Friday, September 28, 2012

Same Sex Attraction: Reflections on an Interview with Vaughan Roberts

Michael Bird over at Euangelion has brought attention to a frank and helpful interview with Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St. Ebbe's in Oxford, over Same Sex Attraction.  The interview, entitled "A Battle I Face," discusses his admission of struggle with homosexual orientation, one of various battles he discussed in his 2007 book, Battles Christians Face.

Here in America people are bombarded with two seemingly polar opposite positions, the advocates of which stridently propound their view while vilifying the opposition.  On the one hand, the rising tide of secular culture, bolstered by studies that appear to demonstrate some innate biological element to homosexual orientation, demands that homosexual practice be accorded the same normative status as heterosexual practice.  "Authenticity," so the argument goes, demands that people with such an orientation accept such an orientation as definitive of their identity and embrace the lifestyle such an orientation makes "natural."  On the other hand, "Evangelical" Christians have had the tendency to conflate biblical condemnation of homosexual practice with a blanket condemnation of people with homosexual orientation.  Even worse, they have tended, at least at the popular and lay levels, to maintain that homosexuality is a learned behavior that people adopt by conscious choice--I remember more than one heterosexual college student tell me that nothing I taught could convince them otherwise--and to adopt the worst aspects of macho culture in their attitudes to gay people.  The result has been unfortunate.  Those with a secular agenda have been relentless in their caricature of all Christians based on the sub-biblical attitudes of the most strident anti-gay crusaders.  That is to be expected, so consequently I don't worry about it.  I am not responsible for them, anyway.  But I am a Christian--and a Christian theologian at that--and hence have large stakes in how my community thinks and acts.  And it is a tragic thing that Christians, who are supposed to be marked by love of all, are known more for their hatefulness than their charity, grace, and mercy toward those with whom they disagree.

I have always maintained that there is a middle way that must be taken. Roberts, to his great credit, affirms this very via media. The Bible certainly teaches that homosexual practice is sinful in the eyes of God (as I sought to demonstrate thoroughly in posts found hereherehereherehere, and here).  The faithful Christian must, as a consequence, regard such practice as an illegitimate option for his or her life.  Indeed, as Roberts affirms correctly, there are only two legitimate options: heterosexual sex within the parameters of monogamous marriage, and celibacy.  In this regard, the struggle of a gay person to remain celibate differs little from the struggle of a single heterosexual person.  At the same time, the Bible does not deal with the issue of sexual orientations per se, at least with regard to their occurrences within individual lives.  I have no serious doubt that such orientations are the result of complex biological, psychological, and environmental factors, and hence for all practical purposes appear "normal" to those who experience them.  After all, I know of nobody who distinctly chooses those to whom he or she is sexually attracted.  Such orientations are not easily changed, let alone unwanted ones eradicated.  And I believe God nowhere promises to remove such desires, though in his grace he may do so at times through the Spirit in response to prayer.

It is an inconvenient fact that all of us are innately prone to various behaviors that do not correspond to how things "ought to be" (i.e., "sin").  My innate tendencies to rage and culinary self-indulgence don't for a minute excuse my fits of bad temper while watching the Eagles or my gluttony, often indulged in concert with the first.  And they certainly wouldn't excuse any self-righteous condemnation on my part of people who tend to sins I would never commit.  All sins, whether they be seemingly "minor" (gluttony) or "major" (sexual sins--and, lest anyone forget, the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-30 say nothing if they don't identify all of us as sexual sinners), result from the deformation of God's creation due to the primeval sin pictured in Genesis 3.  And it is this situation that Jesus Messiah came to reverse in his activity as the "last Adam."  In his death, he condemned sin in the flesh (Rom 8:3), and in his resurrection he destroyed death (2 Tim 1:10).  Yet sin and death remain until Christ comes to consummate the Kingdom and set things right for once and for all.  In the meantime, we who are "in Christ" have been united with him in his death to sin and life-giving resurrection.  We have been given the Spirit as the gift of the new covenant, writing God's very law in our hearts (Jer 31; Ezek 36).  Yet as long as we remain in this mortal body, we will struggle with sin (indeed, the only problem would be if we fail to so struggle, in which case we would give evidence to the fact that we were still in servitude to it).  Indeed, the mark of a Christian is that he or she "puts to death the deeds of the body" (Rom 8:13), thereby giving evidence of being a "son" of God (Rom 8:14).  In such a perspective, the presence of constant struggle, in the power of the Spirit, to overcome the sins that, for us, appear "natural," is best viewed as the occasion for God's power being demonstrated in the face of our weakness to strengthen us and cause us to grow spiritually.  

In this vein, I close with some good words from Rev. Roberts in his interview:

Julian: So the message to Christians with same-sex attraction sounds pretty tough: ‘stay single, stay pure’.

