Institutions, facts, reasons, and the problem of the “purity culture”

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December 23, 2018

Institutions are a part of the fabric of our human cultures. Institutions provide direction and security to our life, making it possible for a larger network of people to be able to coordinate their behaviors in such a way as to minimize confusion and mitigate against harmful behaviors. According to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, the shape of institutions arise from a “reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors.”1 In other words, as certain behaviors become routine between different persons, these behaviors become classified and become part of the life of an institution. As these behaviors become accepted as a matter of fact and objectively true,2 much as money is automatically treated as useful for exchange even though the paper (or plastic cards) have little intrinsic worth, these become institutional facts as per John Searle.3

The relationship between an institution and institutional facts is not always clear. Sometimes, institutional facts may exist without any formal institution to enforce it, For instance, in stores, it is taken for granted that people line up and are served in the order they arrive: first come, first serve. The main means of enforcement is the idea that other people will be angered by cutting in line and not any recognized authority. This is more than simply a common routine or habit of everyone precisely because any other practices that directly violates the first come, first serve principle. In fact, when governments have tried to reverse the “first come, first serve” principle when it comes to merging traffic, trying to encourage “zipper merging” rather than everyone waiting their turn to get through, many people get angry and resist this sense of unfairness. There is a way that has been done, and it should continue to be done that way. 

There are other times where an institution actively enforces the institutional fact. Much of the time, the institutions educate others as to the accepted practice(s) and the reasons for such. Ethics training offer a way of directing people towards avoiding certain, unethical behaviors and prescribing appropriate ways to engage in one’s business; these training events are often times joined with further explanations as to the importance of one’s ethical conduct. For instances, therapists and counselors are training to minimize contact with their clients after therapy has completed because of the potential problems that can arise when therapist and client attempt to engage in other types of relationships. We might call these institutional reasons. Institutional reasons offer a way of helping people to maintain conformity to the institutional facts.

Sometimes, however, an institution will enforce an institutional fact without offering an institutional reason. Walking through places with high security, such as government buildings, airports, etc., there will be a plethora of doors that are marked “Authorized personnel only.” Delimitation of boundaries represent a clear institutional fact but no attempt to offer an institutional reason is offer. This can occur for two reasons. Firstly, most people intuitively understand the reason for such an institutional fact: for instance, boundaries in an airport represent a way of managing security. Secondly, when people have no particular vested interest in what type of behaviors they engage in, they will be inclined to obey instructions apart from any reason; people in the airport are seeking to travel, so security boundaries do not interfere with people’s personal interests.

It is where institutional facts do seem to interfere with people’s interests where institutional reasons begin to be offered. You may feel inclined to do one thing, but reasons are offered that it is better for you to act differently. Institutional reasons function as regular and/or formal reasons of persuading people in order to maintain institutional facts. Perhaps the reason is as simply as punishment; the government relies upon the prosecution of money counterfeiting to discourage such behavior. Perhaps the reason addresses other forms of interests, such as campaigns against drugs that portray the negative consequences of addictions to these drugs. In the end, there may be many potential institutional reasons that can be offered to enforce certain institutional facts, some being more effective than others.

Sometimes, these institutional reasons will change over the course of time. For instance, the original reason certain behaviors became regularized and then institutionalized may different from later institutional reasons. For instance, the right to bear arms as part of the Second Amendment in the United States was put originally crafted to allow for the operation of militias in case of a need to defend the people from other threats, including the federal government. However, the reason offered for the Second Amendment has morphed into a matter of personal freedoms (with only occasional reference to concerns about national defense).

Such change of reasons can be quite significant. Reasons function to provide a broad base for directing behavior; the can enforce certain institutional facts, but they also direct behavior in other ways. For instance, the reason of personal freedom is used to support the right to bear arms, but can also be used to support other behaviors, such as the freedom to marry who one wishes. When reasons are accepted, they do not remain restricted to simply the original fact or prescription they are used to support, but they become multi-functional, directing other behaviors and thinking.

So, with this analysis on offer, I use it to assess the problems that emerged in the “purity culture” of American evangelical Christianity. As the sexual liberation movement emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, the institutional fact/regulation of marriage and sex came under serious challenge. More and more people felt free to cast off sexual inhibitions; they thought government and society had no legitimacy to regulate people’s sexual lives.

In walks in the Moral Majority of the 1980s, focused on trying to take American back from what they say as the moral decay, including the evil of sexual debauchery. The institutional facts they had supported were being eroded, both as the level of society but also as the government/institutional level. At stake for conservative-minded Christians was to reinforce the institutional facts of marriage, along with a host of other behaviors. However, as this institutional fact was under challenge in the first place, thus it would require persuasion. Reasons would need to be offered to try to persuade people to live according to the traditional views of marriage and sex. But, there were a couple problems.

Firstly, the Bible was decreasingly taken as authoritative; reference to Scripture would not have the persuasive appeal as it would have had in the past. For some Christians, they recognized this lack of persuasive appeal to others. But many conservative Christians ignored this, however, and continued to operate as if the Bible was a lawbook for society.

Secondly, even for those people where the Bible was authoritative, it isn’t as exactly clear on certain sexual matters such as premarital sex; the Biblical documents certainly imply sex is reserved for married persons, but it is never proscribed in a clear fashion. Thus, in order to continue to enforce the traditional views on sex and marriage, a combination of two tactics were involved: 1) exaggerate the offense of pre-marital sex as if it is to be included in the more egregious sexual sins (resulting in increasing shame and judgment) and 2) coming up with non-Biblical reasons for avoiding pre-marital sex, such as the idea that someone is saving themselves for their spouse.

The net effect of this is that it attempts to ground the traditional view of sex and marriage on very different grounds than the Biblical texts provide. As I mentioned two posts ago, the Biblical basis for regulation of sexual behavior was grounded in avoiding being like the nations in their sexual practices, which commonly lead to exploitative and unjust behavior. One’s sexual behavior was tightly connected to the way one reflected God’s holiness (as in Leviticus 18) and how one regards and treats each other (as in 1 Thessalonians 4).

Instead, the “purity culture” reinforced a heightened sense of physical purity while also directing people to determine their behavior for the sake of their future spouse. The end consequence: 1) one’s relationship to God was regulated by a rule like obedience to abstaining from sex rather than the type of person one becoming and 2) the impacts of sex with another person wasn’t important if they weren’t your spouse. In other words, the evangelical “purity culture” created a legalistic mindset towards God that did not spend much time teaching people how to treat others with respect.

This stems from an attempt to try to rationalize the traditional sexual ethic with reasons that are not apparent within the Scriptural witnesses. However, the more Scriptural rationale for direct sexual behavior isn’t as readily usable for the interests of the Moral Majority and the culture it spawned in evangelical churches. The (hyper)literalist hermeneutics of this brand of Christianity that mined the Scriptures for readily usable theological and ethical rules were not going to pay as much attention to the underlying reasons that the Scriptures do point towards. Secondly, as the Scriptural witnesses have a much broader concern than simply saying “Don’t have sex before marriage,” the more faithful reasons would not be as readily useful for the attempts to try to stop the spread of influence of the sexual liberation culture.

At the end of the day, as the “purity culture” was birthed more out of an attempt to fight and overtake the oppositional culture, it increasingly overlooked and devalued the other (unintended) consequences of its pedagogy. By attempting to preserve and retake the institutions that it felt comfortable and safe with, evangelical Christianity worked against itself in the long run; both through its response to sexual concerns but also other socio-political matters. We are witnessing the fruits of this in the present day as evangelicalism is coming under many, strong challenges rooted in much anger, hurt, and even hatred.

Although, this is not necessarily a harbinger of death for evangelicalism into the future. While the name “evangelical” may forever tainted, the underlying theological and ethical spirit that seeks maintain faithfulness to God as made known in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit that is authoritatively witnessed to the Scriptures can be preserved. But it will entail recontextualizing our various ways of life, including our more traditional sexuality, on a more literate and responsible understanding of the Scriptures while being willing to listen to the sharp criticism directed towards the past practices of evangelicals. Doing both will entail being thoughtful and engaging in significant conversations pertain to sex and other charged issues, so that we can learn to see the Scriptures afresh through communication and so that we can discern the legitimate substantive of the criticisms directed towards evangelicals and address them without feeling pressured to embrace the modern culture of sex. But this will entail the death of many Christian institutions, institutional facts, and institutional reasons that is followed by a renewal of the people with a rightly direct zeal.

Sexual liberation of the 1960s and “purity culture”

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December 19, 2018

In my last post on explaining the true value of sexual abstinence, I made a connection between the stories of sexual exploitative behavior in churhces we have recently heard and the role of the sexual liberation movement in the 1960s had in contributing to a rapid increase in rape. This prompted a question from one person on facebook discussion: since sexual progressives have advocated against sexual exploitative behaviors, how is it the progressive sexuality that is responsible for the problems in churches within the “purity culture?” On the surface, it certainly seems contradictory. But as it is so often with matters of psychology and culture, the truth is often times not what makes sense to us at first. But before answering the how of this question, we need to establish the dramatic changes regarding sex and relationships that occurred during the 1960s.

During the 1960s, and into the 1970s, there was a movement that was built around the concept of “free love.” It’s original premise wasn’t based upon some idea of being sexually promiscuous but rather around the idea that laws should not regulate relationships. It essentially had a libertarian ethos undergirding it. In addition, it had the symbolic effect of freeing women from the obligations towards men, offering them freedom for their own sexual lives. In effect, “free love” was a rejection of the institutional control of sex, including how men held control over women, and allowing people more autonomy over themselves.

To many people, this might seem like a good idea. In America, we have a strong valuation of liberty from governmental control. Aside from those who have been directly or indirectly influenced by the Moral Majority’s reaction against the “free love” moment, most people don’t like the idea of government controlling sexual relationships.

However, the “free love” movement was not only focused on institutional regulations. It rather established and proposed very different ideas about sex, relationships, and marriage from the Christian perspective. Far from being simply a rebellion against institutional control that also promoted greater equality between men and women, the sexual revolution of the 60s was a cultural shift away from the sexual values influenced by Christian faith. No longer was sex considered normatively reserved between a man and a woman in a marital relationship, it is something that people freely enter into when they want to. The specific context and circumstances in which people had sex became radically different; the way people viewed their relationship to their sexual partners changed dramatically. This is represented in various statistical changes in the 60s.

  1. Divorce rates started to dramatically increase during the 1960s.1 The rate didn’t just simply spike for a short term as women felt free to leave bad marriages; the rate of divorces steadily increased and only started to decrease as people got married less.
  2. The rates of out-of-wedlock birthrates started to increase in the 1960s.2 This change was must more dramatic for black females than white females, but nationwide the percentage of out-of-wedlock births nearly doubled.
  3. There was a greater proliferation of explicitly sexual and pornographic content during the 60s. Playboy subscriptions rose nearly 400% from 1960s to the 1970s.3  The number of “adult movie theatres” from 1960 to 1970 increased by over 3600% (that is NOT a typo!)4
  4. The rates of 19 year old, unmarried women with sexual experience started to dramatically change in the 60s.5 While it was gradually changing in the previous two decades, from the 60s onwards, young women were increasingly engaged in sexual activity prior to marriage.
  5. Rape rates nearly double from the 1960s to the 1970s.6

All of these statistical changes occurred during the 60s. These were not just short-term trends of the decade either. These statistical trajectories continued in the succeeding decades. For instance, while divorce rates and reported rate of rape have decreased since the 90s, they are far from pre-60s rates.

