I’ve been mostly minding my own business for the past two months, but I got posterized on Facebook on Monday and wanted to share the moment with you all:
This electronic land has produced good fruit.
And now, it will lie fallow for a season that it might resume such productivity at some point in the future.
Or, to move from metaphor of fields to metaphors of speaking: James advises that we be quick to listen, slow to speak. After a season of incessant speech, the season of listening is demanding its due.
And it shall have it.
I keep coming back to Confessions of Faith. As I dance around this (repeatedly) there’s one major thing I’m trying go get to: we as Christians have regularly created the impression that being a Christian is defined by thinking/believing the right things.
Thinking the right things isn’t bad. At some level it’s necessary. But I don’t want to say with, say, Philip Schaff, that belief in the content of the creeds is “necessary and sufficient” for salvation.
So what if our recitations of our shared narrative began with a phrase other than, “I believe,” a phrase that was was self-involving in a different way?
What if we recited together, instead, something like this?
I worship God the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought us up out of the house of bondage, the God who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all and raised him from the dead;
And I follow Jesus the Messiah, his only begotten son, who was anointed son of God by the Spirit, taught us with authority, healed the sick, fed the hungry, embraced the outcast and the sinner, cast out demons, beckoned us to follow, took up his cross, loved me and gave himself for me, reconciled the world to God, was raised from the dead and enthroned as Lord and King, and sent his followers and Spirit out into the world;
I receive the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, given by Christ that I might walk in faithfulness, receive forgiveness, crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, and receive a share in Jesus’ own sonship, speak in God’s name, extend forgiveness, make peace among people, heal the sick, feed the hungry, embrace the outcast and sinner, cast out demons, take up the cross and pour myself out in self-giving love for the good of my neighbor, be raised to newness of life, and thus live and reign with him forever.
That’s what I’m getting at. There are lots of good, true things in our statements. But how do we talk and think about who we are such that we are always remembering that our statements are self-involving? Not merely involving of our minds, or our “hearts,” or our beliefs, but summoning us to participate in the narrative of the coming reign of God?
I led a seminar on sexuality for a church a couple weeks ago. I’ve also been reading a bit about sexual ethics and polemics in the ancient world. So, yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about sex lately, but strictly for professional purposes.
Here’s something I’m seeing that probably makes sense to folks: the ways we think and talk about sex are tied up with larger ways of thinking and talking about the world.
(Way to go, Mr. Profundity! I can tell this blog post is going to change my life…)
In evangelical circles we have created an elaborate system of morality that only concerns our souls, so when we think about sex we create paradigms in which sexual purity means keeping your heart pure by only having sex with the person of the opposite gender to whom you’re married.
When this gnostic-like separation of body and soul gets carried a bit further, we hear folks saying things like, “God doesn’t care what you do behind the closed door of your bedroom.”
But for most of history, the connection between whom one had sex with and how one had sex with them was much more integrated.
Sex was understood to be a focused expression of what was true in the broader world. Acting in accordance with society’s sexual mores was an expression of wisdom, manliness, and self-control. Acting out of step with them was an expression of folly, womanliness, and enslavement to the passions.
Uh oh. Did I say “manly” versus “womanly”? Well… yes…
You see, part of the story is that hierarchies were developed that were alleged to reflect the order of nature, the order of the cosmos.
Strength, virtue, wisdom, and manliness all coalesce in the elite male. He is naturally more gifted to lead, and thus occupies a higher place on the social ladder, than his wife or the peasants or his slaves.
What does this have to do with sex?
Well, there are manly ways of having sex and not-so-manly ways. Sex is an expression of power and social hierarchy. To play the man’s role in a sex act was to express that power, strength, and dominion that is naturally the man’s. To play the woman’s part in the sex act was to express that weakness, “softness,” etc. was appropriate to a woman.
There are lots of implications for this. But the bottom line point is this: sex was seen as an expression of the inherent hierarchy in the world.
This is not just an ancient idea.
It is alleged that there are (or have been) laws on the books of some states restricting sex to the so-called “missionary position.” Why would such a law exist? Because of the idea that copulation is supposed to be an enactment of the structure of society in which men rule over women, generally, and husbands rule over their wives.