Vaughan: That’s not all there is to say. It’s important to distinguish between sin, which can only be seen as negative, and circumstances, which, even when hard, may still be viewed positively.
While homosexual sin must always be resisted, the circumstances which often accompany same-sex attraction should be accepted as a context in which God can work. There is, without doubt, a difficult aspect to those circumstances, such as, for example, the frustration of not being able to experience the intimacy of a sexual relationship or a feeling of isolation because of the sense of being different. They can nonetheless be viewed in some senses positively, because of a recognition that God is sovereign over them and can work in and through them for his glory, the good of others and our own growth into the likeness of Christ.
This perspective should transform how we view all the difficult circumstances in our lives. We’re not called to a super-spiritual positivity which denies the frustration and pain; nor are we to embrace a passivity which spurns any opportunity to change our situation. But we are to recognise the loving hand of God in all we experience and see it as an opportunity for service, growth and fruitfulness.

Julian: That’s a very different perspective from just ‘grimace and stay pure’: how does it work out in practice?

Vaughan: I have found that those I’ve learnt most from have invariably been believers who have grown in Christian maturity by persevering through significant difficulties. The experience of blindness, depression, alcoholism, a difficult marriage, or whatever the struggle may have been, is certainly not good in and of itself and yet God has worked good through it, both in the gold he has refined in their lives and the blessings he has ministered through them. I have seen the same dynamic at work in some godly believers who have experienced a seemingly intractable attraction to the same sex. By learning, no doubt through many difficult times, to look to Christ for the ultimate fulfilment of their relational longings, they have grown into a deep and joyful relationship with him. Their own experience of suffering has also made them sensitive and equipped to help others who struggle in various ways. Those who have not married have embraced the Bible’s very positive teaching about singleness as a gift (see 1 Corinthians 7.32-35), whether chosen or not, which, I imagine, alongside loneliness and sexual frustration, has afforded them wonderful opportunities for the loving service of God and others. I know that I myself would not have had nearly as much time for writing and speaking at missions or conferences if I had been married. I’ve also had more time for friendships, which have been a huge blessing to me and, I trust, to others as well.

Julian: That’s encouraging. But what about the pain, surely that’s very real? What do you do with that?

Vaughan: Yes, the pain is real — I can’t deny that. The world, the flesh and the devil all conspire to make sin appear very attractive, so it will be hard for believers to remain godly in this area for the sake of the kingdom of God. To do that you need a clear understanding of the call to self denial in the kingdom — and the dynamic of resurrection life proceeding out of sacrificial death. Christ does call us all to a life of costly suffering as we take up our crosses for him, but, just as it was in his experience, that way of the cross is the path to life: ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ (Mark 8.35).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

More on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife

Discussion proceeds apace over the provocatively-titled Gospel of Jesus' Wife, the 4 x 8 cm papyrus fragment whose "discovery" was announced last week by Karen King of Harvard (see my evaluation of the text, with reference to numerous other helpful posts, here).

Francis Watson of the University of Durham in England has published a thorough and compelling follow-up to his initial reactions in an article in The Bible and Interpretation, in which he states the case that the fragment is most likely a modern forgery (one immediately thinks of the late Columbia professor Morton Smith and his "discovery" of the so-called "Secret Gospel of Mark" in 1960; the case for dismissing this text is made compellingly by Acadia Divinity College Professor Craig Evans here).

Further judicious assessments of the GJW may be found in recent posts by Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary (here), Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh (here and here), Stanley Porter of McMaster Divinity College (here), and John Dickson of Macquarie University and the University of Sydney (here).  April DeConick of Rice University has published a pair of posts on her blog from the perspective of one who maintains the hegemony of the celibate view of Jesus is ultimately due to the tradition of "holy misogyny" she attempts to demonstrate in here book of that name (here and here; her perspective is clear in her provocative--and misleading--question, "why did the sexual Jesus become the heretical Jesus while the glorification of the celibate male become the dominant orthodox view?).  Finally, from a more "orthodox" perspective, James McGrath of Butler University wonders why "[s]ome react to the idea [of a married Jesus] with such an excessive dismissiveness, as though their faith were at stake" (here).  He rightly, in my view, attributes this to a faulty Christology (a truly docetic diminishment of genuine "incarnation"): "[S]ome people have a view of Jesus that bears no relationship at all to the human figure in the earliest New Testament Gospels."

Ultimately, as I mentioned in my last post, this matter is really much ado about nothing--or, as Witherington says, "not very much."  If genuine (which, though I have doubts, I very much hope it to be), it still says nothing except that a fringe group of "heretical" Christians maintained that Jesus had been a married man.  And that is something all scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity already knew.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"The Gospel of Jesus' Wife": Some Delayed Reflections

The papyrus fragment dubbed "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" (image

By now I am sure most Americans with access to the Internet are aware of last week’s announcement by Harvard Professor Karen King that she had identified a papyrus fragment, written in Coptic and tentatively dated to the 4th century, that speaks of Jesus’ “wife” (for the best treatment of the backstory of the announcement, see this article in the Smithsonian Magazine; for photographic images of the papyrus fragment, transcriptions, and a provisional translation from Dr. King, see here).

