Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

I thought it worthwhile to begin with this extended quote, representative of the book as a whole, and the most powerfully distilled argument I’ve yet come across while reading. One of Howard Thurman’s seminary professors told him not to waste his time with any book he could read faster than twenty pages in an hour. This one falls into that category for me. My comments follow, so as not to disrupt the momentum Martin builds.

Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox), pp. 49-50 of the paperback:

My goal is not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts but to highlight the ideological contexts in which such discussions have taken place. My goal is to dispute appeals to “what the Bible says” as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to “what the Bible says” without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian. We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility. Furthermore, we will not find the answers merely by becoming better historians or exegetes. The test for whether an interpretation is Christian or not does not hang on whether it is historically accurate or exegetically nuanced. The touchstone is not the historically reconstructed meaning in the past, nor is it the fancifully imagined, modernly constructed intentions of the Biblical writers. Nor can any responsible Christian–after the revolutionary change in Christian thought in the past twenty years, much less in the past three hundred–maintain that Christian interpretations are those conforming to Christian tradition. The traditions, all of them, have changed too much and are far too open to cynical manipulation to be taken as foundations for gauging the ethical value of a reading of Scripture.
 
The only recourse in our radical contingency is to accept our contingency and look for guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves. The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes Scripture and tradition but not in a “foundational” sense. Nor do I mean that Christian discourse can itself furnish a stable base on which to secure ethical positions; it is merely the context in which those positions are formed and discussed. Conscious of this precarious contingency, and looking for guiding lights within the discourse, I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditioned witness, Augustine, who wrote, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and our neighbor does not understand it at all” (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40).
 
By this light, any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable. There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of “heterosexual fulfillment” (a “nonbiblical” concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as “healing”?
 
The burden of proof in the last twenty years has shifted. There are too many of us who are not sick, or inverted, or perverted, or even “effeminate,” but who just have a knack for falling in love with people of our own sex. When we have been damaged, it has not been due to our homosexuality but to others’ and our own denial of it. The burden of proof now is not on us, to show that we are not sick, but rather on those who insist that we would be better off going back into the closet. What will “build the double love of God and neighbor”?
 
I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love. To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion either–as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love. But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modern historicism.
 
We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?

1) Martin’s aim is indeed “not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts.” Instead, Martin argues that the way the Church has turned to Scripture as foundational for its ethics is flawed, because (according to him) foundationalism is a flawed and naive way to read any text, including the Scriptures. He himself is a near-complete postmodern, and his guiding lights within postmodern critical theory are (at least at the halfway point of the book) Michel Foucault and reader-response theory. Very briefly, reader-response theory claims that the meaning of the text resides not in the text itself but in the reading community’s experience of the text. Foucauldian analysis names the power and politics at work in the formation of texts, communities, and the discourse within those communities, including the formation of churches, interpretive traditions, individual scholars, and Christian ethics.

2) “explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter”: While I agree that this is necessary, I’m not as convinced that this is a strong definition of fundamentalism. First, it collapses fundamentalism and foundationalism into one. But while Martin wants to sweep away the (for him) illusion of all foundations, among which Christian fundamentalism is one, the technical term “fundamentalism” when applied to Christianity usually includes groups whose theologies profess the limits and bent-, curved-, or broken-ness of human interpreters and interpretive communities. That is, there already is an explicit (although Martin would likely still argue not explicit enough) acknowledgement of the interpreter’s contingency. The other half–agency–does stand. Martin does a tremendous job outlining how Christians tend to deny their own agency in speaking of texts, not only when we say things like “the Bible says,” but in the publications of highly regarded Biblical scholars and theologians (of which Martin provides many examples) and when seminaries continue to teach preaching as “letting the text speak for itself” or “getting out of the way of the text.”

3) “We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility.” This is much more easily said than done. For instance, at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church that just took place in St. Louis, recognized speakers voiced claims (not just conservative claims) based on “what the Bible says” in the flat, non-nuanced way that Martin is talking about. This understanding of reading the Bible and forming theology and Christian ethics seems to be baked into the Christian cake at this point. What does it take to change a cultural understanding of Scripture which is (at least) as old as Protestantism? I’m hoping that Martin will eventually address this question.

4) The rest of Paragraph 1: Here you can see the full diagnosis of the problem of Biblical interpretation as Martin sees it. The text has no meaning apart from its readers, history is of very limited use in aiding our meaning making, and Christian traditions are compromised in their usefulness because they are corrupted by the lust for power, like every other human institution (and this is a Foucauldian analysis, even though others could make a similar argument based on the doctrine of sin). And so we are set for the opening sentence of Paragraph 2.

5) “our radical contingency”: Yes, we are finite people with finite resources for understanding and meaning making, and even what resources we have are suspect.

