Sex and Hierarchy

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!

Authority Redux

[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:

  1. The experience of the Spirit in the people to whom he preached.
  2. His own embodiment of the suffering of Christ in the course of his ministry.
  3. 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.

Authority, Easter, Church

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.

From Faith to Faith

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.

Story of God, God of the Story

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.

A Great, and Complicated, Narrative

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)

There is a narrative reality to the life of Israel. Its story of God provides shape to the entirety of its religious life, even those parts that are not story telling per se.

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.

Creating Space

Blosphere confessional: I rant here sometimes. More than that, some might say that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a couple issues that come around regularly.

To the point: I can be downright confrontational about the fact that the Bible is not inerrant or that the world as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.

Why poke the hornet’s nest? (And, it is a hornet’s nest!)

Here’s the reason: one of the most important messages we communicate when we talk about our faith is what the borders are, outside of which one cannot be part of “us.” The ways people speak about inerrancy and creationism in some quarters communicates this: that if there is an error in the Bible or if we are here as a result of an evolutionary process then Christianity is not true.

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Why do I rant about “what the Bible is”? Mostly, because I want as many of us as possible to be creating more space within the world of faithful, Jesus-following Christianity for people to continue following Jesus whether or not they’ve found a mistake in the Bible.

Or, to put it another way: there is no reason that someone should feel as though their whole faith is called into question by Bart Ehrman’s NT Intro course.

I have a parallel agenda with evolution: I have read some about evolution. I’m no expert.

But what I do know is that by treating evolution as a scandal to the Christian faith we are creating choices for our college students that not only lead them to being unduly scandalized by their education, but also to fleeing from fields where they might be most useful to the world.

On the latter point: while we get our knickers in a wad about why evolution is demonic, I have an agnostic/atheistic friend who spends all day as an evolutionary biologist studying the evolution of cancer cells so as to help lay the groundwork for future more effective treatments.

He is making the world a better place (something I think God actually cares about) by helping push back the hold that a nefarious disease can take on our bodies (overcoming sickness–I think God cares about) by working in a field that we close off to our young people by raising all sorts of doubts about whether such activity is an active denial of the existence of God.

Seriously.

Here’s the deal: even if the most nuanced articulations of creationism over against evolution, or of what sorts of “creativity” we might find in the Bible could cohere with inerrancy, allow for the very things I’m talking about, most people will not hear the breadth of what is allowed in the nuance, and will hear, instead, the black and white either/or.

Part of my job as a biblical scholar who cares about the church is not simply to engaged in the finely nuanced positions of my colleagues, but the effects of what we say “on the ground.” And part of my calling as a seminary professor is to clear out the ground that people stand on from all the clutter that accumulates on any horizontal surface. In this case, it’s the clutter of what “chrisitanity” demands that Christianity does not, in fact, require.

So I rant about evolution. And I rave about inerrancy. In doing this, what I want to communicate is that you don’t have to make a choice between science and Christian faith or between history and Christian faith.

There are a lot of difficult choices you will have to make. I am not trying to make Christianity easy or conform it to the way of the world.

Instead, I am trying to clear out all this meaningless clutter so that we can hear, instead, that the real decision we have to make is this: “Will you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? Will you take up your cross and follow?”

Nestle Aland 28th Edition

The NA28 is poised to make its appearance! After 20+ years of NA27, the latest critical revision of the standard critical text is nearly upon us.

Here’s the blurb:

This is the twenty-eighth edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (NA28). NA28 is the standard scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament used by scholars, Bible translators, professors, students, and pastors worldwide. Now NA28 has been revised and improved: Critical apparatus revised and easier to use. Papyrii 117-127 included for the first time. In-depth revision of the Catholic Epistles, with more than 30 changes to the upper text. Scripture references systematically reviewed for accuracy. The NA28 with Dictionary includes the Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament prepared by Barclay M. Newman.

Now go get in line for your copy!

Ritual

From Wayne Meeks:

Ritual is a condensed action that is intended to focus and concentrate meaning so that what is done in this nexus of sacred time and place ripples out onto all prior and subsequent doings, the doings that take place in the “profane” or outside world, resonating in those ordinary affairs with interpretive possibilities. When ritual is working, it helps us to make sense–a special kind of sense–of the other things we do. (The Origins of Christian Morality, 92)

This is a beautiful, succinct statement about ritual, one that has particular implications for sacraments in particular.

But, how do we do it? How do we allow the meaning of the moment of ritual to diffuse out into all of life?

The problem, it seems to me, is that we are too good at compartmentalizing. And, perhaps, the problem lies with those of us who are preachers and teachers, that we do not adequately infuse our rituals with meaning for them to have sufficient power to radiate out into the mundane.

What sorts of interpretive possibilities have rituals created for your world? What sorts of interpretive possibilities might our rituals create for us?

Telling the story of the story-bound God