The part of the fragment that has garnered the most attention is the fragmentary lines 4 and 5, which read thus (in King’s translation):
] Jesus said to them, “My wife … [
] She will be able to be a disciple to me, and [
The Smithsonian article claims that this discovery is “apt to send jolts through the world of biblical scholarship—and beyond.”  Peter Mucha of the Philadelphia Inquirer articulates why he thinks line 4 is viewed by many as controversial: “Traditional Christian teaching is that Jesus was celibate and a divine being who left no physical remains, because three days after the crucifixion he ascended bodily into heaven.”  Likewise, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times calls line 5 “provocative” in its assertion that a woman could be elevated to the status of a “disciple.”  My first reaction to such hype is to think that journalists should simply steer clear of biblical historical scholarly discussions in view of their obvious unfamiliarity with it.  Yes, Jesus has historically been viewed as celibate, but does “historic Christian teaching” — let alone the Bible —teach that Jesus was/is a “divine being” simpliciter so as to deny the possibility that he could have been married if he had so chosen?  And Goodstein’s belief that the notion of a female “disciple” would be shocking flies in the face of explicit New Testament evidence that there were, in fact, women disciples during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry (e.g., Luke 8), and that there was at least one woman prominent enough in the earliest church to be called (in an extended sense) an “apostle” (i.e., Junia, Rom 16:7).

Moreover, I would like to ask what scholar of the New Testament or the history of early Christianity would be shocked to hear that the belief that Jesus had been married could have been held and articulated in the 4th century?  Indeed, the 2nd century Gnostic text Gospel of Thomas has Jesus provocatively lying on a (dining) couch with Salome.  The 2nd/3rd century Gnostic text Gospel of Philip possibly portrays Jesus as kissing Mary of Magdala (the manuscript discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 is damaged at the relevant point) and describes her as Jesus’ koinōnos, “companion.”

Not only is the notion of a married Jesus not surprising, let alone unique, it begs the question as to whether or not such a decontextualized claim, found on a single late, fragmentary papyrus with an unknown provenance, has any claim to be taken seriously as history.  Indeed, even Dr. King took pains to make clear that the text cannot be made to offer proof that the actual, historical Jesus of Nazareth was married (see here).  Furthermore, as Cambridge University’s Dirk Jongkind, citing Roger Bagnall, has pointed out, the clearly cut upper edge of the fragment, along with the facts that the text both begins and ends in the middle of sentences and the words, “My wife” are left hanging and unexplained, bear the unmistakable mark of being caused by the hand of a modern antiquities dealer who divided up a larger papyrus so as to maximize profit by having more pieces to sell.  And the lack of context for the reference to “my wife” could also be less than accidental:
We all have our own favourite examples of the enticing brochures advertising our perfect holiday homes, which fortuitously manage to miss the oil refinery on the horizon, the overhead power lines, or the motorway at the back of the property. Here we have a fragment which has been deliberately altered, 'most likely' by a modern dealer seeking to maximize profit, who gets rid of 'something'. And this 'something' might well be in the same league as the oil refinery – it might be a spoiler that affected the value of this fragment negatively. The fragment may have been torn in the shape it is now in order to coax the reader into a certain interpretation. 
Indeed, the difficulty of basing anything on such a fragmentary text is demonstrated with typical hilarity by comedian and de facto political commentator Jon Stewart on last Thursday’s edition of The Daily Show (see the video clip here).

There is, furthermore, the question of authenticity, which is by no means settled.  The first thing that struck me when reading the fragment was the similarity to two “sayings” of Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas (especially sayings 101, 114).  My suspicions have been strengthened by the work of Durham University’s Francis Watson, who has demonstrated that “line 1 of GJW reproduces not only the precise words from GTh 101 underlined above but also the line-division of the extant Coptic manuscript.”  His conclusion seems inexorable:
The author or compiler of GJW is evidently dependent on the one extant manuscript of the Coptic GTh, the line-division of which he or she slavishly follows at this point. An obvious explanation is that the author has used a modern printed edition of the Coptic text, where the original line-divisions are preserved.
The text, in other words, at most demonstrates that the belief that Jesus had been married was still alive in certain quarters of deviant “Christianity” that had produced the Gospel of Thomas back in the 2nd century.  Notice that I am unabashedly labeling “Gnostic” Christianity as a Johnny-come-lately, substandard form of Christianity that flowered in the second century, and whose difference from the portrait of Jesus found in the four canonical Gospels is an index of its secondary character.  This is a perspective clearly at odds with that of Professor King, who has made her name by virtue of research into such later “Gospels” as the Gospel of Mary of Magdala and the Gospel of Judas (with the like-minded Elaine Pagels).  Indeed, King even resists calling “Gnosticism” by its name, claiming that such nomenclature is simply due to the imperialism of the victorious “orthodox” Christians who emerged triumphant in the second century.