Each of these 5 statistical changes contain a common factor. Far from simply being deviant sexual behavior that conservative Christians might label these behaviors, there is something much more significant that has occurred. The relationship people have with other people when it comes to sex has dramatically changed. Relationships shifted in at least three ways:

  1. Sexual relationships became shorter-term relationships. Increased divorces rates, more out of wedlock births, and higher levels of pre-marital sexual activity all represent this.
  2. Other persons were increasingly evaluated in terms of potential sexual pleasure, that is, objectified. The rise of sexually explicit and pornographic material is the clear statistic in favor of that.
  3. The other person became increasingly less important. Divorce rates represent this in terms of decreasing satisfaction with one’s spouse. However, the rise in rape reflects this pattern even more so.

The effect of the sexual liberation movement went beyond simply freedom from governmental control and greater equality between the sexes. It permanently altered the way people saw their relationships to each other. People became increasingly valued/objectified for matters of sexual pleasure.

There are many ways this cultural change manifested itself in movies, music, news, etc. where people were increasingly evaluated in terms of their sexual suitability. Consequently, as sexual attractiveness became a more pervasive and significant part of our evaluating others, people expressed this in their own identity through their clothing that emphasized the sexual features of the body; even if people dress as they do for themselves and not for other people, their own thoughts about what looked good for them has been influenced by the hyper-sexualized standards that they are progressively encultured into. Then, whether these people wanted to be evaluated in terms of their sexual attractiveness or not, people were consistently exposing themselves to people where the sexual features of their body were more accentuated.

Then, it came to be a common view that late adolescence and more particularly college was a time for sexual experimentation. As sexual activity became a more prominent part of the college lifestyle, concerns about sexual health lead to increase availability to condoms and birth control, only further reinforcing the place of sexual experimentation in college.

Now, before one hears this as simply some “conservative rant” against promiscuous behavior, I am not focused on criticizing birth control, trying to get people to dress “decently,” etc. My point is to paint a picture of the culture that has been formed and the outcomes that result. Both in terms of sexual evaluation of others and in sexual practice, a culture has been created that continues to reinforce the trends of sexual relationships being short-term and the sexual objectification of others. Without there being any clear, authoritative, persistent message that either a) you should treat people as only sexual objects or b) you should consider sexual relationships interchangeable and disposable, the way the culture has molded sexual practices has had this impact.

In other words, the sexual liberation movement has many unintended side effects. By abandoning the traditional sexual values that were passed down over the course of centuries, the sexual liberation movement of the 60s trekked out in a radical direction for one purpose. But it was truly unaware of the powerful, psychological dynamics that sexuality has.

Sexual desire can be a very powerful motivator that dramatically impacts the person’s decision making. Consequently, people undergo serious psychological changes as a result of sexual behavior; many of these changes are not intended or sought after, but simply occur and happen. Furthermore, by nature, we don’t become reflective and thoughtful when it comes to sex; rather, we have to learn how to self-regulate ourselves and train ourselves how to direct our sexual behavior in respectful and healthy ways. If one is not careful, it can very easily be the case that it isn’t us controlling sex, but it is sex that is controlling us. However, the less time, training, and building of a relationship one needs to engage in sexual activity, the less one learns how to self-regulate this drive well.

Thus, this leads to peculiar consequence in how people engage in sexual behavior. The more sexual behavior is encouraged, openly celebrated, and easily and readily engaged in, the less self-regulated people are when it comes to their sexual desire. As a consequence, when people who are less self-regulated are in the throes of sexual desire, they are thinking more about themselves and what they want rather than their potential sexual partner; this is reflective of the naturally egocentric nature of people when they are in states of strong emotion and desire. As a result, the feelings and thoughts of the other person are increasingly less important, except insofar as attention to those feelings and thoughts are relevant to take into account in pursuit of sexual gratification. Rather than as a loving partner/spouse having a longer-term, sustained attention to them, their thoughts, and feelings leading to sexual encounters, people engage more in a form of sexual manipulation of the others that are not as concerned about the long-term of their potential sexual partner.

No one trains people to engage in sexual behavior in this manner. Aside from a few “courses” or books that you may find here or there which may be labeled as training in manliness or in how to get women but ultimately amount to sexual manipulation, there is no concentrated effort to treat sex in such a manipulative manner. No one intends it. It just occurs. It emerges unconsciously and without explicit direction.

Perhaps, then, you can see where this is going: the less important the feelings and thoughts of another person are when it comes to sexual desire and gratification, the less important matters of consent and feeling of security of the other person will be. Given that sex is a social behavior, all sex entail some form of power/influence. The less important the influence of long-lasting love is in sexual relationships, the more people will learn to use other forms of power, including possibly physical coercion, psychological manipulation, and social pressure.

By the sexual liberation movement dramatically changing the nature of relationships in the context of sex, the more they reinforced an ego-centric way of approaching sexual relationships that increased the likelihood of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. Certainly, the persons behind the sexual liberation movement didn’t intend this, but by managing to change the sexual culture they ran into the deep, pervasive psychological dynamics of sexual desire and behavior. Thus, this culture has become such a prevalent part of day-to-day life through media, music, social interactions, etc., it has influenced everyone, how we think of sex and the way we see people as sexual beings, even those who are in conscious rejection of the sexual liberation movement including in evangelical/tradition churches.

This is not to deny many of the legitimate criticism of “purity culture” and its role in sexual abuse in churches. “Purity culture” has been decidedly patriarchal at times, maintain the power dynamic in favor of males, thus giving an avenue of power to exploit. “Purity culture” was more concerned about the physical purity of the body than the purity of heart in one’s relationships. These dynamics could be used to reinforce, enable, and mask sexual abuse. Furthermore, by reinforcing a taboo about talking about sex except in a very stilted, proscribed manner, “purity culture” prevented against healthy discussions about sex and replaced it with stereotyped discourse, making people unaware of what they were thinking and feeling.  Nevertheless, despite these specific criticisms, “purity culture” just like sexual liberation movement didn’t consciously train people to sexually exploit others.

But, it isn’t the “purity culture” that had a place of prominence and influence in society. While there were still ideas of the Christian sexual ethic, such as heterosexuality and marriage, a nominal concern for children in the context of marriage, etc. these were more like artifacts of the past that still retaining credence for a while but crumbled as the culture of sexual liberation had more influence in significant areas of public life, such as on media, educational settings, etc.  Thus, it is the way the sexual liberation culture trains people to be sexual beings that has had a dramatic impact on the life of the church. The logical mistake in the analysis of “purity culture” is to assume that everyone that occurs in evangelical churches is solely the result a singular, monolithic culture that was impervious to outside influences; in fact, the “purity culture” only operated and had any staying power in churches because the values of the sexual liberation movement had greatly influenced in society and in churches. The existence of the “purity culture” necessarily entailed the influence of progressive sexuality in churches.

Nevertheless, proponents of sexual liberation and sexual progressiveness are not going to be inclined to see what they support being a major cultural contributor to rape, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, etc. Rather, they will treat “purity culture” as a scapegoat due to other hostilities, such as teachings regarding homosexuality, and thus distract from the most pervasive influence on the sexually degrading and objectifying culture we live in. Since the progressive narrative has more credibility than the evangelical narrative in wider media and because there are legitimate, narrow criticisms of the way evangelical culture taught people about sex, there will be a greater influence towards blaming the “purity culture” for all the problems that exist in churches. This can then contribute to the bandwagon effect through hearing more and more people speaking something as if it is a matter of fact when the real cause of the problems are complex.

There are many things we as Christians need to learn, unlearn, and relearn about how to address concerns about human sexuality. But it can only begin by Christians not giving into the brainwashing of the cult of progressive sexuality. Rather, in recognizing the legitimate complaints and the real harm done in churches, we can begin to identify the way we have talked about sex in ways that has been more about physical purity and aversion to anything sex rather than relational purity and honest conversations.

Secondly, we need to recognize that we in the church, along with American society, are in serious need of redemption from how we view other people as sexual creatures and that won’t come by simply trying to regulate behaviors, such as telling women how to dress, but through repentance, confession, and open discussion. That means some of the taboos we have built around talking about sex need to be torn down; we need to feel the freedom to talk about sex like the Apostle Paul did in 1 Corinthians. It is only in discussing sex openly that we can then begin to identify our own thoughts about sex, which can strengthen our thinking in the face of the cultural brainwashing.

Thirdly, we need to make the distinction between calling people to live out the Gospel through their sexual faithfulness from trying to control people’s sexual lives. The concern about sex for the Bible is centered upon the type of people we become and the way our sexual behavior impacts that and not so much about simply avoiding the wrong type of sexual behavior. This will be helpful for how we develop a sexual pedagogy within the churches but also how we entirely let go of the desire to legislate our sexual values onto a secular society; not only has that battle been lost but it is deeply counterproductive even if a change in the direction the winds of society blows occurs.

However, we don’t need to capitulate to the Trojan horse of the sexual liberation movement. We need to rethink and relearn how we live in an increasing sexually objectifying and exploitative culture, but the solution is to recognize the way we respond to it in the past was ineffectual and even deeply traumatizing in some cases rather than suggest the core values were wrong. While maybe we should give up our “purity rings,” the answer isn’t asking a modern day Aaron of Nadia Bolz-Weber to fashion them into an image that is an ode to sex, just as the golden calf was connected to a sexual orgy7, but to explore and relearn what it means to love God and love one another, including through our sexuality

Why I am not saving myself for marriage

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December 14, 2018

It has become almost a cliche today to criticize the “purity culture” of evangelicalism. Reading some tweets that were critical of the Reflections Summit, which gave voice to survivors of sexual abuse in churches, the “purity culture” takes center stage in many of the tweets. However, this idea of a “purity culture” has morphed into nothing more than a “legitimate” stereotype of traditional Christian sexuality. Or, you can look at Nadia Bolz-Weber burning purity rings and making them into a statue of a vagina; far beyond simply calling people out, there is a form of aggressive iconoclasm exhibited in this culture that is not simply critique and correcting, but finding itself in direct hostility to traditional Christianity. As so often happens in heated social controversies and demagogic pastors, well-thought critique is not the currency of the day.

Nevertheless, there are many legitimate criticisms that can be level against the manner in which American evangelicals have treated people’s sexuality. It is well-documented the hurt and anger that people have felt in the face of the sexual ‘pedagogy’ in the church in the 90s and 2000s; search for responses years down the line to Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Harris’ own humble acknowledgement of the pain it caused for the best example.

I want to acknowledge that at the end of the day, there was a core concern of faithfulness in the “purity culture” of the 90s and the 2000s in trying to reserve sex for marriage. While many criticisms of the “purity culture” is actually a way of targetting such a mindset, which is more revealing of a culture that has an addiction to sex, more helpful criticisms can be leveled at the way this desire to be faithful to God was taught and put into practice.

