Tag Archives: Book Reviews

Tim Otto: Reorienting the Homosexuality Conversation

My friend Tim Otto wants to talk about orientation.

And he wants to talk about gay people in the church.

But the orientation he wants to address is not sexual orientation. He wants to talk about the need we all have, across the board, to be Oriented to Faith.

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Do we need yet another book about homosexuality and Christianity? Don’t we have enough already?

Well, yes, we do actually need this one.

This book is a rare voice in the conversation, advocating for a genuine “third way” beyond the polarized either/or debate in which the church is reflecting (and influencing) the culture. It is a book that pulls no punches in pointing out the shortcomings of liberals and conservatives alike, and that humbly suggests that each side has a piece of the truth, at very least, that the other side must listen to.

But the greatest contribution of the book is the way that, by the end, it holds up the mirror so that we can see how the very existence of “sides” itself is a demonstration of our failure to live up to the calling we have in Christ.

Otto begins his discussion by mapping the experience of being gay in the church onto the New Testament notion of “family”– a notion that does not line up with the primacy placed on biological family in our context. Tim Otto Pic

What becomes clear as this narrative unfolds is this: we have not created the kinds of communities that make it possible for single people to live the kinds of lives that the traditional church has called both single and gay people to embrace.

The church has ignored the radical redefinition of family as those who follow Jesus, and has baptized instead the two-parents plus children financial unit as the basic unit of familial support. This goes for the mainline and progressive church as much as the conservative and traditional church.

Tim’s story is one of discovering a church that would be family for him. It is a story of committing himself to celibacy for the good of that family’s mission. It is a story of a person who isn’t convinced that scripture demands celibacy of gay Christians. It is a story of a man who is willing to make costly steps of discipleship in the belief that his ultimate identity is not “gay Tim,” but “beloved child of God.”

Foundational to Christian identity is that we are family, bound to one another, called to self-giving love. Foundational to American identity is that each of us is autonomous, an individual, and a consumer. Otto makes the graciously pastoral case that the American church has baptized the latter in the name of Jesus–and that this very misappropriation of Christian identity makes it impossible for us to faithfully love our gay brothers and sisters.

Anyone who attends to this book with a receptive spirit is likely to find cause of repentance. Everyone is likely to find cause for encouragement.

When we are confronted with divisive issues, it is very easy to take and read from that stack of books where we will find a mirror that shows us how beautiful and wonderful we are.

This book offers a different way.

Better than most any other treatment of homosexuality in the church that I have seen, it holds up a mirror to who beautiful and wonderful the way of Jesus is, and invites all of us to live into that with greater fidelity to the costly obedience that he demands.

Take and read!

**
Federal Guidelines stipulate that I have to tell you when I got something for free that I’m reviewing on my blog. I did not get this book for free. I paid my own money for my hard copy. I did, however, get a free pre-publication version that I reviewed and sent back to the author with comments. Also, Tim offers me coffee when I hang out with him and a couple other guys on Wednesday mornings, so you might view that as payment in kind or something.

Vines: God and the Gay Christian

Matthew Vines is out to show that the Christian case in favor of same-sex relationships is not the exclusive purview of the liberals.

As an Evangelical, who seems to me to hold a view of scripture that is something akin to inerrancy, Vines writes God and the Gay Christian in order to establish what he calls, in his subtitle, “The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.”matthew-vines

The way in which Vines is committed to scripture means that the whole thrust of the book is to open up new ways of understanding passages that people have long taken to stand in condemnation of same-sex relationships. The problem, in short, is not what the Bible says, but how we have been interpreting it.

Vines precedes his scriptural argument by making three important appeals: (1) the “fruit” of the traditional position on sexuality has been destructive to people who know themselves to be gay; (2) in the ancient world, the idea of sexual orientation was not the same as our idea–in Rome people assumed most men would be attracted to both men and women; and, sexual rules assumed a patriarchal view of the superiority of men; and (3) the church’s understanding of celibacy has always been that it is a state entered into voluntarily by those who know themselves so gifted and called.

Point 2 is important, and I anticipated awhile ago that it would come to take an increasingly central place in debates about homosexuality.

Point 3 also needs to be weighed: are we “changing the definition of celibacy” by demanding such a way of life for those who are not so gifted, and feel no call to such a life?

Vines’ first two chapters of biblical exegesis examine the Sodom and Gomorrah story and the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse in Leviticus. He rightly distances the Sodom story from specific connotations of homosexual attraction or desire and does a fine job contextualizing Leviticus within a framework of laws and of cultural ideas that we no longer see binding.