The notion that sexual is an expression of authority and strength, or lack thereof, is ancient as well as recent. It is pervasive and, in the ancient world, assumed.
So what’s my point?
Today my point is this: that when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband does,” he was saying something that fit perfectly into his first century context. Men rule women. A husband has sexual authority over his body and over the bodies of those under him.
But when Paul says, “The husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does,” he has said something fraught with revolutionary potential.
What kind of world is it where a woman has authority over her husband’s body in the bedroom? Not a world, surely, where God simply doesn’t care and where sex doesn’t matter?
Perhaps, instead, it is the dawning of a new world. A world where authority is not aligned with gender. A world where “inherent” and “obvious” systems of strength and power are upended by the cross of Christ?
I do not think that Paul fully works out an egalitarian vision of men’s relationships with women. But assumptions of power and structure and authority and hierarchy are being undone. And you should be able to see it in the bedroom.
Post script: If anyone who knows the ancient literature better than I do knows of parallels about women exercising authority over husbands’ bodies, I’d be interested to hear of it. I know that there are instances of Jewish women exercising sexual authority and control–but it’s usually to keep some dirty Gentile from laying his hands on her!
[beginning of throat clearing] The bad thing about leaving no thought unpublished is that sometimes you get one out there that’s just flat or half-baked. The nice thing about thinking out loud in public, however, is that people can show you where you’re being half-baked or ill-reasoned.
Or, sometimes, you have thoughts that are going in the right direction, but you haven’t quite found the right way of laying out what’s going on. The conversation helps there, too.
It’s been that kind of week at Storied Theology. I’ll return to the creed versus narrative thing a bit later, I’m sure. [end of throat clearing]
But for today I want to revisit yesterday’s discussion of authority.
First of all, there’s one thing I said that I meant, and that continues to grow in significance to me as I think about authority in the church:
Because Jesus is risen from the dead, we can relax about authority.
Jesus has all authority, and while he may or may not choose to delegate that to certain persons at certain times or places, denying that any particular earthly manifestation of that authority is not an authority to which we should bow is not going to cause the Christian faith to come unglued.
Second, folks yesterday made an apt appeal to other first-generation Christians, including Paul. Well done.
Here’s the place where I find Paul compelling as a figure with authority: he returned, repeatedly, to a couple of dynamic indications that he was imbued with authority to speak for God:
- The experience of the Spirit in the people to whom he preached.
- His own embodiment of the suffering of Christ in the course of his ministry.
- The experience of the cross in the people to whom he preached.
Authority is important.
And, all authority in heaven and earth belongs to the Resurrected Crucified.
And, the Resurrected Crucified can give his authority to whomever he will.
Or not, as he will.
The problem with enshrining authority in a person or an institution is that it is virtually impossible to institutionalize cruciformity. The legitimation of a Christian’s authority coming from Christ is found in the renarration of the Christ story in the life of the person or community.
In the Gospels we do read of the disciples being charged to continue and extend the ministry of Jesus. Mark envisions that the Jesus community will replace the Temple as the house of prayer and place in which forgiveness is realized on earth. This is a manifestation of the presence and authority of Christ.
Similarly, Matthew’s locating of the authority of keys in (I’d say) the community is inseparable from the promises of Jesus to be present where two or more or gathered, to be “with you, always, until the end of the age.”
But that “with you,” itself, is not something that we can formalize or institutionalize. None of us wants to affirm that everything done in Christ’s name has had the Resurrected One’s authoritative approval.
There is safety and comfort to be found in giving authority to a fixed entity on earth: an office, a confession, a church.
But I question whether this is the safety and comfort that we’ve been promised: the safety of the firm hand of Christ holding us, the comfort of the presence of the Spirit who will, itself, lead us into all truth, comfort us in Jesus’ absence, work in us the work of the cross.
I don’t worry about authority in the church so much.
I know that this is a big deal to a lot of people. I know folks who have converted to Roman Catholicism from various Protestant traditions largely because the unseemly mess of Protestant opinion seems to spring directly from the lack of authority.
How will we know what it is to speak for God if we do not have an authority on earth to make that known? Should we not look to those who have gathered and said, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us?” Should we not look to the vice-regent that Jesus has installed on Rome, his holy hill?
Protestantism is, surely, a mess.