To me, the “discovery” of this fragment is really much ado about nothing.  But it, like the fictional scenario popularized in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, has clearly caught the fancy of the public who appear all too willing to accept the plausibility, despite the mass of historical evidence to the contrary, of the portraits of Jesus found therein.  Indeed, ever since Lessing’s posthumous publication of Reimarus’s Wolfenbüttel Fragments in 1774-78, the so-called “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” in all its various stages, has largely been, in reality, a quest for an alternative Jesus to the one found in the Bible and in historic Christian theology.  For whatever reason — the simple desire to strip Jesus of the divinity ascribed to him by the church, (in this case) the desire to empower women sexually in view of a supposed negative view of the worth of the female body in the ancient church (the view of April DeConick in her book, Holy Misogyny) — the alternative visions of Jesus and Christianity found in these (much) later texts have found a willing audience to consider their claims. (an aside: why Pagels, King, and other women are amenable to the Gospel of Thomas is somewhat mystifying to me in view of its own view of women. Indeed, in GT 114, one of the very texts reflected in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, it explicitly expresses a misogynistic statement that would never be found in the canonical texts they so dislike: “See, I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too might become a living spirit, resembling you males.”). 

In fact, however, the claim of such later Gnostic texts to historical trustworthiness —or even to be considered as worthy to be placed alongside the canonical texts —has been shown time and again to be baseless (see, for example, Philip Jenkins’ Hidden Gospels, Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus, and Darrell Bock’s The Missing Gospels).  The credulity of so many today regarding them is the result of the demise of modernistic positivism and its replacement with an unreflective postmodernism.  But history, no matter how messy, still must be done, and thinking people, while acknowledging the postmodern critique, will ever concern themselves (humbly) with plausibilities and probabilities.  And in the case of the alternative Christologies so fashionable today, one must say that they have indeed been weighed and found wanting, dashed upon the cruel rocks of history.  With regard to Jesus’ marital status, I believe there is nothing fatal to the notion that he could have been married.  But there is no good evidence that he was, and the silence of the New Testament in this regard speaks volumes, particularly in light of the absence in it of both misogyny and the metaphysical dualism characteristic of the Greek philosophy that later had a detrimental effect on the worldview of Christians in the Roman Empire.

For further discussion, besides the posts by Watson and Jongkind, mentioned above, see also the following posts by Dan Wallace, Simon Gathercole, and Philip Jenkins.

Friday, September 21, 2012

September 21, 1964: The Most Infamous Day in Philadelphia Sports History

Chico Ruiz stealing home, Connie Mack Stadium, Philadelphia, 21 September 1964

Fall is my favorite season.  Weather-wise, the turn from summer swelter to autumn crispness, with its attendant azure-blue skies and the Northeast's brilliant displays of leafy color, is one of the most highly anticipated events of my year.  Yet the approach of the autumnal equinox each September 22-24 is marked by an event that, for me, brings back painful memories of childhood disillusionment and has left an indelible mark on my sporting psyche—and not only on mine, but on millions of Philadelphians of my generation: The Phillies blew a seemingly insurmountable 6 1/2 game lead in the National League with only 12 games to go by losing an unthinkable 10 games in a row.  The way this streak began was so bizarre, and how the mounting losses seemed so inexorable, certainly (in my mind) justifies the pessimistic fatalism that has made Philadelphia fans infamous.

In the spring and early summer of 1964 I was 7 years old, a burgeoning sports fan who loved playing wiffle ball in the alley behind my row house apartment on Balwynne Park Road in the Wynnefield Heights section of West Philadelphia.  1964 was the first year I followed big league baseball in earnest, reading the box scores religiously, collecting the Topps baseball cards my dad bought from the Jack and Jill ice cream truck that made its nightly rounds in the neighborhood, listening to By Saam’s calls of Phillies games on WCAU radio, and going for the first time to see the Phils at old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly. 

At the time, I obviously had no clue of the Phillies’ sad-sack history: only two pennants (and zero World Series victories) in their 81-year history, 17 last place finishes in the span of 29 years between 1919-1947, and a record 23-game losing streak in 1961.  All I knew was that in the months of April, May, and June of 1964 the Phillies were locked in a two-team battle with the Willie Mays-led San Francisco Giants for supremacy in the National League.  On June 15, when my family left for a summer at Deerfoot Lodge in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, the Phils and Giants were deadlocked in first place with 34-23 records.  The Giants, not surprisingly, were led by pitcher Juan Marichal, who on June 15 had an 8-2 record and a typically low 2.42 ERA, and the incomparable Willie Mays, by consensus baseball’s premier player.  In 1964 Mays was hitting .400 as late as May 23, and on June 15 was still hitting .360 with 18 homers (despite not having hit any in the previous 18 games) and 48 RBI in 57 games.  The Phils didn’t have the same level of star power as the Giants (or the Reds, Braves, or Cardinals for that matter).  Indeed, 38 year-old manager Gene Mauch utilized a platoon system for 5 of the 8 positions, with only second baseman Tony Taylor, rightfielder Johnny Callison, and 22 year-old rookie third baseman Richie (“call me Dick”) Allen playing every day.  Callison, though, had his best season in ’64 with 31 homers and 104 RBI.  And Allen was a revelation, running away with the NL’s Rookie of the Year award by hitting .318 with 29 homers while scoring 125 runs.  The “Wampum Walloper” remains the single most powerful (non-steroid using) hitter I have ever seen, and his torrid start in ’64 was a prime reason for the team’s quick start out of the gate.