The one piece of advice I remember from sometime in a church youth group was the rationale that waiting to have sex till marriage would be a wonderful thing for your spouse. You are saving yourself for your future spouse, who you can share this special gift with. While for us guys, this was only mentioned a little bit as our minds weren’t tuned into that type of frequency, I can only imagine the amount of times this trope was presented to the girls as it if would have been expected to be motivation for “the way girls think” about their future spouse.1

At the core is this notion: I am making decisions about my life for someone I haven’t even met. On the surface this might sound good and noble. But there are many problems with this sort of advice.

From a specifically Christian angle, the concern about sexuality is a concern about being a holy person. Paul expressing this connect between sex and holiness in 1 Thessalonians 4.3-8. The most explicit expression about Biblical sexuality comes in Leviticus 18 and 20, where the concern is that Israel not become like the nations who inhabited the land before them. Instead, Israel was to be holy as God is holy as Leviticus repeated multiple times. While one may discern a hint of concern about sexual reproduction in these chapters due to a prohibition of sacrificing children to Molech, the principle concern about such sexual regulations is about being faithful to God.

However, this concern about holiness isn’t related to the idea that having sex morally defiles a person. The concern is about the type of people were to become as God’s People, not that they were somehow “dirty.” Sex has consequences and the consequences in focus is what type of people Israel would become.

Sex is not and has never been a harmless recreational activity, but sexual activity is deeply formative of the type of people we become. There are two emotionally powerful types of learning that occur in sex; in consensual sex, dopamine is released causing powerful changes in neural structure, particularly in memories. This type of learning motivates and directs future behavior in powerful ways that span beyond normal learning that occurs through conscious deliberation. Various aspects of the sexual experience is remembered and sets down a powerful pattern for future behavior. Sex powerful changes the person, establishing the way in the future the way the person will pursue sex and when they will expect it.

However, when fear is part of sex for either partner, the feelings of vulnerability in such a close, physical contact create traumatic memories. In a similar manner, so many aspects of the experience become encoded in memory, leading to deep aversion and anxiety afterward towards anything that resembles the event of sexual contact in the conditions of fear. This can leave a legacy that lasts a lifetime. Sex can deeply damage a person.

Israel was thus deeply concerned about the power that sex can have to destroy the community and lead to injustice. The story of the sons of the gods taking the daughters of men in Genesis 6, far from it being a story of fallen angels, was most likely a story of powerful warrior figures of the past enforcing their will and taking women as their reproduction factories, which was an example of how the curse of patriarchal domination in Genesis 3.16b becomes realized, far from the more intimate understanding of sexuality contained in the language of “knowing” (Gen. 4.1) and “becoming one flesh.” (Gen. 2.24) and far from the more egalitarian helper that the woman was originally created to be (Gen. 2.18).

Then, there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is not really a tale of judgment about sex between men, but of a sexually dominating culture that would rape newcomers; the homosexuality Israel was familiar with in this story wasn’t one of intimacy that is talk about today but of domination. Hence, the call to put to death a man who treats another man as he would treat a woman (Leviticus 18.22) expresses a fear of domination that they had heard and would have witnessed elsewhere in the culture. For instance, the dominant Spartan military was paired with homosexual activity. While Israel probably wasn’t familiar with Sparta’s example, they weren’t the only ones who had such a practice. While we today associate homosexuality with being effeminate in Western culture, in ancient culture, it was more associated with patterns of dominance. The closest modern analogy to the ancient concern is the narrative that is told of sexual domination and rape in prisons.

Thus, at the core of Israel’s aversion to various forms of sexual activity is the way it can impact what type of people they would be. They were being called away from these various sexual practices that they saw associated with gross injustice and disregard for the relational bond of a husband and a wife. Sexual activity was dangerous as it had a tremendous impact on the people and culture. Thus to be holy as God is holy in terms of sexuality was to reflect this loving form of sexuality.

In other words, one refrains from sex outside of marriage not because it makes one dirty nor that it breaks some patriarchal norms of a virgin spouse, but because sexual activity can have deep, pervasive impacts. By having sex the way the other nations had sex, Israel would begin to reflect their practices and way of life and the injustice they committed.

Take American history for an example. From the 1960s into the 1990s, violent crime was on a sharp, steady rise according to FBI statistics. The most rapidly increasing form of ‘violent’ crime was robbery, but not all robbery events are actually physically violent towards a person, such as breaking into an empty home. So, of all purely violent crimes, which one rose the most: rape. It was in the 1960s that the sexual liberation began to develop, where people felt freer and freer to engage in sexual activity. Thus, the dopamine pathways of learning were training people more and more to pursue sex and more aggressively. While this is not the only factor in rape and sexual assault, sexual desire and activity can make people more aggressive as they ‘expect’ sex and become more reactive and manipulative when those expectations are not being met.

Thus, the problems with “saving oneself for marriage” is that it misunderstands the important reason for sexual abstinence. It isn’t about giving a gift to one’s future spouse. It isn’t about making your life decisions based upon someone you haven’t met. From the Biblical perspective, it is about not becoming like the ‘nations’ in their sexually exploitive cultures and practices. Hence, Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4.3-8 provides a warning against such exploitation in the context of holiness and sexuality; Greco-Roman sexuality could be deeply exploitive also.

The danger therein of ‘sexual liberation’ is of sexual aggressiveness. Sex changes you; if sex isn’t in the confines of a bond of a newly formed, loving family where the other person has deep, personal importance, then the type of dopaminergic learning that occurs is one where sex is self-centered rather than other-centered activity, thereby reinforcing the possibility of sexual self-absorption, aggressiveness, and domination in the future. While most people who have sex without a real, strong, and deep commitment to another will never be exploitive themselves, the increase in self-absorption can make one increasingly aggressive.

This is actually the aggressiveness that is witnessed in many critics of the “purity culture.” While legitimate concerns about the way “purity culture” treated women as second to men and reinforced the domination of men, including sexual abuse, allow me to suggest the problem wasn’t the “purity culture,” per se, but the spread of the sexual aggressiveness of American culture that pervaded the churches and took the male-center leadership and distorted churches into avenues of sexual dominance and abuse. “Purity culture” didn’t create this; it masked and even reinforced the problem but it didn’t train male pastors and ministers to take sexual advantage of women. The real problem is the American sexual culture that fails to recognize just how truly responsible the culture of sexual liberation has been, being incredibly naive and ignorant about the primal psychological dynamics that exists in sex. And much as an addict will point to the problems of others, even as these problems may be legitimate and important address, while they overlook and deny their own problem and complicity, sexual progressiveness is highly and deeply complicit in the problem that they help reinforce and create but distract themselves from by seeing the injustice elsewhere.

So, I am not saving myself for marriage as it has the wrong reason and purpose in mind. I seek to abstain from sex for a different purpose. I commit myself to be different from this sexually exploitative culture and so I seek to abstain from sex so that I won’t be sexually brainwashed to become part of it.

In fact, to “save yourself from marriage” has another deep problem. There is no guarantee anyone will ever get married. Abstaining from sex based upon some hope for sex in the future is foolhardy when someone may not be able to find such a relationship; such a mindset pushes the problem down the road rather than addressing the central concerns. At the age of 34 I have become have found even forming the very beginnings of a potential romantic relationship to be near impossible because of sexual trauma. Others have a similar story. Yet others have no trauma, but due to various circumstances, may never find such a relationship. What happens to people like us? If concerns about sexual abstinence is based upon some future payoff, then there a few distinct possible negative outcomes. By deferring sexual activity by what ultimately amounts to the imagination of future sexual intimacy, one reinforces the cycle of sexual desire and concommitant frustration that can lead to 1) “slips ups” in the passions of the moment with deep regrets and/or lasting consequences, 2) a build-up of resentment towards apparently ‘Christian’ teaching that can later undermind Christian faith, or 3) rushing to marriage without concern about the true goodness and health of the relationship.2 In the meantime, the natural desires related to sex and the associated desire for a family are at risk of being regarded as bad, wrong, weak, evil, etc. 

No. The Christian call to abstinence outside of marriage is rooted in resisting the culture and its aggressive posture, including but not limited to sexual exploitation. This understanding of the call recognizes the goodness of sex and doesn’t seek to “dirty” it; rather, it works with the understanding that the manner in which one has sex impacts the type of person one becomes in the future. The concern is about a way of life purposed towards reflecting God’s just and loving character as a holy way of life, unique from what is more widespread and rampant. The Gospel is about God’s work of new creation and redemption, and so a Christian sexual pedagogy should come to reflect this purpose. Christian teaching isn’t about preparing you for your spouse, but about guiding you to be transformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ. Our sexual pedagogy should reflect this.

The Pauline significance of grace

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December 14, 2018

“We are saved by grace through faith.” A common Christian phrase pulled from Ephesians 2. “Grace” is a common buzzword, used to describe everything by Christians from getting your sins forgiven to being positive and accepting. As the identity of Protestantism was defined around the doctrine of justification by grace, grace became a pervasive part of our forensic and moral vocabulary. For instance, you might have heard someone opine about the difference between grace and mercy where “mercy is not getting what you deserve, whereas grace is getting what you didn’t deserve.” Such understandings of grace are drenched in the notions of merit and relationships.

However, this is not the only way we use the word grace. Sometimes we talk about grace without moral and forensic thoughts in the background, but a sense of beauty, such as describing the graceful movements of a dancer. We may refer to the grace of a public speaker, referring to the charismatic way in which they communicate. Here, we transition from grace in a forensic or moral sense to grace in a more aesthetic and skilled sense: there is some ideal that people exemplify in their actions that elicits a mesmerizing, awe-inspiring, and/or stunning response to their onlookers. Here, grace doesn’t refer to some relational quality but some characteristic that is possessed by a person. Something about them draws your gaze, your attention, or even your dreams. Grace is a characteristic of a person, vaulting them as having a high status in the eyes of others.

These two different aspects are not unrelated. The forgiveness of a person toward someone who has offended them can also exemplify the beauty of the person who forgives. Feeling accepted by someone makes us associate that person with the positive feelings we have when around them; in a sense, we project our own subjective feelings about someone as an objective characteristic of the person. However, in Christian circles, we have had a tendency to define grace by what is received first, then we may talk about the characteristics of a person who has some grace. Whether it be forgiveness, as emphasize in evangelical circles, or acceptance, as emphasized in progressive circles, grace is about what we as people obtain from God and from others. Thus, we primarily defined “grace” by the perspective the recipient and what is received.

In the Greco-Roman world in which the Apostle Paul inhabits, grace is commonly a personal characteristic of a higher status person and defines something about a gift they give to others. For them, there were people who had some high status, some elegance, some sense of charisma or charm, some embodiment of some ideal. This could even be invested some political significance. Then, these people would act towards others with grace by the kindness and favor they showed them; grace characterized the actions of a high-status person to another person, typically of a lower status. In fact, the language of grace was connected to the patron-client system of the Roman milieu, in which higher status and affluent persons would come to the aid to those of lower status and in need; while the language of patron and client had a negative connotation in the early Roman Empire, the language of grace/gratia/χάρις had a much better connotation.1

Hence, the understanding of grace was commonly, but not exclusively, used to describe the relationship between people of unequal status. Thus, when Paul refers to God’s grace, he is referring to the characteristic of God as a person who is of an eminently higher status than human persons coming to the aid of those with lesser status.