And evangelical Protestantism is a magnification of this messiness, manifested in the proliferation of churches and denominations and non-denominations.
Or, if it’s not a mess, it’ll do till the mess gets here.
Without centralized authority, it seems that we are reliving the ignoble era of the judges: there was no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
But I don’t think that the answer is the establishment of an authority here on earth. I don’t worry about the lack of an earthly authority for one reason: Jesus was raised from the dead.
If there is one confession that truly unites all Christians in all times and places it is this: “Jesus is Lord.”
Or, as Jesus indicates in Matthew 28, something changed with the resurrection. The authority that Jesus had begun to exercise while on earth has now been fully given to him:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
There it is.
The authority is Christ’s, and we shouldn’t attempt to take it for ourselves. Nor should we seek to give it to another person on earth.
I know, I know. Practically, this doesn’t help. We are, in fact, called to speak “authoritatively,” to speak for Christ, to exercise an ambassadorial function of those sent from the King to the distant kingdom in order to make our sovereign’s wishes known.
But that task is always one fraught with uncertainty. Locating Jesus’ voice in a person or a council only focuses the inevitable mistakes in the work a few rather than diffusing the mistakes more broadly.
And I suppose, that’s the point. By giving control to a group or a person we can eliminate diversity, but we cannot ensure even then that what we are doing is right.
We cannot turn our groping along toward the light into a full-fledged walking in the day simply by taking hold of the shoulders of the person who is groping along ahead of us.
Leadership is still important, but it will have to be much different leadership than the authority of a Tradition or Council if it is to function well in the story of the crucified and risen Christ.
If Jesus is risen from the dead, then “Jesus is Lord” must, in the end, be enough for us.
What makes us Christians? What defines us as a people?
“I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son, our Lord…”
That’s one way of doing it. We are articulate what we believe. In an upward gesture, we define ourselves by a common set of postures toward God, Jesus, and Spirit.
What makes us who we are, what saves us, is our faith.
But, as I’ve argued here before, we need to be careful how we identify ourselves. We need to exercise care because how we define who we are will determine what we think faithful action looks like.
Ethics and identity are inseparable.
I’ve been arguing for some time that we need to reconstrue our identity and our ethics in narrative terms. We need to loosen our grip on statements of faith, and move toward more fully living into the story of the narrative of the faithful Christ.
It strikes me that what I’m arguing for is a wholesale transformation of our way of understanding Christian faith that corresponds to a shift in the way many Paul scholars are reading the phrase, “the faith of Christ” (πίστις χριστοῦ).
This phrase can be read one of two ways.
- Christ can be seen as the object of faith (thus the phrase “objective genitive” as the Greek construction). This would mean, “[our] faith in Christ.”
- Christ can be seen as the subject of faith (thus the phrase “subjective genitive” as the Greek construction). This would mean, “Christ’s faithfulness.”
At bottom, what is Paul after? By what are we justified in the sight of God? Is it our faith in Jesus? Or is it Jesus’ faithfulness in going to death on the cross?
The idea that we’re justified by our own faith in Christ is part of a larger way of construing Christian identity in terms of believing the right things about God.
When Richard Hays renewed the argument for the subjective genitive (“Christ’s faithfulness”) reading of Paul, the subtitle of his work was this: “The narrative substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11.”
The point is not simply that we translate a phrase in one particular way. The larger point is that this translation reflects a deeper structure in Pauline theology.
Paul is a narrative theologian. He tells the saving story of Jesus. And he invites his congregations into it.
It might be that Hays was onto something even larger than his own initial project caught sight of (or, at least, articulated): by decentering our faithful response, the faithfulness of God in Christ can return to center stage. We can being to creatively reimagine what it means to be the faithful people of God, not as those who believe a certain list in a shared statement of belief, but those who are active participants in the saving story of the crucified Christ.
Not only might we make room for a storied theology, we might make room for a storied identity that gives rise to a faithful, storied ethic.
The Bible is the story of God at work in the world.
The Bible is the story of people responding to (or ignoring) God at work in the world.
The Bible is particular people wrestling with the particular ways God is at work at their moment in time, telling their part of the story, writing their part of the human response, as people who want to lead their communities into a certain way of response.
