Putting Women in Their Place: From Settled Conviction to True Love

If it were not for my wife, Faith, my expertise in gender relations would have been completed a great deal sooner.  She was clearly the obstacle to my ownership of a settled position. Left on my own, the issue was mostly decided as my understanding had peeked at about age 20, at which point I had completed a Bible College degree and had learned from Corinthians that women are to remain silent in church and from Timothy and Ephesians that women are not to exercise leadership. 

How thoroughly I “knew” this is a bit unclear because in spite of the very conservative nature of my education I do not remember that this was emphasized with any clarity, as reality intruded. Ozark Bible College had a very strict rule that women were not to speak in chapel – with the clear exception of large donors (Mrs. Welshimer, heiress to the Phillips Petroleum fortune, spoke whenever she wanted). Women were not supposed to teach men – except one of the most effective teachers on campus was a woman medical doctor. Women are to remain silent except when they need to say something (important donors, highly qualified teachers, missionaries, etc.). For every verse demarcating the public roles of women there seemed to be an exception. The interpretive strictness received on the one hand was mitigated by the pressing circumstance on the other. An understanding that pertains not just to life but to reading the Bible.

  If I could have negotiated the issue of gender or perhaps, all of my theology, from a theoretical vantage (alone in a cave for example), I could have “arrived” sooner. You have to admire the ability to arrive at a full understanding of an issue early on and the willingness to stick to your guns without giving it anymore thought. This settled, unthinking, doctrinaire, ownership of an issue seems to be the most common of the spiritual gifts. I presume I too could have been so blessed. As it is, being married and having two daughters, living in Japan some 20 years and being associated with actual humans on a regular basis is very theologically unsettling. In the Japanese church if it were not for women taking the initiative there would be no church. To say life intruded on a biblical understanding may miss the fact, it was a peculiar biblical understanding geared to exclude this reality.

The Jew’s knew how to take a position and stick to it; perhaps we could take a cue from their prayer celebrating the unchanging order of things. In the synagogue the men would pray, “Thank God that he has not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” At this point the women in the congregation would answer back, “Thank you God, that you have made me according to your will.” Here is a hierarchical world in which ethnicity, religion, social status, and gender really mean something. The problem is that Paul seems to deliberately overturn this understanding when he implies this prayer is forbidden in Christian congregations (Gal. 3:28). It is precisely the notion of a set cultural order, a law of nature, the way things are, being overturned that Paul equates with salvation.

Surely when he tells women to keep silent in Church (I Co 14) this is an incontrovertible fixed order – men speak and women listen. The problem is, Paul recommends (also in Corinthians) that when the women do speak in church that they should follow cultural considerations (in 1 Co 11:2–11). I doubt Paul was simply making exceptions for the wealthy heiresses of the community who could be relied upon for serious patronage.  Paul is not making exceptions to a general, fixed, rule but is forging a new sort of society (the Kingdom of God) which accounts for the culture but does not presume it is definitive.

Isn’t it absolutely clear, however, that man is the head of woman like Christ is the head of the Church (as in Ephesians and Corinthians)? What is unclear is whether the word “head” means “boss” or “source” (as the reference in Corinthians is to Genesis in which the woman is taken from man’s side – her source). What is clear from the rest of Corinthians is that biblical authority has nothing to do with being an authoritarian boss, but as with the headship of Christ, it means being a servant who provides for growth. If one is determined to stick to stereotypes this is a passage that might serve as a proof text, but only if the gospel challenge to culture and authority is overlooked.

This sort of nitpicking can be very tiresome if one is seeking a settled position.  Isn’t it a good thing Paul tells Timothy that the men are the decision makers who run things and tell the women what to do (to be in “full submission” and to do no teaching)? To reach this conclusion, however, one must ward off curiosity and isolate this passage from its context. The slightest study indicates that Paul is commanding that women too should study and learn – and his command that they be “in full submission” (I Tim 2:11) may in fact mean not in submission “to men” or “to husbands” but in submission to God or the gospel – as with the men. As N. T. Wright notes, it is not that Paul is saying women cannot teach men, he is saying, “I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men.” He might need to say this, Wright notes, due to the religious situation in Ephesus where the biggest Temple was the shrine of a female-only cult.  At the Temple of Artemis, a female deity, the priests were all women. Women ruled the show and kept the men in their place.[1] Where the passage is cut off from its life situation and the theory formed in isolation, it may be a proof text for misogyny but this is contrary to all that the gospel is about.

As portrayed in Scripture, gender problems are at the center of the human problem, so it is no surprise that gender issues are at the center of interpretive problems. How to be men and women in relationship, how to be image bearers, how it is that Christ and the Church resolve the problem of gender, is not just part of the biblical story – this is the biblical story. To callously presume an understanding of gender relationships, marriage, or the role of men and women, as absorbed from culture is to miss the point of salvation. The gospel challenged first century culture and it challenges our culture in the same way. Where oppression – the original oppression, the first sign of the Fall – is “supported” by the Bible, it may be the point of salvation has been obscured. “The two shall become one flesh and I am talking about Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:32) fuses the issue of gender relations with the issue of salvation. If we miss the one we miss the other.

Life intrudes on a failed understanding in the same way it intrudes on a failed biblical interpretation. On this Valentines Day I can say the most disruptive, the most difficult thing I did to my settled understanding of gender and Christianity was to get married. The real world of relationship does not allow for the truncated understanding so often foisted off as biblical. If my life has been a salvation journey, a journey toward realizing humanity in its fullness, a journey which cannot abide this world’s notion of authority, this is an understanding worked out in marriage.

 More than 40 years ago I fashioned a tin foil heart and enclosed it with some roses and sent it to Faith. It was the best decision I ever made but it cost me my settled convictions and opened up the possibility of true love. This seems to be the necessary trade-off.

Happy Valentines Day my love!


