What, Are You Blind?

I love the story of the blind man in John 9. Stereotypically Johannine, the kind of story that we read of in 6 or 8 verses in the Synoptics is told, retold, and developed for an entire chapter. As the story unfolds we have opportunity to witness various types of responses to Jesus and Jesus’ followers, we hear more of John’s Christology, but most of all we ourselves hear the testimony of the witnesses and are thereby called to make the same assessment of Jesus that the characters in the story are making.

One thing that struck me as I read the story just now was that the story of the healing is told three times. The narrator tells us the story in John 9:1-7. Then in vv. 8-12 the healed man tells his story to his parents and others who saw him. This posse, it seems, leads the man to the Pharisees to whom the man once again tells the story (vv. 13-17).

The rising action seems to reach its apex with the man’s confession to the Pharisees, that he believes Jesus to be a prophet, which is juxtaposed with the immediately following statement: “The Jews (Judeans?) did not believe about him that he was blind and regained his sight.” So they call their next witnesses, the man’s parents, who will testify that the man was blind and now sees, but not to how he was healed.

The theme of testimony runs through John like a red thread. Here we watch as the testimony is laid out, and the Pharisees refuse to believe.

In their third scene of questioning, the Pharisees turn once again to examine the formerly blind man himself. Now they are turning from the actions themselves to the man’s assessment of Jesus. “We know he’s a sinner, so what do you say?”

This greatness of this second round of testimony from the blind man to the Pharisees comes to light when we recall how the whole story starts. People bring in the blind man, and the question is,  “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” To which Jesus replies, “No, but that the works of God may be made known in him.” And so, when the Pharisees begin their questioning with, “Give glory to God,” we the readers know that their request is deeply ironic. Their insistence that Jesus is a sinner is precisely a denial of the glory of God, while the man’s own telling of his story and refusal to call Jesus a sinner is its affirmation.

The second great moment is this marvelous rebuke that the healed man levels against his questioners: “This is the amazing thing, that you don’t know where he is from and he opened my eyes!” We’re being told by the story what Jesus will later sum up: the blind man really is the one who sees, and these who should have been given sight by Moses are walking around blind.

The third great moment is when the Pharisees give their final rebuke to the man, “You were completely born in sin and you teach us?!” We who followed the story from the beginning know that the man was not born in sin, but was born blind in order that he might, indeed, become a living teacher, putting on display the work of God.

Besides being beautifully crafted, this story stands out to me for another reason as well: we’ve just gone through four scenes in a Gospels story (verses 8-34), without seeing or hearing from Jesus directly. Jesus reenters the scene in v. 35, where he will first wrap up matters with the healed man, an interaction that ends with the man affirming his belief in Jesus and kneeling before him, before turning to a final interpretation of what has happened. When Jesus confronts the man he’d healed, he tells the man, “You have seen him, and he is the one speaking with you.” Yes, blind man, you can see Jesus now.

Jesus interprets the scene for us, explaining what has happened as a microcosm of his ministry: for judgment I came into the world: so that those not seeing might see, and so that those who see might become blind. And, the Pharisees don’t miss his point. What? Us blind?! Alas, yes…

At other points in John’s Gospel, Jesus invites his critics to interpret the signs correctly: these are the work that the Father is doing through him, God’s own testimony that Jesus is the One sent into the world. Here we receive testimony from the narrator of the book of John itself and from the healed man. And the question then turns squarely on us: Do we see Jesus?

Reading Paul With African Americans

In the work on my book, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul…?, I’m currently wrestling through a chapter on justice. My question for the next few weeks: how do I present Paul to Howard Thurman’s grandmother, who told the following story?

“During the days of slavery,” she said, “the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters…, as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”[1]

UPDATE:

After I had written this post, someone drew my attention to a blog post by Anthony Bradley, an African American in the Presbyterian Church in America. The post itself, and the comments that ensue, are powerful indicators of the continuing importance of figuring out how issues of race relations are tied to the gospel story.