Phillies 1964 World Series Tickets(photo @
tag/1964-world-series/ )
During my summer in New York, the Phillies pulled away from the Giants, who were hurt by the loss of Marichal due to back spasms for nearly a month in July and August.  When my family returned to Philly at the end of August and the Phils returned from a short, 6-game road trip to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, we came back to a city reeling from the race riots that decimated Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia just a mile south of Connie Mack Stadium.  But the Phillies were still in first place with a seemingly secure 5 ½ game lead over the Cincinnati Reds, 6 ½ over the Giants, and 7 over the surging St. Louis Cardinals, who had rejuvenated themselves by trading for speedy outfielder Lou Brock on June 15.  When, on September 20, ace Jim Bunning defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2, to run his record to 18-5 and lower his ERA to 2.33, the Phillies came home to North Philly with the aforementioned 6 ½ games lead with just 12 games left on the schedule.  Printing presses in Philadelphia proceeded to print World Series tickets for what appeared at the time to be inevitable, and 90,000 were sold within hours.  But, alas, it was not to be.

 September 21, 1964 is the most infamous day in the infamous history of Philadelphia sports.  The Phils were at home against the second place Reds, with 12 game winner Art Mahaffey facing John Tsitouris, who had been a disappointment with a 7-11 record.  The game remained scoreless until the 6th inning when, with one out, rookie Chico “Bench Me or Trade Me” Ruiz (for more on Ruiz’s tragically short life, see here) singled and sped to third on a single to right by Vada Pinson, who was gunned down by the rifle-armed Callison at second trying to stretch it into a double.  That brought up Frank Robinson, one of the league’s most feared sluggers, with 2 outs.  Then Ruiz did the unthinkable — “the dumbest play I’ve ever seen,” according to teammate Pete Rose: he attempted a naked steal of home with the right-handed Robinson (!) at the plate, risking decapitation and the wrath of the irascible slugger at the same time.  But it worked.  Mahaffey, noting Ruiz’s break for home, was distracted enough to uncork a wild pitch outside the reach of catcher Clay Dalrymple, enabling Ruiz to score the game’s only run.  Amazingly, this was the second time in three games the Phils had been defeated by a steal of home, the Dodgers’ Willie Davis having performed the same feat in the 16th inning of the game that started on the 19th.

At first both the team and the fans took the loss in stride.  After all, they still had a 5 ½ game lead over the Reds.  But as the losses began to mount, the team tightened and, even worse, manager Gene Mauch, whose facility at small ball and strategic matchups had been instrumental in the team’s overachieving success that year, began to panic.  Most famously, Mauch used starters Jim Bunning and Chris Short multiple times on only 2 days’ rest, with predictably bad results (for detailed analysis of this and other of Mauch’s managerial failings contributing to the Phils’ demise in '64, see here).  When on September 28-30, the Phils were swept by the Cardinals in a 3-game series at Busch Stadium, they had amazingly lost 10 in a row, and fallen 2 ½ games behind the streaking Redbirds, who had won 8 in a row.  Even though they rallied to defeat the Reds in the final two games of the season, they fell one game short at the end when the Cardinals rallied from behind to defeat the lowly Mets on the strength of the bats of Bill White and Tim McCarver and the arm of Bob Gibson, who won his 19th game of the season in relief.

All these years later, I still recall these events, and the anguish they caused, as vividly as if they happened yesterday (actually, I could only wish to recall yesterday’s events so vividly!).  In moments of thoughtful reflection, I can see how they influenced my own fandom at a fundamental level.  For me, losing and choking are the expected results whenever my Philly teams play.  I am never surprised when a Philadelphia team snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, whether it is the 1968 Sixers losing three straight to the aging, and clearly inferior, Celtics, the 1977 Sixers losing four straight to Bill Walton’s Blazers after taking the first two games easily, or the 2000 Flyers losing three straight to the New Jersey Devils after taking a 3-1 series lead.  I am never surprised, but always angry, when clearly superior Philly teams fail to win championships, whether that team is the 1980 Eagles or the 2010-2011 Phillies.  I am likewise never surprised when Philadelphia players never seem to live up to their early promise or hype, whether it be Dick Allen, George McGinnis, Donovan McNabb, Eric Lindros, or Ryan Howard.  Frustration, in my experience, has been the norm, and we Philadelphians of the old school are known to voice that frustration in ways that more “refined” and less star-crossed fans of other cities rarely do.  But it is this very history of frustration that makes the city’s rare championships —the 1960 Eagles, the 1980 and 2008 Phillies, the 1967 and 1983 Sixers, and the 1974 and 1975 Flyers — all the sweeter because of their very unexpectedness.