[1] http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/womens-service-in-the-church-the-biblical-basis

Catholic or Fascist Christianity: The State of the Christian Union

I have long presumed that Peter Berger’s three step description of culture gets at (in part) the reality of the manner in which culture is at once a human creation which acts upon us. According to Berger, it is through externalization that society is a human product – humans make it, build it, constitute it. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis – culture and its products take on the appearance of being independent of humans.  Then due to internalization of culture and its products man is himself a product of society. The role of religion in this process is to falsify human consciousness so that the projecting and reification involved in objectivation are mystified – made non-human. The fact that the socio-cultural world is shaped by human activity is obscured by the religion. The sui generis nature of religion, set forth by Mircea Eliade – the father of modern religious studies, cuts religion off from the realities of culture and even the realities of any particular religion. For Eliade, the historical and social conditions play into the interpretation of the religious phenomenon but they cannot ultimately explain it: “All these dreams, myths, and nostalgias…cannot be exhausted by a psychological explanation; there is always a kernel that remains refractory to explanation. . . that, we shall never tire of repeating, is not solely ‘historical.’”  Given the Berger choice that religion is a human creation and the Eliade choice that religion transcends the human, one might think Eliade is on the side of Christianity. Eliade provides a universal experience in which to ground religion and Berger seems to reduce all religion to the relativity of culture.

The problem is that Eliade’s is a cheap universality which ultimately has nothing to say (all articulation falls short) about the transcendent (it is absolutely transcendent). The transcendent object of religion does not intersect with the realities of economics, politics, or culture and at the same time it is presumed the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference. This, of course, is simply not true of any religion of which I am aware. Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, biblical idolatry, and most especially Christianity, are interconnected with economics, politics, and culture. In Japan, the rise of fascism depends directly upon State Shinto, Buddhist nationalism, and Christian accommodation to deification of Hirohito. All of these religions might be said to have maintained their universality – their transcendent orientation – but at the expense of being of no earthly value or influence.  The sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to the sui generis notion of Christianity – that the Church somehow exists apart from society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence by which we are shaped and to which we are subject.

The advantage of Berger’s theory, as opposed to the sui generis notion of religion, is that religion as key to world construction ties religion into every aspect of human society. In Berger’s notion human being cannot be understood as somehow resting within itself, in some closed sphere of interiority, and then setting out to express itself in the surrounding world. Objectivation seems to accurately portray the function of money and idols (intrinsically worthless and yet the most valued object). These man-made entities confront its producers as a fact external to and other than themselves. Internalization re-appropriates this same reality, transforming it from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.

 Berger, as a practicing Christian, has his own problems. In religion as a social construct there is no clear place for sociology and Christian theology to meet – there is no place from which to critique the society or to stand outside of it. On the other hand, if one understands that it is precisely a Berger like world which Christ disrupts– persons are constituted in culture – then salvation must take on an integration with all things human. The resolution to this problem posed by Richard Niebuhr, is to recognize that culture is the shaping force of humankind and Christ, then, is incarnate so as to reshape culture. Niebuhr offers a series of possibilities as to how this might be accomplished: Christ against culture, of culture, above culture, in paradox with culture and transforming culture.  The problem is that culture is the essence around which Christ is made to work. What we recognize from Berger is that Niebuhr has also reified culture and presumed Christ is forced to work with this given. Rodney Clapp sums up a more sufficient answer which allows for the primacy of culture without succumbing to Berger’s relativism or Niebuhr’s essentializing of culture: Christ and the Church constitute a culture. “The original Christians, in short, were about creating and sustaining a unique culture – a way of life that would shape character in the image of their God. And they were determined to be a culture, a quite public and political culture, even if it killed them and their children.” Here Berger’s integration of the human and the cultural are accounted for without succumbing to an essentializing of culture while also allowing for a universal through culture. At the same time, the universal is not absolutely transcendent but takes on its properly biblical slant. The incarnation is an interruption of history which re-founds what it means to be human through one who is human and divine. Yet this interruption is itself historical, cultural, and social.  

Where catholic or universal is understood to be concerned not only with all people but with every aspect of life – social, political, sexual, familial, gastronomical, etc., I presume this is not only the true form of the Christian faith but the only form resistant to the manufactured reality, described by Berger, of contemporary culture. The double-sided meaning of universal, all people and all encompassing (concerned with every aspect of life), are interdependent in that universal identity manifests itself in practices inherently (political, cultural, etc.) resistant to the human “sacred canopy” always characterized by its cultural production (local and exclusive).  The politics of Jesus, the culture of Christ, the family of God, or even Christian eating habits (eating with sinners, a communion open to all), are the particular manifestation of universality and are what constitute the Church a force of opposition to the alienating and divisive reified socio-political principalities and powers.

Where the opposition has failed and the dictates of the culture, with its essentializing ethos, nationalism, regimented conformity,exclusivism, and ethnocentrism, succeed then the distinctives of Christian universality are, by definition, absent. And while no particular church (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) can exclusively claim universality (an oxymoron?) the supreme test of whether the faith is, indeed, catholic is whether it succumbs to cultural tyranny – or the reification of culture known in our day as fascism.

 Fascism is the primary and most damaging form this cultural reification has taken in the 20th and, I would claim (along with Noam Chomsky and others) in the beginnings of the 21st century. Fascism presumes there is an essence to the national ethos (the blood and soil of Germany, the unique spirit (ki) of Japan, American exceptionalism) such that individuals, as in Berger’s picture, bear within themselves this essence (e.g. Japanese citizens are depicted as the egos circulating around the super-ego Emperor which together constitute the wholeness of a person).  There may be many markers of the passage from nationalism to fascism – the rise of a cult of personality, the violent suppression of opposition, the demonization of certain ideas, the continual gearing up for war – but one of the clearest markers in Germany and Japan was the manner in which Christianity was co opted by the state. Pictures of Hirohito adorned every official church in Japan and Christians were made to bow to this god man to inaugurate the service. Japanese theologians even attempted to incorporate Hirohito into the Godhead (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God Hirohito). German Christians were those who accepted the Aryan clause, which excluded Jews from holding public office, inclusive of state church offices and German Christian theology expunged the Bible of its Jewishness. In both Germany and Japan, this Christian fascism is one step beyond the Constantinian fusion of state and church (arguably most complete only with the reformation). Where the Roman emperor fused church and state by acknowledging Christianity, fascist Christianity presumes to overtly absorb Christianity into state ideology (which is not to deny this was implicit with Constantine).