Vines’ exegesis of Romans 1 is a mixed bag.

He brings in a number of important points, including some cultural considerations. The “unnaturalness” of same-sex intercourse might well be seen as a problem of “excess desire” rather than “wrongly directed” desire as such.

The problem, however, is in showing that “excess” desire is what Paul himself had in mind. And here’s where we get to a running undercurrent of the book that I did not find persuasive.

Vines regularly distinguishes between Paul’s understanding of homosexuality as expressive of “lustful” desire and our modern ideas of it as something that can be expressed in love, even within relationships of fidelity and commitment.

The implication seems to be throughout that if Paul had only known about the kind of homosexuality we’re talking about he would have been on board. I’m not sure that this argument holds. It might very well be that he would continue to say that there is an inherent problem here, that it is by definition an expression of lust due to the fact that it is wrongly ordered.

Vines says, “We have to remember: what Paul was describing is fundamentally different from what we are discussing” (italics original). I’m not sure that works. Or, if it does, we have to be very careful how we wield such an instrument–we might find that it’s so blunt that it destroys the Bible’s capacity to address us about much of anything. God-Gay-Christian-Book-Cover-Matthew-Vines1

In this chapter, and the following on 1 Cor 6, Vines puts some important pieces in place. We often read “nature” in Rom 1 as referring to an order of creation; however, in 1 Cor 11 that same word is used to talk about appropriate length of hair. One of the best pieces of interpretive advice I received came from a classicist who said, “For ‘nature,’ read ‘culture.’” Vines opens up the importance of recognizing how cultural mores are possibly shaping Paul’s discourse in ways we would fundamentally disagree with.

But Vines’ argument has a number of weaknesses. While it is true that we have an idea of homosexual orientation that the ancients did not share, it is also the case that Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6 largely delineate actions that typify people’s behavior. He complains about translations that capture this, such as “men who have sex with men,” but the complaint seems to arise largely from his wanting to have room to say that same-sex sex itself isn’t the issue.

This seems to be the point at which Vines is never quite able to pin down the biblical writers. There is a gap between the cultural milieu he establishes and what the scriptures say, and his argument is not quite up to the task of demonstrating that this gap is filled by the former being the reason for the latter.

Matthew Vines has put a good deal of important information on the table. And his is one of a number of significant voices in the new chorus of evangelicals who are committed to scripture while advocating for the full inclusion of same-sex relationships. In many ways, I see this volume as indicative of where the argument for same-sex relationships is moving among more conservative Christians.

And, Vines frames the argument with some issues that might, in the long run, be the sorts of questions that help create a culture in which Evangelicals read the Bible differently.

For those who are waiting for a book to come along and tell them what to do with irksome passages that seem opposed to same-sex relations, this will no doubt be received as a God-send. For those demanding a higher degree of argumentation, this book will not likely persuade, but it might outline a way that others (such as James Brownson) have or will yet fill in with greater skill.

**In compliance with Federal guidelines, I hereby disclose to you, the unsuspecting reader, that I was supplied a free copy of this book by the publisher.**

Never Pray Again

I have grown up hearing language of “mobilizing” God’s people through prayer, of prayer being like the gas that fills up our spiritual vehicles so that we can run off in service of God.

But what if…

What if prayer isn’t the great mobilizer of God’s people, but the great immobilizer?

What if worship and contemplation aren’t the centrifuges that throw us out into the world, but the centripetal forces that suck us only and ever deeper into ourselves?

Those are the questions we’re asked to entertain in Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson.

This post is part of a blog tour for the book (for which I was provided with a free electronic copy).NeverPrayAgain

Though the provocative title suggests that leaving behind prayer provides the book with its energy, in reality the gravitas is its insistence that we move into faithful practice. Rather than sleepwalking through life, numbed by our pious practices, they invite us to wake up and engage.

Interestingly, the chapter titles could often be interpreted as postures of prayer.

“Thank”

The chapter entitled “Thank” caught me most strongly. There I found much of the language of “economy,” and a stern warning against living our lives in accordance with the economy of scarcity rather than in accordance with God’s economy of “enough.” (I prefer calling God’s an economy of “abundance,” but perhaps that’s a quarrel for another day.)

“Scarcity” demands that some win, some lose. “Enough” proclaims “abundant life for all.”