The Bible is dynamic in this sense. Not merely breathed by God, but written by prophets who were eagerly searching out the things about which they were writing.
The people had to respond.
God was at work.
God was warning.
God was at work.
God was to be celebrated.
God was at work.
God was to be obeyed.
There is a compulsion to the writing, a compulsion inspired by God. There is a compulsion to the writing drawing people forward: to the coming Christ and then to the Christ who will come again.
This is a story of a God who exalts the humble. This is the story of a God who determined that before a people could have a king who would rule the earth, it must first be a people who were landless, rootless. Slaves.
This is the story of a God who creates out of nothing–a world for life to flourish, the feeding of five thousand off of five meager loaves, the resurrection of the dead.
This is the story of a God who is wise beyond all earthly telling–a God whose wisdom is made manifest in the foolishness of a cross, a God whose great moment of weakness overthrows the power of the cosmos.
So when I say, this week, that I am not interested in clinging to an inerrant Bible, I am sacrificing that claim about the Bible on the altar of this story: that scripture has a role to play, a narrative to tell. It is the story of a God who is at work in a way that surprises us. It is the story of a God who wants us to discover the cross.
Again and again.
It surprises us even though we know what the ending of the story is.
It surprises us because we cannot help ourselves–we construct systems of control, systems of power, philosophies of wisdom.
And so the cross must reappear. It must wrest our systems from our hands. It must grant us fresh forgiveness.
This Bible that I love with all its foibles? It has a purpose: “To give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through the faithfulness which is in Christ Jesus.”
Yes, that’s the part in 2 Timothy that comes before the celebrated, “All scripture is God-breathed.”
God-breathed tells us, not about an abstract property of the words, but about a wind that blows in a certain direction. It tells us that there is profit, that there is instruction–if we will walk in the way of wisdom.
And the way of wisdom is the way of Christ.
And the way of Christ is the way of the cross.
This is the life-giving narrative of the Bible. This is the life-giving God of the Bible: the One who knows that our world is a place of death, the One who conquered it on Easter Sunday, the One who invites us to trust that if we, too, will lay down our life then we, too, will find it.
James McGrath has a couple posts up in the past couple of days that make a point similar to one I’ve been advocating:
These posts provocatively and hopefully raises the question of whether the ideas we have created tastefully represent the Bible as we have it.
Every now and then we circle back around to whether it’s all that helpful to think about the Bible in terms of “narrative” when so much of what we read there does not fit into the narrative genre.
I, of course, say yes. The Lord of the Rings is no less a story because Tom Bombadil sings his random song.
In his Theology of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann hits just the right note:
…it is clear that story in the Old Testament has some special privilege as a governing genre. To be sure, much of the Old Testament is not in narrative form. But in other genres such as commandment, song, and oracle, I suggest that the same claims of narrative reality are operative, albeit one step removed from narrative rendering. Thus the great hymns of Israel (Exodus 15; Judges 5; Deuteronomy 33) operate with a narrative framework. The commandments are regularly embedded in the stories of Exodus and sojourn. Prophetic oracles characteristically tell what Yahweh has done and will do. (p. 66)
Another question about narrative arrives from a different quarter. It is sometimes asserted that the level of discontinuity from one scene to the next, particularly with the advent of Christ, undermines the “story” idea altogether.
I’m not buying that one.
Even when a character arrives on the scene in a way that the focused story does not give rise to on its own, even when the hero is imported from CTU or the CIA or Heaven, the disruption the character makes into the otherwise smooth-flowing story line does not undermine the story’s narratival character.
Here’s what Brueggemann has to say about the diversity of expression in the biblical story (in particular the OT, in this case):
The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon upon a narrative which at times is most disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. (p. 89)
Of course, any statement that begins, “The Bible insists” is already a faith statement: the idea that there is “a” Bible, equivalent to certain canonical texts and not others, is a claim of people of faith.
And, willingness to see a unity in that book is, itself, an act of faith, one that many critical scholars have spurned. Though one that people who have little or not faith can accept in order to see the world created by our sacred text.
But once we have done so, once we have said, “This Bible,” then the draw of the story, in all its complexity, is the route ahead for reading the book as a unified whole.
Reading as a story is the means by which we have our imaginations infused with the new world of glorious possibility that God is bringing to bear in the midst of the old.