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Myth, legend, dust

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.

Memory

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.

Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper

Best Films of the Decade

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).

That’s all!

Thanks for reading. I will be posting my Best of 2019 list soon.

New Thoughts on Romans 1

There is a creative freedom to my reading of the Bible’s homosexuality texts that began when I realized that none of the six passages are essential. Everything necessary for a non-affirming stance can come from Genesis 1-3. God has created humans in his image in distinctly complementary sexes. Men are men in the image of God insofar as their relations to women are distinctly male, and Women likewise with men. Genesis creates basic assumptions about the purpose and function of men and women as distinct, sexed, and complimentary products of God’s creation. These basic assumptions continue to resurface throughout the canon. For example, Ephesians 5 is not a text that mentions homosexuality, but I think it matters more in our theology of sexuality than any of the texts that outright name the topic. I think even if the standard six texts — Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1 — did not exist, the Biblical prohibition of same-sex marriage would remain.

In that light, I have come to love the exegesis of these chapters. The pressure is off. They can say whatever they really say, and any number and combination of the affirming or non-affirming interpretations may be right for any of the texts. None of it will lead to an affirmation of same-sex marriage anyway, so some texts may be truncated in their reach by the affirming interpretations. And that’s okay, if the interpretations are convincing. I do not think many of them are, but some, here and there, are actually great exegetical observations. In this post I want to talk about 5 valid considerations on Romans 1 which should shape our understanding of that passage. None of these points are intended to indicate that I’ve changed my mind on the topic as a whole. Instead, I love the text too much to misread it whenever a better reading is on the table.

1. Wisdom of Solomon

I can’t describe my shock when someone first showed me this point. Paul’s discussion of idolatry and sexual sin in Romans 1 looks a whole lot like Wisdom of Solomon’s discussion of those same topics (ch. 13-14). The logic of that text works like this: sexual sin is caused by idolatry. Gentile nations worship idols, which is why we also see that Gentile nations practice wild sexual sin. Israel does not practice idolatry, and so, does not have widespread sexual sin. This is also why marrying Gentiles is so bad. Not because it defiles the bloodline (a 19th/20th century concept), but because it leads to idolatry with their foreign gods and so also sexual immorality.

What Paul, then, is really doing is Romans 1 is this. He is agreeing with Wisdom of Solomon in its straightforward observation that idolatry leads to sexual sin, but he is going to disagree with the reason for that, or that Israel is any less sinful. If that is true, then Wisdom of Solomon, while not scripture, is essential to understanding the argument of Romans. It is a crucial piece of the background noise of 1st century Judaism against which we have to read the New Testament.

There is a book called God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul by Jonathan Linebaugh that I really, really, need to read, which makes this argument at full academic level. In the meantime, reading those two chapters in the link above is a great place to start.

2. Shape of the Discourse in ch. 1-3

That point leads into this point. Romans 1:26-27 is part of the larger context of Romans 1:18-31, and this is often acknowledged. Less often, though, is it put into the even wider context of Romans ch. 1-3 in their entirety. There is a shape to this whole discourse that helps us understand not just what Romans 1:18-31 (and so, 1:26-27) is saying, but also how that content functions in Paul’s argument.

The shape, roughly, goes like this. Paul agrees with the author of Wisdom of Solomon in Romans 1 that idolatry is stupid and that sexual sin and even all kinds of other sins result from idolatry. But in ch. 2 he abruptly pivots to another perspective (“But you”). Where before he had been railing against the Gentiles, he now turns to his fellow Jews and says, “Yes, that’s true about them, and sure you don’t have idolatry, and you even have the perfect embodiment of the law in Torah, but you STILL practice all the same sins as the Gentiles.” Even though Paul has agreed with the content of Wisdom of Solomon’s basic claim, he here disagrees with its argumentative function. The idolatrous Gentiles’ sin is actually not reason to gloat and be proud for our (Jewish) righteousness, Paul thinks. Instead, Paul introduces a different theological principle in ch. 3. Everyone is sinful. The everyone here is not intended to mean “every individual single person,” although that is also true, but it is mainly meant to say “both Jews and Gentiles.” Every national group is sinful.