Though there are moments in history where “fascist Christianity” accurately describes the church, in retrospect it would seem that genocide, all-out war, emperor/dictator worship, racism, and anti-Semitism, may not accord (to say less than the least) with the basic tenets of the teaching of Jesus. Fascist theologians, fascist Christians, fascist churches, are a historical reality (not just a pejorative description), which more than simple fascism (or any of the isms of the 20th century – communism, socialism, Marxism, nationalism) may best describe the contemporary anti-Christ (the imitation or displacement of Christ). In other words, the fascist reification of a particular culture and the violence this entails – equated with Christianity – is the most obvious enemy of Christ.

 Is it something like fascist Christianity, a Christianity absorbed by nationalist chauvinism, that threatens the Church universal in the United States?  American exceptionalism premised on America as a Christian Nation may have succeeded, some place and some time (as with the varieties of Constantinian Christianity), in escaping the complete co opting of the church by state purposes. But one wonders if there is not an evident incongruity in Trump Doctrine, summed up by a senior White House official with direct access to the president, as “We are America, bitch.” As Jeffrey Goldberg, who originally reported this in The Atlantic has put it, “the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence” amounts to “a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world.” The exclusivism, isolationism, mistreatment of aliens, chauvinistic hostility, and sympathy for authoritarian strongmen, captured in this posturing may be good for America (though I doubt it) but can it be equated with the teaching of Christ? Could it be that “we are Christian America, bitch” or that we are holding up a Christian middle finger to the world? This is no more unlikely than “Christian fascism” but what it clearly is not is catholic Christianity.[1]


[1] Jeffrey Goldberg, “A Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Doctrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch’ The president believes that the United States owes nothing to anyone—especially its allies,” The Atlantic, June 11, 2018.

Why Are the Sickos in Charge?

Growing up we moved about ten times to a variety of states and I never attended any school more than two years. Each move meant a different set of friends, a different school, a different church, and not simply a different natural climate but a different human climate. The lesson I learned in the moves from Arizona, to Texas, to Kansas, to New Mexico, and Oklahoma, is that, though in relatively close proximity, each social setting was unique and worked on who I was very differently (for good and bad).  As I would discover in working in a variety of jobs as a young adult, cultural differences function at a micro-level, so that working in the oil fields, as a radio announcer, or in sales, involved a very different set of values and behaviors. In selling price markers across the State of Kansas and radio advertising in Missouri and Arkansas, I recognized businesses generate an atmosphere. The toxic sort – I especially remember a chicken packing plant in Arkansas and a grocery store in northern Kansas – create a culture of fear. Ushered into the owner’s office at the chicken packing plant, I immediately understood who was generating the poison I had felt entering the plant from everyone I met. “Figured they would send me one of you long haired hippies. Now you sit down there and take note of everything I say,” he said.  I was clearly not fully human in his estimate. When he saw I was not writing down his every word and had no intention of doing so, this Scrooge demanded that his own meek and fearful Bob Cratchit take dictation. (My petty revenge, since I was writing the advertising, was to discard these notes and compose a “Chicken Man” ad.)  I am not sure what traits make for a successful chicken packer – his must have been the largest plant in northern Arkansas – so this seemingly despicable human was a chicken packing success. To thrive in such a culture, however, may not be an indicator of a highly developed human. In moving to Japan, I realized the degree to which my small-scale experience could be extrapolated.

The first-time visitor to Japan, though he will immediately notice the cultural difference, may not understand the human cost required in being Japanese. Maybe the easiest way to gauge this is to recognize those who are made to pay (those who pay through suicide, with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, offer only silent testimony). The phenomenon of hikikomori (those who isolate themselves from society) has become significant enough (estimates are between five hundred thousand to a million or more) that services have sprung up in which parents can rent a big sister to coax the young men (usually men) out of their room. In a National Geographic article and documentary, the men report on the psychological stress from bullying, the pressure to succeed, or simply the cruel and intense nature of living in Japanese society, which has sent them into years and even decades shut up in their room. The group-oriented focus of Japanese society, the emphasis on shame and honor, indulgent Japanese mothers, and the near total absence of fathers in the home, might all be sighted as contributing factors. As they interviewed the young men, it was clear that sensitivity had worked against them in making adjustments to Japanese society, which raises the question as to whether functioning successfully in this particular society makes for a better human being.  Or to reverse the question and perspective (as the group oriented, cooperative, safe, culture of Japan, also exposed the underside of my own culture), what cost is extracted by any particular culture?  

As I was thinking about this, I was also reading the story of the Jamaican writer, Marlon James who, when the other children started bullying him – calling him a sissy, also retreated into reading comics and fiction. At eighteen, he joined a Pentecostal Church and tried exorcism to get rid of homoerotic thoughts. The exorcism, in his description, seemed to have the opposite of the intended effect as he grew comfortable with his sexual orientation and uncomfortable with his church and Jamaican culture. Instead of adjusting to both (Jamaican culture and church), he found success and acceptance as a writer and professor of writing in the United States. Had he “successfully” adjusted to Jamaica, Marlon James would probably be a very different person than the “successful” writer. He expresses no regret in leaving and does not miss Jamaica, as he says he clearly remembers why he left. The resonance he feels in New York – the capacity to thrive – and the stifling nature of Jamaican culture made him aware of what remaining would have cost him.

Until you have crossed the boundaries of a micro or macro culture and felt the dissonance, it may be hard to imagine what price your culture, your circumstance, your “people,” have extracted from your humanity. Those cast off by their culture feel the cost, but may harshly (mis)judge themselves (through the only lens provided), confusing tenderness, sensitivity, or humaneness for weakness. Those counted most successful (the well-adjusted), ironically, may pay the heaviest cost in terms of their humanity with the least awareness (zero?) of the price they have paid. Those shaped by their culture, most unwittingly and least painfully, are necessarily least resistant to the twisting culture induces.