[1] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996),30-31 (this book was originally published in 1949).

Plotting Women into the Gospel Story

My recent posts on women in the church have dealt with gender in Bible translation and the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 (a classic text for male hierarchy in the church). Today I want to post a snippet of theological reflection that helps situate these “tip of the iceberg” concerns upon a larger gospel-narrative glacier.

The big picture of the Christian story is that God has bound himself to humanity, through the nation of Israel, for the purpose of bringing the world from the failure of old creation into the glory of new creation. This, of course, is the story that Christianity shares in common with Judaism. What makes the story of Jesus uniquely Christian is that the means God chooses is a crucified Messiah whose kingdom-inaugurating activity was one of upending the economy of the world.

The implications of this surprisingly cruciform kingdom are consistently worked out in the words of Jesus and of Paul: to follow a crucified messiah is to commit oneself to self-giving love as the way of life. Moreover, both Jesus and Paul extend the application to the power-dynamics and social hierarchies of the world.

To follow a crucified messiah is to confess that those who are mighty by the standards of the world are not the ultimate insiders, but likely to be the consummate outsiders in the kingdom of God.

Conversely, to be enfolded into the kingdom of the crucified messiah is to be given the status of consummate insider, even if one was previously at the margins of society. “Consider your own calling, my brothers and sisters: that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many of noble birth. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world in order to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world in order to shame the strong, and God has chosen the ill-born things of the world and the despised—the things that are not in order to nullify the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).

The way in which God shows that the world’s wisdom is foolish is by demonstrating that the economy of God’s kingdom is the inverse of the economy of the world. It is not what one brings from the world to the church that gives one value in the church, but that God has made one who had nothing to bring a member of this body of Christ. God has performed such an inversion so that no one may boast before him (1 Corinthians 1:29).

But here’s the point we too often skip past even when we affirm this much: if the “getting into” the Kingdom of God is not based on socially constructed hierarchies, then bringing such hierarchies into the church is a denial of the gospel itself. Much of the Corinthian correspondence is spent advancing just this argument about life in Christian community. The means by which we enter (God’s grace in uniting us by the Spirit to the body of the crucified Christ) is the sole grounds by which we differentiate amongst ourselves in the body (by the Spirit pouring out the gifts of God and thereby differentiating among the equal members of Christ’s crucified body).

This is the gospel story that, I believe, calls us to make good on what we catch glimpses of in the New Testament. When we read of women as co-workers, as a deacon, as an apostle; when we read of women speaking and praying in public worship; when we read of women transcending social mores in order to follow Jesus in his itinerant ministry or sit at his feet like a disciple; when we read of women being entrusted with the task of bearing witness to the resurrection—in each of these moments we are catching glimpses of a new creation in which there is no hierarchical distinction between male and female.

It is not a vision that is worked out consistently in the first century culture in which the New Testament writings grew up, but it is one that fits within the plot of a story that turns all social hierarchies on their head as God comes to rule the world through a crucified messiah.

This is the first reason why I believe that the inclusive, more egalitarian voice of the New Testament demands our allegiance in our contemporary settings: it does better justice to the gospel story. In particular, the more inclusive elements of the New Testament do better justice to the holistic vision of new creation that makes God’s blessings known “far as the curse is found.”

On Women’s Silence and Believing the Bible

I know this is too long for a blog post, but when has that stopped me before? Some recent thoughts on the importance of 1 Tim. 2 and women in ministry:

First Timothy 2:9-15 is the lynchpin passage for the position that leadership and teaching in the church are charges entrusted to men alone. At the seminary where I received my masters degree, the lecture on women in the church began with a serial elimination of the relevance of all other passages in the New Testament, imploring us to recognize that 1 Timothy 2 is the decisive statement of the issue. The passage in question reads as follows:

8I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument;  9also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (NRSV)

The heart of this passage is v. 12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” As to this prohibition, we should be clear as to how absolute it is. Some, feeling the tensions between this passage and others, have suggested that women may teach in public worship (for example), so long as they are not teaching under their own authority but rather under the authority of the men who comprise the church’s leadership. They combine “teach or exercise authority” such that it now means “authoritative teaching” or “teaching on her own authority.” But this is not what the passage states. The contrast the passage establishes is between teaching or remaining silent, not between teaching authoritatively or teaching non-authoritatively.