6) “guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves”: The problem is that this suddenly makes Christian ethics and Christianity itself very individualistic, and it makes me the individual who matters and judges. I have this little spot of sand on which I stand, there is only water on every side, and when I am gone, my little spot of beach will be washed away too. It’s very possible I misunderstand the claims of reader-response theory, but Martin’s particular reading seems to be a trajectory toward shattering every possibility of community or shared meaning, which places it at odds with every form of historical Christianity. (I don’t believe I’m misreading; rather, I wonder how communities can be larger than one if reader-response theory is applied to saturation.)

7) Paragraph three (“By this light”) is the one that cemented for me that this was the passage to share. The primary reason is that I think every person holding to a conservative position on human sexual and gender identity and expression should face some important realities. Second, I am interested in how a foundational claim has now emerged in the midst of an anti-foundational argument. There is a foundation, and it is something like “Do no harm,” eventually reframed in the next paragraph as “Love.”

8) “demonstrate, not just claim”: This is a tremendous challenge. Sin isn’t a violation against God’s arbitrary rules, but something which does actual harm to actual others. An important caveat: just because I cannot see the harm does not make it not sin. More important caveat: I can see that the church has harmed LGBTQIA people. There are some parts of the church that simply hate their queer siblings, and some of those Christians (and this doesn’t make anyone less culpable) have no sense of the motivations for their doctrine and ethics of human sexuality. And there are many other voices and have been voices since the early church who have lived into community, and who have lived complete and fulfilled lives without ever having a sexual partner. (One could attempt to argue that far fewer lesbian and gay teenagers despise themselves and pray for changed sexual identities, but the truth is that there are still more than plenty of Christian teenagers in that situation, and the reason that there are fewer has had much to do with changing views among Christian churches.)

9) “worship of ‘heterosexual fulfillment'” is very real, and, at least in US Protestantism, celibacy (whether or not it’s chosen or out of a sense of vocation or just because life unfolds in unplanned ways) is viewed as somehow weird. That is, heterosexual marriage is viewed as normal, and any other adult life is viewed as abnormal. (The New Testament and most of the global church throughout history have viewed things differently. There are places, communities, and voices which are currently helping us to change, albeit slowly.)

10) The concluding paragraphs and sentence demonstrate why this book continues to be helpful to my thinking, even as I have shown I disagree fundamentally (sic) with the author on some issues. Martin, a Biblical scholar, is convinced that Biblical debates are the mischosen battleground for forming Christian ethics, so that he comes at it slant rather than repeating unhelpful, entrenched positions. Put simply, he seems less stuck than most of us, and he helps me even when I read some of those more entrenched positions.

Did Jesus Kiss Judas?

I guess I had always pictured Judas slinking up to Jesus with exaggerated warmth–“Rabbi!”–and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture has me wondering if I’m just being too Western again. Or too US American:

How magnificent is the endurance of evil by the Lord who even kissed his own traitor, and then spoke words even softer than a kiss! For he did not say, O you abominable one or traitor, is this what you do in return for great kindnesses? He simply says, “Judas,” using his first name. This is in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.

Dionysius of Alexandria, Quoted in The anCient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, p. 215

I likely would have dismissed this reading of Judas’ kiss as a two-way kiss out of hand, because some of the readings in these volumes are quite…imaginative. But on the next page of the same volume, Ephrem of Syria assumes the same kiss, writing, “Jesus kissed the mouth of him who, by means of it, gave the signal for death to those who apprehended him.”

The Anchor Bible Dictionary has a three page entry for “Kiss” (pp. 89-92 in Volume IV). It disappointingly does not say anything about whether any recent scholars think Jesus kissed Judas back, but it does say that “the holy kiss” (mentioned several times in the New Testament) was a unique practice of early Christians, without precedent in the Greco-Roman or Jewish world. Some scholars even claim that Jesus initiated the practice with his disciples, and the disciples kept up the practice in the early Christian communities. If this is true, as the ABD puts it, Judas’ kiss was “a sign which would convey one message to outsiders but would be the usual form of greeting and hence arouse no suspicions to the inside group” (91). Of course, the whole mob with torches, clubs, and short swords probably would raise suspicion.

But back to Dionysius of Alexandria. As with many of the writers quoted in the ACCoS (many of them relatively minor figures) I had to look him up. During Dionysius’ life, the Church suffered seasons of persecution, in which some Christians denied their faith verbally or in writing and some offered sacrifices to prove they were not Christians, so that they and their families would not be hurt or killed. Seasons of persecution were followed by seasons of tolerance, and as churches reconstituted themselves, Christian leaders were divided about what to do about those who had apostatized and now wanted to return.

Some, led by Novatian, argued that those who had denied Christ and offered sacrifices to idols could not return to receive the sacraments. Such idolatry and faithlessness, he argued, were unforgivable. Others–in what became the Orthodox position set against what eventually became known as the Novatian heresy–said that Christians could repent and be forgiven and restored. Dionysius of Alexandria was one of the great leaders of that Orthodox position, and I see it in his read of Jesus and Judas in the Garden.