They rightly warn about how easy it is to “lazily import” the economies of scarcity in which we find ourselves into our Christian communal life. Taking the Corinthians as a prime example, we discover that an alternative economy demands that we not privilege those who are privileged in the world’s economy, that we invite and honor the outsiders, the unwashed masses, as we sit at our tables and eat together.

In another profoundly insightful word, they warn that the anxiety created by scarcity causes us to grasp and cling.

Eucharist reorients us, and demands of us that we be a thankful people. Thankfulness is the posture of those who have “enough,” know it to be enough, and therefore express the reality of “enough” by sharing on an even playing field.

“Love”

I struggled more with the “Love” chapter than the “Thank” chapter. It started off with the assumption that God calls us to love ourselves.

I’ve never resonated with this claim.

It seems to me, instead, that the biblical writers simply assumed that most people love themselves, and this is the baseline reality (or even problem) that needs to be corrected through our love of others.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t a command to love yourself, it assumes that you pour out most of your energies on loving yourself, and that escaping such self-obsession is the way toward a surprising discovery of true humanness. (See also: “No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it,” Eph 5:28-29).

We’ll come back to self love in a bit.

The Three Amigos assert that it is neither self love nor neighbor love that makes Christian love unique. Instead, it is enemy love.

In a surprise move, but one that fits what I’ve already engaged, they speak of “Loving the Enemy Within.” That is, they recognize that for many of us our fiercest enemy is the criticism in our heads. The voice of hatred and vitriol that most often accuses us—it’s our own. There is a powerful recognition here, and perhaps one that, in its psychological and theological insight, chastens my objections above.

They then turn to more traditional enemy love. Here they are at the heart of things.

If there is one datum to point to that demonstrates how our insular practices have cut us off from the life to which God calls us in Christ, it is the fact that no one, ever, when hearing that someone is a Christian, first thinks, “Wow, that person must really love her enemies!”

Love. That kind of love, should be our hallmark.

The exposition of enemy love then begins to take a bold turn.

A section entitled, “Our Enemy Who Art In Heaven” talks about loving God when the world around us is going to crap. It asserts that God is our enemy when we beg for healing and find none, when we are left alone in the darkness, betrayed by God, crying out with Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the section entitled, “Jesus is the Enemy,” the turn is more subtle and perhaps more palatable for many readers as well: Jesus identifies himself with the world in need of salvation. Jesus is the one made sin for us. Jesus is the one present in the person of the person in need. Jesus died for our enemy, making our love for enemy nothing less than love for the Christ who gave his life for them—an extension of the love that we have been given.

“Experiments”

Throughout the book, each chapter ends with suggested experiments: ways to begin moving toward the practices commended. These help put feet on the ideas so that we can begin to catch a glimpse of what they might look like in practice.

The need for practice is reiterated at the end, as the final admonition of the book is summed up as “Go and Do!”

Here, the leaving off of prayer is given one final commendation:

We noticed as we looked at the ancient liturgical structure of worship, and examined each type of prayer usually found there, that if we simply removed the word “prayer” we unleashed something vital and compelling… Prayer itself serves too easily as that thing we do instead of acting more directly and more powerfully.

Of course, this will be seen by many, perhaps most, traditional Christians as precisely the point. We pray to signal that God is in charge and we are not. We pray to confirm that we are incapable of bringing about the movement of the Spirit requisite for the tasks to which we have been called.

But, if we’re honest, do we not often pray in order to commend into the hands of God the very things for which God has placed on us on earth, and for which God has placed God’s own name on us and sent us out into the world?

That’s the question we are rightly haunted by when we leave the pages of this book… even if we choose to keep on praying.

John Caputo: The Insistence of Hospitality

This is the third stop in a book tour of John Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. Stop one was was hosted by Todd Littleton, and stop two was hosted by Julie Clawson. CaputoCover

My task is to jump into the chapter entitled “Insistence and Hospitality.”

What Caputo has already established in chs. 1 & 2 is this: when we say God, we are not speaking of some being who exists, but of an acting, an event that demands human response.

Aside: Does anyone else hear the echoes of Rudolf Bultmann here? Or, on the more conservative side, of pietistic revivalism that calls people to recognize a moment in which God manages to break in and demand a response?

Here’s a quote that sums up the chapter in a nutshell:

Hospitality means to say “come” in response to what is calling, and that may well be trouble.

We are insufficiently accustomed to the dangers of “hospitality” to instinctively appreciate where Caputo is driving us here. Hospitality is not inviting our best friends over for a meal or opening our home to family for the holidays.

