An Old-Fashioned Kind of Love

Something to keep in mind when reading biblical passages about marriage, love, and sex:  for most of human history, consent was a foreign concept, and love was an afterthought.  Women were effectively their father’s property, and were “given away” to the husband upon marriage (often in exchange for a “bride-price” or to seal a treaty or agreement).

But it wasn’t all wine and roses for the groom, either: husbands-to-be often had as little choice in the matter as their brides.  The parents arranged the marriage, usually for monetary or political reasons, and the people getting married basically had to deal with it.  Of course there were exceptions (Ruth and Boaz, for example), and of course the practice varied over time, culture, and geography.  But the pattern was pervasive.

One thing the groom did have going for him was the definition of adultery. Adultery didn’t mean cheating on your spouse. It meant sleeping with another man’s wife. A married man could visit prostitutes or any other unmarried non-virgin he could bed, and it was a-okay, even in the first century. The legal double standard persisted into the reformation (King Henry the VIII of England killed two wives for adultery, but always kept a mistress on the side. Funny, that). The societal double standard exists to this day.

This only started to change in the last two or three hundred years.  We’ve all read Jane Austen (or at least seen the movies).  But Austen wasn’t writing safe, posh romances. She used the romance novel to criticize arranged marriage, hypocrisy, and materialism in early nineteenth-century Britain. She wasn’t the first or only person to speak out, but it took a long time to get from arranged exchanges of property to what we currently think of as marriage.

And eighteen hundred years earlier, when the Apostle Paul was writing?  Or twenty-five hundred years earlier, when Queen Esther would have been alive? Forget about it. The wife was the husband’s property.  So were the kids and the slaves.

Nobody cared whether the bride wanted to get married. Nobody cared whether the slave wanted to become the husband’s mistress.  Nobody cared whether the male slave wanted to become the husband’s ‘lover.’ And though they weren’t slaves, nobody cared whether the 12 year old boys in ancient Greece and Rome wanted to have adult ‘mentors’ with a side order of pederasty.

So why does that matter today? Because it affects how we interpret the Bible. If we see marriage in our modern, 21st century light, or even in an idealized 1950’s light (as the complementarian movement does), we don’t see the reality. Biblical marriage, biblical adultery, biblical homosexuality – these things are all fundamentally different than their 21st century counterparts.

That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t speak to us today on these issues. It absolutely does. But if we ignorantly superimpose our own culture on the biblical text, we will fail to understand. We have ears, but if we cover them and sing 21st (or mid-20th) century love-songs, we will not hear. And as Christians, we must hear what the Bible says. We simply must.

What I Am Sure Of

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about questions, writing about the push and pull of mysteries of the faith, things so many people take for granted.  It may be frustrating to some of you that I don’t always come to a conclusion.  To borrow a phrase from Donald Miller, I don’t “resolve.”  But please bear with me.  There are some things I do believe…

The charge has been leveled that evangelical Christians, and conservative ones in general, can’t stomach ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  And surely bumper-sticker catchphrases like “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” only add to that image.

But the truth is, people aren’t great with ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  That’s why, once we choose a political party, we ignore almost any horrible deed by our side, because it’s “better than the other guys,” whether it’s torture – I mean, “enhanced interrogation” – or drone strikes on Pakistani civilians and U.S. citizens abroad.

Similarly, when we settle on a religious framework, we tend to stick to it, minimizing or exceptionalizing its problems, from ‘crack that limp wrist’ to ‘build a fence so they’ll die out‘ to the ongoing abuses of complementarian fundamentalists.  But much of the time the problem isn’t the theology so much as the certainty itself.  None of us is immune to confirmation bias.  The problem comes when we don’t fight it, but instead sanctify it.

It’s true that we go through times of transition, mostly as young people, when we examine our parents’ beliefs to see which ones are really ours.  The children of conservatives may become socialists, the sons of hippies, Young Republicans, the daughters of butchers, vegetarians.

Of course, times of change and transition aren’t only for adolescents. Sometimes having children sparks a new period of wrestling, brought on by sleepless nights and the awesome wonder of new life.  Sometimes age and approaching retirement, with its distant rumblings of mortality, sparks yet another time of change.

But beyond this?   Most people don’t have a stomach for uncertainty.  As human beings, it’s our nature to prefer flawed, even wrong, answers to rightful questions.

It’s far too easy to stop wrestling, struggling, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  We get comfortable, and soon we find we’re no longer following Jesus across dusty Judean roads, over craggy mountains, and into the land of the half-breed heretic Samaritans.