 As a professor at Temple University in Japan, the most “important” Japanese person I ever met – president of the University, Japanese Diet member, Harvard graduate, a man of great wealth, was without question the most degraded. After he accosted a female professor and propositioned her for sex the professors, innocent souls that we were, attempted to form a union. The union president (if that was what she was – as we were never organized) was threatened by Japanese gangsters on a train platform and immediately left the country in fear of her life.  The history of Temple in Japan (started by a con man who ran off with student tuition), the history of the Liberal Democratic Party’s working with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia), the history of moneyed elites in Japan, would help explain this micro culture. The macro culture in which inhumanity has its rewards and costs, had clearly shaped the man. The pinnacles of success, the chicken men and women of the world, may be those who, blind to the values they have absorbed, sacrifice sympathy, compassion, and all that make life worth living. While the micro culture of a company, school, or business, can be shaped around a more benevolent or benign personality, I presume that this sort of oasis must be resistant to the macro cultures they inhabit.

I did not realize the ease with which one can be unconsciously absorbed into a corporate identify until I encountered it elsewhere – the corporate “we” in Japan (watashitachi wa). “We Japanese” was a constant refrain which explained every action, every attitude, and captured the ethnocentrism found in nihonjinron (the notion of Japanese uniqueness propagated by cultural elites).  “We Japanese have a unique language, which gives us unique brains, which can be connected to our unique islands. This means that Japanese bodies are unique – longer intestines, refined hearing and affinity with nature, and abhorrence of violence due to a graminivorous diet. Japanese cannot eat Western beef due to their longer intestine and this explains why we are like the peaceful long intestine animals – the deer and sheep.” (A Japanese friend, explained, as I was chomping away at a piece of meat that this was precisely why Americans are so violent.) The tendency of non-Japanese was to take great umbrage at this ethnocentrism, as if this diatribe of uniqueness was the most unique and strange thing ever invented.  Every tenet of nihonjinron, however, is a development of ideas borrowed from Western ethnocentric studies. Japanese nationalism is the mirror image, studied, imitated, and adapted (often with an inverse system of values – Japan at the top), from the West.  

Every culture must create a blindness to its degrading effects, such that the values and ethos of a place, like Japan or the United States, require a transcultural capacity so as to resist. The manufactured consent of “we” – once glimpsed can be seen to be destructively pervasive. One simple example is the office of President of the United States. When Americans (perhaps, half-consciously) identify with the corporate “we,” the mythos of the office of Washington and Lincoln – inclusive of honesty, bravery, and divine providence – must be included in this identity. Isn’t this office a marker of the humanitarian heights of the culture? If thriving in a culture is to be equated with success in being human, we would expect to find a unique humaneness and intelligence in the President.  Isn’t this precisely why some claim, including the man himself, that our President is the most intelligent, the greatest of leaders (biblical in proportion), and the cleverest of deal makers? If not this president, then some president, or perhaps the corporate office, is representative of the light upon a hill.

The problem, at least in Noam Chomsky’s estimate, is that the office holders, without exception in the post-war period, given the criteria of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, are all guilty of capital crimes. All the post war presidents would be hung, according to Chomsky, if tried according to the Nuremberg standard.  Genocide, holocaust, mass murder, of course, all go under a different name and are not even recognizable as such when “we” do it.  Hearing a defense of various U.S. policies in rural churches (in Sunday school no less) under the refrain of “we,” I had to ask which “we” was being referenced. Do “we” Christians want to kill, exclude, segregate and if it is “we” then aren’t at least some of those “we” want to do this to “we” Christians. Where this “we” goes unquestioned I presume Christian identity serves national identity.

The ethos of Christian institutions blind to their cultural surroundings, whether schools, churches, or businesses, may be indistinguishable from the chicken packing plant, though prayer is commonly invoked, the name of Jesus proclaimed, and the name of the place designates it as Christian. The “successful” head of these institutions, may be indistinguishable from any CEO, any president, or any Chicken Man, because a degraded form of humanity – the culturally well-adjusted – are identified with success. On the other hand, it would be clear sacrilege if the president of Temple University or Japanese xenophobes would foist their ideas, justify their crimes, or promote their racism in the name of Jesus.  So maybe the most hopeless degradation of humanity is the Christian leader who would exploit and abuse in the name of success, so as to profane the name of Christ.[1]


[1] My ongoing conversation with Jason as to our consistent discovery of “sickos in charge” led to the title and provoked this meditation.

From the Vaunted Leadership of Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll, and James MacDonald to the Deprecated Leadership of Paul

My previous claims that no authority relieves us of the responsibility of thought and agency (here) and that this is an ongoing personal realization (here), rest upon rightly recognizing the role of authority (ecclesiastical, apostolic, biblical, and divine). Authority is a necessary factor in shaping our lives, and where this authority is misused, misdirected, or misunderstood (the universal predicament), then it warps us accordingly. We are ushered into this world under failed regimes of social power (the “principalities and powers”) and this is the point of being adopted into a new family and becoming citizens of a new kingdom.  We are to be nurtured, discipled, and guided into being image bearers which requires real world models – and here is the rub. The abuse of authority and power in the church seems to have reached epidemic proportions. The endless scandals (most recently the resignation of Bill Hybels and the entire board of elders from Willow Creek Community Church following a sex scandal) along with the rise of the #ChurchToo movement for victims of evangelical church abuse indicates the pervasive nature of the problem. However, it is not simply clergy sex scandals, or what Episcopalians have dubbed “impaired communion” (the inability to line up doctrine and authority), but even the ideal notions of authority which are problematic.

 The public failures, that is, are indicative that the ideals of leadership are themselves flawed. The mega-church CEO model of authority continues to produce abusive authoritarians (e.g.  Mark Driscoll and most recently James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, in MacDonald’s case threats of physical violence, excommunication of elders who complained, financial corruption, etc. etc.). These “successful pastors” fall under scrutiny only when they take the notions of leadership which gained them numbers and prominence to extremes. They are, however, simply following the blueprint for marketing of the Church as outlined by Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner which focuses on centralized leadership (of the CEO sort). This marketing and management plan though, seems to have not simply displaced the priority of theology but has smuggled in its own unbiblical theology. As one well known proponent of the method puts it, “I don’t deal with theology. I’m simply a methodologist.” Whatever the theological emphasis employed, as Os Guinness has noted, methodology and technique are at the center and in control and so constitute the theology or bend it accordingly.[1] The technique works to gain numbers and this valuation or “sign of success,” often directly equated with divine approval, is itself a sign of theological failure.  

