When we visited the house on Lilac Lane, we found it empty. By curb appeal you would never know. Someone, either the neighbors or the title deed owners, must keep up the exterior to ward off looters, squatters, and teens, like us. Payten, Ty and me were high school juniors back then. For fun and for cash we fixed motorbike engines and broken lawnmowers. One day we would make it, us three, and start an auto shop together.
“Hey Brendan, Ty, look here,” Payten said. I turned to him pointing down two feet at an egress window he had pulled open. “No latch,” he said. We climbed down, contorting ourselves to slip through and land on our feet in the basement. Ty turned on his phone flashlight. The unfinished basement had cement floors, uncovered pink insulation, pvc pipes, exposed copper wire pressed against the ceiling as it traveled on its way. Several plastic tubs sat closed on the other side of the basement. We went to them. Payten opened one, but it was empty. So were the others.
The steps groaned. I reached the top first and found a light switch, but it didn’t work. The house had no power. The kitchen cabinets were empty, and the gaps between them outlined spaces where the stove, refrigerator, microwave, and dishwasher had once done their duties. Around a corner we found the living room and in it an old chair, tipped on its side. The living room opened into a front room with a piano. The keys were left open, and a song rested on the stand, open to neither the first nor the last page, like someone had bolted the house mid-performance.
Upstairs were three bedrooms and two bathrooms, all empty, devoid of furniture but with little spots pressed into the carpet where everything heavy had once been. Ty pressed his hand against the window and looked out onto the street below. There was only dark. “When do you think they left?” he asked. “From how it looks,” Payten replied, “they left fast but fully.” Ty stared and stared. We went back to the main floor. The house was lame. We broke in because someone at school mentioned it. Sounded like a haunted house or at least a place to get spooked. Instead we were disappointed. We sat around on the kitchen floor facing the well-manicured backyard. “Who keeps up this place?” I asked. “You do,” the house replied.
Every Thursday after school I had mowed the lawn. The flowers under the porch needed watering every third day, so I went Sundays, too. Each Spring I bought new mulch to lay around the bushes, which I trimmed when they needed it. When Fall came I pressure washed the siding. Taking care of the house kept me busy. It was difficult work. The owners had left without telling anyone. Taking care of the house felt like taking care of them. I would rake the leaves and prune the trees and think about how much this place must have mattered to them — it was their everything, I bet. Someday soon I will leave this house behind. But if I go, know that I have prepared a place for you.
Brother Jeremy wore his Sunday best. His black pinstripe suit and baby blue paisley tie clashed hard. His presence clashed similarly with the room, a serious man against silly walls with random items strung up on fishing wire to serve as quirky decorations. He was the only one over 30 and the only one taking himself seriously. His sermon hit all the usual notes — I had been in these chairs before. Heaven and Hell. Repentance and Salvation. Judgment and Wrath. He wanted to scare us onto the path of righteousness.
We were the company of mockers. Bro. Jeremy had the slightest stutter, and each time he tripped over his words the merciless students in our youth group grinned and looked around. His sermon that Wednesday night meandered through the Romans Road. Already out of breath by chapter one, he read: “For the wrath of God is revealed from h-heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He reached the third chapter when Steve who ran the soundboard tried to adjust the microphone but unleashed a feedback shriek loud enough to pierce my right ear. Bro. Jeremy, distracted and annoyed, tried to continue. America’s sins forced God to destroy her with hurricanes and wildfires. Abortion, drugs and alcohol, fornication and homosexuality, R-rated movies, card playing, school dances, string bikinis, punk music, atheism, Islam, and more were unleashing national destruction and betraying the investment God had made in our promised land. My friend passed a note my way. I opened it to find a crude sketch of Bro. Jeremy. I laughed, hushed but with poor timing, throwing off his sermon again. Across the room a volunteer leader had to tell a girl to please close her flip phone, thank you. “Nothing in this life m-matters if you live for yourself,” Bro. Jeremy tried to thunder. “For all have sinned and come short of the g-glory of God.”
He said nothing new. I listened anyway. The invitation had promised there would be pizza and snacks later. My hunger gnawed at me. I saw some unfamiliar faces at tonight’s revival gathering. Next to Lauren Brooks sat Samatha Reynolds, who was in my algebra class that year but had never been to our church before. She was quiet and unassuming but popular in our school. A few seats past her, Connor Hall, my neighbor down the block, sat and fidgeted. He skateboarded and cussed and drank beer when he could sneak it. He must have believed the invitation. His mistake. “For the wages of sin is death,” said Bro. Jeremy.
Our youth room tried to capture the fun spontaneity that young people brought, but contained it within the cold, disciplined asceticism that old people would fund. Like youth ministry at large, this room sat at the intersection between traditions with deep roots and well-funded spokesmen, and the revolutions brought about by youth culture, motivated by logic inscrutable to the elders. Youth groups trained young whippersnappers to stay off the old man’s lawn, so to speak. They bent our lives into irregular, disjointed forms to satisfy the regretful nostalgia of boomers discontent with the mistakes they made in the age of free love. Here the room consisted of chairs arranged toward the pulpit, an altar used solely for altar calls, and on the left wing, a ping-pong table and refrigerator. Lemon and lime and cherry walls surrounded this kitschy take on the ancient assembly, whose routines we reenacted weekly with more or less earnestness and intensity. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
I glanced at the clock to see how much longer Bro. Jeremy would go on, though no clock could answer that question. Glancing back, something caught my eye. Someone. He was new here. Didn’t go to my school. Blonde hair, green eyes, green shirt. On his shirt a name tag sticker hung half attached.
HELLO, MY NAME IS Noah
I wondered where he came from and who he knew here. In our small town, there weren’t many other teenagers than those who went to my school or went to our church. I kept looking at him. He looked like an athlete, probably popular wherever he was from, and comfortable in this room, despite sitting alone and being new. Somehow he kept my attention. As Bro. Jeremy rambled on, I found my gaze drifting over to Noah again and again. What was he like? Would he become a regular in our group? Would he ever want to be my friend? I looked down at my Bible, trying to focus back on the message. “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” But Noah held my focus. I looked back at him.
The summer before, our youth group went to Devil’s Lake State Park up north. Fifteen of us, three leaders and the rest high schoolers, went to the lake there and relaxed for an afternoon. We went to a roller coaster park in town, too. Come nightfall we slept in tents on uneven ground and had to scramble to drape tarps when an unexpected storm rolled through. The trip was not all that religious, it turned out. Just fun activities and some games to help us bond as a group for three days. One day we hiked an uphill trail in the State Park. Our leaders said it was a real hike, but worth it to see Devil’s Doorway at the end. Ancient as the Ice Age, this formation perplexes scientists, our leaders told us, since they can’t explain it using natural processes. Only God could make this pile of rocks. The State Park had gotten its name from settlers who misinterpreted the natives. “Spirit Lake” in their tongue sounded like “Devil’s Lake” in ours, and so it was. To those settlers this rock formation looked like a door, and so it was. Our leaders did not know this history, and spun some yarn about God making these rocks to throw Satan through them into the lake beyond.
We reached the bluffs after an hour struggling along rocky and ill-kept paths. Damp heat made it harder and we hiked with much grumbling and complaining. At the bluffs, you have to make it two feet across a small fissure to reach the Doorway. It seemed benign until we saw the sign indicating that people had died trying to cross it and the liability was all on us. I walked up to that fissure and paused. Others went ahead and started taking pictures on their digital cameras at the Doorway. I went a few paces left and looked over the bluffs, down two hundred, three hundred feet into the dense woods below and the wide lake beyond. As I came closer to the edge I slowed down. The edge attracted me with an unspoken magnetism. My curiosity grew. What was over that edge? Where did it come from? Who does it know here?
Even as the edge drew me closer, something in me recoiled, repulsed by the draw, afraid of what dangers these bluffs hold and eager to stay far, far away in the safe territory. People had died here. The fall could take me too. Polar forces of attraction and repulsion, wanting to come nearer and stay further, left me unsure how to move. I looked over to my group, having fun on the other side of the rock fissure, taking photos at Devil’s Doorway. They laughed and pretended to push one another. Carefree. I crawled backward from my squat position and stood, determined to join my friends. But as I got closer to the fissure my knees bent and I crouched down again, like a reflex built into my legs had activated. I backed up again and stood to try another time but I could not do it. I realized after a minute that I wouldn’t get a picture taken at Devil’s Doorway. I would have to save the sight in my memory, standing from here. I took a long look.