Instead, we’ve set up our comfortable seats at the temple (always the same pew, every Sunday).  And the sad part is, we don’t even really expect Him to come to us.  We think He has come to us, and we’re good.  We’ve got it.  We got our inoculation, we’re right with God.  We’re all right.  “I’m not a sinner.  I never sin.  I’ve got a friend in Jesus…

And that certainty makes us hard.  It calcifies and ossifies, grinding our compassion and empathy to a halt.  Outsiders become, not the ones we seek out (like the woman at the well), but enemies of the faith.  Our approach is not genuine interest and sacrificial compassion, but alarm and hostility.  We cry “persecution!” from our well-cushioned pews in our air-conditioned churches every time something in the outer world slaps us in the face.  But persecution isn’t a slap in the face; it’s a bullet in the head.

There’s a reason we call it wrestling with a topic.  Wrestling is hard.  It’s sweaty.  It’s physical.  It’s exhausting.  Working out our salvation with fear and trembling requires a lot of energy.  More than that, it requires pain.  Fear and trembling.  This is going to hurt.

Wrestling with God is going to hurt.  And it should.  The Marines have a saying: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  If you can’t stomach the pain of questioning, you’ll have to accept the weakness.  But please, don’t claim that weakness to be a stronger or truer faith.  Shouting heretic and TYPING IN ALL CAPS doesn’t make you right.  It didn’t make me right when I did it, either.

This is what I believe.  I believe that Jacob didn’t wrestle an angel.  He wrestled God Himself, a pre-incarnate Jesus.  And though he wrestled all night until his arms ripped and his lungs raged like fire, though he almost lost his leg, Jacob wrestled.  He held on, and in the end God blessed him.

And I believe God still waits to wrestle with us all.  It won’t be pretty.  It won’t be easy.  It won’t be painless.  But it will be worth it.

Amen.

Toxic Legalism (Jeremiad #1: Sexism, Lies, and Ecclesiastical Bling)

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

A new, toxic legalism, based on a shallow, piecemeal, combative reading of the scriptures, is choking the Evangelical faith like a clinging vine.  Our churches are shrinking, and our reputation is mud with the wider world – they think we are immoral in our vitriol and our intolerance.  They see us as less moral than non-Christians, as moralistic and manipulative and controlling.

And they’re right.  Our churches are segregated, even today.  Our divorce rate is no better than the non-religious.  Spousal abuse still lingers, and in some cases is even tolerated.  And our advice to abused women is often dangerously, even fatally wrongheaded.

You can proof-text me all you want, but homosexuals are not the ones degrading our nation’s culture.  We are, with our arrogance, our lingering racism, our commercialism and consumerism.

We build multi-million dollar churches, yet leave the poorest of the world (who often need things like $18 mosquito nets and $25 vaccinations) and the poor and homeless in our own cities to fend for themselves.

We keep spending money to prop up dying churches that exist only because a few elderly people don’t want to find a new church, but which are doing nothing for the community, spiritually or materially. We spend ungodly sums on “faith-based extravaganzas” on Easter, Christmas, and Halloween (“scare them to salvation with Hell House!”).  And all the while, like Dives, we watch the poor man starving at our gate.

We degrade our name, and our nation, when we let our political leanings dictate our theology.  Case in point: it’s no secret that the Southern Baptists are going whole-hog for Mitt Romney.

But when I was growing up, Southern Baptists considered Mormonism a “cult.”  Some still do.  Oops, never mind.  He’s backing Romney now.   So, which is it?  The answer no one will give you is this:  “it doesn’t matter, as long as he dislodges that black pro-death, pro-gay, liberal socialist we’ve got now.”

We bring shame on our name and Christ’s through our sexism and incredible insensitivity to the realities of women’s lives.  You can proof-text me all you want, but the truth remains:  when you pre-determine a woman’s role in life based on her gender, you take away her right to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you take away her Imago Dei, and you make her less than human.

Who should we obey, God or Men?  The reality of complementarianism, as it is often preached, is this: Only men get to obey God.  Women obey men, and access God through the male spiritual heads – first their fathers, and then their husbands.  But I think we all know the right answer to the question, both for men and for women I think the answer is clear [Acts 5:29].  We obey God, not men.

Why I Have to Talk About Complementarianism

Solomon's Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens

Solomon’s Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1615

Edit : I realized that in this post, I’m guilty of doing something I all too often do; letting an extreme group stand in for the whole group.  I’ll post more on this, above, but suffice it to say that I’m talking about the far end of complementarianism, not the centrist end.