Dionysius knew Judas-like folks. Dionysius likely knew people who had been killed due to treachery by other Christians. Even with that life experience he looked to Jesus in the Garden, and he could not imagine a Jesus who would refuse to kiss his disciple when his disciple came to kiss him. The Jesus Dionysius heard in the Gospels would not speak with the condemning voice of Novatian, but always “in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.”

I want to see, hear, and believe in a Jesus who would kiss Judas back.

(Related public service announcement: Scorsese’s stunning Silence, which deals with faith, apostasy, reconciliation, and grace upon grace upon grace, is streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Living Under What Authority

Particularly in the wake of the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference, I’m working to progress through that stack of books I’ve carried around in various lists and in the back of my head for at least a decade, those books on theologies of human sexuality, theological anthropology, and Biblical hermeneutics that would give me clarity for myself and language to speak to others. I started with Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, and because I am unable to read one book at a time, I also began N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Martin is an anti-foundationalist, while Wright is committed to historical criticism, albeit from a broadly evangelical perspective.

Starting with Martin gave me a particular lens for reading Wright. Martin is basically correct when he charges that Wright defends historical-critical questions so strongly that it’s difficult to know what the Church was doing with its Scriptures between the 2nd or 3rd century and the 18th or 19th century. That is, if the historical methods are the right methods, how was the church faithful in its reading of Scripture between the first couple generations–those who could draw on memory and personal testimony–and the post-Enlightenment creation of the historical-critical method?

It’s particularly disappointing that Wright neglects a real engagement with premodern readings, because Wright’s decision erases so much of historical theology, which is itself largely Biblical commentary, and which might give him some stronger foundations for his own method. (Luckily Christopher A. Hall’s Reading the Scriptures with the Church Fathers exists.) Wright likewise dismisses other more recent theological readings of Scripture, offering major figures–John Webster, Karl Barth, all of Radical Orthodoxy, almost all of postmodernism–only a sentence or three. There are plenty of important thinkers he never mentions at all. The only framework he works with is his own, which is framing the story of Scripture as a five act play: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, the Church. While I think Wright made this decision because he wanted to sharpen his focus on his own way forward, I still believe he should have engaged more deeply with others’ thoughts.

What still brings this up to a 4-5 star book after those critiques is that 1) Wright is writing as a pastor to the Church, and this pastoral emphasis shapes every page, and 2) Wright’s conversation about sources of authority in the church is offered through the lens of Richard Hooker and John Wesley.

As a United Methodist pastor turning to Wright while United Methodism appears to be flying toward schism, his writing about how these sources of authority interact is just terrific. He is especially helpful in speaking about how for Hooker and Wesley (and most of the Christian Tradition) reason is a particular kind of reason—not just the ability to think rationally, but reasoning within the Church, with its Scripture. Reason is thus a traditioned form of theological reasoning with the Scriptures. Experience, meanwhile, insists Wright, is no source of authority at all but rather the end of authority, if we take “experience” to mean that my individual experience determines my theology, rather than that experience is an important shaper and affirmer of our theology from other sources of primary authority.

In Wright’s own words (ellipses at the ends of paragraphs are mine, to shorten this lengthy excerpt, but italics are his, as is the bracketed Scripture reference):

For Wesley himself, scripture remained the primary authority; the “experience” upon which he insisted was the living experience of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit, through which what the Bible said was proved true in the life of the believer. It is quite an illegitimate use of all this to see “experience” as a separate source of authority to be played off against scripture itself, though this move is now frequent, almost routine, in many theological circles (“Scripture says…tradition says…reason says…but experience says …and so that’s what we go with”)…

Actually, for a start, “scripture, tradition, and reason” were never the same kind of thing. The image of the stool with three [or four] matching legs is itself misleading. They are not so much like apples, pears, and oranges as like apples, elephants, and screwdrivers. As we have seen, a long line of theologians from Aquinas through Hooker to many writers today would insist that “tradition” is the legacy of what the church has said when reflecting on scripture, and “reason” is the rule of discourse by which such reflection is saved from random nonsense and integrated into a holistic view of God and the world. This too, however, can only be part of the story, and might imply a more solid and fixed form for “tradition” and “reason” than the story of the church warrants…

But there is a more profound problem to be addressed, indeed a logical problem. The “experience” of Christians, and of churches, is itself that over which and in the context of which the reading of scripture exercises its authority. It is precisely because “experience” is fluid and puzzling, and because all human beings including devout Christians are prey to serious and multilayered self deception, including in their traditions and their reasoning (as Jeremiah lamented, the heart is deceitful above all things [17: 9]), that “authority” is needed in the first place. That, too, is one of the main things we discover by “experience”! To speak of “experience” as an authority, then, is to admit that the word “authority” itself is being dismantled, unable now to function either as “court of appeal” in the old wooden sense or, in the more biblical sense, as “that through which God exercises Kingdom-establishing power.” That dismantling— the muzzling of the challenge of God to the idolatrous world— was one of the main (anti-Christian) aims of the Enlightenment, continued in a different mode within postmodernity. If “experience” is itself a source of authority, we can no longer be addressed by a word which comes from beyond ourselves. At this point, theology and Christian living cease to be rooted in God himself, and are rooted instead in our own selves; in other words, they become a form of idolatry in which we exchange the truth about God for a human-made lie. This, or something like it, is what we find with the popular modern varieties of Gnosticism, in which the highest religious good is self-discovery and then being “true” to the self thus discovered. But to elevate that imperative (now radically challenged by postmodernity, though this is not usually noticed in the relevant discussions) to the supreme status now claimed for it is to take a large step away from all known forms of orthodox Christianity…