The next important element to explore is the way that this restriction is tied to the narrative of creation and fall from Genesis 2-3. It seems to imply that what went wrong in humanity’s rebellion against God was an upending of the order of creation. Adam was created first, but the woman chose to listen to someone else. The priority of Adam in creation seems to imply that his superiority to Eve includes being less prone to deception: “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” The implication is clear: women should not teach now in the church because, being more prone to deception, their teaching would lead not only themselves but the entire church into transgression. This reinforces the point that the mandate of this passage is not simply to keep women from “authoritative teaching”, but from all teaching.

It is important to paint this passage with the stark colors that it demands because it is only then that we can see that it stands in direct tension with the actual practice of the early church as evidenced in numerous places, including Paul’s own letters. Once we allow for the softening of its force such that teaching is o.k., so long as it is under the authority of the male leadership, we blind ourselves to the contradiction it presents to the presumption of women’s full participation in worship and the life of the church visible in passages such as 1 Corinthians 11 and Romans 16. It is, in fact, counter-evidence which, if vindicated, would call not only modern ordination of women into question but also the ancient practice of the apostles’ churches and fellow workers.

But we need to say more about this passage as well. Because not only does the ancient church serve as a living counter-point to this passage of scripture, almost every modern-day church does as well—even those who cling to the prohibition of women teaching on the basis of a commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God. To see how this is so, let’s broaden our vision to the other commands contained in this paragraph.

The first command mandates that women dress simply, adorning themselves with good works rather than external adornment: “women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God” (verses 9-10). My question for those who base their views of women in church leadership on verses 11-14 is whether or not they also enforce verses 9-10: Do you forbid people from dressing up to come to church on Sunday? Do you forbid your women from braiding or otherwise styling their hair? Do you forbid women from wearing a gold necklace or a diamond ring? With rare exception (such as Amish communities), the answers are no. We recognize that these are culturally or temporally bound restrictions, and that there might be other considerations (such as honoring God in worship) that might pull a community in a very different direction. But such concessions to our own cultural context begin to peel away the veneer of “obeying the Bible” as the reason for enforcing the subsequent verses. Are the mandates about dress not in the very same paragraph? Are they not set down to regulate the very same ecclesiastical context of worship? Why are we happy to enforce restrictions on teaching but not on dress?

Another set of related questions arises when we keep reading beyond the Adam and Eve allusion. The final verse of the paragraph states that the woman (Eve? all women?) will be saved through childbearing if they (all women?) continue in faith and love and holiness. The typical meaning of “through” in the Greek is “by means of.” Again we are face-to-face with a verse that not even the most biblically-adherent incorporate into their theology. Nobody, in short, thinks that women will be saved only if they add “having babies” to the standard markers of faith, love, and holiness.

Some have attempted to find in this verse a continuing allusion to the fall narrative, in which Eve is told that her seed will bruise the head of the serpent. This is unlikely, however. The verse in 1 Timothy looks at the action of women in the present day church (“they continue in faith…”), and “childbearing” is not well-suited to evoke an allusion to “see” from Genesis 3.

A more likely possibility is that the verse evokes the curse of pain in childbirth (Genesis 3:16). It is possible that “saved through childbearing” means something akin to “preserved through the act of bearing of children.” But again, this is unlikely both due to the translational difficulties and due to the context of 1 Timothy 2.