Hospitality as Caputo articulates it, following Derrida, is about saying “yes” and saying “come” to the unknown stranger who is seeking shelter. “If you already know who is on the other side of the door, it is not hospitality. Or, only half.”

Where is God in this? God is in need. In need of our hospitality. This is not to say that God is the stranger at the door, but it is to say that God is insisting on the hospitality in the event of its being requested.

If this all makes us nervous, then we’re en route to understanding Caputo’s point.

His depiction of God intends not only to turn our attention to the insistences of the world in order that the God who needs us might find in us the existence of faithful response, but to turn away the God who is easily controlled by the dogma surrounding the church’s traditional descriptions of the God who is.

At the heart of this chapter is a delightfully revisionist reading of the Mary and Martha story inspired by Meister Eckhart.

JohnCaputoIn short, Jesus’ “Martha, Martha” is the pronouncement of a double blessing on the woman who understood that Jesus came in full need. He stood in all the scandalous need of incarnation: needing food, needing drink, needing rest, needing to relieve himself. The “peace” of Jesus’ presence cannot be purchased without the very real threat of his physicality–a threat both to him and to those in whose need he stands.

And with this recognition that God is found in the insistence of hospitality, our interpretation of the weakness of the flesh is rewritten: they co-constitute life, intensifying life to a fever pitch, providing opportunity to respond to the name of God.

Throughout the book, Caputo’s theological concerns shine through: he wants to disempower the bully God in whose name power is wielded to the detriment of the many. With a God who insists rather than exists, Caputo wants it crystal clear that the actions of religious faith are the actions of humans responding to the insistence of God–with no danger of being confused for God themselves.

Random Thoughts that the Book Generated

1. I have a tremendous amount of affinity for the notion that God is bound to the story of the humans who enact it. I posted a week or so ago the scandalous idea that God might, actually, need us. (Cf. the subtitle of my blog: telling the story of the story-bound God.)

2. In advocating a storied theology, in which God is intimately entailed in the unfolding narrative, I have been driven by the concerns that the dogma of the church (what some of my readers have told me goes by the label “analytic theology”) is a source of power whose use in practice is often contraindicated by the cross of Christ.

In both of these trajectories of my own, I find myself resonating a great deal with Caputo’s work. But, having said that…

3. To this point, the book is not Christian in any significant sense. It uses some biblical, and New Testament, imagery as a reflection of Caputo’s native tongue, but not as anything more than husk that might be cast away in favor of wheat. It is a “radical theology” in the sense of being a way to speak about God that demonstrates its positioning in a pluralistic world.

I hold out for a more robust Christian theology, and I think that a theology of the cross as the lens for making sense of the Biblical narrative as a whole holds promise for such a theology from within the Christian tradition in an explicit fashion.

4. For all its universality, I think that most people will find it sufficiently incomprehensible that Caputo’s project holds little hope of being the wave of the future. (Cf. Tony Jones’ “Walmart Test,” and his claim that Caputo’s theology fails on this basic level: it can’t be explained to someone with whom you’re standing in line at Walmart for 3 minutes.) What is it to say that God does not exist but that God insists? There is a great deal to learn from here, but one wonders whether the miracle of trickle-down economics will ever allow the theology of insistence to increase to the account of the religiously would-be-faithful.

For my own part, I’m not ready to give up on the God project as traditionally conceived. I want there to be a God–not to uphold my power, but to call me to account.

Perhaps more seriously, I fear that the notion that the only “existence” is of our actions in response to “God’s” insistence might well backfire: rather than the human reception dethroning the identification of humans with God, it might make inevitable that the human quest for God will land on nothing more than the human at work.

This book pays back rereading for its stimulating depiction of God at work in the realities in which we find ourselves.

**
The Federal Government, though currently shut down, continues in its theology of insistence by demanding that I disclose to you that I received this book on promise of reviewing it here, and for no payment in cash or kind.

Living Biblically

Way back in August, just before I decided to take a Blogbatical, I agreed to review Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood. With the awesome press coverage it’s getting, she sure doesn’t need Storied Theology to make folks aware of the book.

For all my self-aggrandizing tendencies, I do realize that I have nothing on the Today Show.

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But be that as it may, I have one big thought about the book that I’d like to share.

As you probably know, the book chronicles Rachel’s year of following every commandment in scripture directed toward women. The tongue-in-cheek exercise helps expose the difficulty in claiming that “biblical womanhood” is the goal toward which today’s women should aspire.