Time heals all wounds, so the saying goes.  In a sense, I guess that’s true.  Today I look back at the 1964 Phillies, with names like Covington, Gonzalez, Taylor, Rojas, Wine, Baldschun, Dalrymple, Bennett, and especially Callison, Allen, Bunning, and Short, with more fondness than I do the more successful Phillies of 2007-2011.  To me, they remain bigger than life, despite their failure.  But that failure taught me a dubious “lesson” I wish I could unlearn, but deep down inside know I never will.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mitt Romney, the 47%, and a "Culture of Dependence"

While a graduate student working to support a growing family back in the 1980s, I observed quite clearly that wages were not keeping up with the steadily increasing financial demands of living what I had always taken for granted, namely, the American middle class way of life.  For many, the slack was taken up by ever-increasing number of wives into the workforce.  In the short term, this resulted in an increase in many families' way of life, with expectations of continuing and ever-greater prosperity following in short order.  But it was not to last, as any clear thinking person could have predicted at the time.  All those years ago, I suggested that within a generation America would find itself in a situation where, in many families, both spouses would have to work to support a way of life that in the past had been made possible by the labor of only one  and that trouble would ensue when many working couples would find themselves falling behind despite both of their hard work.

That, to be frank, is the situation America now finds itself in.  And nothing brings out what people are really like more than situations in which they, rightly or wrongly, feel threatened. Today, millions of Americans feel threatened.  They see the country they love floundering in debt, waging an unwinnable and seemingly interminable war, and stagnating with un- and underemployment.  And how they have responded does not speak well of them.  In contrast to the 1930s, when a large majority of Americans banded together in support of Franklin Roosevelt's broadside against the "forces of selfishness and of lust for power," today many have apparently accepted the argument of those once-vanquished forces that it is the losers in today's economy (and their abettors in the "Democrat" party) who have, by virtue of their slothfulness and indulgence at the public trough, led the nation to the precipice of ruin.

Enter Willard Mitt Romney.  Romney is not a man of ideas.  His early forays into the realm of foreign policy have been embarrassing: his offensive and baseless criticism of America's foremost ally, the UK, on the eve of the London Olympics, his ultra-hawkish stance toward Iran, and his inexcusable, precipitant, and fact-challenged criticism of President Obama in response to last week's tragic attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.  With regard to economic and social issues, Romney's apparent lack of firm convictions was compared back by one of his own spokesmen, Eric Fehrnstrom, back in March as akin to the old children's standby, the Etch-a-Sketch: "You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Methinks, however, that Mr. Romney inadvertently drew a sketch of the real Mitt Romney, at least with regard to the one conviction he apparently holds firmly, last May at an exclusive fundraiser in the Florida home of private equity mogul Mark Leder.  Romney's speech that night was recorded surreptitiously, and this week found its way onto the Mother Jones website (for the original, inflammatory snippet, see here; for the complete speech, see here).  It awaits to be seen whether the explosions set off by this revelatory bombshell will continue to have reverberations come November, but if I were a betting man, I would wager that the controversy will end later rather than sooner.  Telling is the fact that, not only liberal pundits like E. J. Dionne, Jr., but moderate conservatives like David Brooks (in a brilliant article entitled "Thurston Howell Romney"), have offered devastating, withering critiques which, to the certain dismay of candidate Romney, will have been read by many of the highly-educated swing voters he will need to unseat the incumbent Obama.

For those who have not as yet watched the videos, the controversy centers on the following quotation:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…. “[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Some have called this comment a "gaffe."  Well, this is not your garden-variety, Joe Biden-style gaffe, an inelegantly-stated chestnut that sounds worse than the author's intent.  It is what is called a "Kinsley gaffe," after journalist Michael Kinsley, who famously stated, " A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth   some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say."  In this case, Romney was speaking to some of "his" people, the ultra wealthy who form his real base.  In such a crowd he let slip what he believed he could say safely, with the full agreement of his listeners, but would be political dynamite in wider circles.  The only shock for me, however, is that many people in these wider circles apparently were surprised that Mr. Romney could actually believe, let alone utter, such sentiments.  Of course this is what he believes.  It is exactly the same belief I read and/or hear every day at work, in newspapers, news magazines, cable news networks, and  saddest of all  on Facebook from the mouths and keyboards of confessing Christians.  I am not shocked.  But I am saddened, both because of what it reveals about Romney's heart and his willingness to misrepresent facts in the interests of advancing policies that would have the primary consequence of lining his pockets with surplus wealth he, and others like him, certainly don't need.