The embedded nature of grace into concerns of social class and status in the Roman world contrasts with much of conventions we have about God’s grace. Particularly in Reformed circles, God’s grace is construed in very individualistic terms where it describes something God does rather than someone a person does. As a consequence, one can do nothing to contribute to one’s own salvation because grace is about God’s action with no room for any human response; that is the meaning of boasting in the Reform tradition: to think you did had any effect. But this is an alteration of status in the Roman world; Paul’s concern about not boasting isn’t about saying “Don’t think highly of yourself.” Rather, it is to say: “You didn’t get where you are by who you are; you’re future in God’s kingdom was because of God’s reaching down to you.” Grace is not code-word for a causal metaphysics that allows no role for the human response in event and process of salvation; rather, it refers to something that God grants that other people did not have in their possession.

This is seen in Romans 5.2, describing grace as something that people are given “access” (προσαγωγή) to. People of higher status have access to resources, material or social, that people of lower status would not have, so when a social superior is gracious towards a social inferior, they were providing access to some important resource that the people could not acquire. Commonly, this would occur in a time of need for the social inferior. Thus Paul goes on to say “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5.6) Through the death (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ, God was providing access to something people could not access at the time of an imperative need (“at the right time.”).

Against this backdrop, Paul’s language of justification can be understood. Rather than a forensic or moral backdrop to Paul’s usage, it was actually about a status that God bestowed on believers. They were regarded by Him as part of the “righteous” and thus given access to the privileges that came with such a status. Furthermore, this beneficient relationship between socially unequal persons would be described by the language of faith/fides/πίστις, particularly for the person of an inferior social status and thus dependent on the person of higher status.2

Hence, the constellation of grace, faith, and status terminology in the form of justification would not be particularly novel for Paul; this would not have been anything resoundingly unfamiliar to his Greek and Roman audiences. They would have understood this in echoes from the Greco-Roman culture. So, when we as Protestants have been trained to take “we are justified by faith” and “we are saved by grace” as the center of Paul’s Gospel, we are unwittingly defining the Christian faith by what Paul’s expression largely shared in common with the Greco-Roman culture.

What was novel for Paul wasn’t the relationship of grace, faith, and a change of status for the socially inferior person. What was novel is what of God was characterized as grace; God’s grace came in Jesus Christ, shamed and put to death on a cross. It is this that would have been rather jarring to the Greco-Roman audience; Christ as the social superior had a socially disreputable death. To be clear, it wasn’t simply that Jesus Christ died as a sacrifice; such could have been drenched in the language of glory for military heros who died, similar to what we hear in the liturgy of honor towards the American troops. Jesus died a socially shameful death on a cross and Jesus died on behalf of the lowest of the low: the ungodly. In other words, Christ died a shameful death and Christ died on behalf for event the most shameful of people. It is this that would have been dramatically novel and jarring to Paul’s audience.

While Luther and the later Protestants heard something important in the doctrine of God’s grace to justify by faith, and indeed was something they needed to hear in their day, they didn’t actually grasp at the center of Gospel that Paul preached. Rather than hearing a needed word for their own time, they also saw it as the defining word of Paul’s message about Jesus Christ. Consequently, it wasn’t until the stranglehold of older Protestant interpretations were unshackled by the New Perspective that a growing awareness has been reached by this; while I feel the various ideas contained in the New Perspective on Paul have numerous problems of their own and can sometimes throw the baby out with the bath-water of the Protestant theology, they opened up our eyes and ears to read Paul and even the Gospels afresh, much as N.T. Wright has wanted to see this occur.

Furthermore, I would suggest that the often lamented deficient pneumatology in modern Christian theology can a to not fully grasping the social significance of grace. As grace, faith, and justification pertains to matters of access, the Holy Spirit is the principal ‘resource’ that God gives to believers. Justification can not be understood apart from the bestowing of the Holy Spirit; a doctrine of justification without a pneumatology would be woefully deficient. However, our standard Protestant understanding of justification about forgiveness through Christ’s propitiating death didn’t have a natural nor logically necessary place to insert the Holy Spirit into the fray; He was someone that got put in somewhere, almost because you had to. But the Holy Spirit isn’t seen as a central role in Paul’s understanding of justification, grace, and faith, but a separate doctrine, perhaps of a more advanced form of Christianity.

No wonder then that so many of the countries influenced by Protestantism have come to have more of a spirit closer to the Roman societies, including the most Protestant country of all, America which has taken on some imperial vestiges.3 By the continued emphasis upon language that was particularly Roman along with a deficient understanding and role of the Spirit in the Christian life, one might suggest that the Protestant Reformation ended up secularizing Christian faith. Hence, grace, even in more evangelical circles, is understood as vague, shadowy notion that we somehow connect to our forgiveness and salvation and thus is readily usable to a whole variety of life circumstances, uniquely Christian or not, rather than saying the grace is what describes God as He makes Himself known in Jesus Christ and as He becomes present to us in His Holy Spirit. However, in Paul’s eyes, grace is not my forgiveness, not my acceptance, not something I take and receive for my own self; rather, grace describes something that is present with us in the form of the Triune God that impacts the directs our lives by what is made accessible to us.

The virgin birth is important, but not as important as you think

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December 12, 2018

As we are in the season of Advent, approaching Christmas, it is around this time of year that you may hear many sermons, discussions, arguments, and polemics surrounding the Gospel story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, or, to be more specific, the Matthean and Lukan Gospel story. A couple of years ago around this time, Andy Stanley was a focal point of controversy because he said that one’s faith is in the resurrection of Jesus and not the virgin birth; he wasn’t denying the historical fact of the virgin birth but was questioning the significance that is attached to the idea.

Here is the dominant narrative about the virgin birth in traditional/evangelical circles: the virgin birth is proof that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God. However, many people resist this narrative, viewing the idea of a virgin birth with deep skepticism; instead, they understand the virgin birth as symbolic or mythological that has no value as a matter of historical fact. For instance, Brian McLaren has stated the “virgin birth” as a symbol against patriarchy. This is a recapitulation of a dominant post-modern narrative of resistance against centers of power as havens of injustice.

What if both narratives are wrong? What if the virgin birth is taken as a historical fact by the Gospels but it’s significance is not that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God? My suggest is that while the post-modern revisionist accounts are right to criticize the standard Christmas narrative of most of us orthodox Christians, they do so in such a way that they grossly misunderstand the historical context of the Gospels and thus engage in a blatant act of cultural appropriation for present day purposes.

To be clear, this is not said with any desire for any sort of theological revisionism of Christian faith. I am an orthodox Christian, who believes both that Jesus is God Incarnate and that Jesus is the Son of God. My desire, however, is to tear down oversimplified narratives so that we may have eyes to see things afresh and anew.

The origination of this oversimplification is rooted in our Trinitarian liturgies, where we refer to the second person of the Holy Trinity as the Son. To call Jesus the Son (of God) is taken to be synonymous with calling Jesus God Incarnate; the phrases “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” are taken as exact or near exact synonyms, expressing the same thing. However, these phrases are not the same in their origination, as the language of Sonship originates from the Old Testament royal language about the king, such as in Psalm 2. Meanwhile, the language of incarnation hails from John 1, where “the Word became flesh/σάρξ,” where the Latin for σάρξ is caro (genitive: carnis) for flesh.

Put simply, for the Jewish historical narrative, the Son of God is language of kingship, where God has bestowed His authority to a human agent, just as a king would bestow authority to his son. Being a son of God wasn’t about having a divine nature. It took on this significance in Greco-Roman mythology where gods would impregnate human females, creating a demi-god who have both divine and human powers. But this mythology is something that Israel was called to reject.

By contrast, the idea of Incarnation is grounded in the Jewish understanding of God’s Wisdom. God’s Wisdom was with God in creating the world and participating in the creative act as in Proverbs 8:22-31. While Israel’s wisdom was connected to Israel’s kingship, just as the Son of God way, these two concepts are not exactly synonymous in John 1. John extends the familial language to believers in 1.12-13, although rather than using υἱός (“son”) which he uses for Jesus (such as in John 3.16) he uses τέκνα (“children”). The Gospel of John recognizes that there is something special about Jesus as μονογενὴς (“only-begotten”). But nothing further is said about the special status that Jesus has in comparison to the children of God.  It is more likely that μονογενὴς is to be understood against the background of Proverbs 8.22-25, where God’s Wisdom was given a status that is separate from creation.1

Thus, the language of “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” are not exactly synonymous. While both expressing ideas that are related to Israel’s Davidic kingship, they are refer to distinctly different concepts. Within the language of the Jewish historical narrative, to speak of Jesus as God’s Son is not a metaphysical statement about Jesus having the Divine nature.

What has occurred is that “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” have the same reference to the person of Jesus, but not the same sense. Gotlobb Frege talk about words having two components of meaning, sense and reference. While there are many critiques to give against Frege’s breakdown and thus it isn’t important here to understand the specifics of Frege’s views of language. What is important is that the word meanings have at least two sources: 1) semantic memory from repeated and conventional usage that gives us the customary sense and 2) (potentially new) semantic information derived from those persons or things our words are used to reference. In the orthodox Christian tradition, the meaning of “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” has become increasingly defined by what we believe and know about Jesus rather than the historical origination of these phrases. So, when we hear “Son of God” we also think “God Incarnate” to the point that we have blended the two phrases/ideas into “the Incarnate Son of God.”

There is nothing wrong in calling Jesus the “Incarnate Son of God.” IT expresses something deeply true. But, the problem comes when the semantic and linguistic changes impacts a) how we read the Gospel narratives and b) how we logic out the significance of the virgin birth. In Luke 1.35, the angel explains to Mary how she as a virgin can have a child who will take upon the authority of the Davidic kingship, saying: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”2 There are two ideas that are being expressed here: 1) Mary can conceive as a virgin because the Holy Spirit is bringing this about; 2) Because it is the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus can be called the Son of God, which has kingly overtones.

The Virgin Birth explains Mary’s pregnancy and the authority that is bestowed upon this child. By contrast, there is no description of Jesus as having a Divine nature, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as the Word who became flesh. Even if we import Greek mythology as an analogy, it only leads to Jesus being a demi-God. Nothing in Jewish history nor Greek mythology substantiates the connection of the virgin birth with the orthodox confession of Jesus as fully God.

Furthermore, the New Testament does not place much emphasis on Jesus virgin birth. Rather, it is preferred to connect Jesus status as the Son of God to the resurrection of Christ, as in Romans 1.4. The virgin birth is thus not the primary witness of Jesus’ Sonship. Rather, in Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the narratival function of the virgin birth is to foreshadow the direction Jesus’ life will take. It is a hint that there is something truly important about this person with echoes of a Davidic kingship, but it is not intended to be a clear, definitive proof that Jesus is the “Son of God” nor is it intended as a definitive statement “Jesus is God in the flesh.” If Thomas’ confession “My Lord and My God” in John 20.28 is representative of the early Christian confession, it is the resurrection that demonstrates Jesus is the David King and Lord and that Jesus is God in the flesh.