The positive force of the appeal to “experience” is much better expressed in terms of the context within which we hear scripture. Experience, as the necessary subjective pole of all knowing, is the place where we stand as we hear God’s word, know his love, and understand his wisdom. It is vital that Christians should “experience” the power and love of God in their own lives. This is never simply a mechanical application of “God’s authority,” as though human beings were mere ciphers rather than image-bearers. And, precisely because of the problem of evil within us as well as within the world (the problem which the Enlightenment sought to belittle), we need to be addressed and challenged within that place, that subjectivity, not simply informed that we are all right as we are.

pp. 101-104, Kindle edition.

By the end of this book, it was not that I agreed with every particular of Wright’s argument, but that I knew Wright has provided a set of arguments that are worthy of our engagement. And I greatly appreciated being reminded that the voice of someone, even a bishop, of a different tradition could shed light on the issues affecting the United Methodist Church. Even with some level of breakup on the horizon for the United Methodist Church as we know it, it was an encouraging witness to the mysterious unity that forever marks Christ’s “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Body.

Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part II

In his post-General Conference briefings, my own Bishop Frank Beard urged us to trust in the process–not merely the United Methodist process, but God’s process with us on this discipleship journey, however long and winding and painful it may be. For him that means that we prayed for years for the work of General Conference 2019, so the fact that we might not like its outcome is not a good enough reason to summarily dismiss its conclusions and legislation. To put words in his mouth, “Did we pray or not? Does God answer prayer or not?”

I don’t dismiss General Conference 2019’s work. This was our 2019 step on our journey with God as a global United Methodist Church. It was neither our first nor our last step on our journey with God, even if some of us decide to part ways with this particular institutional form of God’s one Church.

The reason I write this is because you might get the wrong idea from my last post on the relative importance of General Conferences, that I am flippant about the conclusions of church councils. I’m not. Rather, the Christian Tradition itself is what teaches me to receive the Tradition itself critically. That’s how all living traditions work, as wide rivers with many currents rather than tiny capillaries with single currents.

I have known people who claim to aim to be “first five hundred year Christians” (meaning, the stuff the Church agreed about for the first 500 years is what they will name as essential doctrine, and everything that cannot be connected to that is adiaphora). I was once ordained in a denomination which claimed the first seven ecumenical councils were its theological core, but I’ve only ever met one person who I believe actually knows those councils intimately. (She died several years ago and was Roman Catholic, not this other denomination, anyway.) Either of those frameworks seem nice, but what they really are are “fragments [we] have shored against [our] ruin,” our sense that things are falling apart, and we are the ones who must save the Church. Those two examples in particular are entirely modernist attempts to create something stable and lasting in an uncertain world, which is in the end the attempt to create a foundation other than Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). (Alternate Old Testament reference: Genesis 11.)

I myself am temperamentally conservative. That is, I want to live a traditioned life. I am convinced that human beings over time have learned to live life well, to ask and to answer important questions well. I am convinced that to ignore those human voices of the past is the definition of foolishness. When I read a book about any topic at all, I want to go back and read the primary sources. When I listen to music, I want to plot where parts of a band’s or a composition’s sound comes from. And when I do theology I want to dig all the way to the tips of the roots. In fact, when doing theology, I am convinced that ignoring human beings and their thoughts and actions and lives over time is not just foolishness. This is truly for one part of the living, eternal body of Christ to say to another, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21).

Conservative in the sense in which I describe myself does not have to do with a particular political party, especially not a US political party. Traditioned in this sense also doesn’t mean I pretend that there is some single Tradition to be formed by. That’s utopia (sentimental nonsense literally meaning “nowhere”). For my greatest interest–the Church–I don’t believe there is some single faithful Methodist, or Protestant, or Western Christian, or universal Christian tradition. Instead I mean that I am always going to be suspicious when a “new” theology seems to have no roots, or makes no claim to roots, or claims to need no roots in the Christian past. The Tradition may be a massive river with many currents, but rivers still have banks.

All that is a long-winded way to say, yes, I believe church councils have proclaimed the Gospel, but I still believe they have erred. Yes, I believe General Conferences have both proclaimed the Gospel and have erred. Finally, no, I don’t dismiss their workings easily. The Tradition I value is what teaches me to question the Tradition and to know it is certainly not infallible.