What Paul does in these chapters is level the ground beneath the feet of Jews and Gentiles alike, affirming the types of sin that result from idolatry, but asserting that non-idolaters also sin anyways. (Later in ch. 5 he goes into why, which is Adam’s original sin impacting all humanity).

I first got this point from a podcast interview with Tim Gombis. He thinks, and he is right, that we need to follow “the whole thrust of the logic of Romans.” Gombis argues (35min mark &f.) that the discourse structure of ch. 1-3 is shaped to condemn exactly the kind of people who would use 1:26-27 as a clobber passage to condemn gay people. How ironic. So then, it would seem that the shape of the discourse in ch. 1-3 would prevent us from taking 1:26-27 out of its argumentative function and using it to isolate one class of people as uniquely sinful.

3. No Concept of Sexual Orientation

There was no concept of sexual orientation in the first century. There wasn’t such a concept until the late 1800’s, for that matter. So, what is Paul referring to in 1:26-27 when he clearly describes men having sex with men and women with women?

I don’t mean they didn’t understand what homosexuality was. I mean that in Greco-Roman society same-sex sexuality was socially constructed differently than we socially construct it today. Today, it is a categorical mark of personhood because it is fixed from birth/puberty/biology and defines how the rest of society interacts with you for your whole life. In our society, in the popular understanding, you are either straight, or gay. If you are bisexual, you are mentally lumped in with gay as “non-straight,” because our society is highly heteronormative.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, same-sex sex was common between male masters and their male slaves. Similarly, adult male tutors would have pedophilic sex with male children students, and it was not condemned as a part of 1st century sexuality. Gay sex was also common in temple prostitution for the local gods and in mystery cults. None of these are “sexual orientation” like we think about that concept today. I have even heard it claimed by someone, I forgot who, that “everyone was just vaguely bi” back then, because there was no defining standard for heterosexuality, and polyamory and free sex were common practices anyways. The Greco-Roman world was far more sexually diverse than 2019 America, and whether that is hard to accept says more about you than it says about Paul’s social context.

So it has been proposed that what Paul must mean in 1:26-27 is not “gay people,” or anything to do with sexual orientation, but instead basically straight people who are so full of lust that they turn to gay sex. I say “basically straight people” because sexual orientation did not exist, and to be male (per Genesis) is to relate to women in a way that is distinctly male, and vice versa. You are attracted to women not because you are straight, but because you are a man. In this reading of the text, Paul must mean that gay sex is not a lesser form of straight sex but a further, more powerful, more raw and lustful form of sex. Paul is criticizing this practice after vv. 24-25 because same-sex sex is an even greater example of the sexual fallenness he describes in those verses.

Notice my move there. I just accepted the affirming argument that sexual orientation did not exist in the Greco-Roman world, but still argued that Paul sees the sex described in vv. 26-27 as sinful, and even, more sinful.

4. Break between vv. 24-25 and vv. 26-27

Shorter point here. One significant feature of the text in 1:24-27 is that they should never be grouped this way because there is an intentional break between them. Paul finishes his point about people serving the creation (idols) with their bodies (sexual sin), then mentions the name of God and promptly lets out a hearty ὅς ἐστιν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν. ([God] who is forever praised, amen). Even without the amen, this sentence would neatly divide 24-25 from 26-27. But with the amen, they become entirely separate points with distinct content and distinct rhetorical functions. We should read 1:24-25 as not being about gay sex at all, which only enters the conversation at 1:26. The payoff of this idea is that now Paul spends as much space in 1:24-25 criticizing straight sexual immorality as he does in 1:26-27 criticizing same-sex sexual immorality. Not that that equalizes or levels the two forms of immorality to be the same. Instead, it makes the second a “step further” than the former. They (1:24-25 and 1:26-27) are not the same point, and the first is logically prior to the second.