Her project exposes the most basic reality of biblical interpretation and application: we do not, cannot, and indeed must not, simply pick up the Bible, see what it says, and go do it.

All of us approach the Bible with some sort of interpretive grid that helps us to know when we do or do not need to take to heart the commandment issued. Rachel has grown weary of “biblical” as a trump-card adjective, thrown out in an effort to baptize whatever (conservative) social, religious, or theological position a person wants to endorse.

So, the story of the year is a story of challenging the notion that “biblical womanhood” is to be had by opening up the Bible and applying “God’s word to women.” (Camping in the backyard during your period, anyone?)

But there’s another story within the story.

And this is what the nay-sayers are going to avoid, deny, and otherwise be blind to.

As Rachel says at the end of her Today Show interview, she actually loves the Bible. And this thread runs right through the narrative of swear-jars, Thanksgiving dinner, and “Dan is awesome” signs.

What Rachel discovers this year is not simply that the Bible is embedded in a cultural context where myriad different assumptions about life make direct application impossible. She also discovers a richer, more potent biblical (there’s that word again!) prescription for womanhood.

That prescription is one of trust, of gentleness, of concern for the weak, of executing justice, of loving, and of honoring those worthy of honor.

This is a great book for raising, again, the question, “What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?” (a phrase I steal from Enns on a regular basis). And my invitation to you is to read with an eye toward both stories: the over-the-top, witty narrative of literal biblical reading as a critique on our simplistic views of the bible, but also the underlying current of a true biblical womanhood that has the power to infuse even those “liberated women” who can’t quite bring themselves to call their husbands “master.”

Abide with Me

I hadn’t ever heard of Abide with Me until a friend sent it in the mail, thinking I’d enjoy it. It’s a beautiful book about a pastor whose wife dies, leaving him with two small children.

The opening lines tell you that in the town of West Annett “the winters used to be especially long.” This introduces one of the recurring features of the book: the weather, the seasons, and especially the winter provide more than simply a setting. They almost become a character in their own right.

The book itself is filled with all the stereotypical crap of small-town church folk using the church for self-satisfaction, positioning, and a gossip channel, a situation into which a gifted and idealistic young seminary grad steps for his first call.

The book is laced with Bonhoeffer and hymnody. It’s the kind of work that clearly would repay multiple readings, as the various threads of the story-telling are too rich to be taken in on a first pass (at least, if you read like I do…). Abide with Me does not posses the haunting beauty of Gilead, but is still well worth reading.

The story is one of unraveling. The first 260 of the less than 300 pages are spent descending into a nadir of seemingly irreconcilable antagonism. As the pastor finds himself less and less able to cope with the strain of his loss and the strain his daughters are experiencing, relationships begin to sour and rumors start flying.

Without giving too much away, what made the story for me was the scene in which the story finds its redemption. Honestly, I had gotten to the point with the parishioners that I assumed most of them were beyond redemption and we were going to be left with a huge mess at the end. But Strout puts together a scene that resonates deeply with the sort of redemption scenes Luke constructs for us in Acts: a moment when people look upon the one in whose misery they are complicit and realize that they need forgiveness.

Some of the most penetrating insights come as the story begins to resolve. They include this realization: often it is as hard, if not harder, to receive love as it is to extend it.

Jewish Anticipations of a Suffering Christ

Was a suffering Messiah a surprise?

It need not have been: there were psalms of a suffering, lamenting king. There was Isaiah 53. Plenty of precedent existed for claiming that the Messiah would die. And, the NT writers depict this suffering as the focal point of the OT’s anticipations of Jesus (e.g., Luke 24).

In his final argument for the Jewish nature of the early church’s claims, Daniel Boyarin argues that a suffering Messiah is at home in the exegetical traditions of Judaism.

He wants to argue that the church’s construction of a suffering messiah is not a theology that was created after the fact, in light of its conviction that the suffering one was (and is) the Messiah, but a category that was already extant and applied to Jesus.

The chapter does not accomplish this.

What it accomplishes instead is the following: Boyarin demonstrates that one can use traditional Jewish hermeneutical moves to demonstrate from scripture that the Messiah had to die.

While he shows that the biblical interpretation is Jewish, he does not demonstrate that these moves had been made previous to the church’s claims about Jesus, such that he was simply fitting into one possible type of expected Messiah.

In fact, one might argue in parallel with Qumran that after-the-fact readings of Scripture in light of the realities being experienced by one’s community are, themselves, a hallmark of the type of midrash Boyarin sees in play in early Christianity.