You know, there was a time when I thought the complementarian/patriarchy issue didn’t affect me. I wasn’t raised that way, I had (and continue to have) an egalitarian marriage, and, frankly, this “gender roles preset by God, regardless of the individuals’ specific gifts” business sounded like nonsense to me.  This was never something I personally had to grapple with, and so I never really thought it was important for me to turn my attention to it.

But now I see how much it impacts people raised within it.  I see how much it colors discussions on Christianity.  Just because I’ve been sheltered from it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  And maybe I haven’t been sheltered from it as much as I thought.  Maybe, being male, I heard it and forgot it.

So it is possible that I encountered complementarianism and just didn’t realize it.  I do seem to remember a couple of sermons on Ephesians 5:22, and thinking those sermons might have been different if he’d read the rest of the chapter instead of just that verse.  This was, of course, pre-Danvers Statement, before there was an organized movement to sanctify soft patriarchy and return the church to 1950’s American gender roles.

Maybe I wasn’t hit by it because I wasn’t the target.  Complementarianism in practice is all too often about telling women how to be “biblical” – that is, how to be submissive and dedicate their lives to the support and edification of their husbands. The husband’s role, to love her and guide her as Christ loves and guides the church, may get equal attention, but it may not.  And it’s also harder to define, harder for a church community to agree on what it will look like, and, clearly, harder to enforce.

That never really occurred to me, perhaps because Dad and I studied the Bible together from before I was old enough to remember it up until I was in high school.  We used commentaries and chain references to see how the scriptures interacted, to explore their context, to get clarification for terms that were unclear or might have multiple possible translations.  I asked questions, and if Dad couldn’t answer them, he’d ask around until he found someone who could (our preacher had to call one of his seminary professors to find out what a “Tishbite” was, as in “Elisha the Tishbite.”  I was a little disappointed that it just meant he was from Tishbe).

So I knew about Deborah, Ester, Aquila and Priscilla, Lois and Eunice, and other Biblical women.  I knew that Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus, and was chosen to tell the Twelve that He had risen, to be the Apostle to the Apostles.  As far as additional reading went, I grew up on C. S. Lewis, not John Piper.

From my perspective, separate roles for men and women, based on gender and not on individual gifts or callings, seems legalistic, proscriptive and authoritarian, and maddeningly tied to an idealized version of 1950’s American conformity.  It seems so unlike the great freedom granted by Jesus Christ, even deaf to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I’ve read the verses on wifely submission, but knowing what I know about first century Greco-Roman house codes, I see those verses (in context) as radically upending the existing sexual hierarchy.

Yes, women were to continue in their first-century gender roles [Eph 5:22 ], but wives and husbands were to remember that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal 3:28]  And the idea of mutual submission, of laying down one’s life for one’s wife, loving her like Christ loved the church?  Radical at a time when (as they were for most of human history) women were, legally speaking, property.

It’s important to remember that one of the big “wives, obey your husbands” verses is Colossians 3:18.  The next seven verses talk about husbands’ responsibility to love their wives, children’s responsibility to obey their parents (along with an admonition to fathers not to “exasperate” their children), and finally, how Christians who are slaves should relate to their masters.  If we really think first century Greco-Roman house codes are some kind of Godly ideal, doesn’t that mean we need to bring back slavery?  And if we’re not willing to hold our fellow man in bondage, why do we want to hold our fellow women in bondage?

I don’t want to write this as if I have all the answers.  I created this blog to live in the questions, to grapple with scripture, God’s will, and my own thoughts, not to preach a certain viewpoint.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time doing that here.  Okay, I’m failing utterly to maintain any questions, any objectivity here.  Which of course makes me question whether I should even post this.  But I think I have to, because of this next paragraph:

But now I realize it affects me.  If I have a daughter, it will affect her.  It affects everyone around us.  If my unborn child is a daughter, she will inherit a Christianity very different from the one I grew up in.  She will inherit a Christianity that tells her that her purpose comes not from what God can do through her, but what she can do to support whatever God is doing through her husband.

I don’t want my (possible) daughter to hate her own independence, to abhor her ambitions, to denigrate her dreams.  And I certainly don’t want her to base her sense of self on a man, other than the Son of Man Himself.

Those of us who are male can sit in our safe places and pretend it isn’t happening, just like those of us who are white can ignore racism, and those of us who are heterosexual can ignore homophobia, and those of us who are wealthy and live in post-industrial nations can ignore the suffering of the world’s poor.

But it doesn’t make it right.

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dotted Burqa (Modesty Part 1)

In my Weekend Wows post,  I mentioned Emily Maynard’s post “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility”  I urge you to follow the link and read what she has to say for yourselves.

For those of you who didn’t, she’s saying three basic things: 1) being sexually attracted to someone isn’t a sin, but fantasizing, lusting, dwelling in that is; 2) lust is about control (in the sexual fantasy, the object of lust does whatever the lust-er wants), and 3) men aren’t filthy animals who have no control over their own moral agency.  They can resist lustful fantasies just like women can.

A lot of people have replied saying that it is so important that women dress modestly so as to not tempt men to the sin of lust.  As a man who’s struggled with “the lust of the eye” (though I have thankfully been spared from participating in promiscuity, infidelity, etc.), I have a few thoughts about this myself.

First, the idea that women’s dress and physical self-image should effectively exist for the benefit of men is a profoundly worldly idea.  It’s the Kodachrome negative of the frat boy “she’d be okay if she lost a little weight” and “I’d do her.”  Worse, it veers into blaming the object of the unwanted sexual attention for the actions of the other.  “She was askin’ for it, dressed like that.”  Seriously.  Think about it.  If women are to blame for men’s lustful thoughts, aren’t they to blame for men’s lustful actions?  Do we really want to go back to that age?

Do we really want to dehumanize both men and women, taking away both of their moral agency?  I know men are visual creatures.  I AM ONE.  I know men have a tendency to think lustful thoughts.  ME TOO.  I also know that men are responsible for their own sins, including lust.  It doesn’t matter if I just saw the hottest, sexiest woman I ever saw walking by in a low-cut top and barely-there skirt, looking like something that just stepped out of a Prince song, I am responsible for what I do in my mind just as I am responsible for what I do in my body.

Am I saying that Christian women should wear thigh-high platform boots, micro-skirts, and corset tops to the mall?  Of course not.  Christian women should take responsibility for their mode of dress based upon their own relationships with God.  They have souls and minds, too, and we don’t have the right to play God, telling them what God does and doesn’t want them to wear.  A woman’s salvation and sanctification come from God, through Christ, not through any other person.

Besides, there will always be plenty of non-Christian women who dress provocatively.  We men better learn to control ourselves, or we’ll be sunk in a pit of lustful thoughts all day long.  And let me tell you, as a man who remembers what it was like to be in the grip of hormones, constantly battling a lustful eye, it is absolutely possible to lustfully deconstruct somebody who is modestly dressed. Long sleeves, long pants or dress, not too tight?  It doesn’t matter.  Lust will find a way, unless it is controlled by the person doing the lusting.

There’s another problem with this scenario.   “Dressing modestly” is a moving target, culturally constructed and not even consistent within a single culture.  When asked what “modest dress” was, nobody in the comments section (myself included) could come up with a solid, widely-agreeable definition.  In fact, The Rebelution Modesty Survey spent months, created an interactive website, and surveyed thousands of teens and young adults, to get … a series of questions with answers based on the percentages of their respondents who agreed or disagreed.  In other words, they got a fascinating, and maybe even useful, cultural snapshot of early 21st century, predominantly Christian, youth.  And they started a good conversation.  But they ddn’t get a definitive answer.

So what does it mean to dress modestly?  What does it mean to you?  Tank top?  Jogging shorts?  Cap sleeves?  Skirt to your knees?  Long sleeves?  Skirt to your ankles?  Head covered?  Face veiled?  Burqa?

You think that “Burqa” comment was a smartaleck remark?  Sarcasm?  A joke?  It’s not.  When powerful men decide that women must be controlled, they usually start with modesty.  They start by “protecting” women from the lustful nature of men.  Soon they’re protecting them from going to college and learning difficult, even un-godly things.  They say it’s better for women to stay home and learn to be good homemakers for their husbands.

The woman exists for the man’s benefit, whether to gratify his lusts or support him and his children, depending upon whether you ask a libertine or a hyper-conservative.

The Burqa is where this ends: the symbol of total male domination of women, shrouded from view, her sex, even her humanity, hidden behind thick layers of cloth.  Her life is no longer her own, to give in service to God if she is willing and faithful, but belongs to a man.

If we let men start determining how women dress, women become effectively dress-up dolls, to be remade in either a sexualized or a conservative modesty model.  In other words, we take away their agency and dehumanize them … just like we do when we entertain sexual fantasies about them.