Meanwhile, the story of the virgin birth by itself has two significant holes to it if it operates in a vacuum apart from its narrative context. Firstly, the event of the virgin birth doesn’t by itself explain who Jesus is. It is the angel’s description of the power of the Holy Spirit that explains who Jesus is. If it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit, the significance of the virgin birth could be variously explained. There is even examples of virgin births in nature in the process of parthenogenesis, although the offspring is a female.

Secondly, assuming the story of Matthew and Luke are legitimately derived from Mary’s own witness and experience that actually happened, who is to say what Mary heard from the angel is actually true? Could it not be considered a religious hallucination or some other form of abnormal mental event that bears no real truth value?

It is the resurrection that ultimately grounds the confession that Jesus is the Son of God, not the virgin birth. It is the resurrection that confirms what Mary heard. It is the resurrection that is the key piece of evidence to Jesus’ identity, not the virgin birth.

There is, however, a third significance to the virgin birth that Luke does not mention. Matthew 1.18-22 explains the significance of this event from the words of the prophet Isaiah in 7.14 by giving the meaning of Emmanuel: “God with us.” Now, with our orthodox lenses, we might immediately think: “Aha! Incarnation!” But this is not the primary meaning of this phrase; Matthew is providing a statement about God’s faithfulness to His people and His covenant, which is part of the original context of the prophet Isaiah’s proclamation. This is also a theme of Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1.46-55, particularly in vss. 54-55.

It is only with post-Easter lenses that we can then turn around and say: God is being faithful by being personally present as a human person. In other words, the language of God’s faithfulness takes on a deeper significance that includes but extends beyond the meaning of the words within their original, pragmatic context. But we can only say “God with us” means “God Incarnate” because of the resurrection, not because of the virgin birth.

Rather, if we are to extend the theological significance of the virgin birth beyond Jesus’s identity as the Son of God and as an agent of God’s faithfulness, I would suggest it should emerge from Israel’s understanding of God’s Wisdom in Proverbs 8.22-31, where the virgin birth by the Holy Spirit is the Word’s involvement in the act of creation. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is an act of creation that establishes Jesus as the second/last Adam (as in 1 Corinthians 15.45-48), preparing the way for creation to go towards its originally intended purposes.

Nevertheless, the event of the virginal conception never by itself entails the idea that Jesus is “God Incarnate” within the Jewish worldview; this logic requires a pagan style of reasoning injected with steroids. It is only after the fact through understanding the whole story of Jesus Christ in light of His death and resurrection that we can look back to the virgin birth and say: “this wasn’t just God’s power at work, this wasn’t just God’s Son and Davidic king, this wasn’t just God being faithful to Israel; this was God in the flesh!” It is due to the epistemic light that the resurrection brings that Incarnation can be said to metaphysically define what happened in the virgin birth; apart from this, the virgin birth understood in the context of Israel’s story never achieves the orthodox Christian confession.

God does lead into trials: The Lord’s Prayer and the temptations of Christ

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December 11, 2018

The Pope has made news recently saying that the Lord’s Prayer should be retranslated to say “Do not abandon us to temptation.” Undergirding this concern is a very common, modern concern to not portray God as taking an active role in causing the difficult life circumstances we face. However, there is a distinctive problem: the word εἰσφέρω is not the language of abandonment. At a literal level, it ascribes an active causal role to God in regards to πειρασμός, which can be translated as trial or temptation, that the petitioner requests God not to bring. “Abandon” is far too passive.

Furthermore, the connection of the Lords’ Prayer to the temptation of Jesus is paramount here. A tight interconnection of themes exist between the two. The language of God’s fatherhood in in the prayer, whereas right before going into the wilderness, the voice of God spoke from the heavens acknowledging Jesus status as His Son. As the devil tempts Jesus with kingdom power, so the Lord’s Prayer seeks the coming of God’s kingdom power. As Jesus was starved of food in the wilderness, He expresses a reliance and trust upon the basic provisions of such basic needs. In fact, the only part of the Lord’s Prayer that can not immediately be connected to themes in the temptation narrative is the prayer for forgiveness, but it is precisely these words that are immediately defined after the prayer  (Matthew 6.14-15). Nevertheless, if we recognize the concern about forgiveness is concerned not about modern sensibilities about guilt, but about God restoring the fortunes of Israel from a sense of exile, then even Jesus’ faithfulness to overcome temptations that can be connected to Israel’s narrative history has a sense of a restoration of forgiveness in the background.

In other words, it might be best to suggest that the Lord’s Prayer is the learned prayer in the crucible of Jesus’ trial, in which Jesus directs His disciples to seek a relationship with God that is not defined by Jesus’ own experience in the wilderness; where Jesus was deprived of food, the disciples are to seek provisions; where Jesus faced the trials that put Israel into exile, the disciples are to pray for restoration; where Jesus faced a time of difficult testing and experiences all the painful, harmful consequences upon the body from it, the disciples are to seek to never have such an experience.

So, when Jesus speaks of not being lead into trial/temptation, it is relevant to recognize how it echoes the temptation narrative, where it is said that “Jesus was led up (ἀνάγω) by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4.1) Once again, there is an active causal role assigned to God, this time through His Spirit, in which Jesus quite literally moves to the location where he will face temptation because of the Spirit. 

In other words, both linguistic evidence and evidence from the larger Matthean narrative suggests that God can take an active role in bringing people to a difficult, trying circumstance.

However, because we have so “liturgical-ized” the Lord’s Prayer apart from the larger narrative, we don’t hear the words “do not lead us into temptation” against the backdrop of the temptations of Christ. The meaning of such language becomes much more free-floating, being anchored more towards the modern concerns we have about God, parenting, and/or power.

For instance, our understanding of God has been so influenced by an abstraction of what it means to be ‘”good.” Being “good” in modern discourse essentially amounts to a mixture of a) getting the behavioral formula of righteousness correct and b) not putting people through emotional pain or turmoil.1 The wording of the Lord’s Prayer appears to suggest that God does something that puts people through pain; in a culture that is highly concerned about issues of abuse, this sounds like the wrong type of action that would be unthinkable to attribute to God if God is good. Hence, the Pope mentions what a (loving) father is supposed to do as justification for an alternative translation. I can understand and sympathize with this concern that undergirds this, but it is the wrong solution for the problem.

And, if I may suggest, the Pope’s favored translation isn’t much better in how it portrays God. It can also risk portraying God in the role of a neglectful father who needs to be reminded to help their children. While the Pope appeals to ideals of fatherhood to argue against the more active language, his alternative isn’t much better.

In fact, the very existence of suffering in the world makes any expressions about God that a) is based upon real human experience and b) appeals to God to act with power to change circumstances means that any and all language about God is at risk of portraying God as not being loving, as either being abusive or neglectful.

The root of this problem is that we try to understand God against some abstracted notion of “goodness” that we form based upon our own, pragmatic concerns and circumstances. We are aware of problems of misuse of power and control upon hapless victims, particularly children, and we define the ideals of parenting and fatherhood with these concerns in mind. If we don’t understand the prayer against the backdrop of Christ’s temptations, we will understand it against the backdrop of the problems that are salient within our own culture and society.

The better solution to this problem, I would suggest, is to understand the prayer against the backdrop of Christ’s temptations, it is a profound prayer in which we recognize that God might put anyone of us as His children through difficult trials. Jesus endured it twice, first in the wilderness and second in the cross; notice the shared language about God’s will in the Lord’s prayer and the prayer of Gethsemane in Matthew 26.39. But if God puts you through a trial, know that it has a redemptive purpose behind it as through it God’s will becomes accomplished. These redemptive purpose of such trials aren’t for oneself, however; they are for others. Put differently, the Lord’s Prayer is structured so as to ask God to make His will become realized in the world without the need for times of difficulty. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” is followed by prayer seeking for an avoidance of the wilderness experience.

Thus, I would suggest this solution would entail either a) ceasing to liturgical-ize the Lord’s Prayer such that it isn’t read and used apart from its context or, perhaps more fruitfully, b) having an additional liturgy of the temptation of Christ connected to the Lord’s Prayer. Rather than focus on retranslating the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps we should re-liturgical-ize the Lord’s Prayer.

Why I no longer hold to substitutionary atonement

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December 7, 2018

My faith first found its home in a Southern Baptist church. I still have found memories of my time in the youth group and Sunday School, but many things have changed about my understnading of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Sciptures, etc., even as I am deeply indebted to them for the deep respect and importance they taught me that Scripture has in the Christian life.

One area where I have massively diverged from them is the idea that Jesus Christ’s death was a substitute on our behalf. But, to be clear, my rejection isn’t of simply penal substitution, the most prominent for substitutionary atonement theory. And, to their credit, I don’t remember that church as portraying God as incredibly angry; while I think the PSA narrative is deeply problematic, it would not be fair to characterize them, or many churches, of peddling a hateful God. Rather, it would probably be more accurate to suggest that for many of them, they were unintentionally creating a narrative of fear about God, unaware of how people would interpret their discussion about sin and punishment. This isn’t to absolve them and other churches of any role in portraying God in a very angry manner, but only to recognize that there were factors that were outside of their control and that they were unaware of.

Rather, my criticism extends to the very concept of substitution as an explanation for the soteriological significance of Christ’s death as being unnecessary to the Biblical narrative and texts. More than simply being unnecessary, I would suggest it misunderstands the significance of God taking the matters of atonement in His hands. In its place, the notion of Jesus participation in human life and overcoming the powers of sin and death is a better model.

Substitution was most likely some part of the heart of the logic in the system of sacrifices in the Torah, although we can’t be exactly sure on this. But what we can say with strong confidence is that what was substituted wasn’t death for another person’s death, because the power of atonement was in the blood of the animal sacrifice, not the death per se. Atonement was more concrete in a phenomenological manner, rather than appeal to some abstracted, albeit common, idea of death. Something about the blood as originally physically ‘possessed’ by the animal was the key aspect in atonement.

However, a fundamental mistake is to think that atonement was caused by only a singular feature: the blood of the animal on behalf of other people. This reduction of causation is at the heart of how the entire sacrificial system become a religious automation, which is what the prophets criticized. While not explicit in the texts that directly speak of how the sacrifices are offered, the prophetic critique says without the heart of the person for God, God does not desire the sacrifices. Rather than seeing the prophets as deconstructing a religious practice, this perspective sees the prophets as trying to redirect people towards the original purposes of the sacrificial system as a genuine expression of the people’s relationship to God in love and to others in justice.

If we take this as true about the prophets and that their voice represents something substantive about the meaning of the system of sacrifice and atonement in the Torah, then the atonement is effective due to a constellation of causes. Put differently, the substitution of the animal’s life in the blood for the life of another was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of atonement for the Torah system, at least for humans. But what it was paired with was the heart of the person/people. In this light, substitution would be considered efficacious only in the context of the right heart within the people. In other words, the sacrifice of blood was not constitutive of the event of atonement, but it was the heart of the person/people, without which God would disregard what was offered.

However, when Jesus becomes an atonement for sins, the entire logic of the sacrificial system gets turned on its head. One theme of the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus Himself was faithful the point of death so that He could offer His own death as an atonement for others. In so doing, Jesus fulfilled the outlines of the Torah sacrificial system. However, given that Jesus as the Son is the exact imprint of God’s nature, it wasn’t simply a human doing it but it was God being faithful to the very covenant He fashioned with Israel that regulated atonement. In Jesus Christ, God was fulfilling both God’s obligations and the human obligation that undergirded the sacrifical system.