That’s the real point: the life of faith–whether for global denominations or for the individual Christian–must be lived in uncertainty (“the conviction of things not seen,” says Hebrews 11:1), because faith lives in the world, and the world is uncertain. Faith which is certainty is not faith at all. God keeps speaking through people (councils, conferences), people sometimes faithfully proclaim and sometimes mangle the message we’ve been given, and the Church’s life and our individual lives are lived in that uncertainty and on that journey. We live in our uncertainty, because God is the only one who is certain. We live without the foundations we lust after, because Christ is our one foundation. Thank God that God’s grip on us is infinitely stronger than our ability to grasp God.

Or if you prefer less Kierkegaard and more Wesley in your tea, the church has not yet been perfected in grace, but it is on the way. Even if you find yourself among those United Methodists who believe that in St. Louis you witnessed the death of your beloved denomination, still you must know: best of all, God is with us.

How Do I Live If I Am Dust?

Some years I need Lent, and some years I want Lent. This year is both kinds. (See my post from yesterday afternoon, A Holy Lent After General Conference 2019.)

I am dust, and to dust I shall return. Why do I even find that to be a life-giving thought? For one, because it’s true. One minute a little over thirty-five years ago there was me, and the minute before that there was no me. A whole lot happened before me. The creation of at least one whole universe and probably more. The lives and deaths of an uncountable array of living things and non-living things too. And one day soon–and yes, even 60 years from now is soon–I’ll die. The world won’t stop turning to mark that moment any more that it stopped turning to mark my beginning.

How then do we live? No…How then do I live? If next-to-nothing that I build will have any quantifiable effect on any other thing 100 years from today, how then do I live?

Qohelet, that “Preacher” in Ecclesiastes, asks these questions, and I think he’s right to ask them. Jesus also asks these questions. He talks about that man that kept prospering and prospering, so he pulled out all the stops and built giant barns. And then he died before he could even use them. Yes, the message of Jesus is a warning to rich people, but not just to rich people, to anyone who tries to build anything in this life. A career, a retirement account, a credit history, a skill, a family, a friendship, a porch swing.

This is where Jesus comes back to the foreground. Life must be lived for life itself, and the Christian life is the grace-enabled response to Life’s open invitation to live in Life itself. Not to build a reputation. Not to build a church. Not to build a denomination. Not to build a kingdom, let alone rule it. But to live and to love and to be loved. And over time to become satisfied that Love and Life are enough, because that’s all that eternal Life is going to be anyway.

Why wait to start living it? Why wait to share our Love and Life with one another?

A Holy Lent After General Conference 2019

In three hours, General Conference ends. It appears to be the case that, just as I had said to anybody that directly asked two weeks ago, nothing will be passed, and everyone will go home to re-legislate it all again in 2020 in Minneapolis. What I had not anticipated was how much grief there would be even if nothing changed.

Psychologists call this “denial.”

What I had not anticipated was how much grief I myself would feel, even though I am entirely insulated from any outcome–progressive, traditional, or status quo–of General Conference as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual male who has already made it through the fiery gauntlet that United Methodists have welded together into an ordination process. Today I almost got in a car accident because I was just in my own thoughts about it all.

All this is preamble to say this: I have nothing at stake personally, and still I am distracted, anxious, and grieving. There are those for whom all this is entirely personal, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through. And I pray we each reach out to those others in our lives who are in that place. If there is ever a time for grieving, it is now. If there is ever a time for embracing, it is now. (Okay, yes, I may be currently leading a Bible study on Ecclesiastes.)

This Sunday, I’m preaching from Mark 10:32-45. The passage begins with Jesus and the disciples on the road to Jerusalem (and the Cross) once again, with Jesus out in front, on his own. The disciples are all hanging back, some out of amazement and some out of fear (and presumably some out of both amazement and fear). Jesus has had his face set on Jerusalem for a long time already, and now in verse 33 he gives the disciples a very specific prediction of exactly how it will happen.

As soon as Jesus finishes telling of his imminent arrest, trials, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection, this is when James and John decide they want to break away from the pack and draw near to him. Why? Because they want power in his kingdom. Their hearts skipped all the suffering and have jumped straight to the glory. They haven’t yet understood, even as he has told them and showed them and told them and showed them again and again the whole time they have known him, that the Kingdom he has come to bring good news about is upside down and sideways from the kingdoms of the world. It is not the same old kingdom now under new management

In verse 41, the disciples get mad at James and John for their requests, but their anger does not seem to be, “Haven’t you heard the good news of the Kingdom of Peace?” Instead, their anger is more, “No, that’s my seat!” Or at least that’s my assumption, because Jesus doesn’t direct his teaching to just James and John, but rather to the whole group. The rulers of the nations of the earth lord it over one another, and lords higher in the hierarchy lord it over lesser lords below. Jesus concludes: “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

If the first disciples didn’t hear Jesus the Son of God, when the literal sound waves from his human vocal chords vibrated the literal bones in their skulls, then we disciples are surely going to sometimes–even often–miss his voice. We’re even more certainly going to miss one another’s voices.