The "argument" of this short quotation is built upon a major mischaracterization, and it proceeds to impugn the character of nearly half of the nation's populace.  First, the mischaracterization: 47% of the population "pay no income tax."  This is technically true at the federal level, not because (as implied) they are lazy moochers, but because they make too little in wages (despite full-time employment) to pay the federal income tax or are senior citizens dependent on Social Security payments they earned from a lifetime of work.  More sinister, however, is the typical conservative sleight of hand that gives this argument its particular power.  For too many people, "no federal income taxes" means "no taxes."  But this is not a valid equation.  For even those who end up paying no federal income tax pay state taxes, highly regressive sales taxes, and  most importantly  payroll (i.e., Social Security) taxes, the last of these at a far higher rate than people in Mr. Romney's tax bracket.  Not only this, but Romney seems blissfully unaware  though I cynically suspect he is too intelligent not to be aware  of how much people at the top of the pyramid benefit from government largess: lower tax rates for investment income than for earned labor wages, oil and gas company subsidies, not to mention the hugely profitable tax deduction for home mortgage interest.  Considering the fact that Romney himself only paid 13% of his vast income last year in federal income taxes, he also hides the fact that he himself has benefited from favorable tax policy.  I wonder, does he himself feel "entitled" to such preferential policies?

As a member of the 47% club, I take offense at his suggestion  so obviously heart-felt  that such people as I are remiss in "tak[ing] personal responsibility" and "car[ing] for our lives."  How many people have been laid off of good paying jobs  many because of the "work" of entities like Romney's old Bain Capital  and have had to try to make ends meet by taking lower-paying jobs for which they are ill-suited or overqualified?  How many people have been devastated financially by illness  how dare, suggests Romney, that any should consider health care, or even protection from bankruptcy due to illness, a right?  I know no one who considers him- or herself as a "victim" or who relishes being dependent overmuch on government.  To be sure, such people exist (and one of the measures of a society is how well they work to transform such people into contributing members of that society).  But I am willing to bet that Romney himself, like all decent people, didn't take the same tack with his own children in training them to be self-sufficient.  What parent withholds support from his or her children ("You're on your own, kid") instead of giving them every opportunity  socially, educationally, financially   to succeed in life?  (Romney tacitly acknowledges this in his bone-headed advice to college students to borrow money from their parents if they need help to get an education rather than borrowing from the government.)  More fundamentally, the tack of painting all the lesser-off people in the country as shiftless burdens on society is yet another example of the black-and-white thinking, devoid of nuance, that characterizes so much "conservative" rhetoric these days.  I agree that steps need to be taken to ween many people off the dole.  But what I want to hear  from both Republicans and Democrats   is what they propose to do about it.  Talk about "good jobs," and vacuous promises to provide them, just will not do.  Unfortunately, I hear very little, from either Romney or Obama, that has any credibility (hint: I want to hear a plan about rebuilding America's industrial base in the face of globalism and job-killing new technology. Walmart and service jobs simply will not do.  What are needed are real jobs that pay living wages. Only such will help the inner cities of this country that have been devastated the last 50 years by the double whammy of deindustrialization and the futile "war on drugs." If one really believes in "family values," that is the least they could do).

Ultimately, however, what bothers me the most about Mr. Romney's speech is its coherence with the regnant conservative talking point about the supposed "culture of dependence" that is fostered by the more "liberal" policies supported by President Obama and the democracies of Europe.  Such talk always has struck me as based on self-serving pride and reflective of an arrogant dismissal of, and lack of compassion, for the "other," particularly the poor.  A few weeks ago my brother stated my inchoate thoughts on the matter succinctly and spot-on: "What is a "culture of dependency" if not a description of Christianity?"  Simply put, Christianity gives the lie to the American myth of the "rugged individual."  I am often mindful of a marvelous little verse written by St. Paul against the arrogant triumphalism of certain members of the church at Corinth who were given to prideful boasting: 
For who makes you different from one another? What do you have that you did not receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor 4:7)

This text ultimately played a large role in St. Augustine's devastating argument against Pelagius, and for good reason.  All of us who claim the name of Christ owe everything to God. Boasting as if we have made ourselves to differ runs aground against the jagged rocks of Paul's theology of grace (cf. Romans 11:6), which cuts us down to size even as it exalts the God who establishes us in our status through his unmerited largess.  And those who understand this can never again view others with contempt and niggardly lack of compassion.