What does this mean? By God taking upon both roles, this means that the efficacy of the atonement apart from the Mosaic Covenant is no longer understandable by direct analogy. You should not automatically jump from the nature of substitution in the Torah to substitution in Jesus Christ. Substitution was the effect of atonement in the Torah sacrifices, but the cause was in the blood of the sacrifice. But once God takes on himself the blood obligation, it can dramatically impact the effect the act of atonement has. The sacrifices function as substitution in the act of cooperation between God and humanity. Why? Because the heart of the persons made it such that their faithfulness would be paired with the substitute. However, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not an act of cooperation between two parties but one party taking on the role of both parties instead because the hearts of people never remained cleansed.

In this framework, something different occurs. Rather than a pure conscience of the people making the sacrifices effectual, Christ’s sacrifice offered in a pure conscience is offered to make other consciences pure. While remaining faithful to the covenant, the effect of the sacrifices for sin shifted from substitution to purification of the person. It is no longer about substitution but transformation. It is no longer about the pure of heart getting their sins forgiven; it is about people who by God forgiving their sins and offering atonement Himself may make them purified in heart. This, I believe, stands at the heart of Hebrews: while God is faithful to the covenant, everything gets flipped on its head.

This comes to play when it talks about Jesus’ own experiences in suffering as a necessary condition for His offering help. Jesus experienced what people experienced. But, rather than facing the human experience and becoming faithless, Jesus was faithful to the point of death. In his own life, Jesus overcome what humanity could not overcome to the point that his blood was shed. The blood of the atonement is no longer used to cleanse the altar, defiled by human sin, but rather is used to cleanse the altar of human hearts. In other words, there is a transformation of function from the animal sacrifices to Christ, even as Christ fulfills what is expected of sacrifices.

At the root of power of Christ’s atonement then is a victorious participation in human life. Christ is tempted and Christ dies, just as humans are tempted and humans sin. But, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ overcomes temptation to the point of death and overcomes death to the point of resurrection. Jesus is a trailblazer, setting out the path to a destination that had never been reached before. Thus, as Paul mentions in Galatians, Jesus takes on the curse of people under the Torah so that he can redeem those born under the Torah. Hence, what in 2 Corinthians, Paul says that Jesus became poor to make people rich.

Jesus takes on the experiences of human life and victoriously conquers the powers that pervade it, altering the course of the inevitable destiny of human persons. But this inevitable destiny is the destiny of judgment of God’s ‘redemptive’ wrath1 upon human sin so that creation can be free from the sin that has so mangled it because in Jesus Christ, humanity has a way to be victorious over the powers that spiritually enslaved. But this alteration of ‘destiny’ is not a substitution because we never see God condemning Jesus as a sinner so that we won’t be condemned at the judgment. Rather, God allows the power of human judgment to reveal the grace and love of God; God takes human evil and uses it for good to transform and purify human hearts.

The only sense of “substitution” that I accept as part of Christ’s atonement is a sense of an ironic substitution as in Isaiah 53, where the people who put the suffering servant to death were committing the very things they condemned the servant of. But the conditions of this type of substitution is built around false accusations and thus is not explanatory of why the atonement of Christ is effectual, but rather that it is effectual even for those who punish for what they themselves do.

In conclusion, then, I offer six rudimentary statements in need of further fleshing out to explain my view of the atonement.

  1. Jesus Christ participates in the fullness of human experience.
  2. Human experience of the powers that lead to an inevitable death also has a humanly inexorable pull towards sin.
  3. This inexorable pull towards sins continues to malign God’s creation such that judgment is necessary to restore the integrity of God’s creation.
  4. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ overcomes the influences that human experiences have to take us away from faithfulness to God.
  5. By the power and leading of the Holy Spirit conjoined with the imitation of Christ, we who believe in Christ may then have a faith like Christ so that we can overcome these influences of human experiences so as to be faithful
  6. Through the transformation of Christ-imitation and Spirit-leading, Christian are being purified of the problem of sin that necessitates judgment.

The idea of Christ’s atonement realized through the Spirit may be understood as the Triune God’s power of new creation. In it, there is no divinely necessary condition that determines how God must act to get a specific effect, such as punishment of one person is lieu of punishment for another. Rather, it is God’s faithfulness to creation and faithfulness to His convenant with Israel that impacts the shape the atonement takes in Jesus Christ, but the effectual power of the atonement rests in the power of the God through His Word and His Spirit to create anew as He did in Genesis 1. God does not ‘substitute.” Rather, God’s power makes new through the act of participating in the old.

This resembles the notion of Christus Victor, except one doesn’t have to postulate the satisfaction of some devilish power. Rather, Jesus conquers the devilish power by empower people to overcome the influence of the powers of sin and death; people’s own experiences are transformed from within through Christ and the Spirit so that they then experience freedom within themselves from the devil rather than simply some act against the powers from without. So, while resembling Christus Victor, the narrative and mechanism of atonement are in some ways worlds apart as Christus Victor portrays a more top-down view, whereas this potrays a more bottom-up narrative.

Jesus is not a bigot – The Syrophoenecian woman and progressive Christianity

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December 6, 2018

Last month, Rachel Held Evens posted the following tweet about Jesus, well-intended I believe, trying to address the issues of racism and the human predisposition to such attitudes:

It’s fear of Jesus’ humanity, I think, that keeps us from interpreting the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman as a story about a man changing his mind about his racial bias when confronted with the humanity (and chutzpah!) of another person. But that’s a tricky one…— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) November 19, 2018

As you can imagine, this struck a nerve with many people, thinking she was called Jesus a racist. She later admits she wasn’t trying to call Jesus racist. This distinction is important as people can have racial biases (as in, we all have them), but racists cement their racial bias with rationalizations and justifications for their superiority and the inferiority of others. People who have racial biases but are not racists don’t let their biases control how they see others, allow their experience of different people to change what they think about them, rather than fitting people of other ethnicities into their racist boxes. So I can appreciate what RHE was perhaps trying to accomplish and the distinction she was trying to draw.

But RHE is not simply the thought of a person who went astray. It rather represents a distinctive hermeneutical problem that stems from the intellectual and cultural progressivism she inhabits. This becomes particularly salient when a United Methodist Bishop, Karen Oliveto, has charges brought against her in a message she gave to her annual conference, taking Jesus’s response to the Syrophonecian woman as an example of “giving up bigotry and prejudices” and admonishes against “making Jesus an idol.”1 The same constellation of emphasis upon Jesus’ humanity (and in the case of Oliveto to the point of saying something profoundly unorthodox and bordering on what would be considered heretical by most Christians throughout history) to read Jesus’ initial response to the Syrophoenician woman as a story of racism/bigotry and change from that is not the emergence of a single person. Rather, I would suggest it is reflective of the form of equality that is deeply immersed in the progressive mindset.

Allow me to state something clearly though: I am not trying to malign “progressives.” I share many similar concerns that they have on a lot of topics, but a) my rationale for understanding differs profoundly, which means b) I don’t always interpret the source of problems in the same way so that c) I don’t propose the same solutions that progressive-minded people do. This blog post is, in a sense, an attempt to expose these differing rationales and how, in the context of Christian faith, impact hermeneutics and the reading of Scripture.

What under-girds the progressive mindset is the attitude of a particular form of equality. There are many types of equality. There is equality of process, where all people are treated equally under the law. While this idea has roots in the Enlightenment, it didn’t become more fully realized until late, modern liberalism, influenced by the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Then, there is the equality of outcomes, where there is not massive divergence as it pertains to education, wealth, etc. This found its early expression in Marxism/Communism, and takes a more modified form in modern forms of socialism. Progressive visions of equality subsume both forms of equality, although with a particular explaining inequality of outcomes due to procedural inequalities. However, they take a step further in what I refer to relational equality: the way we treat each other should be the same, regardless of who we are. For instance, racism isn’t simply about unequal treatment under the law, nor is it about inequality of status and wealth; it is about how you personally treat them.

What is particularly significant about this is that what amounts to evil in the eyes of progressives are any negatives view of persons of minority status, no matter what the reasons such a view is expressed. It goes beyond against a rejection of judging a person *because of* the color of the skin to any negative judgment towards people of minority status, such as African-Americans, as by default reflecting racist attitudes and therefore wrong. This isn’t without reason, because often time our biases towards others are never registered in our consciousness, but we treat people of specific groups more negatively than others due to membership in the group. For instance, a black and white person accused of the same crime in the United States will often receive different sentences, with the black person getting more severe punishment on average. This is a statistical reality that plays itself out day to day.

Given the reality of inequality, the progressive mindset assumes negative appraisal of members of a minority group is automatically done in an unequal manner. In this case, the proper response isn’t to change how one views people of majority status with more negative attitudes, but to fight against negative attitudes towards minorities. This converges with principles of non-judgmentalism that many of us Millenials were taught growing up and an increased awareness of the role of psychological pain and stress in hampering people’s live. The right response to inequality is to become tolerant and open. Thus, by default, negative attitudes towards people deemed minorities is likely to be considered wrong, if not evil.

As a consequence, negative views of people with a minority, disempowered status are very salient to people in the progressive mindset. While there are still some taboos that if anyone, regardless of status, commits legitimates judgmental or critical views of them, by and large, any sort of negative or different treatment is immediately interpreted as some form of prejudice or bigotry. So, when Jesus initially “refuses” to help the Syrophonecian woman, the saliency concerns about racism takes controls the way they interpret the passage.

Furthermore, their attitude towards a form of non-judgmental equality hinders seeing another explanation for Jesus’ actions. In the progressive mindset, there is a large aversion to the idea of gross inequalities and superiority. The progressive mindset is particularly averse to all forms of exceptionalism and exclusivity; it stems from seeing the evils of the racial supremacist views of early and mid 20th century along with noting the problems of gross economic inequalities with late capitalist such that the rich are often seen as the primary cause of many social problems. However, this aversion extends to any sense of significant variance in social status and regard. Privilege is by nature unfair and as such, one’s obligation and duty is to use one’s privilege to end privilege. Any sort of special status to a specific group is seen as out of bounds and illegitimate, except the status of being a protected group because of negative treatment.

However, it is this notion of a special status bestowed upon Israel that under-girds Jesus’s actions. Anyone who takes the Old Testament seriously as a source of faith has to grapple with the special status Israel in comparison to the rest of the world. The Old Testament doesn’t attribute this special status to any superiority or merit on the part of the people of Israel, but rather due to God’s promise to their ancestors, the patriarchs of Israel. Thus, this form of special status is not analogous to a racial supremacy, because there is nothing superior about Israel; it all stems from the work of God, who Israel’s does deem as superior above all others.

What was the nature of the special status? While many Israelites could rationalize this special status as having many functions, such that some may have thought their genealogical heritage meant that they would be treated more leniently in God’s eyes than the Gentiles, John the Baptist, Jesus, and even Paul undercut this explanation. In part, Romans contains Paul’s attempt to explain the significance of Israel’s special status while highlighting that the adherence to the Torah does not provide any special benefit in the eyes of God.

