Reading through the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (Jewish text c. first century CE but with some later Christian edits). What struck me was how Testament of Reuben has a completely different view of women than Jesus, Paul, Peter, or John. For example, from Test. Reub. 5-6:
“Evil are women, my children; and since they have no power or strength over man, they use wiles by outward attractions, that they may draw him to themselves… command your wives and your daughters, that they adorn not their heads and faces to deceive the mind: because every woman who useth these wiles hath been reserved for eternal punishment… Beware, therefore, of fornication; and if you wish to be pure in mind, guard your senses from every woman. And command the women likewise not to associate with men, that they also may be pure in mind. For constant meetings, even though the ungodly deed be not wrought, are to them an irremediable disease, and to us a destruction of Beliar and an eternal reproach.”
To summarize: women are evil, they seek to seduce men, and those who wear makeup to look pretty will go to eternal hell, so men should not look at women, or associate with women, and even if no fornication or other sin happens, meetings between men and women are demonic and lamentable.
Contrast with Paul whose mission-assemblies had men and women present, and the women have the authority to veil their heads (1 Corinthians 11:10). He also allows women to pray and prophesy in the assembly (11:5, and cf 14:34-35 which is not original imo). He does not demand men and women stay segregated until marriage to avoid fornication, but permits single people to remain single or marry as they are called (7:25-35), allowing for an indefinite mixture of unmarried men and women. Meanwhile Jesus has an extended, one-on-one dialogue with the Samaritan woman in John 4. The gospels all depict his women followers as his most faithful, not scattering like the men, and the first to proclaim the resurrection. Similar things can be said about the rest of the New Testament writings. Even the most complicated passages about gender like 1 Tim 2, for all their restriction and differentiation, still do not proscribe men and women being around one another.
Testament of Reuben does not represent “the Jewish view” against which we say that Christianity is better and more enlightened. No, it is just one Jewish text among many others, which all have their own specific, sometimes tendentious and sometimes plausible, views on gender. But Test. Reub. does give us one example of how the early Jesus movement was often more (not fully but more) egalitarian than some of its peers. It also helps us to see Paul and Jesus’s views of gender with more clarity. I know some churches whose teaching on gender sounds a lot more like this comparison text than like Jesus! Last, it reminds me of the reason *why* the early Jesus movement felt this way: on Pentecost the Spirit poured out upon all the sons and daughters of God (Acts 2:17 quoting Joel 2:28) and so women carry the same authorizing and empowering Spirit for service within the life of the Church.
My homily from last Sunday, on the Annunciation of Mary from Luke 1:26-38.
“The holy one to be born to you will be called the Son of God.” With these words the Angel Gabriel announced the good news to Mary. We call this announcement The Annunciation and we call this good news Gospel. Mary was afraid. An otherworldly being stood before her, saying something very confusing. The virgin would conceive. This… cannot happen? Mary thought. Her son would be the Son of God. This… also cannot happen? Mary thought. How can a virgin conceive? How can the one and only God have a divine son? These are good questions, and as the foolish Seminarian I am supposed to try to answer them. But their answers lay beyond my reach, beyond your reach, beyond anybody’s reach. The incarnation of Christ is the first and deepest mystery of the Gospel. Like a cubist painting we can recognize shapes and broad forms, and explain what purpose it serves, but we cannot explain its parts either in isolation or according to the secret logic that holds them together. What does it mean that Mary’s baby will be the Son of God? While we cannot finally grasp this mystery, we can have what my dear friend Jacob called “an articulate unknowing.” An articulate unknowing. We can spell out the pieces as an offering to God, as our feeble attempt to say “Thank you God for this truth you have revealed to us, even though you have hidden it from the wisest of the world. Have these reflections of ours, though they are only wood, hay, and straw.”
What we have to understand about the Incarnation is that though language fails us Jesus is both God and human. This passage in Luke 1 stresses that Jesus is human: he is born of a human mother, takes on a real physical human body, and has a human cousin, who is John the Baptist. Another passage in Colossians 1 stresses that Jesus is divine: that passage reads: “The Son is the visible image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This is what Gabriel’s words must mean, in the fullest sense, by that in Mary’s womb was the holy one who will be called the Son of God. Resting in Mary’s womb will be not just any baby but the one in whom all things hold together. Her son, though neither she nor we can grasp it, is the one through whom and for whom all things have been created. This infant, so tender and mild, will reign over the entire universe of which he is the cosmic center, and he will destroy all rivaling thrones and powers and rulers and authorities. Weighing some seven or eight pounds is God himself in human flesh.
Think about the contrast between Zechariah and Mary. Earlier in this chapter Zechariah was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told he would have a son, though he and his wife were infertile. That is similar to Mary and Joseph, who will also have a miraculous conception. But Zechariah responds in disbelief. So Gabriel strikes him mute until their son is born. Meanwhile Mary responded not in disbelief but in faith seeking understanding. My friend Charles at Streetside Thursday last week pointed out that verse 34 does not say “How could this be,” but “How will this be?” Mary’s question is not disbelief but assumes that Gabriel is telling the truth. Yet she does not stop there. She trusts this message from God and wants to know more: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s faith is not faith full stop but faith seeking understanding. She is approaching a mystery, but after her question she will have “an articulate unknowing.” She will be able to hold in her heart this message from God through all the confusion in the months to come: that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born to you will be called Son of God… no word from God will ever fail.” Her potential rejection from Joseph and her almost certain rejection from her community will be scary and painful, and not finally understanding why this is happening will make things worse, yet this Word from God will never fail. Because she has it, she can trust God.
To this mystery Mary gives her consent in verse 38. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.” By her consent the Son of God will come into the world. By her consent the one through whom and in whom all things were created, will come into the world. This means that by her consent Mary has caused her own creation. How can this be true? How can her trust in God result in all things? Of course this, too, is a mystery, but we can say what we can say about it. Mary is the true and better Eve. Our first parents in their confusion and temptation caused humanity and the entire universe to enter a deep darkness. But because Jesus’s mother trusted the messenger of God, and consented to God’s plan, there is a new light breaking into humanity and the entire universe. This new light is Jesus who is one person in two natures, both God and Human. But these two natures are incompatible. One nature is created and temporal, the other nature is uncreated and eternal. As St. Maximus pointed out, created and eternal natures cannot share any properties with one another. Yet in the person of Jesus it is so. What I am saying is that Mary consenting to her own creation results from the much larger problem that something uncreated is being born. Something eternal is entering time. In Mary’s womb our linear, sequential time and God’s eternal, non-sequential time are one. Time itself bends its knee in obedient submission to this baby. This is what creates the problem that Mary needs to preexist herself to consent to her creation. The more you reflect on this baby, on his dual divine-human person, the less that reality as we understand it makes sense. The problem with Mary is not unique to her, though. It is a problem inherent in all things, that each thing has its being independently from God as God’s gift to it, yet without God it cannot continue to exist in its particular form. To this baby in a manger not only Time but also All Particularity Itself bends its knee in obedient submission. Were it not for this baby, the pew you sit in would melt into pudding. As would you. Everything would return to formless and void from Gen 1:2. I am not saying that all things are Christ. That would be pantheism. But all things have their particularity only in Christ, only in Christ incarnate, only in Christ incarnate as a baby in a manger.
The new light who is Jesus will shine over all things, bringing light and life into the deep darkness of our hearts, our communities, our world, our universe. Think about the beautiful stained glass windows around us. They are illuminated by the Sun’s light, but their particular colors and shapes and pictures are what we can see inside. That is also true of Jesus. His light shines into the whole world, and since we are his stained glass windows, he shines through us. The particular colors, shapes and pictures that make up your life, begin to beam with the light of Jesus. There is a saying that you are the only Gospel most people will ever read. We can say a similar thing. You are the only stained glass window most people ever really see up close and personal. This Jesus who is the center of all creation, comes to be center of our hearts and works to reach others through our ordinary and mundane lives. As we live out our faithfulness to God — reading and treasuring his Word, pouring out praise, praying with adoration and penitent need, loving those around us, and so on — this light in us begins to grow in intensity and in heat. In time it becomes a raging fire, your life a burning bush, from which the One True God of Israel speaks saying, I AM WHO I AM. As his voice rings out among the nations, and we are reduced to ash, he brings us new life in this infant. This infant, who is the light of the world, by his very being speaks louder than when God said “Let there be light” in the beginning. In him there is life, and this life is the light of all mankind, and the darkness has not overcome it. “The holy one to be born to you will be called the Son of God.”
Where does the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage really rest?
The disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage tends to revolve around the interpretation of the few passages that come closest to the topic: Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and some include Genesis 19 as well. We then ask questions like, How should we translate this word? Exactly which sex act does the author describe in this passage? Can we infer from the social setting whether the sex is mutual? These are good questions, and they will matter to some degree at some point. However, we need to start with the wider narratives of Scripture, which ground and frame the particular, topical passages. For example, it doesn’t matter what the Levitical commands in 18:22 and 20:13 prohibit until we hash out, generally, how the book of Leviticus fits into the wider arc of Scripture, and how and why the teachings of Leviticus would matter today.
I do not base my position on Christian same-sex marriage on the outcome of the six exegetical debates. That approach would oversimplify the problem and understate what is at stake. Anyways, I think those passages could all be missing from the Bible and we would still get to the same conclusions, affirming or not — just as a hypothetical seventh prohibition would not necessarily tell us anything more. Instead, I base my position on wider theological convictions that come through a reading of the whole Biblical story and the place of procreation in that story. This method drives us much faster into the heart of the disagreement.
Procreation in the Hebrew Bible
In the beginning, God created humanity in the image of God, and blessed them to rule over the animals and the birds and the land. Genesis 1:26, whether read from a creationist or evolutionary perspective, tells us about the goal for which God created humanity. We are to reflect God back to the world by exercising wise stewardship over the world. The next two verses continue this point: in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. Just as in 1:26 God gives humanity a vocation to steward the earth — to act like God himself acts towards the earth — in 1:27-28 God gives humanity a vocation to populate the earth — just as God himself did when he created humanity in the beginning. We can see this concept linguistically in our latinate word “procreation,” creating forth something new. When we procreate, we participate in the work of Creation that God has already begun, continuing it, blessed to do so as if we were God, in our role as divine image bearers. Verses 27-28 cannot be separated from 26 because the unit 26-28 together claims that God created humanity to extend his own work in Creation. God made us in his image to steward the world (26) which requires sexual difference (27) for the purpose of procreation (28) to fulfill this stewardship of the world.
The rest of the Hebrew Bible illustrates and confirms this theology of procreation. God plans to redeem humanity from its fallen state by saving one man, and through him, one nation, and through that nation, one Messiah. God calls Abraham, creates a covenant with him, and blesses him with a promise to have “more descendants than the sand on the shore, than the stars in the sky.” Barrenness, decedents, legacy, familial blessing, and God’s gift of fertility dominate the pages of Genesis to follow. These themes continue to dominate the Hebrew Bible after Genesis, becoming even more prominent in times of national destruction. Ironically, the national destruction itself usually comes from kings taking many foreign wives, attempting to build massive households with hundreds of descendants. Procreation is a blessing, and when pursued in violation of Torah it becomes a curse, but either way it remains the center of the narratives. Remember the ancient context as well. Israel was a hard and rugged place. You would simply not survive if you could not have kids. Because Israel was always only one generation away from siege, pillage, exile, and destruction, the covenant with Abraham would have given promise for security and hope for a better future. The Hebrew Bible’s extensive genealogies also show us the importance of procreation. Long lists connect everyone in the nation to Abraham, to verify their membership in the promises God made in the covenant. They also helped Israelites who grew up reciting their genealogy to remember that the promise would one day extend through them to their children.
Most people agree up to this point. Few in the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage jump ship before here. (James Brownson and perhaps Sarah Coakley are two notable exceptions). This is because the above is, in my view, incontestable. The themes are too consistent and pervasive to ignore. The disagreements I want to consider in the next section are the ones which start when we move from the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament. Does the New Testament teach that procreation is normative? What could change that would nullify the former teaching, which crucially is rooted in our portrait of Creation?
Procreation in the New Testament
Let me give four examples of the kind of analysis that complicates the procreation mandate. Two on each side.
On the one hand, we see continuity with the former portrait. Years ago in a seminary class on Biblical Theology and Interpretation, D. A. Carson took us to Mark 10 to illustrate this continuity. Have you not read? Jesus asks. Jesus uses Genesis 1-2 for the moral question of divorce and draws directly on the older narrative without qualification. He also intentionally undermines the exception that Moses made in Deuteronomy 24. This draws us away from a possible trajectory where if something is true in Creation, but precedents are set later on, we can expand outward following the later precedents. No, Jesus avoids the later legal precedent and builds his command on Creation.
On the other hand, we see discontinuity when it comes to procreation itself. What happens to procreation in the New Testament? Why does it vanish almost entirely from the text? There are a few mentions of children here and there, about allowing them into the Kingdom, about discipling them wisely, to bring them up in the way of the Lord, and so on. These teachings help people who already have children, but they tell us nothing about the procreation mandate. Now consider 1 Corinthians 7, one of the few extended texts about sexual practice in the New Testament. Paul bases his sexual advice on martial duty (1-3), mutual consent (4-5), temptation from Satan (presumably to adultery or fornication) (5-9), God’s call to live at peace (15-16), our freedom in Christ (21-24), the coming apocalypse (25-31), our undivided focus on the Lord (32-35), and the honor of virgins and of singleness as a widow (36-40). Paul’s advice comes from numerous places in moral theology and gives us a rich picture of complex wisdom, as well as the types of sources we should value in making these complex decisions. But where is procreation?