Reading through various commentators’ attempts to make sense of this admittedly difficult verse, I am struck by the irony that conservative scholars (e.g., Moo) reject the idea that the verse refers to how women obtain salvation simply due to the fact that this would contradict other passages of scripture. And yet, they are not willing to apply the same logic to verses 11-14!

1 Timothy 2:9-15 contains three statements about the activities of women in the church: (1) they are to dress plainly; (2) they are to remain silent; and (3) they will be saved by having children. The vast preponderance of the church has, rightly, rejected (1). The near entirety of the church has rejected (3). And they were right to do both of these. But having done so, it has evacuated any appeal to “submitting to scripture” as the reason for continuing to enforce (2).

“Anglican Unity Movement Splits”

So read the provocative headline over a one-paragraph news story in Christianity today. “Unity” movement “splits”.

Sigh.

I have a number of friends in Anglican Mission churches. I know that a number of the particular churches are doing great work. And, I know that a number of the congregations suffered for years under bishops that, for example, wouldn’t confirm their children or ordain orthodox clergy.

But from the get-go I have been disappointed that, in the process of dealing with these difficulties and ultimately leaving the Episcopal Church, there has been no indication that these churches share the typical Anglican concern for unity. It disappointed me that several large Episcopal churches that would not leave when AMiA formed waited a few years and then formed their own splinter group.

Unity has not been part of the DNA of the North American Anglican movement since its inception.

I had hope when the Anglican Church in North America was formed (just last year?!) that this element of our Christian vocation might begin to be part of American Anglicanism’s story. But it’s not to be. The Anglican Mission has left ACNA, a group that, according to the article, “it helped found last fall.”

Unity as a distinctive of Anglicanism: Requiescat In Pace.

Update: There’s a bit more detailed and nuanced version of the story on Anglicans United.

The King of Nature

Psalm 89 is a marvelous psalm. Simultaneously it praises God for his greatness and wonder and it sings in praise of what God does for Israel’s king. Ultimately, after singing the wonder of both, it pleads for a restoration of the kingship.

The psalm provides a host of imagery for understanding what it means to be the person anointed to rule the world on God’s behalf.

After praising God for his power in and above the heavens (vv. 5-7), the psalm moves to praise YHWH for his rule over the earth, including the raging sea and its primeval monsters (vv. 8-10). YHWH’s reign is righteous, and his people exalt his righteousness.

But the shift from YHWH to YHWH’s agent comes in vv. 17-18. The glory of YHWH is the strength of his people, he exalts their horn–because Israel’s king and shield belongs to YHWH.

The exposition of kingship begins with David’s election and anointing. And in this there is an identification between YHWH and his king. The story-bound God binds himself to the story of Israel’s king: “my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.”

The story of YHWH andh is king is to be a story of victory over enemies (vv. 22-24). Because YHWH is the one who strengthens this king, it is YHWH’s name that exalts “the horn” of his anointed.

Then, things get a bit weird.

Apparently, ruling the people of the world isn’t enough. The God who “rules the raging of the sea” (v. 9) is going to set Israel’s king over this part of the world as well: “I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers” (v. 25). To reign over the waters of the earth is either to be God or to be God’s anointed representative, the human Davidic king who does what the first people were created to do in Genesis 1: rule the world on God’s behalf.

This king will call God father and will be “the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth”–again, a human who fulfills the creation-vocation of humanity in Genesis 1. To bear the image of God is to be the child of God (compare Gen 5:1ff) who rules the world on God’s behalf.

I know, I know, I’m so predictable. You know exactly where I’m going with this.

When we turn to the pages of the New Testament, and see Jesus doing things that make us think he’s acting like God, we need to give adequate space for the possibility that, in keeping with the OT expectations of Israel’s king, Jesus is acting like God because he is, in fact, Israel’s king, the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. The point of the nature miracles such as stilling the storm have a perfectly plausible interpretive framework given to us in the OT: the Messiah will be one who rules the world on God’s behalf, and this means all the world. Jesus stilling a storm or walking on water is not an indication that he is divine, but an indication that he is the Messiah.