The church-growth movement, arising from McGavran’s missionary experience in India, flows out of another missionary presumption called “contextualization.” There is the obvious need in Bible translation to adjust biblical idioms and language to fit the linguistic context but this idea can be and sometimes is, I believe, erroneously extended to the overall presentation of the Gospel. The danger in contextualization is to presume that the culture is a stable factor determinative of meaning rather than a flawed and fallen system. Likewise, the horizon of the Gospel can become isolated from the culture so that the two horizons are only related by force. If culture is the ultimate determiner of meaning and value then there is the danger the Gospel is simply made to comply to cultural norms (Don Richardson’s Peace Child, is a popular example which, however legitimate, points to the potential danger). This may result in a static notion of both Gospel and culture as one’s reading of Scripture is not impacted by the culture and one’s reading of the culture is not through the interpretive lens of Scripture.

An example from Japan is the concept of amae or dependence (the full explanation is beyond the scope of my point but is explained here), which is certainly key to understanding Japan but the question is whether the Gospel should be shaped to the concept (e.g. the novels of Shūsaku Endō in which God is our divine Mother upon whom we are childishly dependent gets at the problem) or whether the concept is one that the Gospel exposes and defeats. One of my finest students in Japan, an American missionary of Japanese descent, discovered the universal application of the concept and had a much deeper understanding than I did of its resonance throughout the culture. The problem was, perhaps due to his training as a missionary, that he presumed amae was an unchangeable cultural trait of Japanese to which the Gospel should be made to fit. My own understanding is that amae, while it is a pervasive characteristic of Japanese, entails a profound misconception of what it means to be human. Amae is a prime example of how death is taken up through culture into identity and entails precisely what it is in culture that needs overturning. I would not have developed this understanding apart from a dynamic reading of the culture through a scriptural lens and a renewed (revised) understanding of Scripture through this same interpretive process. 

The problem with contextualization, especially as applied in church-growth thought, is it privileges cultural notions of leadership that consistently subvert the Gospel.  This can be demonstrated through, what may be, the prime proof text of the church growth-movement and contextualization – I Co 9:22: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Church-growth advocates presume that this text means we must adjust to the times, be innovative, do what is effective to bring people in (e.g. “niche marketing,” the need for “audience-driven,” “seeker-friendly,” services under a forceful leader). The context of this passage does indeed pertain directly to authority and leadership but Paul is not arguing that the Corinthians should utilize their cultural norms to maximize their leadership potential. He is arguing that they need to give up on their notions of “effective styles of leadership.”

Chapter 9 is not a departure from Paul’s point in chapter 8 that the strong need to forego their rights or sacrifice their power so as to build up the weak. He first establishes the fact that as an Apostle he has the right to receive support from the Corinthians and then he explains that he has sacrificed this right. He is using himself and his apostolic authority as a case in point of how the strong should act in regard to the weak. At the same time, we are given a picture of how authority in the church is to be and not to be constituted.

Rollo May in his book, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence, could be summing up both what the Corinthians admire and what church-growth methodology might sometimes seem to require in a leader.[2] May lists five ways a leader might employ power: 1. “Exploitative power” employs force or the threat of violence so that it leaves the other with no choice but to comply. 2. “Manipulative power” uses the covert methods of the con man. 3. “Competitive power” employs an I win/you lose strategy. 4. “Nutrient power” is likened to a parent’s care for a child in that it is exercised on behalf of another’s welfare. It can create dependency and become smothering by seeking to do the other good according to “our way” (as in strategies which would accommodate amae).

In the two letters to Corinth, it is clear that Paul’s rivals (the super-apostles) have been exploitative, manipulative, and competitive in their use of power. They enslave, devour, seek to gain control, put on airs, and strike the Corinthians in the face, or publicly insult them (11:20). The Corinthians not only have submitted themselves to this authoritarian domination but they figure Paul does not live up to the standard of an Apostle.[3] He is not what they would consider an effective leader. Paul, however, is attempting to develop a very different set of values in regard to leadership. Paul’s goal fits with May’s fifth notion of a leader’s exercise of power: 5. “Integrative power” works with others (instead of on them) to enable them to grow both mentally and spiritually and to abet their power. Paul is employing and developing this integrative notion of power: “we work with you for your joy” (1:24; see 13:10), and his concentrated explanation is in I Co 9. Paul is attempting to model an alternative mode of power and leadership but common readings of chapter 9, due, perhaps, to cultural presumptions about power, miss the point.

Christ did not create a monarchy, a hierarchy, a dictatorship, or a fellowship on the basis of a regime of power. He takes up the cross, washes the disciples’ feet, and is the servant of all, and this is the model of leadership and mode of power Paul is calling the Corinthians to imitate: the power to serve, the power to identify directly with the disempowered and the weak, the power to forego one’s rights. Paul is modelling what Christ modeled. Money is a direct correlate of power and though Paul says he has a right to this power or money, as a means of displaying the paradigm of leadership (apostolic leadership) he is doing manual labor (shameful, no doubt, to the super-apostles and the Corinthian elites).

In the opening rhetoric of the chapter (“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus or Lord?”) Paul is not appealing to his authority so as to Lord it over them or even that they might simply do what he tells them. He seems to be imitating their own claim to act on the basis of “rights,” “freedom,” and “knowledge” (8:1,2,4,7,9,10.11). Paul establishes these rights, makes claims of freedom, indicates his own knowledge, only to renounce these as the basis for exercising power and leadership. He is modelling what he wants them to do, and in this he is simply modeling what Christ did. Christian leadership and Apostleship thus point away from the self to Christ. It is not a relinquishing of agency but becoming a transparent bearer of the agency of Christ, that for which we were intended as image bearers.