He states on p. 132:

The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent.

What evidence does he offer?

He offers two arguments:

(1) The exegetical methods used in the Gospels are perfectly traditional Jewish, midrashic moves.
(2) Such an understanding of the Messiah as one who must suffer, in step with say Isa 53, continues in the later period of the Talmud, etc.

In other words, the evidence of non-Christian Jews making these precise moves comes from texts a couple hundred years later than the NT.

I think that Boyarin is offering in this chapter an excellent, challenging reading of Daniel 7 as a suffering son of man. In fact, I think that we should mine the suffering of the saints in Daniel 7 as part of what Jesus refers to when he says the son of man must suffer before entering his glory. I’ve not researched this possibility, but I’ve thought there might be something to it, and Boyarin encourages more research along these lines.

But to say that the NT writers use a Jewish way of talking about Jesus, and Jewish exegetical methods to demonstrate his messianic identity, is a very different thing from saying that they are putting Jesus into an already extant category of suffering messiah.

Such a category may have existed, but Boyarin has not shown it.

That Jews in the Talmudic period and later depicted a coming suffering Messiah in step with Isa 53, for example, does constitute an interesting piece of circumstantial evidence. It would have been easy, in the wake of the separation between Christianity and Judaism, to leave such argumentation entirely in the hands of the Christians. But arguing backwards a few hundred years is tricky business.

I have a few overall thoughts about Boyarin’s challenging and provocative book, including a revisiting of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean in Mk 7. So look for one more pass at Boyarin in the coming days.

Jesus Kept Kosher (Boyarin, Pt. 3)

Did Jesus say that it doesn’t matter what people eat?

Did he say, in effect, that people can eat pig and shrimp, that Jewish food laws are no longer binding?

In what I found to be the freshest part of Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels, he argues no. Unlike the interpretation he offered of Daniel 7, Boyarin makes his claim based on the interpretation of the biblical text as it currently stands.

Here’s the passage in question:

14 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said, “ Listen to me, all of you, and understand. 15 Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person. ” k

17 After leaving the crowd, he entered a house where his disciples asked him about that riddle. 18 He said to them, “ Don’t you understand either? Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? 19 That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer. ” By saying this, Jesus declared that no food could contaminate a person in God’s sight. (Mark 7, CEB).

The traditional interpretation is this: Mark is telling us that Jesus just overturned the whole system of food laws–food can’t make you unclean before God, not even pig or shrimp.

Contextually there is one particularly problematic feature of such an argument: Jesus had just condemned the Pharisees for abolishing the commandments of God in favor of their own tradition. Could Jesus really, then, turn around and abolish the law of God in favor of a new tradition?

Boyarin follows the argument of Yair Furstenberg in saying no.

He distinguishes between laws of impurity and laws of kosher food.

Food laws tend to be about certain foods that are always off limits, or situations that differentiate between kosher and non-kosher foods.

Purity laws are about contagion that comes from different sources: often from the body itself (through sores, through menstruation, through ejaculation), sometimes through circumstances such as death.

Boyarin’s point is this: the kosher laws are not purity laws.

What Jesus and the Pharisees are arguing about is not whether certain foods are kosher, but whether certain ways of handling foods could make them impure.

In this context, the Pharisees have created an additional tradition: even kosher foods can be rendered unclean if eaten with defiled hands.

Jesus, according to Boyarin, is arguing against this “liberalizing” of the tradition, arguing for a more “conservative” reading of the law. Jesus disagrees that purity or impurity is transferred to and through food. You can still transgress the law if you choose to eat a detestable thing. However, eating kosher food with impure hands or that has overshadowed a corpse is not going to make you impure.

Thus, for Boyarin, this is an intramural Jewish debate, among kosher Jews, about an innovation in the food laws added by the Pharisees.

He extends his argument by focusing on things coming out of the body as the typical sources of impurity (fluids, for example). Jesus says that things going in don’t make you impure, but instead, things coming out.

The one point where I would have liked to see a bit more concession from Boyarin is that here Jesus’ “what comes out of a person” is not body fluids, but instead actions that spring from the heart.

It’s a point that needs to be addressed, because it seems that Jesus’ definition of what makes impure does not, in fact, uphold the law as such. If he is refusing the Pharisees’ redefinition of “impure,” he is still creating his own new definition when we does not revert to fluids but instead to the actions that spring from the heart.