Wedding in Cana

I was mostly happy with the service Laura and I planned for our wedding. But one thing I couldn’t force the minster to do, much as I tried, was to skip that part about Jesus adorning the wonderful glories of marriage by doing his first miracle at a wedding: “our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”

This, basically, makes me want to #stabmyself.

I’ll leave aside the basic NT Prof grumpiness about whether John calling this “the first sign” has anything whatsoever to do with whether it’s the first miracle Jesus performed, and focus on what the whole wedding thing and the significance of the miracle.

John’s Gospel begs to be interpreted. Often, the stories are followed by discourses or conversations that illustrate that the action performed is symbolic of Jesus and his ministry. Jesus who feeds 5,000 is the bread of life; Jesus who raises Lazarus is the resurrection and the life; Jesus who washes the disciples feet is illustrating the full extent of his self-giving love.

And the Jesus who changes water from Jewish purification vessels into wine for a wedding celebration is present as one who replaces (sorry for the strong language, but I won’t take it back) the Jewish law, rituals, leadership and temple as the one in whom and place at which God is present with His people.

First, John tells us that these are six water vessels set up according to “the purification [customs] of the Jews.” Why choose water jugs associated with Jewish purification? Why would the one described as the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29) perform a miracle in which he makes this water into the best wine? Hmmm…

Second, we’re told that this wine is better than what came before. Again, is the juxtaposition of Jesus’ bringing something new and better with the jars of Jewish purification part of the key to the story?

Third, when we learn of the great superiority of this wine, we hear the master of the feast in conversation with the groom: “Every person [πᾶς ἄνθωπος] sets out the good wine first… You [σύ] have saved the good wine until now.” Might this be a slightly parabolic telling to the story, where the bridegroom is being contrasted with people?

Finally, there is a significant strand of eschatological/apocalyptic thought in early Christianity (and Judaism) that describes the End as a great wedding feast. Might John be drawing on this imagery to suggest that Jesus’ inauguration of the age to come is one that is present through his ministry in such a way as to displace Jewish definitions of the people of God and the age to come? When Jesus’ mother tells him that they’re out of wine he says, “My time has not yet come,” an indicator that in some ways this miracle is, itself, a displaced statement about the future that Jesus holds in his hands and brings to fruition through his coming crucifixion.

Jesus goes from Cana to Jerusalem, where he clears the temple and issues this challenge: tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days. But the temple Jesus is talking about is his body–the new meeting place of God and God’s people that displaces the Temple in Jerusalem.

These two stories work together in step with so many other stories and characters in John: they show us that something (especially Jewish things) are good–but only if and insofar as they are recognized as witnesses to something beyond themselves.

John the Baptist is good–so long as you realize that he is good as a witness to Jesus and not to himself.

The Law of Moses is good–so long as you realize that these bear witness to Jesus and that’s how they have life in them.

And the purification rituals and Temple are good–so long as you realize that they function as pointers beyond themselves, as witnesses to what God will be for the people in and through Jesus. With Jesus the good wine has come that is better than the old. With Jesus there is a purifying Lamb that is better than the ritual washings. With Jesus the word has become flesh and tabernacled among us, so there is no need for a Temple other than the temple which is his body.

If we think that the point of the wedding in Cana is the wedding in Cana, I’d say that we’ve gotten it exactly wrong. The point isn’t for Jesus to witness to how great marriage is, the point is for the wedding to point to how great Jesus is.

Language and Social Programming

In Fuller’s Biblical Division, we have a requirement that students use a gender-inclusive translation of the Bible (NRSV or TNIV) as their English translation. My students often ignore this, despite my desperate pleas, so I have to find ways of compelling them against their will. *ahem*

This spring a student asked some good, pointed questions about this requirement, so I figured I would answer him here, perhaps in hopes of getting some discussion going.