The signs of the apostle (sharing in the suffering and death of Christ, enduring weakness as a point of strength, living out a cruciform agency) are peculiarly unpleasing to the Corinthians. One could take all of their critiques of Paul (he is weak and cowardly (10:1,10; 11:7; 13:3-4), he lacks apostolic power (12:12), he continues to work at a trade and so, in the Corinthians view he denigrates his apostleship and brings shame on them (11:7-9; 12:13-18; see 1 Cor. 9:3-18)) as clear evidence that his is not a CEO- power ministry or a ministry of miracles. He is modeling humility, self-abasement, relinquishing of rights, as the Christian mode of authority. “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling” (2:3); “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!” (4:10); “To the weak I became weak” (9:22). In comparison to the super-apostles Paul appears too weak to be effective. They would have Paul be a mega-church super-apostle but he eschews this “glory” for a cruciform leadership. In other words, the farthest thing from Paul’s notion of a leader would be ornamental robes, signet rings, crowns, royal colors, or the presentation of power as we normally think of it. He is not a rhetorician, a flamboyant preacher, or an arrogant CEO bishop. Paul asserts his authority for building up the Christian community, not himself (12:19; 13:9-10), which is the only way that authority should be employed in the church.  

One wonders if Paul’s critique of the Corinthians might be directly leveled at some contemporary notions of successful church leadership. They are guilty of disobedience (10:6); comparing and commending themselves unduly (10:12); being ignorant of the true source of authority, the Lord (10:12b, 17-18); seducing Christians as Satan did Eve (11:2-3); preaching another Jesus, spirit, and gospel (11:4); and boasting unduly (10:15; 11:12; see 5:12). Could it be that in privileging our cultures notion of successful leaders we also have to do with false apostles, deceitful workers, and emissaries of Satan who have only disguised themselves as apostles of Christ (11:13,15)?  To become a leader in the mold of Paul will probably not result in the approbation our culture gives to notable preachers and leaders but this very lack of recognition – the failure to live up to the values of the culture – may be step one in pursuit of authentic Christian leadership.  


[1] Os Guinness, “Sounding Out the Idols of Church Growth,” http://icpnetwork.nl/members-files/fase5/evaluation-megachurches.pdf

[2] R. May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 105-113. Quoted from David £ Garland, “Paul’s Apostolic Authority,” Review and Expositor, 86 (1989) http://www.compasschurch.org/women/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/03/L16-Pauls-apostolic-authority-the-power-of-Christ-sustaining-weakness-2-

[3]See Garland Ibid.

Personal Truth Is Always in Process of Being Ascertained

In regard to my last blog I hasten to point out that Forging Ploughshares is made up of those who identify as Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Eastern leaning, Mennonite, unaffiliated, and simply Christian.  The malaise of late modernity that has caused some to consciously turn to authoritarianism (among so-called Trad Catholics or ultramontanists arguing for extreme forms of papal infallibility, the Cult of Trump Evangelicalism – i.e. there is nothing Trump could do to lose the support of Jerry Falwell Jr. and his ilk, or those who blindly entrust themselves to various episcopal forms) cannot simply be identified with Catholics, Episcopalians, or evangelicals (as if to equate these with authoritarianism) but with those (of many stripes) willing to give up on the efficacy of ordinary human agency.  The issue of authority looms large in the contemporary turn from rationalist foundationalism and autonomous individualism to various forms of relativism. The role of apostolic authority, biblical authority, church authority, and episcopal authority, is being shaped, in some quarters, by the notion that the individual is incapable of ascertaining the truth and authoritarianism is the answer. This hyper-conservative backlash to modernity, sometimes mistakenly perceived as orthodoxy, is simply the end point of the modern (late modernity).

 If modernity declared the individual, in and of himself (free of culture, tradition and authority) as adequate for attaining absolute truth, postmodernism or late modernity has declared the individual (though he be nurtured in the richest of intellectual and theological traditions) as incapable of ascertaining truth.  The turn to forms of authoritarianism, certainly not typical of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Evangelicalism, finds expression in all of the above. Young radical Catholic conservatives who would refuse the liturgical changes of Vatican II (which Pope Francis has declared irreversible) typify a more widespread millennial response to, what may seem to be the only alternative, a vacuous nihilism. Mindless evangelicalism, stunningly represented in that most mystical of the late modern religions – the Cult of Trump, does not represent evangelicalism but typifies, I am arguing, a response found across the theological spectrum (though It may be easiest to quantify among hyper-conservative Roman Catholics, which in no way amounts to a restoration of Orthodoxy but a sort of hyper-orthodoxy).     

The alternative to the turn to authoritarianism must, of necessity, entail revisiting the issue of what constitutes an individual and his capacities for truth. The role of authority (apostolic authority, biblical authority, and ecclesiastical authority) must be understood in light of anthropology. If a person consists of an innately immortal soul, a small piece of divinity, with interior access to the divine and bearing within the capacity for transcendence, then the autonomous individual need not rely on tradition or revelation as Truth is immediately accessible. This modern Gnosis might be expressed in a pure intellectualism or in the pursuit of an ecstatic experientialism but the goal is the same: attainment of the divine from within one’s own resources.  On the other hand, if a person is incapable of transcending a particular culture, a particular time, or a particular circumstance, then one is left with complete relativism and the need for a dictatorial divine intervention. These two extremes seem to mark the move of modernity but maybe this is always our choice in the absence of the New Testament possibility of participation in the divine enabled through the incarnation.

Paul succinctly sums up the possibilities by describing gnosis as either a noun or verb. Platonic, static, knowing of an object (the noun form) is suited to both objectivity (knowing it all or knowing “something” in Paul’s account) and total relativism (an impossibility of attaining the forms or knowing “nothing” according to Paul) and both extremes are represented by what, in I Co 8, Paul calls gnosis. The static knowers of Corinth have concluded that an idol is nothing and that God is known in contrast to this nothing. One knows God, the absolute something, over and against the nothing. Paul dismisses this static gnosis: if you know something (as opposed to nothing), if you have arrived at a buttoned-down knowledge, then you do not know as you ought (8:2).  Paul poses an alternative knowing, not the Greek noun form (attainment of an object), but the Hebraic verb form of knowing a person. In the Hebrew Scriptures to “know” is inclusive of sexual intimacy, the realm of love, and the knowing of persons (personal knowledge).