5. Gay Sex Joke / Play on Words in v. 27

There is no way I am the first person to argue this, absolutely no way, but I can’t find anyone else making this point. I read 1:27 with a certain innuendo. Paul says that men who have sex with men receive “in themselves” what is due for their errors. The phrase is ἐν ἑαυτοῖς , en + the dative 3mp pronoun. I’m not sure how else to read this other than as a Spatial Dative, they received “inside themselves” what is due for their errors, they received “in their physical bodies” what is due for their errors, they received “in their anus” what is due for their errors. I think Paul is intentionally phrasing this sentence to be a play on words so that the “due penalty” is not some abstract punishment from God but instead it is the physical pain of having to receive gay sex.

There is another possible connection here with Wisdom of Solomon 14:26, which normally just gets translated as “homosexuality” but the particular words are interesting as well. There it reads γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή , “inverted nature” [not philosophical nature/essence, but physical nature]. Could Paul be glossing this verse from Wisdom of Solomon and expanding what he thinks it means?

Or alternatively, it could be that “what is due” is that they receive shame (ἀσχημοσύνην, v. 27) and dishonor (ἀτιμίας, v. 26) for having gay sex. In that case, we go back to the Greco-Roman mindset, where it is not shameful to give gay sex, but it is shameful to receive gay sex, because the receiving partner is the “feminine” of the two, and for a man to be cast as feminine in any way is a source of social shame. This would accord well with the joke Paul appears to be making. Shame and dishonor would be the penalty which someone receiving gay sex receives “in themselves.”

Conclusion

We have been over-simplifying this passage since forever, but complicating it does not need to lead in an affirming direction. It can be more complicated than we learned in Jr. High youth group, and still align with the broader assumptions about men and women in the divine image which began in Genesis 1-3 and continued throughout the canon. This post doesn’t answer every question about the affirming hermeneutic, but I hope it demonstrates the kind of stance I take. I am very open to the exegetical claims, but highly skeptical that they lead anywhere in our broader theology of sexuality.

Photo by adrian on Unsplash

Doors and Windows

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.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 67.

My morning Resurrection liturgy

I have felt lately that my morning devotional time could benefit from structure. So I wrote an outline. It takes about 45 minutes to follow. This liturgy isn’t entirely about but still centers on the Resurrection. Here it is:

I. Opening Prayer
Father God, thank you for today and the daily gift of life. Grant me this morning your holy presence. Allow me to focus in the fog of early morning hours. Help me to see Jesus, resurrected and embodied, in all of today. Be with me in this time. I pray these things in the authority of Jesus’s name. Amen.

II. The Resurrection of Jesus
(Read these passages aloud, in this order, without stopping)
– Mark 16:1-8
– Matthew 28
– Luke 24
– Acts 1:1-11
– John 20, 21
– 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

Thank you, God, for your Word this morning, both written in the text and living in the resurrected and embodied Jesus.

III. Confession of Sin
Father God, against you alone have I sinned. Hear my wrongdoing, remind me of the forgiveness given to me at the Cross and confirmed at the Resurrection, and give me courage to seek reconciliation wherever needed.

(Confess particular sin, why it was wrong, and whether I need to right the wrong, then repeat with next sin)

If we confess our sins, you, Lord, are faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Because I am forgiven by you, empower me by the Holy Spirit to go and sin no more.

IV. Prayers of Invocation
Father God, hear today my prayers and intervene. In Christ you are reconciling all things to yourself, even these friends and situations and problems for which I am praying.

(Have a pre-written list. Pray for the first request. Short sentences, short prayers. Then, go on to the next prayer request)

Hear these prayers and do them as you will, Lord. As Elijah prayed and it did not rain for three years, and then prayed again and it rained, so you hear my prayers.