I need to do more research on OT laws, and see what folks more versed in them, and Jewish traditions, than I think about this argument. But it is the one thing that I’ve read so far where I’ve stepped back and thought that Boyarin might be presenting something that truly has the potential to transform how we read a crucial text.

Apocalyptic Flying Humans

Is the “Son of Man” God?

Daniel Boyarin suggests that Daniel 7 (rightly deconstructed) provides us with a first affirmative answer, and then moves on to demonstrate that this affirmation is echoed in other early Jewish texts.

Chapter two of The Jewish Gospels provides his reading of the Son of Man in First Enoch and Fourth Ezra.

The material from First Enoch provides a much stronger basis for arguing that the “son of man” was considered some sort of divinity in early Judaism than Daniel does, in my opinion. This figure is clearly preexistent, one who becomes incarnate at a particular time in order to be messiah, redeemer, savior.

One indication that this figure is divine comes from the statement that his name is known before creation came to be:

Even before the sun and the constellations were created,
Before the stars of heaven were made,
His name was named before the Lord of Spirits. (cited from Boyarin, 78)

In addition to this figure’s preexistence, at the end (in what is perhaps a later addition to the vision), Enoch is revealed to be the son of man.

Boyarin reads the text as a whole, indicating, first, that Enoch on earth was an incarnation of this eternal son of man, and that he is then deified in his ascent into heaven.

Presumably, this means that Enoch will return in order to fill the role on earth of the Son of Man who is the saving messiah.

But this presumption raises a question for me: Is the text that precedes Enoch’s exaltation a description of Enoch before he comes to earth as Enoch? Or is it, instead, a description of the heavenly Enoch after his exaltation to heaven, who will come again as Messiah?

The idea that someone’s name is known from all eternity need not entail their actual existence. Compare Revelation, where people’s names are known and written in the books from all eternity.

Moreover, a significant theme of First Enoch is that the name of this son of man is revealed to God’s people–a revelation that happens at the end, when we discover that he is none other than Enoch.

Finally, there is the repeated use of “son of man.” This word means “human.” I want to see more from Boyarin about why this figure is called “human being” if he is not, in fact, human being throughout most of the apocalypse?

This ties into another general question I have, both from last time and this: to what extent does the fact that this is apocalyptic literature–literature that depicts earthly realities using heavenly visions, literature that is highly symbolic and stylized–influence how we read these descriptions? If sometimes feel that Boyarin is reading too literally.

In this case, however, most scholars agree with Boyarin that the Son of Man in 1 Enoch is a preexistent deity and not simply an exalted Enoch who comes back as a messiah. Here there is some good fodder for discussing the presence of a preexistent, perhaps even divine, messiah figure as present in non-Christian Judaism.

In the discussions of both 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, however, I have a larger problem with Boyarin’s work. It’s not that there are not parallels between Jesus as son of man and these early figures. There certainly are. Even important dynamics of their life such as receiving worship are entailed across different texts.

But Boyarin has adopted Richard Bauckham’s heuristic of “divine identity Christology” as a measure for saying “here is a figure who is being described as God.” This is problematic.

Receiving worship does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Solomon was God (1 Chro 29:20).

Controlling the waters of the sea does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Moses is God (Exod 14).

Ruling the world does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, Adam is God (Gen 1).

Being called Lord does not make someone God. Not even in Judaism. Unless, of course, David is God (Ps 2).

I agree wholeheartedly with Boyarin that the Jesus tradition is participating in a larger Jewish tradition of exalted son of man figures redeeming, saving, coming as David’s seed, receiving worship, and riding on the clouds.

Where I am not yet convinced is that all of this entails divinity, as such, for an early Jewish audience. There is a whole tangle of unexplored possible implications that swirl around a very different possibility.

Perhaps “son of man” really intends to connote “human one.” Perhaps rather than a divine christology, this is all part of a larger Adam Christology in which the early Jewish people are envisioning human beings, or a Human Being, restored to the primal place of ‘adam: God’s son, ruling the world on God’s behalf.

Divine Son of Man? (Boyarin review, part 1)

Daniel Boyarin has come out with a short, readable book arguing a provocative thesis.

The Jewish Gospels, The Story of the Jewish Christ sets out to demonstrate that early Christian ideas about Jesus are all Jewish ideas about a coming messiah figure.

Many Jews, argues Boyarin, believed that a divine being would come to rescue them. This is not a development of the later church, an explanation of what had just happened with Jesus, but a thoroughly Jewish idea.