Martin Buber marks the same contrasting forms as I-it (knowledge as objective – mastery of an object) and I-thou (reciprocal, personal, self/other multidimensional) knowing. What will come to be called hermeneutical understanding (Gadamer, Ricoeur) or personal knowledge (Polanyi) might be identified with Paul’s reversal of knowledge: “whoever loves God is known by God” (8:3). The starting point for this knowing is not “I” but the fact that one is known and knows himself (“themselves” in the original plural pair) through seeing the self through the eyes of God. This self-involved knowledge begins, not with nothing and something, but with an outward moving love.

Paul references the shema but incorporates Christ as the means of access into the divine reality: “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (8:6, ESV). Dynamic knowing is premised upon knowing all things, including ourselves, as deriving from and sustained by the person of Christ. Ultimate reality is personal, which pertains to Paul’s original point in regard to idols. Yes, the so-called gods are nothing but the contrast with this nothing is a completely different order of knowing – not simply knowing something. Knowing God is not to know a fact about God or the fact of God – existence as over against non-existence.  Christ as part of the shema means that knowing the oneness of God is a historical, personal process, not just in the original event of the incarnation but in the unfolding of all of our lives in a particular historical circumstance. We do not control, own, or possess this truth but participate in it.

In Corinth the catchphrase “all of us possess knowledge,” betrays the sensibility of being able to estimate who counts as all of us or who is in and who is out as if truth is delimited to those in the know. This self-selected group is imposing their values onto other Christians by viewing themselves as “all of us” or all that are strong and knowing. I presume that any Church body which presumes to say “all of us and no more” falls under Paul’s critique. Truth cannot be institutionalized, passed on through birth, or fused with citizenship. This bottled up truth, by definition, cannot be equated with the infinite unfolding depth of personal truth.

In Christ the universal intersects with the contingencies of the personal and this knowledge cannot be codified or summed up as it is continuing to unfold within our lives. As Kevin Vanhoozer has described it, Christian knowing is not a pilgrimage (directionless wandering), nor is it a crusade (conquering mastery) but it is a missionary journey in which the truth of Christ unfolds for us as we go. A self-selected group, be it Christian Church, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, etc. cannot presume to encompass, codify, or sum up universal truth (and in their orthodox origins do not presume to do so).

Truth does not have a lineage that can be traced such that we simply stand in relationship to it in a geographical, physical, relationship as if it is an object to be received or an idol to be mindlessly obeyed. Where we obey without ascertaining for ourselves the truth that is imparted, we depersonalize what we would receive and relinquish what it means to be human. Every good bureaucrat, every good soldier, every unthinking citizen, presumes authority simply calls for obedience. If this means that one disclaims responsibility for their actions or for what they know and do not know this is to give up on being human.[1] Sin, after-all, is a refusal to know as you ought (a failed notion of authority) and is thus a willful refusal of the fullness of humanness. Personal truth passes through persons not only in its origin but in its end. Persons ascertain the truth in the fullness of what it means to be a person.


[1]In Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase.

No Authority Relieves Us of the Responsibility of Thought and Agency

In Japan the inclination to submit to authority, to maintain the harmony of the group, to not presume to have an opinion, has produced a series of dangerous cults, not the least of which was the Emperor cult which mobilized the nation in WWII.  I witnessed the recruiting efforts of Aum Shinrikyo, the most famous post War cult, in Shinjuku (a sound truck and dancing girls singing the “wondrous” name of their leader). The founder, Shoko Asahara, was able to gather followers from among graduates of elite universities and he formed his own shadow government and ministries in preparation for eventual takeover of Japan. In 1995 Aum chemists produced sarin gas used to kill passengers on the subway, for which (among other crimes and murders) Asahara and some 12 followers were executed last year. In every culture crowds will gather around a charismatic authority – whether emperor, pope, president, or cult leader. The willingness to acquiesce one’s agency to these figures, I have presumed, is counter to the manner in which the authority of Christ is exercised. I have been surprised by the turn of millennials to various forms of authoritarianism, not just in the megachurch but the many turning to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, ascending hierarchies, and a seeming willingness to relinquish healthy notions of individual agency.

I am completely sympathetic to a rejection of the woefully inadequate, ignorant, theologically misdirected, business model, that prevails in the typical local church body, to say nothing of seminaries and Bible colleges. We know precisely what it is to have the crudest of intellects, the morally suspect, the theologically illiterate, presume to rate our spirituality (literally, a formalized weapon used against us). Young preacher’s lives and careers are regularly destroyed by elders and leaders who have no notion of the personal and theological responsibility shepherds should bear. I understand the impetus to escape this callow and cavalier excuse for spiritual leadership.

The answer, however, may not be to entrust ourselves to contemporary High-Church bishops (vested as they sometimes are with Lordships, powers of war, powers to re-legislate scriptural authority, power to redefine biblical notions of sexuality, and powers to dictate orthodoxy and thought) and presume that the contemporary office resembles the humble office of the New Testament. While there must certainly be “good bishops,” the notion that one can selectively eliminate the bad (the unorthodox, the semi-Christian) misses that choosing your bishop is not an alternative and certainly not an alternative to individual agency and thought.

The reaction to autonomous individualism, perhaps characteristic of us baby boomers, seems to have swung the pendulum in the opposite direction toward notions that the Church relieves one of having to engage, study, reason, and presume individual responsibility for corporate action. Bishops, popes, hierarchy, may offer certain forms of security (not the least of which is job security) but the trade off should not be a truncated sense of personal responsibility.

