalism asserts the the primacy of scriptural narrative for theology. The word narrative is key. Scripture, after all, is primarily told through story not propositions; therefore, the truth conveyed in scripture isn’t rational- or rather its non-rational. We’re story-telling animals made in the image of a God who communicates narratively and ‘truth’ is best apprehended through story not ‘fundamentals’ (Evangelicals) or rational facts universally accessible to all (Mainline Liberals).

The ‘universally accessible’ point is key too. Postliberalism denies that such a thing as universal reason exists. Religion is like language not math. Christians and Muslims speak two different languages in which the words we use signify different things not the same, universal reality. The word ‘God’ for example connotes something much different to a Hindu than it does to a Jew.

This stress on language comes from George Lindbeck, who argued for a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of religion as opposed to the “cognitive-propositional” (Evangelical) and “experiential-expressive” (Mainline Liberal) approaches that have, he said, dominated theology during the modern age.

Liberal theologies are experiential-expressive in that they seek to ground religious language upon universal claims of human experience.

Evangelical theologies are cognitive-propositional; they claim that doctrinal statements directly or “literally” refer to reality.

Lindbeck pointed out how no religion can actually be understood in those terms. Religious traditions are historically shaped and culturally conditioned. They function instead, he said, more like language. So, christian doctrines should not be understood as universalistic propositions or as interpretations of a universal religious experience.

Doctrines are more like the rules of grammar that govern the way we use language to describe the world. Christian doctrine identifies the rules by which Christians use faith language to define the world in which we live. Quite simply, a non-Christian has no idea what Christians mean by the word ‘grace’ until they’ve been taught to speak Christian.

Because of this, rational arguments for Christian truth claims aren’t possible until one has learned through spiritual training how to speak the language of Christianity. Incidentally, this is why my children’s sermons are never ‘object lessons’ but always a retelling of the scripture text. They’ve got to learn the language before they can extrapolate ‘lessons’ from it.

Rather ‘translating’ scripture into secular categories- as liberalism does- postliberalism seeks to redescribe reality “within the scriptural framework.” If Christians allowed the story of the Bible to become their own story, says postliberalism, they would be less preoccupied with making Christianity relevant to the non-Christian world on non-Christian terms.

Like liberal theology, postliberalism takes for granted that the Bible is not infallible and that historical criticism of the bible is legitimate. Like evangelical theology, postliberalism emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Because of its stress on the particularity of the scripture narrative, postliberalism emphasizes the role of the Church in forming people according to the story.

Because of its stress on the absolute saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ, postliberalism emphasizes the inherently peculiar, countercultural nature and mission of the church.

And this retrieval of the inherently counter-cultural nature of the church is how someone who is not a theological liberal may occasionally end up advancing what sounds like a politically liberal position. Put another way, it’s how someone who is not a theological liberal is not always reliably politically conservative.

To put it in postliberal terms, Christians are people who speak a different language than the rest of the culture and country; therefore, it’s impossible for us to consistently fit into the categories culture and country give us.

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da

How Are You Not A Liberal?

Jason Micheli —  January 30, 2013 — 3 Comments

The other day I posted my thoughts about the Boy Scouts reportedly changing their policy on gay scout leaders. In that post, I qualified that I’m not ‘liberal’ and several of you asked how that’s the case. To respond, I thought it might be helpful to flesh out what the term ‘liberal’ means in the theological world because theological liberalism isn’t the same thing as political liberalism. The two can overlap in sensibilities and conclusions, but not all political liberals are theological liberals, for example. In fact, I would argue that evangelicals, most of whom are conservative when it comes to their politics, are liberal in the theological sense when it comes to their biblical interpretation.

So what’s theological liberalism?

Big picture: theological liberalism is how Christianity reacted to the challenge of modernity; specifically, the Enlightenment discoveries regarding the origin of the universe, evolution of creatures etc. Suddenly with Darwin, Newton and the rest, the literal, biblical view of our world was cast into question. A rational, objective account of Christian faith was cast into question.

One branch of the Christian tree reacted by vigorously defending the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith and asserting how they could be rationally demonstrated as true. This was the birth of modern evangelical fundamentalism- see it’s not that old a tradition. It’s younger than the 13th Amendment.

Another branch of the Christian family reacted by instead adapting traditional, orthodox Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment.  This branch redefined Christianity’s “essence” so that it no longer conflicted with the “best” of modern thought.  Rather than worrying about demonstrating the rational truth of scripture and doctrine, this branch redefined Christianity as primarily about human experience.  That is, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God to speech.

This branch distinguished between ‘facts’ (Science) and ‘values’ (Religion), or a better way to put it: Science describes the world as it is and Religion describes it as it should be. Thus, Christianity became less about rationally demonstrable beliefs and more about ethics. Whereas Branch 1 reacted to modernity by trying to rationally prove, say, the Resurrection, this Branch reacted to modernity by interpreting the Resurrection as symbolic of a deeper rational ‘truth.’

No longer are the stories of Jesus literally true, they are moral lessons that are universally accessible through our faculty of reason.

If you want to know why most preaching in mainline churches is moralistic finger-wagging and why mainline Christians seem incapable of actually talking about God or their faith… this is why and whence it comes.

If you know a bit about these things, then you know that’s a huge gloss over a lot nuance.

If you don’t know this stuff and I was at all clear then you’ll notice what both branches above share:

  1. The assumption there is something called ‘Truth’ that is universal, not contingent upon language or culture, and accessible to all.
  2. The assumption that Truth is accessed by or through Reason.
  3. The assumption that because Truth is mediated by universal Reason then scripture must be an objectively, factual text (Branch 1) or objectively, factually incorrect (Branch 2) thus requiring ‘adaptation’ to fit our modern worldview. This leads Branch 1 to give scripture too much authority (inerrancy) and Branch 2 no authority beyond its practicality (the United Methodist Church :) )

In other words, both branches reacted to modernity’s challenges by assuming modernity’s premise was accurate: that Truth is mediated rationally and accessible to all regardless of language, culture or perspective.

That’s why or how most evangelicals (who fall into Branch 1) can be both politically conservative and theologically liberal.

When I say I’m not a liberal, this is primarily what I mean. Now, because theological liberalism names something different from liberal political philosophy, where I come down on certain present day issues sometimes DOES fall on the liberal side of the political spectrum but at other times does NOT fall there.

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da