Rather, the special status Israel was seen as having was as a beacon of God’s light in the world. Genesis 18.16-21 highlights the role Abraham’s descendants will have in bringing blessing through their righteousness as a contrast to the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah, which first becomes clearly exemplified by Joseph as a blessing to the people of Egypt. When God was freeing Israel from Egypt, He told Moses to go to Pharaoh and say that all the plagues are happening and Pharaoh still lives so as to “to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth.” (Exodus 9.16). Then, after being freed from Egypt, God explains the purpose of the covenant He is forming with Israel, calling them “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19.6), suggest they have an intercessory role in the world while they also represent God’s holiness, as Leviticus repeatedly calls Israel to be holy as God is holy.

Then, Isaiah 49 speaks of a servant from Israel that God created and set out from their conception that they will be a “light to the nations.” (Isaiah 49.6). The wisdom of Sirach understands this role of being for all of Israel, where Israel shows God’s holiness and looking for God to use Israel to show God’s glory so that the nations will know God and God alone. (Sirach 36.4-5). Consistent is this idea that God will use the people of Israel to have an impact on the rest of the world, just as it was in the Exodus.

Thus, Israel is deemed as having a special purpose in the course of history to bring the world to a knowledge of God. However, even though this work is primarily predicated upon God’s actions, Israel must also reflect God’s holiness and righteousness through their way of life. Failure to do so doesn’t prevent God from accomplishing his purposes but invalidates specific people from participating in God’s purpose.

In this light, one of Jesus’ primary roles is that of a voice of the charismatic authority like the judges, prophets of the Old Testament. 2 Jesus action is focused upon calling Israel back to its proper purpose as He speaks of the approaching kingdom of God. Many Israelites would have heard something along the lines of Sirach in this; God is about to do something, so we need to repent and get our act together to be apart of what God is doing. Jesus ministry in teaching about the nature of Torah in the Sermon on the Mount and disavowing the way the well-known expositors of the Torah have done it exemplifies this: Jesus is calling Israel to repentance and a new way of life so that they can get in line with the work kingdom work God is doing.

So, when we read the story of the Syrophonecian woman asking Jesus for help in Matthew 15.21-28, we can make sense of what Jesus says when he responds to her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (vs. 24). Jesus’ earthly ministry was not tasked with changing the world, but with calling Israel back to its proper vocation as God’s covenant people that they had forgotten and went astray from. Israel has a special status and Jesus’ purpose is to get Israel’s purpose back on track.

However, the woman continues to plead for help. Then, Jesus says “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (vs. 26) This is where progressives can hear a hint of objectification and contempt. IT is understandable because we in our modern world have heard how groups of people are treated as less than human, with the Holocaust as most salient. But, that is not how Jesus means this. This can also be understood as a metaphor describing Jesus’ actions: Israel has a special purpose and Jesus’ ministry is targetting towards them, just as bread is for children. The intended metaphorical point of comparison here isn’t Israel as the children and the Canaanites are like dogs as if there is some racial superiority latent here; this comparison is secondary to the purpose of the metaphor, as its pragmatic purpose is the comparison between bread and Jesus’ powerful healings as part of Jesus’ ministry intended for the ministry to Israel.

Then, the woman retorts, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (vs. 27), to which Jesus responds: “Woman! Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” (vs. 28) While some might understand Jesus change because the woman’s persistence of even because they see in faith some idea of association with Jesus, I would proffer something much simpler. She recognizes God’s purposes for Israel are on behalf of the world. Her response expresses a faith that what gets given to Israel does get passed on even to the world. Her great faith is that her, as an outsider to the covenant, are still to be a recipient of God’s blessing through God’s mission in and through Israel. Jesus’ response changes not because he changes views on racism, but because he sees her faith. 

Thus, it is the schema of Israel’s special purpose from God for the purpose of the world that makes sense of the narrative, including the inclusion of the note about her Canaanite origin.

What happens in the progressive hermeneutic is that a different connection is made: the Canaanite’s ethnicity is seen as wrongly exclusive and thus Jesus’ metaphor is an act of dehumanizing racism, drawing the main intended comparison between the children and dogs in the story with Israel in comparison to the Canaanites. This is because marginalization and dehumanization is particularly salient to the mindset, so that any sense of difference, exclusion, etc. is viewed along the moral lens of racism. They read Jesus’ response to the woman through the lens of the progressive vision of equality, which from the outside exclude the possibility of special purposes to specific people, especially coming from God. Their vision of equality would exclude the Old Testament narrative about Israel, thus leaving a hermeneutical vacuum to fill in the gaps with concerns about bigotry and racism.

The criticism here isn’t with the progressive mindset, but it is the paradoxical narrowness in which they fit Jesus into a box of modern Western ideas, all while decrying other people putting Jesus into a box. This interpretation of Jesus engaging in bigotry/racism is, essentially, an act of appropriation for modern socio-political agendas and does not show the proper cultural respect for its meaning in its ancient context, particularly the discourse of a minority group of people (when it originally occurred and then when it was originally compiled) who were commonly oppressed and persecuted. In interpreting Jesus this way, there is an act that in many ways participates in the very acts they can protest and project onto others.

I don’t say this to try to accuse Christian progressives of a hermeneutic of hypocrisy. Rather it is to make the point that ideally under-girds much of the progressive mentality: it is hard to truly represent and understand the ideas of another without force-fitting them into our own ideas and judgments. This all-too-human propensity is what undergirds racism and the various forms of marginalization of minorities. Thus, paradoxically, to see everything through the lens of racism is to engage in the same cognitive act that begets prejudices like racism in the first place. Jesus is seen as engaging in racism or as a bigot and thus he speech and actions can not be understood as anything other someone who failed to meet the moral criteria of our culture. This mentality stands at the very foundations of stereotyping.

Jesus is not engaging in a world of progressive equality: Jesus is engaging in the mission of God for Israel’s people according to the Scriptures. But by seeing everything through the lens of inequality, particularly of racial inequality, it controls understanding from seeing anything other than that, even if there is evidence in favor of seeing it a different way.

Why charity isn’t Christian – Part 3

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December 5, 2018

IF you have followed along in my first two posts, you are aware of my critique of the way Christian tends to connect our faith to charity. I have called charity part of the lowest common denominator (LCD) or morality, suggesting it is a more or less universal human concern rather than a specifically Christian concern. In contrast, I have tried to show how Jesus had a much less common attitude that was much different view as it came to concerns about poverty: one should identify with the poor rather, rather than trying to be their hero “from above.”1 The former is an attitude known as the poverty of spirit in which the way one looks at life dramatically alters one’s behaviors; the latter can be genuine, and in the cases of charity by the poor in spirit will so, but is an easy way to share up one’s own bases of power and influence, or even prop up one’s own sense of self-identity. The effect of all of this is to say that being Christian isn’t about helping the needy, though a Christian will help the needy.

However, there is one hurdle to this view of Jesus: Matthew 25.31-46. Here is the whole passage, discussing Jesus’ judgment of the nations:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”2

Here we see a pretty strong statement Jesus provides about the way people treated the marginalized. There is no getting around it if one takes the Gospels seriously: Jesus means business when it comes to how one responds to the needy.

However, there is something important to grasp: the commandment to charity would not have been the most notable thing about what Jesus said originally. Herbert Basser and Marsha Cohen point out that the order of actions Jesus uses follows that of the Midrash Tehillim 118.17:3

When a man is asked in the world to come, What was your work? And he answers, I fed the hungry, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did feed the hungry. When a man answers, I gave drink to the thirsty, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did give drink to the thirsty. When a man answers, I clothed the naked, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did cloth the naked. This will be said also to him that brought up the fatherless, and to them that gave alms or performed deeds of lovingkindness. And David said, I have done all these things. Therefore let all the gates be opened for me. Hence it is said, Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will enter into them, I will give thanks unto the Lord.

Such calls to charity was a common theme. What Jesus was saying about concern for the needy and marginalized and being granted entrance into the presence of God would have perfectly fit into the Jewish world he inhabited. The charitable actions Jesus describes wouldn’t be new teaching to the disciples.

What would be noteworthy, however, is that first, Jesus places himself in the role of the Lord here. Jesus is the ruler who judges, who welcomes and receives those who showed hospitality and kindness to those in need. This is a strong claim about Jesus’ own identity. Most of us in orthodoxy Christianity wouldn’t find this particularly novel, however. There is another point laid within this though.

Before explaining it, it is important to read this discourse of Jesus within the context that Matthew places it within. It comes on the heels of Matthew 24, where Jesus warns his disciples about the future catastrophe that will take place before the “coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus then advocates for his disciples be watchful about themselves and make sure they are careful with how they treat one another and not get distracted from their purpose. (Matthew 24.36-51).

Jesus then provides two parables, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25.1-13) and the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30), each of which connects people’s behavior in regards to their designated purpose with their reception or exclusion when the bridegroom/master arrives. Each of these reinforces the message about being watchful and staying on the task Jesus had given to his disciples.

So how does the story of the judgment fit into this? Notice that there is a shift here from those who are charged with a specific task (i.e. the disciples) to “all the nations.” There is an echo from the Abraham narrative in Jesus’ words. In speaking of “all the nations” and speaking of the sheep as those “blessed by my Father,” Jesus echoes words that God spoke about Abraham in Genesis 18.16-21:

16 Having risen up from there, the men looked down on the face of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was going along with them, accompanying them. 17 The Lord said, “Will I hide from Abraham,w my servant, what I am doing? Abraham will become as a great and numerous nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him. 19 For I knew that he will appoint his sons and his household after himself, and they will guard the ways of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring on Abraham all the things that he said upon him.” 20 The Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has been multiplied, and their sins are very great. 21 After going down, therefore, I will see if they are perpetrating according to their crying that is coming to me, and if not, in order that I may know.” 4

Jesus envisions his disciples as proclaiming the message throughout the world (Matthew 24.14), so the disciples are regarded as participating in this purpose that Abraham’s children was given so that by doing righteousness and justice, they would bring about this blessing onto the world. Thus, the disciples are part of the mission to respond back against the injustice and unrighteousness of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

Matthew 25.31-46 is not placed there to warn the disciples and Christians “You better be nice.” It is placed there as part of the understanding of the eschatological purpose of their mission: to be a blessing to the nations so as to reverse the cursed state of the world that lacks hospitality, resembling Sodom and Gomorrah. The criteria of judgment Matthew 25.31-46 is not a statement about the Christian mission; it is a statement about how Christ will judge the entire world. The disciples will be judged according to how they as servants fulfilling their purpose as the previous two parables elucidated; the world will be judged based upon how they fulfill this basic concern for the needy.

Sodom and Gomorrah were characterized as a city full of evil in the Old Testament. It is often assumed Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality. While the mention of their sexual behavior in Genesis certainly is part of the portrayal of the extent of the wickedness, homosexuality was not the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that merited destruction. A similar story was told about the people of Gibeah of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 19.22-30, but this time they end up raping a concubine of an elderly man. It is a heartbreaking story of sin begetting even more sin as the old man kills the raped concubine simply in order to send a message. The sin being discussed in both Sodom and Gomorrah and then in Gibeah is that of rape, characterizing an attitude of exploitation of the weak and powerless.

We see Ezekiel take this theme in his characterization of Israel as a sister of Sodom in Ezekiel 16.43b-50.