Paul, in offering his “opinion” (which in I Co 7:6,25,40 he makes clear several times over is simply that) on marriage and singleness invites us into his reasoning process which stands as an open and continuing invitation as to how we are to balance reason, authority, and individual circumstance. Opinions may vary but there is no question that having an opinion is what Paul calls us to in persuading us of his opinion. Outside of the Church slaves, women, and social outcasts, were not presumed to have agency or to be persons in the full sense of the term and certainly were not considered worthy of having opinions. The no male nor female, no slave nor free, no Jew nor Gentile, polity of the Church means that all are equally persons. Even if human slavery and the necessities of gender and social status are determinative of identity outside of the Church, Paul makes it clear that in the Church it is “as if not” (7:29-31). Authority, even of the apostolic kind, invites and encourages the blossoming of a full humanity which is not autonomous individualism but neither is it a relinquishment of a fully formed life of the mind.

Paul is certainly willing to speak a “command” from God but he provides another crucial consideration for making moral judgments: “in view of the present necessity” (I Co 7:26). That necessity, as he makes clear, is one that takes the individual and her needs into account and only the individual is able to make a final determination (or form an opinion as Paul himself has done) as to how to coordinate the various criteria Paul poses. The individual’s situation and desires (under control or not), apostolic authority, and advancement of the Church and Kingdom are all part of the issues Paul suggests for consideration in determining whether to marry or remain single.  Individual determination of this sort was far from the norm of the day.

At the same time, Paul turns the Corinthians’ Gnostic inclinations back to the realities of embodiment, to the reality of the human sexual drive (“husbands and wives need to satisfy one another’s desires”), and continually tells them to take stock of their needs and desires and to balance this with the mission of Christ. Paul’s mode of reasoning, letter writing, discussion, draws all to the table so as to set forth his argument.  Certainly he is an authority, but he does not exercise this authority like a monarch or dictator but more like a guide sending fellow travelers down a path he knows.  This sort of authority presumes we too must know the way so as to go on. This truth is not simply acknowledged but absorbed, such that it becomes transformative.

Paul’s opinion in I Co 7, based on the idea that the Parousia or second coming is about to occur compels us to also account for our “present necessity,” a 2000-year delay in Christ’s return. Our own moral reasoning cannot elide the altered circumstance and contingencies we face. This is not a rejection of the authority of Paul but it is to follow the direction in which his authority points us: apostolic authority, through the guidance of the Spirit, calls us not to relinquish agency but to develop it and exercise it. Like the Bereans we are to search the Scriptures and confirm for ourselves, with all the contingencies of being human, the truth (Acts 17:11). Thinking is certainly not an unaided activity but exercise of the mind cannot be hired out.

 

 

Dancing in the Wilderness

Faith and I did not know we were standing on the precipice of the wilderness three years ago as all we could see was bone-chilling darkness. After most of an adult life in Japan we were attuned to the profound need for belonging and we understood what it was not to belong. It had not occurred to us that we would feel the worst sort of exclusion and disenfranchisement from American Christians. We learned the hard way that speaking against power, even the power of a Christian institution, would forever mark us as outsiders. The cost of belonging, the silent acquiescence we were so familiar with in Japan, we had presumed, wrongly, would not be a price required among the “non-idolatrous.” As I look back at the misogyny, the open financial corruption, the abuse of students and faculty, the price of being inside now appears obviously idolatrous. But it may be that it is only from the wilderness, which at first felt very punishing and lonely, that the reality of the flesh pots of Egypt are exposed. As we walked into the wilderness, we slowly discovered this beautiful community outside the gates. Continue reading “Dancing in the Wilderness”

The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy

Both Abraham and Sarah respond with laughter to their absurd plight.  Sarah laughs privately and Abraham “fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Gen. 17:17).  The absurd situation of being promised a child, though Sarah is barren and Abraham is so old he is as good as dead, is laughable as it is absurdly hopeful.  The laughter is not simply doubtful, though it encompasses doubt. It is, as one might say at the unforeseen but happy resolution of an impossible situation, “Unbelievable!” Their laughter is acknowledgement of the absurdity but it is not bound by mere impossibility or tragedy. The fact that they memorialize the laughter in naming the child Isaac (He Who Laughs) indicates this laughter is integral to their faith. Since Abraham, in Paul’s explanation, is the prototype of faith, this indicates our own faith is to be caught up in the same laughter. More than that, Isaac or He Who Laughs is a type of Christ, meaning that the divine and human are melded in laughter personified. Continue reading “The Birth of Jesus as Divine Comedy”

I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death

Total freedom and the possibility of total destruction are not simply global phenomena (the “free” possibility of ending organized civilization through nuclear warfare or global warming) but are conjoined in a “despairing” Subject. Progress toward attaining the self, whether it brings down the world or simply destroys what is, marks the present world order but also the despairing, fear bound Subjects emerging at the end of late modernity. This despair, in Søren Kierkegaard’s depiction of it, might be despair at not being conscious of having a self, or despair at not willing to be oneself, or despair at willing to be oneself, but all three reduce to the same predicament.[1] There is a disease of the spirit (the spirit of the age or the individual human spirit) a dividedness and fear in which unity is sought (becoming or attaining the self) in negation of the self. Kierkegaard calls it “the sickness unto death.” Continue reading “I Kissed Dating Goodbye as I am no Longer Human: Curing This Sickness Unto Death”

Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul

For most of human history people lived out their lives in the codified cocoon of traditional societies in which the cosmic order was presumed to dictate immutable laws determining every aspect of human life. One might respond by submitting or transgressing, but the laws were held in place by divine dictate. To change up the world order was not a possibility and was made a possibility only by one who would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Changing the world order is a possibility introduced by Christianity but the notion of freedom, even among the first Christian heretics, is perverted to mean an absolute freedom from all constraint.  Freedom from the law combined with the revolutionary notion of recreating the world, apart from the specifics of the work of Christ, created a stream of thought already developing in the Corinthian Church but famously represented by such key figures as Descartes, Hegel and Nietzsche. Beginning with doubt and constructing from the foundations up (Descartes), with death and nothingness itself as foundational (Hegel), philosophy marked the turning to a radical freedom in which no values hold (Nietzsche). Continue reading “Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul”