You Call That Working?

A recent post of mine on the United Methodist Church got a lot of response (for me, anyway) on other social media.  As I pondered this—I’ve written about the topic many times before—it occurred to me that most people probably have no idea what biblical scholars do all day.  (That is, besides write books that only other biblical scholars read, and teach their classes, or, very occasionally, edit books.)  Biblical studies is arguably one of the oldest academic pursuits in the world and what it boils down to in a word is “contexts.”  We try to understand the multiple contexts of the biblical texts.  Think about this a second: when you pick up a book, newspaper, magazine, or their electronic equivalents, what is the first, if often unconscious, thought you have?  Isn’t it something like “what kind of book, newspaper, etc., is this?”  Is it fiction or non?  Is it reputable or not?  Who wrote it and when?  These are all contexts.

The Bible was written about two millennia ago.  Very little of that original context still remains.  In fact, none of the original manuscripts even still exist.  It was a book written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The vast majority of people in the western world do not read these languages, and so the Bible comes to us in mediated form—translation.  Translation, as any writer knows, is a form of interpretation.  It is not, and can never be, the original.  To figure out what the Bible “means” it has to be interpreted—even just reading it is a form of interpretation.  Biblical scholars want to be able to interpret it in informed ways.  We learn about its various contexts and use them to help us understand.

What did people think like thousands of years ago?  Can you even remember what it was like to look up a distant location without the internet?  Writing letters or dialing a rotary phone to get information on it?  Going to triple A to get maps?  And all of that was only two decades ago.  Life in biblical times was very different than life today.  The people then didn’t understand science the way that we do.  The writers of the Good Book didn’t have any idea that what they were scribbling would one day be considered holy scripture.  They had completely different contexts.  Whether the contexts are historical, literary, or social scientific (we still haven’t figured out an elegant way of saying the latter) biblical scholars use a variety of methods to get to those contexts.  We can’t go in with the answers already in our heads—if we did we’d only find what we were looking for.  At the end we have an answer, not “the” answer.  And so biblical studies continues.

Christianity sans Christ

Pieter Breughel the elder

“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  (Please pardon the sexist translation, but the King James is in the public domain.)  That verse, and many others, have been going through my head since my former United Methodist Church decided to close its doors to those who are different.  The reason this verse sticks out is pretty obvious—according to the Good Book we’re all sinners.  The “Christianity” that the UMC has embraced is that of Paul, not that of Jesus.  In fact, Jesus seems to have exited, stage left.  You see, only with a great deal of casuistry of exegetical caliber can anyone claim that Jesus (aka God) said anything about homosexuality.  Not a single word.  His response in the famous story of an adulteress (what of the adulterer who partnered in her crime?) caught in flagrante delicto, he gave our opening quote.

At one point Peter, exasperated with his master’s kindness, sputtered how many times did he have to forgive—seven times?  More like seven times seventy.  The one without sin has itchy fingers where stones are abundant.  Once at Nashotah House we had a student from Kenya.  He was already a priest, and he had a family back home.  At one point I asked him about his wife.  He informed me that his brother now had her as wife while he was gone.  It was the way of their culture.  This same student—for we are all students all the time—had harsh words for American sexual practices.  He later tried to find a way to stay in the United States, leaving family behind.  The Bible may turn a blind eye to polygamy, but polyandry is definitely stone-worthy.  Who is without sin?

Ironically the UMC has lined up against the Gospels.  Christianity’s sexual hangups began with the apostle from Tarsus, not the carpenter from Nazareth.  We have been forced to see, time and again, what comes of making priests remain celibate.  It’s against nature, and none of us has a free hand to grope for a stone.  Instead, we queue up ready to judge.  Love, the church says, is wrong.  God, says the Gospel, is love.  There’s a mansion with many rooms above our heads.  We’re not told if the doors come with locks or not.  Unless this seem unnaturally profane, anyone who has truly loved another knows it is more than just a physical act.  Such spiritual intimacy is difficult to spread too thinly without cheapening it to the point of a tawdry sit-com.  Even then, however, we shouldn’t judge.  There aren’t stones enough in the world for that.

Weaponized Scripture

One of the many questions that haunt evangelical Christians is whether it is okay to watch horror films or not.  The same applies to whether it’s okay to listen to rock-n-roll (even as it’s reaching its senior years).  Cultural accommodation is often seen as evil and evangelicalism, as a movement, is frequently offered as a culture all its own.  I recently rewatched Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenagers at American Eagle Christian High School.  Gently satirical, it portrays well how evangelicals try to redefine “cool” in a Christian mode.  Taking tropes from pop culture and “baptizing” them, Pastor Skip—the principal—assures the young people that they’re every bit as cool as secular culture icons, only the Christians are going to heaven.

The film came out when I was teaching at Nashotah House.  That seminary also had problems with secular culture, but in a completely different way.  Its method was basically to ignore that culture.  Isolated, Anglo-Catholic, one might even say “Medieval” but for the sanitation, it was likely not a safe place for a professor to be watching such films.  Evangelicalism and right-wing Catholicism were beginning to find each other.  Once the cats and dogs of the theological world, they were becoming more like goldfish in their bowl, watching a strange and unnerving world just outside the glass.  A world in which they couldn’t survive.  Now, Saved! is only a cinematic version of this, but it has a few profound moments.  Mary, the protagonist, comes to see the hypocrisy of both the school and her former friends when she supports a boyfriend who is gay.

At one point her friends attempt an intervention.  They try to exorcize Mary, and when that fails one of them throws a Bible at her.  Picking it up, Mary says “This is not a weapon.”  Since this movie isn’t by any stretch of the imagination horror, I didn’t address it in Holy Horror.  As I rewatched it in the light of that book, however, I recognized a motif I did discuss in it.  The use of the Bible in movies is extremely common.  That applies to films that don’t have an overt Christian setting such as this one does.  The iconic Bible is a protean book.  Despite what Mary says it can indeed be a weapon.  It often is.  Many of us have been harmed by it.  Christian separatist culture has its own dark side, even if it’s carefully hidden, its adherents think, from the secular world outside the fishbowl.

Political Games

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The enigma machine held an almost impossible complexity for generating codes. It gave the Nazis a great advantage during World War II since it was beyond the ability of cryptographers to decipher it. It was against this background that Alan Turing developed what would come to be recognized today as the computer. A brilliant mathematician, Turing himself was an enigma, in part because he was a homosexual—and in Britain at the time acting on this was a crime. Turing famously committed suicide just at the start of a brilliant career, probably because of his conviction of this “crime.” Those of you who’ve seen The Imitation Game will recognize the plot of the movie, and most people who read about technology will recognize that the story is largely factual. We like to think we’ve progressed since the days when one’s sexual orientation was considered a crime, but the enigma of the election has proven indecipherable once again.

As we begin to realize just what the price will be to have an avowed bigot in the highest office in the land, it may be helpful to decode things a bit. I, for one, have to admit that having a few days off from work and avoiding the news as much as possible, has been restorative. Watching movies, spending hours at a time writing, and actually seeing family when we’re all awake have been wonderful. Now it’s time to face the cold realities of 2017 with early morning bus rides and a looming intolerance on the horizon.

I have to admit that my mind doesn’t work like that of a code-breaker. Some of the ancient languages I studied were originally decoded by cryptographers who turned their attention to trying to understand people whose only means of communication were forms of writing long forgotten. For me, as a student, it was more a matter of trying to understand what it meant to think like someone else. This may be what is most distressing about the fascist outlook brewing in Washington—there is no desire to even attempt to look at things from the other point of view. It’s a raw celebration of power granted in a moment of weakness. We have tomes and tomes of history to demonstrate just what’s wrong with all of this, but the enigma is that those who have no interest in learning will ever read them. We continue to play a silly political game without counting what we have lost. This may be a zero-sum game after all.

Anabaptist Higher Education

There’s strength in numbers. This is a biblical concept as well as a folk saying (although it is worded differently in the Good Book). The power of conviction grows in a group, and that’s a reason that governments fear mobs, particularly angry ones. As biblical fundamentalism began to develop at the turn of the last century, those who opposed modernity found like-minded believers and gathered themselves together to stand on the same side of multiple causes. Not only fundamentalists, but all different religious outlooks—evangelical groups especially. The more “mainstream” and liberal groups, lacking the conviction of feeling like they’ve been left behind as society moves ahead, have felt less need to organize together. This is something the Democratic Party has felt ever since the Religious Right wed the Republican Party. It is an interesting dynamic. Banding together makes you feel like you’re not alone. So it was that the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities was founded. Higher education, which began in the church, had gone directions that made evangelical groups uncomfortable, so their institutions formed a coalition.

A story in the current Christian Century two Anabaptist member schools have caused waves of protest because they have decided that it is permissible to hire same-sex married faculty. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, sponsored by groups known for their primitivism, have surprised the CCCU with their surprisingly open stance. When is the last time the Mennonites made the news? In response, according to the Century, Union University, an evangelical school in Tennessee, has threatened to withdraw from the Council if this infringement is permitted. This is a perfect example of the dilemma faced by those who support higher education, but hold it to evangelical standards.