To the overall question, why require a gender-inclusive translation? My overall answer is this: to keep transforming the culture of the church until we actually believe (and therefore act like) that women and men are equal members of the body of Christ, equally addressed by the word of God, and equally empowered by the Spirit to serve in it (and therefore lead it).

My non-theological answer to why gender-inclusive language is essential: I am raising a daughter. At the age of 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 gender identity is one of the key ways she’s making sense of the world. She counts boys and girls (and whether the presence of a female dog ups the ante on the girls side so that they win). And, when she hears masculine language, she automatically excludes herself from the addressees.

As a man, this is something that experientially I will never be able to relate to, but as a dad I know that I want my daughter to hear the words of the Bible and know that they are expressed to her as much as they are to her brother. I don’t want girls or women who pick up the Bible to think that they are only members of the family of God by implication or by necessary consequence.

My student asked specifically about requiring the now defunct TNIV and the NRSV that was sponsored by the World Council of Churches and has not been well received in evangelical circles.

This is a crucial question. In my estimation the reason that these gender inclusive translations have not caught on in evangelicalism is precisely because conservative churches are theologically opposed to gender equality. It is because they are guarding against the sort of transformation that I think needs to take place that they choose to preserve and further language of masculine hegemony. In resisting even gender-inclusive language for humanity, however (e.g., not allowing α͗δέλφοι to be translated “brothers and sisters,” but instead insisting on “brothers”), the English translation expresses an exclusivity that was not there in the Greek. This is a case where “more literal” is not equivalent to “more accurate.”

The final couple of questions from my student were along the lines of who cares? and why bother? Why not use “mankind” and “man” rather than human? In addition to what I’ve outlined above, the reason I care is that women who are learning to locate themselves, as women, in the world, need to be told and have reinforced from every angle that they do not have to become male (or approximate maleness) in order to fully realize their humanness, to become who God desires them to be as restored image-bearers of Christ.

The church has been shackled by the idea that maleness is ontologically superior to femaleness. This has ramifications for how the church thinks about Jesus and how it thinks about gender among us humans.

With respect to Jesus: the ESV gives some hints as to the necessity for certain people to hold onto Jesus’ maleness as a sine qua non of salvation. A translation that prides itself on rendering words consistently and accurately translates ἄνθρωποι as “people” in 1 Timothy 2:4, “…desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” With this desire for all people as the set-up, however, the ESV simply cannot bring itself to say that a human is a sufficient category for a savior. No, it has to be male: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men [!, ἄνθρωποι], the man [! ἄνθρωπος] Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

We need to embrace gender-neutral terminology for humanity so that we can start to disentangle ourselves from skewed notions about maleness and salvation. And if you think I’m just making up the idea that the maleness of Jesus is an essential part of conservative evangelical theology, then maybe you can drop a note to Paternoster Press and ask why, after printing Neil Williams’ new book The Maleness of Jesus, they canceled the contract and are refusing to distribute it.

Of course, as soon as being male is required to represent humanity before God, then being male is required to represent God before God’s people. The continuing deafness of the evangelical world to the biblical passages that give counter-testimony to 1 Timothy 3 from the early church is another lingering effect of gender-exclusive Bible translation. So long as we think that to be truly human is to be man, and so long as we think that a man must be the mediator between God and man, women will never be able to participate as full, co-equal partners.

So yes, I care. And as a man I think it’s more important for me to champion this cause than it is for women to champion it themselves. Because the call of the gospel isn’t to spend all our time getting worked up over our own rights, but to spend all our time getting worked up over how life can come to the other.

Ideas & Neighbors

I had coffee with a student this afternoon. It helped crystallize for me one way in which seminary education can be dangerous. Note well: dangerous does not equal bad. But like many good and helpful things, it can be dangerous as well.

The danger is simply this: seminary can teach us that people are ideas to be argued with rather than neighbors to be loved.

Telling the story of the story-bound God