I am so grateful this year that Lent follows so close after General Conference. The discipline of Lent takes different forms. I know for myself that I need a time to be silent as ashes, silent as dust, silent so I can hear someone else’s voice who is currently hearing the call of God to give up silence for Lent.

Hope Begins in the Dark

I have been reading Fleming Rutledge’s forthcoming Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Sometimes she wraps a sermon around a refrain. For instance: “Advent begins in the dark.” This is another way of saying, “Hope begins in the dark.”

I have also been reading Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. (The book is a memoir of Khan-Cullors’ life, so I’m not clear totally clear how she and bandele co-wrote it.) Khan-Cullors is within a year or so of me in age. During the years I spent growing up in small-town central Illinois, Khan-Cullors was growing up in Van Nuys, California. She recounts a life lived in occupied territory in the United States, with the lines between the races drawn between Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks (the latter of which not coincidentally where the TV show black-ish is both filmed and set). Some of Fleming Rutledge’s sermons in her Advent collection are from that same period of time, and some of them reference apartheid in South Africa, as Khan-Cullors and bandele also do.

When They Call You a Terrorist is a memoir, but you don’t have to take Khan-Cullors word for how the “war on drugs” actually played out. There are plenty of historians and plenty of data to show us that police and the larger “justice” system inordinately targeted people of color, swelled prison populations, and were an essential part of the militarization of policing. (My past tense in the previous sentence doesn’t mean it’s over.) And for all that history we continue to have so much trouble with that other part of Khan-Cullors’ and bandele’s title: “Black Lives Matter.”

As I read their book, a phrase from Jesus keeps coming to mind. After Luke 20’s and Matthew 21’s recounting of this parable, Jesus speaks about himself, quoting Psalm 118:22-23 and naming himself as “the stone that the builders rejected [who] has become the chief cornerstone,” before adding, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” It’s a difficult word, a Jesus koan, but what it means is that all are broken by the Truth. All will be judged and found lacking. You might not always hear it from the Christians you know, but the New Testament says that Christians too (those who fall on the stone, Jesus) come under the judgment of God (1 Peter 4).

Jesus is “the Truth,” full stop. There are differences between “the Truth” and other truths. At the same time, the truth is stone wherever you find it. The reality in the world which requires “Black Lives Matter” to be said loudly and repeatedly and publicly in the United States is such a stone. Our current struggles and division are at least partially caused by how we engage that stone. All around people are deciding to fight that stone, and people are being crushed. But the other choice is not to side-step it. There are only two choices, and we who know the stone is true still must be broken. When They Call You a Terrorist is a call to fall on the truth and be broken. Healing begins in brokenness. Hope begins in the dark.

Pungent Savior

https://www.wikihow.com/images/thumb/9/9a/Make-Mustard-from-Scratch-Step-4.jpg/aid62057-v4-728px-Make-Mustard-from-Scratch-Step-4.jpg

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

(Mark 4:30-32)

It is up to us to sow this mustard seeds in our minds and let it grow within us into a great tree of understanding reaching up to heaven and elevating all our faculties; then it will spread out branches of knowledge, the pungent savor of its fruit will make our mouths burn, its fiery kernel will kindle a blaze within us inflaming our hearts, and the taste of it will dispel our unenlightened repugnance. Yes, it is true: a mustard seed is indeed an image of the kingdom of God. Christ is the kingdom of heaven. Sown like a mustard seed in the garden of the virgin’s womb, he grew up into the tree of the cross whose branches stretch across the world. Crushed in the mortar of the passion, its fruit has produced seasoning enough for the flavoring and preservation of every living creature with which it comes in contact. As long as a mustard seed remains intact, its properties lie dormant; but when it is crushed they are exceedingly evident. So it was with Christ; he chose to have his body crushed, because he would not have his power concealed…Christ became all things in order to restore all of us in himself.

(Peter Chrysologus, Sermons 17)

Faithfulness in Scenes of Complete Abandonment

It was already after Sunday worship before I heard word of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX. On Tuesday, at a Bible study, we talked about wounds that may not be healed in this life, perhaps like wounds in that ravaged community. This morning I listened to the latest episode of the Replacing Church Podcast, “#81 Soong-Chan Rah on the Prophetic Act of Lament,” in which he speaks about the need for prophetic lament in our worship. This afternoon, I continued reading in Walter Brueggeman’s seminal The Message of the Psalms, and he arrived at one of the most difficult psalms, the lament that goes down and down and down, but never comes back up: Psalm 88.

Here is almost every word he wrote about it in this book:

Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith. It is the cry of a believer (who sounds like Job) whose life has gone awry, who desperately seeks contact with Yahweh, but who is unable to evoke a response from God. This is indeed “the dark night of the soul,” when the troubled person must be and must stay in the darkness of abandonment, utterly alone.