V. Reading from Barth, CD V/1
(This volume is the index to Church Dogmatics. The editors have compiled a year of weekly liturgies, from which I read one section every day. Each section is a Bible passage, seemingly at random, followed by a paragraph of Barth’s commentary on that passage. The Bible readings take me out of my comfort-zone passages (yesterday was in Leviticus!), and the commentary introduces some ideas to continue to think about throughout the day)

VI. Closing Prayer
Father God, lead me, accompany me, and enable me to Walk the Way of Jesus today. All of these things I pray in the authority of Jesus’s name. Amen.

Joker (2019) and Mental Health

Joker has always been my favorite villain. Throughout the comic lore and the two Joker movies I saw growing up (1989 with Jack Nicholson and 2008 with Heath Ledger) the character was wild and unpredictable, a force of sheer anarchy, in d&d terms a Chaotic Evil. He sat on a billion dollar cash throne, just to torch it for fun. He had no ideology. He “just wanted to watch the world burn.”

Todd Phillips reinvents the character. His incarnation of Joker (played well by Joaquin Phoenix) is the victim of unspeakable child neglect and abuse at the hands of a psychotic mother. Phillips portrays him not as a supernatural force of chaos but the very regular and predictable outcome of a society that left him behind.

Until the 1960’s, mental health patients were placed in insane asylums (“institutionalized”) which were a cross between hospitals and prisons. But eventually, new psychiatric drugs hit the market which could help most of those institutionalized be functional members of society. This, combined with a human-rights-based pushback against asylum imprisonment, created a movement called Deinstitutionalization. Rather than house mental health patients in prison-hospitals, the government would fund “community-based mental healthcare” so that a local distributed network of doctors at small clinics could meet regularly with patients. For most, mental illness was no longer a totalizing thing. It was one illness among others, so why not be free in society, as long as the needed support system is there?

JFK signed the CMHA (“Community Mental Health Act”) in 1963. The asylums were slowly drained of patients and new distributed networks became available so that former patients could integrate into society well. However, unlike the jumbo asylums that could not be easily defunded, the community-based systems had their budgets cut annually. They were never fully funded anyway, and over time shrunk at the hands of austerity. At the same time, the cost of private medicine continued to rise. Mental healthcare was less and less available over time.

Notice that Phillips sets Joker in the 1980’s. This is intentional. During the Reagan administration the budget cuts to mental healthcare accelerated. Reagan repealed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 (passed during the Carter administration), allowing state-level austerity to continue to dismantle the system. What happens in the movie? Joker goes to his local mental health office weekly, checks in with his therapist, and goes on with his normal life. Until the city government cuts the facility. Joker asks his therapist, “how am I going to get my medicine?” “I’m sorry,” she replies.

Then, absent his medicine, Joker slowly but absolutely loses his mind. Many people are killed. His bizarre fantasies become grandiose and violent. The film picks up its pace at this point, and the rest is pure showbiz.

Phillips didn’t make a movie about the Joker. He used the Joker to make a movie about us, and about those we have left behind.

After deinstitutionalization and the decimation of community-based mental healthcare, many people with mental illness have become homeless, and even more have become victims of mass-incarceration (so, prison-hospitals without the hospitals). For example, it is estimated that 1/3 of Cook County jail inmates have mental illness. This is why, rather than hire another warden, a few years ago they hired a psychologist as executive director of the prison. This is the insane asylum, but worse: less funding, less treatment, less patient rights, less trained staff, and on an unprecedented scale.

Joker may seem to pose the question “How could someone become so far gone?” Instead, it poses the reverse: “How could we do this to them?”