Returning to the first hand, the relationship between early Christianity and the Mosaic Law is difficult, but not really on this question. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 decides to integrate Gentiles into the people of God and commands them to do four things: abstain from meat that has been strangled, abstain from meat that still has blood, abstain from food sacrificed to idols, and abstain from sexual immorality. These commands probably express something like the Law of Noah (though this was not explicitly developed until the early Talmudic Rabbis over a century later), which means laws God gave to all humanity through Noah, the father of all later humans. These kinds of laws are not detailed in the actual text of Genesis 6-9, but the concept lurks behind Acts 15:23-29 and Romans 2:12-16 to provide grounding for universal moral commandments. The fourth command in Acts 15 simply prohibits “sexual immorality,” but presumably all Jews would flesh out this term with Leviticus 18, where the Torah gives a detailed list of what practices count as sexual immorality. By declaring sexual immorality a universal prohibition (not limited to Jews), the Jerusalem Council made it impossible for Gentiles to use an “abolition of the Law” type argument to get around the Leviticus prohibitions.
Returning to the second hand, because Gentiles in the New Testament are “adopted” into the family of God, the need for procreation to advance the ethnic people solely of Israel has faded. The procreation mandate may seem to vanish from the New Testament, but in reality it has been transformed into the evangelism mandate. Converts are like children in the faith, raised to maturity by our faithful parentage, to become bearers of the good news of the Gospel, resulting in their own spiritual children one day. Gentiles receive paternity in Abraham by adoption through Christ (Romans 4), and so procreation is no longer necessary in its function to expand the people of God. You can draw this distinction against the Hebrew Bible too sharply — there are a few non-Israelites who join the family of God, such as Rahab, Jethro, Ruth and Naaman. But overall it seems that the multiethnic movement that begins in the New Testament accompanies the transformation of the procreation mandate because they are inherently tied together. The New Testament’s theology of adoption, then, decenters and transforms the procreation mandate.
Where do we disagree?
My reading of the disagreement leads me here. How you square these circles will determine whether Christian same-sex marriage can be morally good. Does the procreation mandate persist in marriage, or does it fade away with the coming of Messiah? Better, does the current apocalypse (1 Corinthians 7:17-31) interrupt the procreation mandate as a whole, or does it interrupt procreation within marriage? This distinction makes or breaks Robert Song’s argument in his book Covenant and Calling, which I recommend reading. If the apocalypse disrupts the need to procreate generally, then celibacy is affirmed because marriage is not required. But if the apocalypse disrupts the procreation mandate in marriage, then constitutionally non-procreative marriages can become morally neutral or good.
These questions can hinge on the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, not to mention the even wider theological topics I have not addressed here. What about natural law theology? What about gender complementarity beyond procreation (such as gender roles)? What about the sacramental end of marriage, which is that marriage signs to us Christ’s own relationship with the Church? What about gender at the resurrection? Needless to say this disagreement is complicated to an almost endless degree. It works at some of the core questions scholars pose about the relationship between the early Jesus movement and the Jewish context from which it came. The complexity of our disagreement should humble us. When you dismount your moral high horse, it becomes easier to see others eye to eye and recognize the good-faith effort they make, even when they come to conclusions you do not. This complexity may even allow for church membership across the affirming disagreement, since we already have membership with many who disagree on questions much more weighty than the technical issue with Robert Song’s argument above. For example, if your church includes Calvinists and Arminians as members, I find it difficult to exclude those who disagree in good faith on some of the biblical-theological specifics outlined here. However, traditions with a rich confessional heritage will likely come to a narrower set of conclusions, and from there we need to debate the traditions and their confessions on their own merits as such. Like all disagreements in Christian moral theology, the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage leads us down a path, bounded by Tradition and Scripture, to the God with whom we seek one common life.
My point in this post is to encourage Christians to think more widely than the six topical passages in isolation — to attempt to see those passages within the totality of our Christian moral vision and the Scriptural narratives that ground and frame that moral vision. Focusing on those passages alone allows us to misconstrue their value and place within Christian thought, as well as over-interpret them to say what they may never have meant. Submitting the meaning and function of these passages to what we already know is like building your house upon a rock: working from the firm foundation of the most central and clear parts of God’s Word to the peripheral and unclear parts. We already do this on so many other topics. Stronger biblical-theological reasoning could help the disagreement over Christian same-sex marriage reach greater understanding, mutual respect, and precision. By the Spirit who guides the church into all truth, it may even lead to resolution.
Spring Break allowed me time to read Eleanor McLaughlin’s book Unconscious Christianity in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Late Theology (2020, Lexington Books/Fortress Academic), a revision of her 2015 Oxford dissertation. It is prohibitively expensive, at $95 hardcover, but my library was willing to buy the book and loan it first to me. Interested readers who lack access could consider the $45 ebook version.
McLaughlin’s book is the first complete study of the concept of “unconscious Christianity” in Bonhoeffer’s theology, in particular in the final few years of his life (1940-45). What does this term mean? McLaughlin labors to construct a definition from the scant material references to the term (Unbewußtes Christentum), and by page 95 the definition arrives:
Unconscious Christianity refers to the whole body of good people who have encountered Christ without being aware of it and do not self-identify as Christians. In addition, they may fulfill any of these six criteria: (1) to have faith without knowing it, (2) to be selfless and participate in Jesus’s being-for-others, (3) to not seek to be other than what they are, (4) to value the penultimate [i.e., this world, as opposed to the world-to-come], (5) to perform acts of faith without reflecting on them, (6) to be a member of the Bürgertum... [I]t seems that as he further develops his ideas on unconscious Christianity Bonhoeffer suggests that unconscious Christians are recognized as righteous by God.
McLaughlin arrives at this definition by placing Bonhoeffer in context, in four ways. First, theologians Richard Rothe and Martin Rade had used the term before him, and Karl Rahner used the similar “anonymous Christian” in the same era (though he meant something else). Second, Bonhoeffer belongs in the context of the German Bürgertum [upper-middle] social class. Third, he was a member of a barely religious family, whose work against the Nazis later funded his fiction writing and this thoughts about unconscious Christianity. Fourth and finally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer in his late theology, which in general is neither in clean continuity with his earlier thoughts nor radical change from them, but is a “fluid” “movement” (citing Hanfried Muller), “developing” the earlier ideas into the later (146). Additionally, McLaughlin situates Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity on the back end in the context of mid-twentieth century “death of God” theology, naming William Hamilton and J. A. T. Robinson (144-146).
In other words, this book is a formal study and an exercise in historical theological exegesis, more so than a positive or constructive theological argument. I was surprised and impressed by the great lengths to which McLaughlin went to articulate Bonhoeffer’s exact view and the limits of what we can reconstruct. I can imagine a reader seeking a constructive theological argument reading the introduction, chapters 1 and 5, and the conclusion, and benefiting greatly. Meanwhile readers interested in the historical Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer Studies proper, or in theological method (especially on extracting theology from fiction writing) would benefit from the whole book.
Quickly, I want to sketch the four references to unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s corpus.
First, in his essay “Ultimate and Penultimate Things,” a chapter from Ethics written in 1940 at Ettal, Bonhoeffer made a marginal comment on the manuscript (which did not enter the printed text.) The essay in general is about not sacrificing the life to come for the life of this world, and vice versa. Christians should live in both the ultimate, and the penultimate, at the same time. Towards the end of the essay he describes people who “no longer dare to call themselves Christians,” who we must then claim as Christians. We should do this because the human and good work that these people do in the world unites the penultimate with the ultimate. Then comes the note. He writes, “Unbewußtes Christentum. Balzac. Leute des Antichristus.” This note turns out to be a convoluted reference to the play Les Comediens sans le savior by Honore de Balzac (1846). The characters in the play each stand for something in French society, though they are unaware of it. Bonhoeffer is presumably then saying that unconscious Christians are playing a part in Kingdom of God without knowing it either. The reference to the Antichrist, writes McLaughlin, is more or less inexplicable (65-66).
Second, in his novel Novel, written in late 1943 from Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote the term unconscious Christianity into the dialogue. Two boys, one from a working class and the other an upper-middle class [Bürgertum] family, are talking about trust and social class and the ways that the underclass have been so mistreated that they cannot trust anyone. (This would be Bonhoeffer’s view of the underclass, of course). Talking about his family, the Bürgertum boy says,
“But now I’m thinking about Papa and Mama. You can’t really say they’re Christians, at least not in the customary sense of the word. They don’t go to church. They only say grace before meals because of Little Brothers. And yet they’re as little affected by the spirit of false ambition, careerism, titles, and medals as your [the working class boy’s] mother is. They prefer a good laborer or craftsman a hundred times over some puffed-up ‘Excellency.’ Why is that?”
Ulrich thought for a moment. “That’s because without knowing it and certainly without talking about it, in truth they still base their lives on Christianity, an unconscious Christianity.”
This is the clearest use of unconscious Christianity in Bonhoeffer’s surviving writings. The family is probably based on his own family’s quasi-irreligious nature. The thing that distinguishes them is that they are unaffected by titles, etc., which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s theology of self-forgetfulness and kenosis in Christ, the self-for-others.
Third, in his letter to Bethge postmarked July 27, 1944, Bonhoeffer used the term in a theological context. This was just one week after the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler, which would later lead to the order to execute Bonhoeffer. Here is the quote:
Your [Bethge’s] formulation of our theological theme is very clear and simple. The question how there can be a “natural” piety is at the same time the question about “unconscious Christianity” that preoccupies me more and more. The Lutheran dogmatists distinguished a fides directa from a fides reflexa. They related that to the so-called faith of the infant at baptism. I wonder if we are not here addressing a very wide-reaching problem. More about that, hopefully, soon.
Unfortunately Bonhoeffer did not return to this point in his surviving letters. (Bethge burned the September 1944 letters when his own arrest was ordered, so perhaps it was there, but alas). McLaughlin writes that Bonhoeffer’s example of infant baptism teases out another distinction, between faith that would be “by reflection within the individual” and faith that “simply indicate[s] the manner of being of that individual.” Unconscious Christianity, then, would be the latter type. It is not inward “faith” (i.e., how most evangelicals understand the word) but a fact about the person’s manner of being. Bonhoeffer’s statement that this could be a very wide-reaching problem intrigues me. He is including the unconscious Christian in the fides directa along with baptized infants, but I can only wonder how much further Bonhoeffer would have pressed this logic had he survived the war.
Fourth, in his notes in preparation for his new book (of which only the outline was ever written), Bonhoeffer makes several scattered comments on a chapter on unconscious Christianity. He writes:
Unconscious Christianity: Left hand doesn’t know / what the right hand is doing / Matt. 25. / Not knowing what to pray. Motto: Jesus said to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”
These cryptic comments need explaining. The first refers to Matthew 6:3, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” The reference to Matthew 25 is to the parable of the goats and sheep. The motto comes from Mark 10:51, Jesus’s question to the blind man (who replies, “Rabbi, I want to see!”). I don’t think McLaughlin explains the comment, “Not knowing what to pray,” or at least she does not address it in the two textual analyses on 70-72 and 87-89. However it must come from Romans 8:26 where Paul writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.” The basic picture that emerges from these scattered references is someone ignorant (right/left hands) of their good deeds (sheep) and yet by their deeds they are encountering Jesus (Matthew 25:40/45). It takes more theological creativity to fit the “motto” and the reference to Romans 8 into this vision of unconscious Christianity, which may explain why McLaughlin shies from them.
In my own words, here is what I would say. Bonhoeffer seems to radicalize the parable of the Sheep and Goats so that it is more than an exhortation to care for the poor. Instead, caring for the poor (and etc. selfless good deeds) are an encounter with Jesus, whether people realize this or not. Bonhoeffer was driven to this view by his own situation. His co-churchmen had caved almost immediately to the Nazi regime in 1933 and were helplessly compromised in the fight against evil. Conversely, many of his co-conspirators were not religious, but they were fighting evil at great risk to themselves for the sake of the weakest in society. Bonhoeffer has this visceral understanding that the ones he expected to do right and wrong, had done wrong and right. This forced him to develop theology to explain this real phenomenon. Because his a Lutheran, he pulls on the fides directa and thinks that his co-conspirators “have faith” just as baptized infants “have faith” but do not realize it. They are playing Christian roles, like the unconscious French characters from the Balzac play, but more than this (as his thought develops from 1940 to 1944), they are participating in Christ, which is faith. The connection to Romans 8 is more obscure, but I can imagine ways to develop it which would look like Sarah Coakley’s argument in “Praying the Trinity” (chapter three of God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’). This is too abstract, I need to return to it later. But there is some connection between the Spirit placing us in the position of the Son before the Father during prayer, which corresponds well to Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity. Unconscious Christians, if they really are participating in Christ as faith by their self-denying love and service, are not only participating in Christ but necessarily also participating in the Divine Life of the Triune God in total. Maybe this could extend the concept of unconscious Christianity to address a “very far-reaching problem.”
McLaughlin’s conclusion makes several valuable points.
First, calling someone a Christian when they are not, “as a tool to reveal to people who they really are, as though they are not competent enough to decide their identity for themselves,” is not pastorally wise (189). Bonhoeffer always has a pastoral heart in his discussions of this topic, which we should emulate. Many Muslims for example, and almost all Jews, would bristle at being named Christians without their say. I would add that it flies directly in the face of what Charles Taylor calls “the politics of recognition,” and so is uniquely problematic today.
Second, McLaughlin points to Tom Gregg’s book Theology against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. There he has addressed contemporary sociology and ecclesiology and secularism and so on, and uses Bonhoeffer to do so. McLaughlin suggests his analysis could be supplemented by including unconscious Christianity. I agree, I assume, but also would like to point the arrow the other direction. Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age” came mostly through his reading of Wilhelm Dilthey, whose sociology has come under extraordinary fire. His secularization thesis has more or less been killed by Charles Taylor and others. My question is not just how Gregg’s analysis could grow by including Bonhoeffer’s insights, but how Bonhoeffer’s analysis could grow by including Gregg’s, Taylor’s, and others contemporary insights about secularism. The “world come of age” Bonhoeffer prophesied has come in some ways but not others, and the world it promised to replace still haunts us.
Third, McLaughlin points out that people today can be unconscious Christians, not just people in Nazi Germany. She does not use the term, but the social justice movement comes immediately to mind. There are many grifters and snake oil sellers in the social justice movement, I am aware, but someone who engages in social justice activism with the intent to love and serve the most marginalized may be encountering the unknown Christ.
McLaughlin’s book is judicious and compelling, and theologians will now have to debate the merits and usefulness of Bonhoeffer’s concept. I am not wholly convinced by Bonhoeffer’s unconscious Christianity, and am more likely to limit the concept to “encounters with” (rather than “participation in”) the unknown Christ. As I have struggled with deconstructing and reconstructing my faith the past two years, I have wondered where Jesus went. Many of my friends ask the same question. Could it be that I have had unconscious encounters with Jesus? “Could it be that you have been praying, unconsciously, all along?” suggested a kind professor of mine. I am less interested in what unconscious Christianity would mean for soteriology and more for discipleship and daily Christian living. Maybe my thoughts, my actions, my lamentations and loves, have been more faithful than ever before, because to my conscious mind they were alms given in secret.
For my class on the Gospels and Acts, I was asked to reflect on Mark’s vision of discipleship. Follow along in your Bible as you read, because this post is loaded with Scripture.
What is discipleship?
Discipleship is the Imitation of Christ.First, we see early on (1:16-18) Jesus call Simon and Andrew with words that reflect what Jesus is doing in issuing the call: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus is fishing, and in doing so, making further fishers. The call is self-referential like Mark as a whole: Mark’s Gospel is a narrative of Jesus’s life, and at the same time functions to make disciples out of those who read it. Second, at the Gospel’s midway point, the seam between its first (1-8) and second (9-16) movements, Jesus tells the crowd what discipleship requires: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34-9:1). Jesus calls the crowd to be open to martyrdom immediately after he has first predicted his own death (8:31-33). Hence taking up the cross is synonymous with the call to “follow me,” the imitation of Christ. Third, when James and John request authority and glory from Jesus (10:35-45), Jesus responds by acknowledging they will suffer his same fate. He concludes his remarks about servant leadership with another comparison to his own example: “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus centers his example in his responses to James and John and to the other disciples. Therefore, discipleship is the imitation of Christ.
How do disciples imitate Jesus?
Fight Death. Disciples of Jesus are engaged, first and foremost, in a spiritual battle against the powers of Death that wreak havoc in the world. First, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist characterizes Jesus’s ministry this way: “one more powerful than I… will baptize with holy spirit.” Mark uses the unique word “powerful” (ischuroteros) again later when Jesus is describing his own ministry (3:20-35, Class Notes). How is Jesus’s ministry different from Satan’s work? In a parable, Jesus talks about “binding up the strong man,” who is Satan. So, Jesus’s ministry is the exact opposite of Satan’s work, it is a war against the spiritual forces of darkness and death. Second, Mark depicts Jesus casting out demons (1:21-28 (parallel 5:1-20) (Thiessen, 141-148). He casts out demons from holy places (in the former passage, from the synagogue on the Sabbath) and into unholy places (in the latter passage, into nearby unclean pigs). Jesus’s demon exorcism is not just to heal the possessed, or they would simply be called “healings.” Rather, they are part of a larger fight against “powers and principalities, spiritual forces, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12) as another author later writes. Third, Jesus commissions the disciples to cast out demons as well. (Mark 3:14-15 / 6:7-13) (See Witmer 132-142, 153-201 for more). Now, this command is repeated in 16:17, but it does not matter for Mark, because 16:17 is not authentic, it was added later. But this addition indicates that the early church (up to the late 4th century when 16:9-20 was added) continued to practice exorcism, as Jesus originally commanded. Therefore, disciples of Jesus fight Death and the spiritual battle it wages against God.
Live in Constructed Community. Mark depicts discipleship as shared life. First, Jesus constructs a community which, when anything else conflicts with it, must supersede all other forms of community. Jesus says, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive 100-fold in the age to come” (10:29-30). Second, Jesus gives a specific discourse about living in and leading community in 10:35-45 in response to bickering and infighting (10:41) among his disciples. It is in this context that Jesus makes a key statement about discipleship, drawing from his own example: “not to be served… but to serve.” Disciples are to imitate Jesus’s example in our own communities of shared discipleship. Third, there are clues in the text (direct references to crowds, rhetorical use of “we”) which indicate that “Jesus is one who is almost constantly surrounded by a circle of disciples; he does not exist primarily as a solitary individual but as a being-in-community, and living the Christian life means “being with him.” This portrayal of the life of discipleship as a communion with Jesus would undoubtedly resonate with the experience of Mark’s community” (Joel Marcus 267). Therefore, disciples of Jesus live in constructed communities.
Discernment. Discipleship means seeing and knowing things as they truly are, and this includes events, people, and Jesus’s own mission. First, Mark repeatedly goes out of his way to mention that Jesus “sees” people. The most significant example is 6:34: “When Jesus landed, he looked at the large crowd, and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” (Joel Marcus (182) also lists these passages: 1:18-20, 2:14, 3:34, 6:34, 8:33, 9:25, 10:21, 23, 27, 12:34. Several of these are about the disciples’ calling). Second, Jesus heals the blind man (8:22-26), and then another blind man (Bartimaeus, 10:46ff). In the former case, the blind man gives an example of not being able to see: he “sees men like trees.” Not animals, not objects, but humans, an unclear perspective of the people around him. Jesus restores vision to the blind to make them like him, as he is so often described as seeing others in Mark’s Gospel. Since Jesus can see, those he disciples are given sight as well, that they may imitate him. Third, disciples of Jesus are to see people and see the world as they truly are. Jesus commands disciples to watch the signs of the time (chapter 13 in its entirety) and to be watchful at Gethsemane, though they keep falling asleep (14:32-42). God is at work in the world. God restores the nation of Israel, symbolically expressed in Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River (1:5 = Jordan river crossing), the commissioning of 12 disciples from a mountain (3:13-19 = 12 tribes & Sinai), and the twelve baskets of bread and seven baskets of bread (8:17-21 = Israel & fullness, restoration). The disciples needed eyes to see this work of God in their time. Therefore, disciples of Jesus must be watchful for the work of God in the world.
Open to the Inner Self. Disciples of Jesus are called to imitate their master by living with an openness to their inner selves. First, in his humanity Jesus sets an example for his disciples as one with a rich emotional life. He is angry (1:41 and 3:5) and sad (14:33). He shows signs of frustration (8:12) and exhaustion (4:38). He feels indignancy (10:14) and love (10:21). These emotions express his true humanity. Second, Luke’s Gospel transfers these emotions onto the disciples or omits them altogether, and Matthew’s Gospel retains them but switches the terms to lesser emotions (like “annoyed” instead of “enraged”) or gives reasons to justify Jesus’s emotions (Asikainen 134-155). Mark does not. His portrayal of Jesus is raw and unfiltered. Third, Jesus’s openness to the inner self would have conflicted with the Greco-Roman ideal of self-mastery over the emotions. Mark’s portrayal is thus particularly sharp, as it subverts contemporary expectations for masculinity. Jesus sets this example for his disciples to follow. Therefore, disciples of Jesus live with an openness to their inner selves.
Divine Silence. Disciples of Jesus have a relationship with Our Father that is not clean, tidy, or convenient. First, Jesus had a rich connection with the Father throughout Mark. The Father literally spoke to him out of heaven (twice: 1:11, 9:7) and Jesus is often withdrawing to solitary places for prayer (1:35, 6:30-32, 46). Second, Mark’s ascent narrative (ch 9-16) follows Jesus ascending from Galilee to Jerusalem. This ascent evokes at once the Mountain of God image from various places in the OT, including both Sinai (Marcus 423) and Zion, along with the narrative substructure of the book of Leviticus (See Morales 257-304), the rhetorical question from the Psalmist “Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?” (24:3), and the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), all in one large conflated image. Yet the opposite end comes than one would expect. Jesus will not enter the presence and the glory of the LORD in the temple. He must die (8:31-33 / 9:30-32 / 10:32-34). From Gethsemane to the end, Jesus does not pray and the Father is silent. Third, Bonhoeffer, confined to prison in Tegel and perhaps viewing the whole world through the lens of that space, cites Mark 15:34 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”). He felt the hollow sting of protracted abandonment by God which Jesus also felt in his final hours. “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us,” Bonhoeffer wrote (July 16th, 1944, italic original). Jesus’s cry on the cross amounts to a functional atheism. There ends our portrait of Jesus in Mark. Even as word of his resurrection leaks out, our extant text ends before we see him alive, victorious. Fourth, the Word of God is hidden, so that those without the spirit of discernment cannot find it (4:11-12). Jesus’s life is itself a parable, as are the spiritual journeys of his faithful disciples. When we seek and do not find the voice of God, then we know that we are following the true Christ.
Asikainen, Susanna. Jesus and Other Men: Ideal Masculinities in the Synoptic Gospels. Boston, MA: Brill, 2018.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. by Eberhard Bethge. New York, NY: The Macamillan Company, 1959 edition.
Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2000.
Morales, L. Michael. “Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the LORD?” A Biblical Theology of Leviticus. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015.
Thiessen, Matthew. Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.
Witmer, Amanda. Jesus, The Galilean Exorcist: His Exorcisms in Social and Political Context. London, UK: T&T Clark International, 2012.
The photos are some shots of mine from the past two weeks on campus. Filtered with +0.5 exposure, -1.0 saturation, +1.0 fade. Trinity’s native falcon appears in one of the photos, for those with eyes to see.
Today I gave the pastoral prayer at my church. Here is the text:
Pray with me, selections from the Book of Common Prayer.
Almighty God, who has placed us in this country for its betterment:
Bless our land with honorable and abundant work, sound and safe learning, and peace. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought here out of many nations and languages. Fill with the spirit of wisdom those entrusted with the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace.
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Yet we live in days of trouble, division, and injustice. Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; so that we may live in justice and peace.
We give thanks for Pastor Mike’s recovery from Covid and pray you give him full health. To medical researchers working to create a vaccine, give ingenuity and patience. To victims of wildfire in California, Oregon, and Colorado, give protection and provision. We remember now the 412 first responders nineteen years ago who laid down their lives for the lives of others. May they remain for us a parable of your Son’s own life. Comfort as well the families of the victims of the attack, God of all comfort.
All of this we ask through the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sketching a theological use for Christian Sexuality in the world today.
Lunch with my former pastor from high school. He eats a soup. I eat cheese fries. He is on a diet. I am not. We talk about my experience coming out and about his attempts to lead his church into a more compassionate tone on sexuality. In that conversation he backs up and makes a larger point than I expected.
He brings up James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World. We had read this together back when I lived in town. Hunter sorts out four ways that Christians engage culture. Well, three, and the fourth is a proposal.
First, there is the ‘defense against’ strategy. Think Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Sr., or the Religious Right as a political strategy. The goal is to defend the church from a hostile society seeking to destroy the church and everything it stands for. We wage war, cultural war, to keep Christian values established at the national level. Non-Christians and non-Christian institutions are either potential converts, or enemies.
Second, there is the ‘purity from’ strategy. Think the Amish, or to a lesser extent, homeschooling. Since you can’t win the culture war against public schools, you retreat and homeschool, or private Christian school. Rod Dreher has come forward as the leading proponent of this tendency. Instead of trying to win back society, his book The Benedict Option argues we need to begin building institutions for a parallel society which is distinctly Christian. Non-Christian people and institutions are potential contaminants to be avoided.
Third, beyond fight and flight is another option, the ‘relevance to’ strategy. This tendency is to blend in by shedding pieces of Christian faith and practice. Many on the Christian Left attempt this approach. It works for a time but the common logic holds that eventually people stop being recognizably Christian at all. Non-Christian people and institutions are seen as not that different from Christians.
Fight, flight, assimilate. Hunter proposes a fourth route, ‘faithful presence within,’ which he defines with two theological statements:
The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference. For the Christian, if there is a possibility for human flourishing in a world such as ours, it begins when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, is embodied in us, is enacted through us and in doing so, a trust is forged between the word spoken and the reality to which it speaks; to the words we speak and the realities to which we, the church, point. In all, presence and place matter decisively. (241)
Also helpful for understanding his point is the quote a few pages later:
Faithful presence in our spheres of influence does not imply passive conformity to the established structures. Rather, within the dialectic between affirmation and antithesis, faithful presence means a constructive resistance that seeks new patterns of social organization that challenge, undermine, and otherwise diminish oppression, injustice, enmity, and corruption and, in turn, encourage harmony, fruitfulness and abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy, security, and well-being. In the normal course of social life, the challenge and alternative that faithful presence entails is not so much a direct opposition through a contest of power but, as Miraslov Volf puts it, a “bursting out” of an alternative within the proper space of the old. (247-248)
Here our pose towards the world is not defensive (defense against), distancing (purity from), or naively and uncritically positive (relevance to). Rather, we remain distinctly Christian while living in and for the sake of the world, loving and serving others like Jesus did.
My pastor slurped soup from his spoon. My cheesy fries were long gone. They stood no chance.
That was all background from our conversations over the years. In this meal, my pastor made this point: Far too many Christian leaders view sexuality in church-political categories rather than in pastoral-theological categories.
“Church-political” roughly lines up with defense against and purity from, and “pastoral-theological” could mean in a weaker form a relevance to approach or in a stronger form a faithful presence within approach.That stronger form is the goal.
I’ll give an example. Most conservative churches have done a poor job at pastoral care for gay people who are non-affirming. Even though such a person agrees with the church on how to live the Christian life, just being gay is made more difficult than it needs to be. Different things cause this. Silence. Taboo. Homophobic comments. Homophobic pastors. Unrealistic expectations. Singling out that sin instead of treating it as an equal to other sins. These are bad things, and we could end them without sacrificing our doctrinal stance.
But we can’t have those conversations. For those who view the topic through church-political lenses, straight pastors and ministry leaders should not be criticized. Gay people are the ones who are ‘other’ in a political sense, so they are the ones to be critiqued. Gay people (the distinction between celibate and sexually active gets ignored) are inherently opposed to the social and cultural goals of our church politics. To capitulate is to lose points in the game of church politics. If you acknowledge that there could be reasons why gay people are against the conservative church which were biblically unnecessary all along, you’ve lost the war. Nobody admits any of this, but it defines the underlying logic at work, the deep structure of the conversation. In its worst forms this thinking leads to the explicit denial that gay people “can be” Christians. In lighter form it leads to consistent privileging of institutional and organizational interests against those of gay people. Neither form recognizes the God-given dignity inherent in gay people, and both make the Christian life harder for no good reason.
Such is life when Christian leaders see the world through church-political frames. By contrast, my soup-eating pastor pointed to Wesley Hill as someone whose framing of the topic comes primarily from a pastoral-theological mindset. I would add Preston Sprinkle’s book People to be Loved, which is all about seeing gay people as people and not as ideas, or worse, as enemies.
The Amazon pages for Nancy Pearcy’s book Love Thy Body in print and on audiobook have different descriptions.
The print editions have this description:
Why the Call to Love Thy Body? To counter the hostility toward the human body and biological facts of life driving many of today’s headline stories. Many people absorb pre-packaged media mantras on watershed moral issues without being aware of their hurtful real-world implications. Consider:
• Transgenderism: Activists detach gender from biology. Kids down to kindergarten are being taught their body is irrelevant to their authentic self. Is this affirming–or does it demean the body?
•Homosexuality: Advocates disconnect sexuality from being biologically male or female. Is this liberating–or does it denigrate who we really are?
• Abortion: Supporters admit that pre-born babies are human, but deny that they are persons worthy of legal protection. Does this lead to equality for women–or does it threaten the intrinsic dignity of all humans?
• Hookup Culture: On campus, in Hollywood, and in the boardroom, the sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us for recreational sex. But has it really led to schizoid sex and bodies without meaning?
In Love Thy Body, best-selling author Nancy Pearcey goes beyond politically correct talking points to offer a riveting exposé of the dehumanizing secularist ethos that shapes critical moral and socio-political issues of our day.
Formerly an agnostic, Pearcey was hailed in The Economistas”America’s preeminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual.” Fearlessly and with compassion, she makes the case that secularism denigrates the body and destroys the basis for human rights.
Throughout, Pearcey sets forth a holistic and humane alternative available to all–one that offers reality–oriented solutions that embrace the dignity of the human body and provide a sustainable basis for inalienable human rights.
Now, more than ever, we need to learn to “love thy body.”
Then, there are endorsements by Robert George, Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, and Glenn Stanton, of the names I recognize.
But now look at the description from the audiobook edition:
Are transgender people discovering their authentic self? Is the hookup culture really liberating? Does abortion lead to equality for women? Does homosexuality contradict our biological sex?
In Love Thy Body, best-selling and award-winning author Nancy Pearcey takes on the hard questions about life and sexuality. She offers a respectful but riveting exposé of the secular worldview that lies behind trendy slogans and political talking points. A former agnostic, Pearcey is a sensitive guide to the secular ideas that shape current debates. She empowers listeners to intelligently and compassionately engage today’s most controversial moral and social challenges.
In a surprise shattering of stereotypes, Pearcey demonstrates that while secularism promises much, in reality it delivers little. She turns the tables on stereotypes that portray Christianity as harsh and bigoted, and invites a fresh look at its holistic, life-affirming principles: It is a worldview that matches the real world and fits with human experience.
All along, Pearcey keeps listeners entranced with gripping stories of real people wrestling with hard questions in their own lives – sharing their pain, their struggles, and their triumphs.
This description is not followed by endorsements.
Where the second description is warm and friendly (“a sensitive guide” “fresh look at holistic, life-affirming principles” “sharing their pain”), the first description is hostile and adversarial (“to counter” “beyond politically correct talking points” “Fearlessly” is fronted in the pair with “compassion”). Where the second frames its rhetorical questions as benign, detached ideas, the first pre-loads its rhetorical questions with declarative statements (“Activists detach gender from biology” “Advocates disconnect sexuality from being biologically male or female” “Supporters admit that pre-born babies are human, but deny that they are persons worthy of legal protection” “On campus, in Hollywood, and in the boardroom, the sexual revolution was supposed to liberate us for recreational sex”). Notice the difference. Now we aren’t arguing against ideas, or proposing our own constructive ideas. We are arguing against “Activists” “Advocates” “Supporters [of abortion]” and “Hollywood, the boardroom [or those who this applies to], and the sexual revolution.” Suddenly things seem less compassionate. The stakes are raised. We have an enemy in this fight. Even the tailing endorsements on the print editions scream Tribal Affiliation, but no such endorsements are to be found on the audiobook.
I don’t know whether this is Pearcey’s own doing, or the publisher’s work. My understanding is that authors have control over their body-text and title, and that’s about it. Nor do I fault the publishers for resorting to this type of politcking. It sells. What I notice, though, is that the rah rah lets fight spirit in one description comes at the expense of the calm, wise, compassionate spirit in the other. A “church-political,” defense against and purity from mindset bleeds off the page.
Can we do better?
As I try to sketch out the contours of a Christian Sexuality that is faithfully present in the world, I am reminded of this post from a friend last year. (I share this with his permission).
“Cold water! Stay hydrated! Be safe!” “Oh, thank goodness. How much?” “Nothing, it’s free.” “Wait, it’s free?” “Yep. You need more than one?” “Uhh, sure. Thanks. Y’all are doing a really, really good thing… Who are you with?” “We’re just a group of Christians from different local churches, here to make sure folks have some water.”
This conversation happened hundreds of times today. Let it be a parable of free grace for your Sunday. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55)
Had a great time at my first-ever Pride!
@ Downtown St. Louis
I don’t know if you remember that day, but it was nearly 100 degrees and humid. There was talk about cancelling the parades outright because of the heat risk. So this is not mere political posturing — it has real substance. It also declines to antagonize. This small act of grace does not defend against the parade and all it represents, or seek purity from the potentially ‘infectious’ effects of being too close to sinful (gay) people. Nor does it seek relevance to Pride by sacrificing or eliding critical differences between Christian and non-Christian practice. It exemplifies, even typifies, faithful presence within. Loving and serving others to whom we especially owe that love and service. Not recoiling at or restraining from the ‘other.’ Unlike the first description of Pearcy’s book, it does not center our obvious disagreements and reduce gay people to enemy status to score points in our cliques. This small act can teach us what it means to be gay for the world.
Elijah called for a battle between the Lord and the rival nation’s god Ba’al in 1 Kings 18. The Lord showed in dramatic fashion that he is the real God of Israel. This would normally be good, but the king and queen of Israel had adopted Ba’al as one of their gods, so Elijah had committed treason. The wicked queen raged. She sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “O may the gods do to me also, and even more, if I do not kill you by this time tomorrow!” Elijah takes the hint and flees the country.
Elijah flees to the southern desert. His life seems over. He feels alone. Isolated. Think ‘social distancing.’ He sits beneath a thin tree and asks God to kill him. He passes out.
After this point it is unclear whether the narrative occurs in “the real world” or in a surreal dreamscape. Narrated time will begin to move faster, 40 days and 40 nights will pass in a breath, past and present co-mingling into one timeline, miraculous signs will happen at sacred locations, and Elijah ultimately receives a prophetic Word from the Lord. But before that journey, sleeping under the thin tree, an angel comes to wake Elijah. He looks and sees a flask (sappahat) of water and baked bread on coals by his head. “Arise and eat,” says the angel. Elijah does. He goes back to sleep. The angel wakes him up again. “No, you really don’t get it. Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” Elijah eats and drinks again. With strength from the meal, he travels through the desert to Sinai.
From verses 3-17, the text of 1 Kings 19 enters into so many allusions and echoes of earlier texts that I can only describe it as textual recycling. Think of how Revelation alludes to the Old Testament in every single verse. Ignore the allusions and you end up with a bad Left Behind style interpretation. You miss the point unless you can distinguish what is recycled from what is new, or what is old but used in a new way. Same here.
What few notice in this scene is the textual connection to 1 Samuel 26. There, Saul and his men are put into a deep slumber by God, enabling David to sneak through the camp and steal Saul’s spear. Like before, David is showing off that he could kill Saul, but has decided to obey God instead. We see this connection in three ways.
First, the scenes happen in or near the same place: a day’s journey from Beersheeba into the wilderness and the Wilderness of Ziph line up. Because Elijah is from the north, his unfamiliarity with southern place-names makes sense.
Second, the word flask (sappahat) is an extremely uncommon word. It occurs in these two passages, and in the Widow of Zarephath, and that is all. Rare words can imply direct borrowing.
Third, the placement of the flask. While David sneaks by Saul to get his spear, he grabs Saul’s flask which was “at his head” (m’ra’ashot). Similarly, the sleeping Elijah had a flask “at his head,” (m’ra’ashot) the narrator specifies. At five unique occurrences this phrase is not extremely rare, but infrequent enough to suggest direct borrowing.
The textual connection is clear.
So what? When I encountered this passage in a class last semester, I was unsure where to go. Authors allude to older texts for a reason, not just because. These scenes are completely different. What’s the point of sprinkling details from the 1 Samuel passage into the narrative in 1 Kings? Then I realized that the Elijah story adds a key detail: the bread, baked on coals. Saul has his flask, but Elijah his flask and bread. The author uses textual recycling to frame the story but the key is where the new text breaks from the old one.
Sinai. 40. Wandering. Wilderness. Idolatry of the nation. Righteous prophet who destroys the idolaters. Now, bread. These pieces come together in an even broader textual recycling to evoke Moses’s encounter with God (which Elijah is about to have in verse 10) and the Exodus generation. Together they recall an important lesson from those days: God will provide. God will sustain. God gave the wilderness generation manna in the desert, ‘our daily bread,’ which could not be stored yet would appear fresh every day. God provided exactly what they needed in the barrenness and desolation of those days. Not more or less. Not early or late. God provided Elijah with water and bread, manna, for his journey, and he was nourished. God also provided ‘socially,’ so to speak, by correcting Elijah: he is not alone. There are 6000 in Israel who have not worshiped Ba’al.
Tell me if any of this feels familiar. Elijah felt isolated and lonely. The coming 40 days seemed unbearable. Death threatens the near future. Everything that his country should be was falling apart before his eyes. He resented the inept leadership running his people into the ground. He felt not just physical need but also social need. The parallels to today are clear.
The extreme circumstances that drove Elijah into solitude in the desert caused him to feel these things. But behind those circumstances remained the challenge to trust God. Elijah failed this challenge, calling out “better to die than to live. O Lord, take away my life.” Trusting God was easy when God destroyed the enemy in an outrageous battle and then Elijah got to slaughter all the enemy priests in triumph. That was an easy time to trust God. When Elijah was exiled from his homeland and running for his life, stumbling through the desert, starving, a day out from seeing another soul? That’s hard. Those are times that try a man’s soul.
If you thought you trusted God when everything went well, but fail to trust him now that things look bad, you may be surprised to realize that you have never trusted God at all. You enjoyed the material and social comfort provided by God, and called that enjoyment “trust.”
The recycling of old texts and themes in 1 Kings 19 has a double effect: it brings the main ideas of those older texts into the mix of ideas in the new text, and more generally it causes the reader to remember. Look what God has done in the past. His faithfulness lasts through all generations. See his provision in yesteryear and know that he will provide again. Deuteronomy 8 makes the point, on which we will close:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
My true personality will be fulfilled in the Mystical Christ in this one way above all, that through me, Christ and His Spirit will be able to love you and all men of God the Father in a way that would be possible in no one else.
Love comes out of God and gathers us to God in order to pour itself back into God through all of us and bring us all back to Him on the tide of His own infinite mercy.
So we all become doors and windows through which God shines back into His own house.
When the Love of God is in me, God is able to love you through me and you are able to love God through me. If my soul were closed to that love, God’s love for you and your love for God and God’s love for Himself in you and in me, would be denied the particular expression which it finds through me and through no other.
Because God’s love is in me, it can come to you from a different and special direction that would be closed if He did not live in me, and because His love is in you, it can come to me from a quarter which it would not otherwise come. And because it is in both of us, God has greater glory. His love is expressed in two more ways in which it would not otherwise be expressed; that is, in two more joys that could not exist without Him.
This morning I proctored a test for the Intro to Philosophy class that I TA. Before we began, I said welcome to class on Columbus Day, our worst holiday, and that I have a theologically subversive prayer from the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Here it is:
O God, who hast made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after thee and find thee; bring the nations into thy fold; pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of thy kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The reconciling work of the Son who preaches to those near (Jews) and those far (Gentiles) confirms God’s creation of humanity as of one blood. Our reconciliation is no more than, and certainly no less than, a participation in the redemptive reconciliation that God has already begun in the death of Jesus and decisively achieved in his resurrection. I don’t have much power, in the world or over my life or at my university, but I do get to pray before Philosophy tests, and the reconciling power of the Gospel can be proclaimed here as well.