Have you not committed lewdness beyond all your abominations? 44 See, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you, “Like mother, like daughter.” 45 You are the daughter of your mother, who loathed her husband and her children; and you are the sister of your sisters, who loathed their husbands and their children. Your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite. 46 Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. 47 You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. 48 As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. (NRSV)

To be clear, Sodom is not literally being characterized as solely inhospitable, as Ezekiel compares the “abominations” of Israel to Sodom.5 Rather, their lack of concern for the poor and needy is reflective of the type of people they are; in their pride and abundance, they do whatever they wish including behaviors deemed shameful and abominable while they disregard those who have little self-regard and live in scarcity.

So, when Jesus castigates people of the nations for their lack of hospitality, it isn’t meant simply as “you aren’t charitable enough.” It is understood as more reflective of their entire attitude and character. Absolute inhospitality and lack of charity towards the needy is representative of a wicked heart. And indeed, while concern for the needy is a LCD moral principle, people’s hearts can become so prideful and so callous that they have absolutely no regard for the helpless. The type of person who is callous to the needy is the type of person whose heart is deeply corrupted.

Thus, Matthew 25.31-46 is Jesus’ giving the purpose to the disciple’s mission as it relates to the eschatological future when Jesus comes in judgment. The disciples are to be sent out into the world to be a blessing of Abraham, so that the nations may be blessed rather than falling into and remaining in the attitude of Sodom and Gomorrah that is corrupt and filled with injustice.

If Matthew 25.31-46 refers to the judgment of the world, but what preceded in Jesus’ discourse is warnings towards the disciples to fulfill their purpose or they will be judged, then the universal judgment is not referring to disciples. They already know Jesus; it is absurd to suggest that the disciples would have thought “when did we receive Jesus?” Rather, it is the world that did not recognize Jesus. Jesus regards their hospitable, charitable attitude towards the marginalized as if they had received Jesus Himself. After all, Jesus lived and ministered in such humble circumstances, so to receive the needy would mean that one is the type of person who would receive Jesus.

Thus, in the end, I would suggest Matthew 25.31-46 is not characterizing the Christian ethic and way of life. It is about how Jesus will judge the world. But when it gets transferred into a statement about what it means to be a Christian, it reduces the Christian life to LCD morality. However, in so doing, it undercuts the very power of the life contained in genuinely following Christ that can accomplish the Abrahamic mission Jesus sets out for his disciples. Mere charity and teaching others to be charitable will not transform the world. Something more must be present.

So, charity is not Christian; it is a universal human principle of morality that Christ will judge the world according to. But it is not what defines the Christian life; Christ sets out a mission for His disciples that extends beyond simply charity.

Jesus, the apocalyptic, and demons

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December 4, 2018

In the past century, starting most notably with Albert Schweitzer in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, there has been a pronounced effort to try to understand Jesus, and even the New Testament, in light of Jewish apocalyptic literature. Early renditions of apocalyptic were considered to be about being the end and destruction of the world, but that has come to be recognized as a gross misunderstanding and caricature of the literature. Debates about what “apocalyptic” is and what are its essential features abound continue in Biblical Scholarship. N.T. Wright’s and others such as John Collins suggest that “apocalyptic” is a literary genre rather than any sort of religious movement or developed system of ideas. While leaning towards the genre explanation, I do think there is good grounds to suggest there is some thematic core that is exemplified in apocalyptic literature that was diffused to others that we can legitimately talk about an apocalyptic mindset. These themes could be appropriated for different purposes, so you can’t really draw some systematic observation about what apocalyptic means, but that the apocalyptic mindset is characterized by God’s dramatic action, judgment of the righteous and wicked, disenchantment with the present social order, radical change in human life, and some eschatological future, either lived in the resurrection or alternative forms of afterlife.1

However, these are not the only features that emerge from the apocalyptic mindset. Another common, although by no means universal, feature is the presence of evil spirits, such as fallen angels, which are called δαιμόνιον (what we typically translate as “demon”) in the New Testament. 1 Enoch 1-36, also known as the “Book of the Watchers,” catalogs the action of fallen angels prior to Noah’s flood and how their actions in procreated with human women and spreading of knowledge was pivotal in the degradation of human life. Such explanations commonly function as a way of addressing the problem of evil: why do bad things occur in this word if God who is good is Creator? Here, it appeals to some transcendent personal beings that rebelled against God, and so their rebellion explains why bad things happen.

We see the language used to refer to the transcendent agents of evil throughout the New Testament. It is commonly assumed that because the New Testament talks about δαιμόνιον, that Jesus and/or the authors of the New Testament share this worldview where personal agents of evil litter the spiritual landscape. After all, Jesus talks about casting out demons and tells his disciples to cast out demons, so they must believe in this demonology we see developing in the intertestamental literature.

But, this is not a necessary assumption to make. While, in the end, I do think Jesus and the New Testament believe in the existence of evil powers and forces that go beyond human persons, and that even some of these powers may have a transcendent personal being as their origin, it isn’t necessary to suppose that when the NT talks about δαιμόνιον, they use word the exact same way as it is coming out of the mouth of the Pharisees. The same language does not always have the same meaning across different people.

It is important to recognize that apocalyptic literature due to it status as written literature, would have been the work of a more educated person. In such an ancient day where education was not a (quasi-)universal right, such education would make someone a person of higher status and influence. Additionally, educated persons in developing their areas of expertise tend to construct complex structures of meaning such that the various categories and explanations that they developed and use tend to have many different words, with different shades of meaning and nuances. In other words, among the educated, there tends to emerge a plurality of different explanations and instructions about why things are the way they are and/or how we should do things. We see this in the demonology of 1 Enoch, where all the various “watchers” are given names and personal characteristics, particularly in the branches of knowledge they are responsible for. In short, the apocalyptic demonology reflects more the development of worldview of an educated, social elite to explain matters in the world.

This is an important point for the New Testament, because it is the Pharisees who principally using the ideas of demonology. In criticizing Jesus’ miracles, they say “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” (Matthew 12.24) According to Jesus, they also accused John the Baptist of having a demon because of his ascetic behavior. (Matthew 11.18) Aside from demonology, we see the converse of good, helpful transcendent beings like spirits or angels in Acts 23.6-9 as the origin of Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection. IF we can take these insights as reliable, then the Pharisees exhibited an apocalyptic mindset in which they judged people according to whether they had a good spirit/angel or evil spirit/demon influenced them. Given the role the Pharisees had in instructed the common populace in Israel, we can imagine the origins of demonology we see used in the Gospels largely stem from the way they taught Israel.

But take note: we don’t see this sort of behavior from Jesus and his disciples. We don’t seem them like a doctor diagnosing the presence of demons. Rather, they are like a doctor treating the problems they see. Not that Jesus never “diagnosed,” but only that it doesn’t seem to be a tool in his arsenal that we see mentioned. I take this to be a significant difference.

The significance can be perhaps explained by the role δαιμόνιον take in the Gospels. Rarely is a δαιμόνιον personified in the Gospels. Luke 4.29 characterizes the δαιμόνιον as speaking, similar in Luke 4.41. We see one instance of demons transferring from a human to pigs in Luke 8. But, by and large, most of the references lack either a) personification or b) reference to an ontological existence independent of the person. We don’t see Jesus engaging in an active struggle against some evil agent, but we see Jesus speak and acting and a δαιμόνιον being cast away. It is almost as if δαιμόνιον are not always personal agents.

My suggestion is that Jesus had a more “demythologized” view of δαιμόνιον from the start. Rather than engaging in the elaborate, diagnostic systems of the Pharisees that did more to maintain their power and influence by labeling deviants through deprecatory labels, Jesus challenges this by providing a spiritual healing for the powers and forces that were ‘bedeviling’ the people. Jesus is focusing on what happens to people and redeeming them from what ails them rather than explaining and diagnosing some hidden power. Thus, the Gospels portray Jesus casting out δαιμόνιον principally as addressing problems people rather than some battle with some evil agent.

This fits with what I believe largely characterized the early Christian movement as engaging in what I would very tentatively call a “naturalized apocalyptic.” This is not the place for me to outline the entire basis of that idea, other than to state that the early Church placed more emphasis on the concrete experience of what happened in person of Jesus and the powerful, dramatic events that occurred in His ministry and the ministry of the apostles rather than intellectual focus on non-divine, invisible, unobservable forces. If correct, it still allow that the early Christians clearly believed there were some personal agents of evil that existed, most notably the devil; Jesus and the early Church “partially demythologized” the Pharisaical apocalyptic but not entirely. But it means that not everything categorized as a δαιμόνιον or a πνεύμα ἀκαθάρτος (“unclean spirit”) referred to a personal agent of evil that we think of when we hear the word “demon.” It is certainly interesting that we really don’t see much discussion about demons outside of the Gospels, except the devil in a few places. It is even more interesting that the Paul principally connects sin to human life lived in σάρξ (“flesh”); thus Paul’s explanation to the problem of evil is “naturalized” also, avoiding repeated appeals to transcendent personal forces of evil though he clearly believes in the existence of some.

Thus, we can legitimately refer to many of these instances in the New Testament as matching what we today would call a mental illness or some  other spiritual struggle without entirely abandoning the notion of the “supernatural” and “demonic.”2

One implication of this is that the early Christians were often times taking the role we today assign to therapists. To be clear, the way the disciples address problems were dramatically different from the way therapists do their business. But this view is more immediately amenable to the work of therapists as like those who cast out demons in Jesus name but were not accompanying and being discipled by Jesus. (Luke 9.49-50) While the methodology of the early disciples that they learned and were granted by Jesus would not have been the modern methods of talk therapy, medication, cognitive-behavioral techniques, etc., the purposes of both largely overlap and serve similar purposes. While Christians should be aware of therapeutic presuppositions defining the meaning and purpose of the Gospel, they can certainly be copartners.

There is another implication of this idea though. If not everything that is referred to as δαιμόνιον or πνεύμα ἀκαθάρτος is caused by an evil, personal agent, we should become acutely aware of the other causes, including the role we as people play in what happens to other people. The neurological flexibility of the human brain is a near-miracle of high degrees of complexity that allows us to adapt to dramatically different circumstances. But this neural flexibility is also the cause of pernicious forms of evil and suffering, as the brain changes due to the various experiences of abuse and neglect and milder forms of derision and disregard. Just as people can “cast out demons,” they can also “throw demons into people.” It is very important then to consider the role we can play in the dysfunction and struggle that people experience; when these strong, raw emotions get expressed, we, like the Pharisees, may be apt to explain their problems away due to some other cause and miss the role we ourselves play. While we shouldn’t blame ourselves for things we don’t control, nor should we use this type of thinking as a reason to blame ourselves for our victimization by others (I remember one time thinking another repetitiously toxic behavior was somehow due to my contributions and thus my fault), we do need to take seriously as Christians the way people’s life are influenced by our own behavior.

In summary, the relationship of Jesus to the demonology prevalent in some forms of apocalyptic literature is complex and does not seem to either be a wholesale acceptance of demonology, nor an entire demythologization of the ideal of transcendent agents of evil. Rather, Jesus and the early Church were dramatically focused on the concreted events in human life and society that they discerned God bringing and doing, rather than trying to diagnose and discern the patterns of demons.