1. The psalm opens with an urgent appeal to Yahweh (vv. 1-2). The initial address is one of intimacy, already suggesting what is needed and expected. The verses are dominated by this desperate speech: “I cry…my prayer…my cry.” The appeal is reiterated in verse 9b, “I call upon thee…I spread out my hands.” And again in verse 13: “I…cry to thee…my prayer comes before thee.” This three fold cry (vv.1-2, 9b, 13) forms the structure of the psalm. Characteristically when Israel cries, Yahweh hears and answers (cf. Exod. 2:23-35; Ps. 107:6, 13, 19, 28). Indeed it is anticipated that a time will come when the answer will precede the cry (Isa. 65:24). But not yet, not here. Psalm 88 is adamant in its insistence, and it is harsh on Yahweh’s unresponsiveness. The truth of this psalm is that Israel lives in a world where there is no answer. We are not offered any speculative answer. Perhaps God is silent because the guilt of the speaker has driven Yahweh away, but we are not told that. Or one might take it to be a statement of God’s transcendent freedom, so that God is not always on call (cf. Jer. 23:23). But that is not suggested either. The psalm is not interested in any theological reason Yahweh may have. The psalm is from Israel’s side. It engages in no speculation. It asks no theological question. It simply reports on how it is to be a partner of Yahweh in Yahweh’s inexplicable absence. We may imagine that the situation is so desperate that even if a reason could be offered, the speaker would have no interest in it, nor would it help, because the needfulness of the moment supersedes any reasonable conversation.

2. The unanswered plea does not silence the speaker. Perhaps the speaker is in fact speaking to the empty sky, but that does not deter the speaker. The faith of Israel is like that. The failure of God to respond does not lead to atheism or doubt in God or rejection of God. It leads to more intense address. This psalm, like the faith of Israel, is utterly contained in the notion that Yahweh is there and must be addressed. Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.

In verses 3-9a, the speaker addresses a barrage at Yahweh. The speaker is not very cunning or calculating. The speech is not deliberately presented in order to evoke an answer. There is no playing up to God. There is only anger. If one wanted to tease or persuade Yahweh to answer, this is not the way to go about it, but this speaker has no leisure for such niceties. Yahweh should not need persuasion, for he is expected to answer.

Verses 3-4 are a standard complaint with reference to “the Pit” and to “Sheol.” This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. “The Pit” is not final judgment or fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything. The notion of “cutting off” is expressed in verse 5 with three metaphors and a fourth climactic line: “dead…grave…remember no more…cut off.”

But then in verses 6-9a, the stakes are upped. This is an incredibly audacious speaker. Not only does death come, but Yahweh causes it:

Thou has put me…
Thy wrath lies heavy…
Thou dost overwhelm…
Thou hast caused…
Thou has made me…

The speaker is utterly helpless. The fault is firmly fixed. In Job-like fashion, the speaker may hope that such an assault will evoke a response. But it does not—only more silence.

3. After the second cry in verse 9b, verses 10-12 offer a series of six rhetorical questions, or at least four questions, two of which have two parts. But the dramatic effect is six questions. All of them ask about Yahweh’s capacity to work his sovereign way in death. We have “dead/shades/grave/abandon/darkness/land of forgetfulness.” That is the situation into which the speaker has fallen. The speaker will surely fall further if Yahweh does not act soon. And we are given six corresponding words that characterize Yahweh’s usual action: “wonders…praise…steadfast love…faithfulness…wonders…saving help.”

The pattern of two sets of words shows the incongruity between where the speaker is and what Yahweh does. The obvious response to the rhetorical question is “no.” Yahweh does not do his typical action in death, so, if it is to make any difference, what Yahweh does will have to be done prior to death (which is very near). The urgency of the speech is that at this moment Yahweh can still do his life-giving work, but not for long. If Yahweh does not act soon, the chance will be lost, preempted by the power of death. The speaker will be utterly lost, because the power of Yahweh has failed. But this is still no answer—only waiting. We may imagine a long dramatic, not very patient pause after verse 12. But there is no answer, and so the cry is resumed.

4. The final assault in verses 14-18 comes after the third appeal of verse 13. Now the poet moves to direct, unambiguous accusation. In verse 14, two questions place the blame frontally. Verse 15 describes the situation one more time, in case Yahweh did not hear it in verses 3-8, 10-12. And then the poem culminates in its harshest statement: “thy wrath has swept…thy dread assaults…thou hast caused.”

Finally, the speaker is shunned and in darkness. The last word in the psalm is darkness. The last word is darkness. The last theological word here is darkness. Nothing works. Nothing is changed. Nothing is resolved. All things deny life. And worst of all is the “shunning.” It is twice articulated…so that the blame is fixed on Yahweh.

So what is one to do about that? Wait. That is what Israel has been doing for a very long time. I suspect that practically and dramatically, what one must do is say it over again, until the speech and the speaker have genuinely reached the bottom. One has two options: either to wait in silence, or to speak it again. What one may not do is to rush to an easier psalm, or to give up on Yahweh.

What is a psalm like that doing in our Bible? Two things suggest themselves. First, life is like that, and these poems intend to speak of all of life, not just the good parts. Here, more than anywhere else, faith faces life as it is. Second, we observe that this psalm is not a psalm of mute depression. It is still speech. It is still addressed. In the bottom of the Pit, Israel still knows it has to do with Yahweh. It cannot be otherwise. Yahweh may not have to do with Israel. That is a problem for Yahweh, not for Israel or Israel’s theologians. Israel has no option but to deal with Yahweh. That belongs to Israel’s identity and character in the world. Israel must deal with Yahweh in his life-giving speech and answer. But Israel must also deal with Yahweh in the silence, in God’s blank absence as in the saving presence. Israel has no choice but to speak to this one, or to cease to be Israel. To be Israel means to address God, even in God’s unresponsive absence.

This psalm accords well with Luther’s theology of the cross. It certainly militates against every theology of glory, against every theology that imagines that things can be resolved, that there are answers, and that we go from “strength to strength.” Psalm 88 shows us what the cross is about: faithfulness in scenes of complete abandonment

One might wish the assertion were from on high. Then it would be less tenuous.  But when that voice from on high is silent, Israel must decide if a feeble line can be established from this side. We never know. The speaker does not know. But it is speech against the darkness. It is not cowed, but insistent, determined that if the Holy One chooses to answer, that answer must not be weak or trivial. When God next speaks, God must answer this charge. No doubt that is why God is not yet prepared to answer by the end of this psalm.

Psalm 88 stands as a mark of realism for biblical faith. It has its pastoral use, because there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolution must be avoided. Here are words not to be used frequently, but for the limited experiences when words must be honest and not claim too much.

Jesus Lament

Psalm 88

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

My first contact with the work of Paul Tough was in this This American Life episode, in which he reported on the awe-inspiring work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. Tough’s book on the same subject, Whatever It Takes, was published, praised, and widely discussed in 2008. In How Children Succeed, from 2012, Tough looks at the same concerns of the US and its dire need for education reform, but with a nationwide lens.

As the subtitle hints, in this book Tough is concerned with bringing to education the cluster of soft skills, character traits, and virtues that have been emphasized by the positive psychology movement (and which have spun off several bestsellers from 1991’s Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman to 2016’s Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success by Angela Duckworth). Tough argues–with plenty of test scores, statistics, and moving anecdotes to prove it–that character strengths and weaknesses have much more to do with student success and lifelong achievement than do IQ tests.

I love much of the foundation of the positive psychology movement, so named because of its desire to study and encourage mental wellness after more than a century of psychology’s (neurotic?) focus on mental illness. If that interests you, and especially if you are also fascinated by DISC, StrengthFinders, Myers-Briggs, et al, you should spend some time taking a few of these free tests connected to ongoing research at the University of Pennsylvania.

How Children Succeed is well-written and well-argued, for the most part. It’s inspiring to hear stories of children who seemingly should fail on paper, but who have taken flight in their educational and then professional and personal lives. It’s encouraging to learn about educators, thinkers, schools, and movements who are willing to reinvent themselves when initial hypotheses and reform attempts fail. I’m especially interested because it at least intends to create research-based interventions.

Where How Children Succeed falls short is its lack of intellectual modesty. Rather than adding the insights of positive psychology to other quality streams of thought in education reform, Tough presents “the hidden power of character” as a cure-all: IQ is out, and grit is in. And grit will fix all our problems, not only in schools but in adult happiness and life satisfaction.

Because Tough is so enthralled with the work of positive psychology researchers, he doesn’t seem to notice that he is replacing one overly simplistic answer to a complex problem with another overly simplistic answer. There is a star-struck quality to the arguments, and because of this partial blindness, there is little deep grappling in this book with the power of class, race, geography, or historical intertia. There is next-to-nothing in this book about teacher recruitment and retention (and instead an appalling number of references to the merits of Teach for America). And while it seems that this book would be incredibly timely in a year when everyone on social media seemed to have an opinion on education policy during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings, it just isn’t. It makes literally zero public policy arguments with the power to serve more than a tiny percentage of the US’ public school student population. (In its defense, the narrow focus of the book could serve as a useful partial foundation for public policy proposals.)

For all that critique, it’s not a bad book. It just needs to be one ingredient in a gumbo, not the single-ingredient meal it sets out to be. I’d recommend it without hesitation to educators, because educators have the context of wider reading, training, and experience in education policy, theory, and practice. I have no doubt that the best educators and best teacher training programs are already using many of these insights. But for readers like me, people who simply want to be informed about important trends in education and public policy, it has serious flaws. Read it if you read a lot of education books or if you’re already interested in positive psychology and you want to think through further practical applications. Just don’t read it expecting it to be the one education book to finally tell you “How Children Succeed.”