Homosexuality, over the past few decades, has become recognized as a basic form of human sexuality. As the stigma has begun to evaporate in the light of scientific, psychological, and sociological studies, the consensus has begun to shift in the wider world. With the Supreme Court decision in June (the first decision autosuggested as one Googles “supreme court”) rightfully following the evidence, any government barriers to same-sex marriages was pulled out from under the evangelical camp, and thus the CCCU. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College have decided this presents no problem to their educational mission. Some members of the CCCU, it seems, disagree. The Century blurb asks if this is the beginning of the end of the Council. Probably not. Prejudice finds any hidden corner or recess that it can in which to hide and grow, like any fungus. Groups that identify by what they hate are loath to change, no matter how bright the sunshine. Rain encourages the mushrooms into the open, but the sunlight afterwards creates rainbows.

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Credo

One of my seminary professors, who shall remain nameless, averred in class that Christianity in the first centuries was popular because it was exclusive. Like a country club. If just anybody can get in, why would you want to join? I’ve come to disagree with said professor’s analysis, but I have to admit there are cases where the idea does apply. Country clubs, for example. Organizations that intend to improve society, however, have it in their best interest to have doors as wide open as possible. Otherwise it’s a kind of hypocrisy. If Christianity wanted to make a better world, it soon realized, all takers should be welcome. That paradigm broke down fairly quickly, but at the beginning, I have the sense that all were welcome. So I was pleased to hear that the Boy Scouts have dropped their ban on gay troop leaders. Making a group that sets out to do a good deed a day exclusive heterosexual seems awfully backward. After all, gay leaders are nothing new. Why try to be exclusive?

Of course, the Scouts continue to disallow atheists. This is a fairly common, if medieval, marker of personal integrity. The Elks, last I heard, had few entrance requirements. One of the few stipulations, however, is that you have to believe in God. I don’t know how that plays out for Hindu Elks. Perhaps the more the merrier. Somehow, I doubt it. Exclusive belief entry requirements are a way of weeding out questions before they’re raised. Sheltering those inside from baleful influence among hoi polloi. We are better because we are different. Granted, these organizations go back to a time when theism, of sorts, was virtually a given in American society. Times have changed. Boy Scouts, it seems, are dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

I’ve always been impressed, by contrast, with the Girl Scouts’ openness. No creedal requirements are in place. Atheist girls, Buddhist girls, girls who climb on rocks, any girls are allowed to join. The last three presidents (including Obama) have been Boy Scouts. Two prior presidents have been as well. You might think the organization could meet its pedigree requirements with ease. In my view, they might look to the girls to take a cue on how to make the world a better place. When I was growing up, I knew no atheists. I remember attending a funeral of a family friend who hadn’t been a church goer, and that was pretty traumatic. As an adult I know many atheists and I trust them as much, if not more than, some of the religious I know. Would they be able to lead Boy Scout troops well? I have a suggestion—why not ask the Girl Scouts and find out?

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Two Outlooks

SexInTheBibleThe word polymath used to be applied more easily. In these days of highly specialized training, it is difficult to have expert knowledge in more than a couple of areas. The two areas, sexuality and scripture, dealt with in J. Harold Ellens’s Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, are such zones of specialization. Students of the Bible have recently begun an intensive exploration of how sex fit into the ancient worldview. Ellens’s book surveys all of the biblical legislation about sexual matters and a fair number of the stories involving the same, with the sensitivity of a professional counselor. Indeed, his practical knowledge of human sexual development and psychological needs based on it should inform society’s understanding of scripture. The Bible is no pristine book. Neither is it a romance novel. Still, ancient people were not as shy about sex as post-Victorians tend to be. The Bible is often frank on the subject.

The main danger of a project like this is trying to decide where to take the Bible literally and where not. Ellens, while he has some training as a biblical scholar, falls into a familiar trap. He assumes, as parts of the Bible do, that Israel’s neighbors were sexually depraved. Not only did they condone things like bestiality, according to Ellens, but they incorporated sexual deviancy into their worship. Ancient records, readily available for decades, give the lie to that outlook. Ellens makes the case that biblical writers had no way of knowing, however, that homosexuality, for example, is a biological predisposition that can’t be changed at will. Other sexual practices that are now considered normal and healthy were perversions in the biblical period. Medical science should inform our understanding of Holy Writ.

This is an argument Ellens can’t win. Passionate though he may be about how all of this just makes sense from a scientifically informed point of view, the fact can’t be changed that the Bible does condemn some sex acts outright. Even more damaging, in my opinion, is that the Bible clearly views women as the sexual property of men, and men regulate the sexuality of their females. Anyone arguing that the Bible is a moral guidebook in regard to sexual mores must face this issue head on. There’s no tip-toeing around it, even with verified psychological pedigree. The Bible is the product of a patriarchal structure that did not tolerate sexual practice outside prescribed limits. We now understand the same behaviors from a scientific point of view, but the written text doesn’t change. It is just that dilemma that makes it very difficult to be an expert on two fields so diverse as sexuality and biblical studies.