This, says Boyarin, is what we find in texts looking for a coming Son of Man. This is a title indicating divinity.

Furthermore, early Jewish people were looking for a coming a king, a messiah. This is what “son of God” means: a human being anointed by God.

Today, I want to engage his chapter on Jesus as son of man.

Boyarin’s argument is this: the son of man in Daniel 7 is God. Therefore, early Christian depictions of Jesus as son of man indicate that the Gospel writers saw Jesus filling this role, expected by many Jews.

This leads Boyarin to make a couple of exegetical moves that I think are important: interpreting Mark 2, he says that Jesus is claiming to be the son of man figure from Daniel, the one who rules the world for God.

Yes!

But I take considerable issue with Boyarin’s reading of Daniel 7. He argues that the son of man in Daniel 7 is “part of God” (p. 26), or a second God. A divine figure.

It is crucial that we realize what the reader has to agree to in order to arrive at such a conclusion. Three pillars uphold his argument.

First, Boyarin recognizes that his interpretation runs counter to the interpretation given by the author of Daniel. In Daniel, the explanation of the vision of the son of man is that the human figure represents the holy ones of the most high, or, the people of the holy ones of the most high–in context, the Maccabean martyrs.

Boyarin sees this interpretation as a later interpretation by the author of Daniel in which the redactor is attempting to silence the clear meaning of the vision by giving a contradictory meaning. Thus, for Boyarin, Daniel 7 itself embodies the question of whether a redeemer figure can be God or not as an intramural Jewish debate.

The idea that the visions and the explanation are from different redactional layers strikes me as special pleading. It is quite common in apocalyptic literature to have a confusion vision explained to the seer. Was this particular apocalyptic vision not interpreted in some non-extant older strand?

Questions of apocalyptic genre and the age of the vision persist in the other two planks of Boyarin’s argument.

Boyarin says that the human one being divine, and the interpretation being secondary, represent the clear and obvious reading of the vision as it stands.

But this is apocalyptic literature. In apocalyptic literature, the “clear” reading is a clear picture that points to something else.

Are we to assume that Daniel 7 teaches that the world is or has been run by lions with wings, man-eating bears, flying leopards, and iron-toothed monsters?

The son of man figure is the last in a series of rulers, of kingdoms, that exercise power over the earth, and over God’s people in particular.

Does all of this end when we get to the Son of Man and the vision suddenly shift into a “clear” vision telling us literally what happens? Such an argument depends upon a genre mistake, akin to many that Christians make in attempting to make sense of Revelation.

Third, Boyarin argues that we have here the remnants of an ancient Canaanite tradition in which there were two gods ruling the earth: El and Ba’al, who came into Israelite religion as El and YHWH before the latter two were joined into one.

Without questioning the evolutionary picture outlined by Boyarin, are we still to believe that a second century, post-exilic, post-Josianic, apocalyptic text reflects a genealogical antecedent from which it was separated by hundreds of years? This seems highly unlikely. What year would Daniel’s vision have had to be written to make such a Canaanite influence viable?

It is important for readers of Boyarin’s argument to recognize that the argument concerning Dan 7 is not an interpretation of the passage, but an interpretation of an alleged prehistory of the passage that stands in direct tension with Dan 7 as it now stands. Moreover, it is worthy of scrutiny even as offered.

To claim that the Gospels depict Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man is important. And, it is important for showing that Jesus occupies a special place of authority not generically given to all people. Boyarin makes these points well.

But the argument as offered in ch. 1 does not go very far toward demonstrating that Jewish people were looking for a divine messiah, and that this is the claim of the Gospels.

The book suffers from a bit of equivocation in terms of what Boyarin intends to demonstrate with respect to the son of man’s divinity. In a curious footnote, Boyarin says that one might distinguish between functional divinity–someone exercising divine activities such as ruling or judging human begins at the end times– and ontological divinity.

After exerting 55 pages of ink affirming Jewish people’s expectation of something that could only be construed as the latter, Boyarin inexplicably indicates in this note that he intends the former: functional divinity is what he means by someone “being” God. The remainder of the chapter is spent discussing how, in light of Daniel 7, we know some Jews anticipated a divine messiah.

Throughout, Boyain does not mean someone like Adam, ruling the world on God’s behalf (a functional divine christology) but someone like the early Christian confessions indicate: a preexistent God (ontological christology).

The early Jewish usage of the son of man figure might be more to Boyarin’s point than his reading of Daniel 7. We’ll discuss that next time.