“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Bro. Jeremy now came closer to what in any reasonable sermon would have been the conclusion. An altar call was imminent. As he pressed into Paul’s Gospel, my eyes focused somewhere else. Noah shifted his body weight in his chair, gentle as a breeze might ease a yellow tulip into another posture. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Noah looked up and caught my eye. I looked down.
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.
This blog began on 11/20/15. Something in my AP Literature class inspired me to write more, and to put my writing out there to be subjected to scrutiny. That scrutiny has been great for my writing. Blogging through college and seminary helped me to avoid developing an overcomplicated, jargon-heavy academic style. My blog also has had some big moments of its own, most notably my coming out post in March 2019. This little project has become part of my story and part of me as well.
I don’t know how much I will be blogging anymore. Church work is hard and bitter and Christians can be quite judgmental. Sometimes this is good for leaders (James 3:1) but often it is not, so putting my most controversial ideas out there online can become more of a liability than an asset.
With that said, there is effectively no way for me to shut up, so the blog will continue and I will have to write wisely. I have a few focused arguments that I think need to be made. So I’ll make those arguments and otherwise try to post devotionally, writing out of reflective curiosity and generous love. In that spirit here is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people.
Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us. The writing itself reveals to us what is alive in us. The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write. To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know. Thus, writing requires a real act of trust. We have to say to ourselves: “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.” Writing is like giving away the few loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving. Once we dare to “give away” on paper the few thoughts that come to us, we start discovering how much is hidden underneath these thoughts and gradually come in touch with our own riches.
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.
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.
I have tried to hold back and even now will keep holding back. Half of what demands to be said is too hard to say well, for the emotions but no less for the sake of precision. I’m writing about the secret motivations of others, and about my own interior life, and about these big abstract entities called “evangelicalism” and “homophobia.” The margin of error is wider than the target. But something needs to be written so that this time can be known after my memory fades. Put shortly: my life has bled fire and I don’t recognize the person I was a year ago.
Winter and Spring
January, February, and March were spent working up the nerve to come out publicly. I wrote an essay and edited it for months. In conversation after conversation I came out early to those who deserved to know. These months held a sense of rising action, my life animated by plot, suspense. But I was unprepared for the mix of reactions I would receive. I had found an article saying everything would go great. That, along with many conversations with (straight) professors and pastors left me clueless about what would come.
My former employer denied me a job because I came out, and then offered me another, lesser job on specious conditions that amounted to workplace harassment on the basis of sexual orientation. (Of course, I turned that down, as it was not a legitimate offer at all). It was unfair and it burned. I spent hours of those days screaming in my room. I would rant what I wish I had said. Whenever my mind went quiet, the rage would return. One time I remembered it while alone in the car. I beat the steering wheel until my right hand bruised. This lasted for months. At the same time, I had to bottle these emotions because of the reactions I kept getting from others across my Christian life. I couldn’t handle everything at once.
April and May. The anger I felt about losing my job continued. A roommate didn’t talk to me for 3 weeks after coming out. Some people at church said things. [Redacted so that I don’t get another angry message from them for talking about them online]. Another person said another thing, but worse. Most people said exactly nothing ever. I was failing Hebrew, the hardest class I had ever taken. I would open Quizlet to study vocab and start to shake, my blood pressure surging. I would cry myself to sleep the nights before that class. The stress of grad school (for which my undergrad was no help) grew along with questions about whether any church would ever take me as a pastor. If not, why bother with Hebrew? I scraped rock bottom between this class and the rejection I felt from work and alienation from church and school…
Meanwhile, something worse happened. A camper from my cabin in 2016, 17, and 18, who I loved deeply, committed suicide. I have never grieved someone’s death so hard. I felt survivor’s guilt. He had looked up to me. Could I have done more? Said something? My last words to him were that I wouldn’t see him that summer because I wasn’t on staff anymore. His loss gnawed at me, and I became empty and hopeless. I listened to sad songs on repeat and thought about death, immobile on the Lower Waybright couch for hours. I wrote him letters and tore them up, because none worked. While this wound was still raw, every additional perceived slight related to my sexuality was 10x harder. The worst timed example was the day before his visitation, when I was brought into a trick meeting about sexuality [redacted to avoid angry emails etc]. It broke my trust in a few key people.
Summer and Fall
The school year ended, and I lived as a hermit on campus for the summer. Alone, isolated, desolate. Any church conflict froze because we went on summer schedule. My feelings of ostracization and exclusion cemented. But there was a single beacon of hope: the Revoice Conference. Finally, a place where I felt no need to defend or justify myself. Or even explain myself. They already got it. Everything was very warm, very gay, very celibate. I have never felt more at home. But that week ended, and my isolation on campus resumed. I would go half-weeks without seeing another person.
A professor at school recruited me into a high school leadership program for two weeks. I instantly said yes — people! After I decided to join and only logistics remained, I was told to be closeted for the two weeks. Delete social media posts, etc. This was hard for me, but worse, it impacted someone else more than myself. The program slowly became a living hell that I regretted joining. Then, the summer continued. The job that rejected me took me for one week, no conditions, because they were short staffed. This was incredible (and hypocritical). It became a week of joy, healing, and growth. It also compounded my anger. I have a vivid memory of scream-weeping on the floor when I found out that an LGBT student had decided to follow Jesus because of a conversation we had. Why was I there for 6 days instead of 10 weeks? The bitter truth: the gospel does not matter. Keeping the status quo does.
It became impossible to separate the voices. One person’s stray remark over lunch blended into another’s haphazard Facebook screed. The friend “just trying to wrap his mind around the whole thing” and the stranger arguing that gay people are inherently pedophilic were not the same person, but they might as well have been. Those who gave me an awkward cold shoulder for months, those who talked to me with false enthusiasm to make sure I felt “welcomed,” and those who accused me of living in sin behind my back but would never confront me — all different people, all one person. The friend so behind on this topic that his only analysis was that “some people are just behind on this topic.” Everyone became one voice, each guilty of what all the others had said and done.
August. New semester. I got an email that changed everything. [Redacted to avoid angry responses]. My whiplash reaction was a pathetic attempt to hold it together, but everything was falling apart regardless. [Redacted an entire paragraph]. After that experience, it became clear that things needed to change. October. I left my church for good, trying to find a place that would do more than tolerate my existence as a celibate gay man. [Redacted]. I eventually found one. Things have inched towards improving since then. I made it through the fall and early winter. There were episodes of week-long blues, laying around for days doing nothing, unable to make myself try. Gazing out my window, lifeless, watching dry leaves fall, also lifeless. I kept up counseling and have tried to process what has happened, especially [redacted] and the loss from that. The semester ended and I somehow passed all my classes.
In short. I took a huge risk, unaware it was a risk at all, and it worked against me. Then, the various aspects of my life each went up in flames. Other unrelated bad things that happened (Hebrew issues and my camper dying) were accelerants for the fire. The resulting blaze killed the me I used to know. My experience of God, my theology, my most important relationships, my career direction, even my personality have been caused to change. In November and December I have been rebuilding something of myself from the bare foundations: the Resurrection of Jesus, the people who supported me, and my testimony. I don’t have much else.
I turned 22 but aged to 30 at least. Everything looks different now. The world is bigger, more interconnected, more threatening, and more fragile but more worth saving. I overcame my irony poisoning and became more earnest, sincere, and direct. I am less sarcastic, because less things seem funny. I am softer and quieter. My cynicism is deeper. I act like I have a constant headache. When things got really hard, I didn’t have the capacity to care about my skincare routine or exercising or cleaning my dorm. I let myself go in these and other ways. I didn’t and don’t care. It became hard to do my school work even though it felt like it mattered for the first time. Anything unnecessary about my exegetical method melted. What remained was concentrated and serious. Unflinching. My way of interacting with others changed. Little pet peeves became irrelevant. Tap your pencil against the table, leave your coffee grounds in the sink, fake-laugh at my jokes, I don’t care. Just don’t tell me that my faith requires me to “chemically castrate” myself, and we’re good.
I have lost hope that evangelicalism can be a welcoming or even hospitable place for gay people. Burn it to the ground and start over. I don’t know whether I will apply for pastoral jobs when I graduate, but if so, it will not be in the kind of churches I have always called home. If no pastoral routes work, I could continue to nerd away at a PhD program. I hate that the only reason I would do a doctorate would be because virulent homophobia has killed my other options, where my real passions lie (i.e., student ministry). Also unfortunately, my grades have been bad enough this year that I would need to do a successful ThM first. I want to avoid this path if at all possible.
Things will get better. Or who knows, maybe 2019 was tame compared to what 2020 holds. I am not a prophet. But I know that this year has been bitter, and I shouldn’t sweeten it with the conclusion that I have become a better person for enduring it. No. I would be a more faithful follower of Jesus today if it wasn’t for all this. I wouldn’t be filled with rage. I wouldn’t have half-seriously considered leaving Christianity altogether. I wouldn’t have repeatedly lost my will to live. Sure, I gain “having a great testimony,” but everybody just wants the bragging rights that comes with that, not the traumatic experience itself. Everything has hurt. Everything has died. Where did I go? The Ross who lived before will live on only as memory:
They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sun and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.
Thirteen days early, I present to you my picks for the best films of the decade. Some notes before we start:
• Uncut Gems, Little Women, A Hidden Life or Star Wars IX could conceivably make the cut, but they get snubbed for releasing in the final week of the decade.
• I haven’t seen everything, obviously, so I can only pull from the 273 feature-length films of the 2010’s I have seen.
• Zero of these films are family-friendly. Do not watch them with kids. (Honorable Mention Faces Places would be the sole exception).
• I also include info on how to rent/buy/stream each film.
Honorable Mentions: Faces Places (2017), We the Animals (2018), The Master (2012) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), Arrival (2016), Mad Max: Fury Road (2014), The Favourite (2018).
10. Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkins directs this adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The film explores the life of Chiron Harris, a gay black man raised in poverty in Miami. Moonlight depicts his coming-of-age with an abusive family, his sexuality, and his struggle to find belonging in the black community. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes portray Chiron as a child, teen, and adult, each performance flawless. Moonlight is a film of pure visual poetry, always showing, never telling, never pausing to explain or justify itself. The simple beauty of the film is in its visual style and its narrow focus on one highly intersectional experience. It won Best Picture after the famous La La Land gaffe, as well as winning Best Adapted Screenplay and the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Drama.
Available on: Netflix (subscription), Amazon Prime ($2.99), or YouTube ($0.99).
9. Leviathan (2014)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, this Russian film follows a man’s eviction from his home, divorce from his wife, and battle with the town’s corrupt mayor, all at once. Leviathan doubles as a cipher for the Biblical character Job, and the everyman of Putin’s Russia, trying to survive in a system of pure power. One critic writes, Leviathan “deals with some of the most important social issues of contemporary Russia while never becoming an artist’s sermon or a public statement; it is a story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people.”
Available on: Youtube ($0.99) and Amazon Prime ($2.99).
8. Lean on Pete (2018)
Andrew Haigh’s latest film follows Charley Thompson (played to perfection by Charlie Plummer) as his already decrepit life completely falls apart. He has nothing but a trusty horse named Pete. Charley’s journey interacts with issues of fatherlessness, teen homelessness, and life in “flyover country” America. Haigh’s visual style is perfect for this coming-of-age character study, which he filmed with maximum compassion and humanism. To be honest, I may be the only person putting Lean on Pete in my best of the decade list, half because it connected with me in a unique way and half because it went criminally under the radar. Critic Austin Dale listed it his favorite of last year, calling it “both the most American film of the year and the year’s toughest sell.”
Available on: Amazon Prime (subscription) and YouTube ($0.99).
7. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Based on the pre-civil war slave memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon Northup’s kidnapping into slavery and years of toil on the plantation. Steve McQueen directs a rockstar cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Luita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and even Brad Pitt for a moment. Guys, this movie is so brutal. Don’t watch it lightly. It is jarring and should make you very, very angry. It also withstood historical scrutiny better than most period pieces: Emily West, a historian who specializes in this period, commented that she had “never seen a film represent slavery so accurately.” Which is to say, so horrifically.
Available on: YouTube ($0.99), iTunes ($3.99) and Amazon ($3.99).
6. Boyhood (2014)
Filmed scene-by-scene over 14 years with the same child actor as he grew into adulthood, Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s masterpiece. The plot structure is unique: per Wikipedia, Boyhood “began without a completed script, with only basic plot points and the ending written initially. Linklater developed the script throughout production, writing the next year’s portion of the film after rewatching the previous year’s footage. He incorporated changes he saw in each actor into the script, while also allowing all major actors to participate in the writing process by incorporating their life experiences into their characters’ stories.” What emerged from this process resembles life itself, with its ongoing aimlessness punctuated by briefly meaningful moments. Boyhood is the ultimate coming-of-age movie. I am not convinced that a better one could be conceived even in theory.
Available on: Amazon Prime ($2.99) or The Criterion Channel (subscription).
5. Parasite (2019)
How do you make a movie twice as good as that year’s second place? Bong Joon-ho knows, apparently, and everyone else has been put to shame as Parasite enjoys its perch atop the Letterboxd Top 250 films list. Literally, it sits at the #1 highest rated film of all time, above both Godfathers. The film follows a poor Korean family as they… fold pizza boxes. (Hahahahahahaha). That is all I was told going into the movie, and honestly, the less you know, the better. Likely winner of this year’s Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film.
Available on: there is currently no legal way to view Parasite. It will release on Amazon Prime on January 14, 2020 for $14.99. Around the same time it will probably also reappear in theaters as Oscars season heats up.
4. First Reformed (2018)
Ethan Hawke stars in this instant-classic as a country pastor in a dwindling congregation. First Reformed offers a provocative commentary on the relationship between capitalism and religion, a commentary as enlightening as it is horrifying, mystifying, and electric. The ending is intentionally incomprehensible. It doesn’t make any sense and it isn’t supposed to make any sense. I have come to love viewing this movie against its precursors (Wise Blood, Winter Light, and Diary of a Country Priest), because Schrader is not generating his own narrative as much as he is parodying and inverting these existing narratives into something new. In that sense, First Reformed is at once completely unoriginal, and highly, highly original. You probably won’t like it, but First Reformed plays like lightning.
Available on: Amazon Prime (subscription) and YouTube ($0.99).
3. A Separation (2011)
This Iranian drama won a billion awards including Best Foreign Language Film and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay (rare for a non-English movie). Its subjects, a married couple seeking divorce and the husband’s senile father, become enmeshed in a web of spin and half-truths that by the end create a disaster threatening to ruin lives. The dialogue comes fast and heavy and disorients your sense of objectivity. I recommend you drink a full cup of coffee before pressing play.
Available on: Netflix (subscription), Amazon Prime ($2.99) and YouTube ($0.99).
2. Burning (2018)
An erotic philosophical thriller, and perhaps the only film to receive all three of those adjectives, Burning was my #1 of last year — by far. Set in South Korea and following a devolving love triangle between the protagonist (Yoo Ah-in), the antagonist (Steven Yeun) and the girl (Jun Jong-seo), the film slowly descends into a purgatory of confusion and disbelief before pivoting and diving into absolute hellfire. Burning explores male sexuality in an honor-shame culture, leading to a very different analysis than Western audiences would expect. It also threatens to destroy you, the viewer. When the film finished I sat immobilized in raw shock for what felt like an hour. I have never seen anything like Burning.
Available on: Netflix (subscription), YouTube ($0.99), and Amazon Prime ($2.99).
1. The Tree of Life (2011)
“Is it hyperbole,” asks my friend and fellow reviewer Travis Kyker, “to call this cinema’s Sistine Chapel?” No, Travis. No it is not. The Tree of Life is the Magnum Opus not only of Terrence Malick’s career but also of Christian filmmaking in general. The non-linearity, the abstract plot structure, the twenty un-interrupted minutes of footage of life’s evolution on Earth, this one’s got ’em all, baby. Understanding The Tree of Life on first watch is as likely as understanding the Bible on first read, or maybe less likely. It is a film so simple in structure and execution that it ends up meaning everything. What makes The Tree of Life so unique, in addition to the plot, cinematography, acting, scripting, pacing, special fx, framing, themes, and overall concept, is that this movie emanates from the heart of Malick’s own religious experience. Nobody else could have directed this film, for the technical reasons above but also because it would never mean anything coming from someone else. This film exists in the narrow space between impressionism and expressionism: Malick expressing himself in a way that only impress its meaning upon the viewer insofar as the viewer already shares Malick’s expression in themselves. The Tree of Life speaks a double code language, indecipherable to those outside the world of art cinema, but more importantly, indecipherable to those outside the transcendent religious experience Malick explores.
Available on: Hulu (but only with Cinemax add-on for $9.99/month), Amazon Prime ($3.99), or YouTube ($3.99).
Thanks for reading. I will be posting my Best of 2019 list soon.