Listen, Care, Pray

I tutor and TA the undergrad Intro to Philosophy classes. Today I met with a student who didn’t understand Kant and synthetic a priori knowledge. (Been there). We met for an hour. I explained the idea to him in simpler terms until he got it. Then we were out of material but I wanted to get paid for the full hour so I showed him my writing editing website. We did a few examples and he saved the page to use again next time. He was glad for it, since his major is Com. He talked a bit about his experience on campus and the culture on his athletic team. He had some not bad ideas about how to change the school culture. Even though he’s only been here a few months, he has his finger right on the pulse of the real problems.

As we ended I asked if there was anything I could I pray about for him. Yeah, he said. He wasn’t sure if he had the money to keep coming to school. He might have to drop sports to get a job to pay for school. He also wants friends on campus, and hasn’t found almost any good ones. I prayed that God would generously provide for everything he needs. That God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, would give him wisdom to decide what to do with athletics. That God would bring new friends into his life so he would have meaningful and deep relationships.

His eyes held tears. “Hey, its okay,” I tried to say, but he said, “I didn’t know anyone here cared about me.” Oh. Wow. Here I am, the philosophy department tutor, only expecting to explain Kant’s synthetic a priori knowledge to a student. Suddenly I am in a position to speak a Word of grace into his life. “Hey, Jesus cares about you, my friend, so I’ll care about you too.”

He asked if there was anything he could pray about for me. Yeah, I said. My whole life felt upside down since I left my church a few weeks ago, and that I was trying to adjust to a new place where I can grow and serve. He prayed for me. We then talked the whole way from the student center back to the other side of campus. He pointed out a teammate of his along the way. He showed me a meme. He asked for my phone number. We set a time to meet next week, since, inevitably, there will be something in class this week he won’t understand. Yes, welcome to philosophy.

This was no radical act of Christian subversion of our social structures or the entire juridico-political order or something. This was not me pushing myself to live BOLDLY for JESUS amid PERSECUTION by SECULARISM or whatever. I sat there, listened to him, cared about him (and really meant it), and prayed with him. Maybe Christian life-together is that simple.

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

BCP and Columbus Day

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.

Photo by Paula Vermeulen on Unsplash

A good word from Barth

The promise of the Word of God is not as such an empty pledge which always stands, as it were, confronting man. It is the transposing of man into the wholly new state of one who has accepted and appropriated the promise, so that irrespective of his attitude to it he no longer lives without this promise but with it. The claim of the Word of God is not as such a wish or command which remains outside the hearer without impinging on his existence. It is the claiming and commandeering of man. Whatever may be his attitude to God’s claim, man as a hearer of His Word now find himself in the sphere of the divine claim; he is claimed by God. Again, the judgment of the Word of God is not a mere aspect under which man himself remains untouched, just as the same man may seem to be a giant from the standpoint of the ant or a dwarf from the standpoint of the elephant without in fact being any different either way. The judgment of God as such creates not only a new light and therewith a new situation, but also with the new situation a new man who did not exist before but who exists now, being identical with the man who has heard the Word. Again, that would not be the blessing of God’s Word which as benedictio [declared blessed] was not immediately and as such seen and understood to be beneficium [actually blessed] as well, a real placing under God’s good-pleasure and protection.

We find all this expressed in the strongest imaginable way in James 1:18, where (cf. also 1 Peter 1:23) there is reference to the fact that the Christian is begotten of the λογος αληθειας. Then in v. 21 goes on logically to speak of a λογος εμφυτος, i.e., a λογος which, so to speak, belongs to man himself, without which man would no longer be himself.

Church Dogmatics I/1 p. 152-153

Ostriches

For three years I have been hunting for a verse my OT prof showed our class that absolutely slams ostriches. It never occurred to me to just google “ostrich in the bible.” Anyways, today I was translating 2 Corinthians 4 and saw a cross-reference to Jars of Clay in the OT (Lamentations 4:2) and found it in the next verse: Lamentations 4:3b, “my people have become heartless, like ostriches in the desert” (NIV).

Unfortunately this does not seem like a good translation. The Hebrew text is corrupted (someone tried to put the first letter of Ostrich as the last letter of “like”) but we can quickly resolve that to mean “Like ostriches,” not “Likeo Striches.” Okay. So assuming we now have the right word, the other problem is that there is a clearer text (Job 39:13-18) that mentions Ostriches being terrible moms and letting their eggs sit on the ground where they can be crushed. And that word for Ostrich, ranan, is totally different from Lamentation’s word for Ostrich, ya’an. So why would we think Lamentations 4:3b means “Ostrich”?

But it gets worse. Lamentations 4:3 gets translated in the Greek OT (the LXX) as “Sparrow” instead of Ostrich, so that it is the same word Jesus uses to say “are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Leaving aside the synoptic issue that Matt 10:29 says “two sparrows for a penny” and Luke 12:6 says “five sparrows for two pennies,” and 50¢ is not equal to 40¢ —just totally leaving that aside — I honestly do not think that an ostrich would sell for less than a dollar, period. In modern Capitalism that would never fly, much less the Roman patronage honor/shame economy. I’ve just googled it and found that an Ostrich egg costs about $1000, which given the current minimum wage is 3 weeks wages, or 21 shekels. Just for the egg!

But it gets even worse. Remember how I said that Job 39:13-18 is clearly about an Ostrich? Well, there is no reason to think that is the case. The word ranan is also a single-use word, and the Greek LXX translation of ranan is totally missing! The translators of the LXX just skip it. “Wings flap joyfully,” it says, refusing to specify which bird’s wings so flap.

BDB helpfully connects ya’an with the feminine form of the same root, ya’anah, or Greed. Their implication is that “bat ya’anah” is “daughter of greed, of ostrich as voracious bird.” Similar cognates in Aramaic and Arabic gloss as “daughter of the desert or steppe, from [an Arabic word I can’t transliterate] meaning hard, unproductive soil.” It seems like there is some semantic value as Desert Bird or Greedy Bird, though it probably comes between those, with some broadly Semitic “Desolation Bird.” BDB also connects ya’anah to “wailing (as mourning) (Micah 1:8)… a symbol of loneliness (in Job 30:29)… of desolation, as dwelling among ruins (Isa 13:21, 34:13), and living in a desert (Isa 43:20).” Most interestingly of all, it is associated with “unclean (Lev 11:16 (&par. Deut 14:15)),” where it is a bird prohibited from being eaten along with many other strange birds whose exact translations are uncertain.

Enter A. Walker-Jones and his balls-to-the-wall article “The So-Called Ostrich in the God Speeches of the Book of Job (Job 39,13-18).” He argues that Job 39:13 should be translated as “Sand Grouse” not Ostrich, for a number of biological and contextual observations, not to mention linguistic. He found an early Christian reflection on nature which blurs together Job 39:13 and Jeremiah 8:7, which influenced Jerome to translate ranan as Ostrich. He also compares the physiology of sand grouses, hoopoe larks, and stone curlews, ruling out the latter two for the lines on its neck and the sound of their mating call, respectively. He thinks Lamentations 4:3b refers to owls, not Ostriches, and that it would not make sense in the ANE for Ostriches to be criticized, since their feathers were the symbol of truth and justice. Instead, “The danger here is that impressive, modem folk stories are being read back into an ancient Near Eastern text,” especially Pliny’s criticism of Ostriches, which was particularly unfounded anyway. Owls are chaos creatures, while Ostriches associate with truth and justice. Which is more likely to neglect its eggs? That’s right, the chaos creature.

There are more links I cannot trace down (I’m supposed to be translating 2 Corinthians 4 for my Paul class) to Ostriches: vision strong enough to hatch their eggs by looking at them, Ostriches that can eat glass and metal, and tremendous confusion throughout the ancient world about whether Ostriches were birds or mammals. (Aristotle thought mammals, because they have eyelashes). Three years. I spent three years trying to find that Ostrich slam, just to find it was never about Ostriches at all.

Photo by Dušan Smetana on Unsplash