I close with a snippet from a speech by George W. Bush, which he gave back in 1999:
There is another destructive mindset: the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than “Leave us alone.”
Yet this is not who we are as Americans. We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws. Americans will never write the epitaph of idealism. It emerges from our nature as a people, with a vision of the common good beyond profit and loss. Our national character shines in our compassion.
I am my brother's keeper, indeed.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pete Enns on How to Think Christianly about Presidential Elections

Years ago I heard an instructive story from the mouth of a woman who had been a student of my father at the old Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University).  It was the 9th of November in 1960, and overnight it had been determined that John F. Kennedy had nudged out Richard Nixon in the election to become America’s 35th President.  This woman, a student at PCB, was of course an Evangelical/Fundamentalist Protestant and, hailing from central Pennsylvania, predictably a conservative Republican.  She and her friends at the college were shattered over the prospect of, not only a Democrat, but a Roman Catholic Democrat leading our nation.  But, she assured me those many years later, her fears were assuaged when my dad, an inveterate Calvinist, reminded her that God was sovereign in this event as in all others in his universe.

Dad was, of course, on solid biblical ground in his assertion of God’s sovereignty over the results of the election.  St. Paul, writing in (probably) the winter of 57 CE, wrote to the Christians of the imperial capital Rome:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God (Rom 13:1, ESV).
Centuries earlier the Book of Daniel recorded a dream of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, of a large and verdant tree that was hacked down to a stump to henceforth be watered with dew and share the ground with the beasts of the field (Dan 4:4-18).  Daniel interpreted the dream as a coded prediction that God would inflict the king with lunacy in order to teach him a fundamental theological notion:
… [Y]ou shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field.  You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will (Dan 4:25, ESV).
Ultimately, then, the Christian should not worry him- or herself to death over such matters as Presidential elections in the knowledge that, as Abraham Lincoln averred, “The will of God prevails.”  At the same time, as comforting as the confession of God’s sovereignty can be, only the theologically naïve can derive from it the corollary that God always works so as to guarantee results designed to issue in America’s greater prosperity and “blessing.”  As should be obvious to all somewhat objective Christian onlookers, America is not a “Christian nation,” let alone a nation with a unique covenantal relationship to God, self-serving claims to “American exceptionalism” notwithstanding.

As is so often the case, the key to understanding the issue lies in a proper view of eschatology.  In the New Testament it is clear that God is in the business of establishing his kingdom “on earth as in heaven.”  This kingdom was inaugurated in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, and it will one day culminate in the glorious consummation of new heavens and new earth.  It is to this king that we Christians owe our ultimate allegiance.  And it is in that kingdom that we find our ultimate hope.

This is the point made by Pete Enns in a penetrating blog post this week entitled, “Dear Christian: If the Thought of Either Romney or Obama Getting Elected Makes You Fearful, Angry, or Depressed, You Have What We Call a Theological Problem.”  What Enns makes perfectly clear is that all politicians and political parties thrive by presenting an eschatology, a vision of where we ought to be and how we should get there.  And it has always been thus.  In the Roman Empire, the birth and/or accession of a new emperor was hailed as euangelion, “good news.”  Inscriptions found in the eastern part of the Empire refer to various emperors, including Augustus, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Hadrian, as sōtēr, “savior, deliverer.”  Classic is the famous Priene Inscription (Asia Minor), dated to 9 BCE, which speaks thus of the accession of Octavius (Augustus):
It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: ‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him…
The resonances of these terms would not have been lost on the Greek readers of the New Testament when they were applied exclusively to Jesus of Nazareth and the story/message about him.

In today’s America, both Republicans and Democrats offer rival eschatologies to whet the appetites of the nation’s citizens.  Often these rival visions are expressed in simple — indeed, simplistic — slogans.  In 2008, then-candidate Obama offered America “hope” and “change.”  One might suggest that such words are ambiguous at best, and they would be right, but he was successful.  In 2012, Republican challenger Mitt Romney likewise is trying to hook voters with his one-word mantra, “jobs,” likewise nebulous —didn’t President Obama likewise have a jobs plan that the Republican-dominated Senate put the kibosh to?  What is important to recognize, however, is that such eschatologies derive their power from the overarching narrative to which they provide the climax.  And whether or not a particular person finds such an eschatological “hope” compelling depends on whether the person is able to place him- or herself inside the particular narratival American worldview of which it is part and parcel.

Enns’s major point is spot-on: no political system, no political party, no individual politician, can ultimately deliver the goods and bring about the eschatological vision to which we as Christians are supposedly committed.  This point is as simple as it should be obvious to any thinking Christian.  But the degree to which so many Christians in my (and Enns’s) acquaintance see such elections as life-and-death struggles and portray the potential election of Romney or (more often) Obama in apocalyptic terms suggests an unfortunate fact: too many American Christians thereby show themselves to be Christian Americans rather than American Christians.  To put it differently:  too many American Christians have assimilated a mythological American metanarrative — whether the Left’s “progressive” narrative or the Right’s backward-looking “rugged individualism” — rather than the Biblical narrative which finds its goal in the new creation set in motion by the gospel events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

I am not saying that Christians should consider presidential elections to be unimportant.  Dualism is not Christian, and political quiescence in the face of democratic privilege is irresponsible at best.  After all, matters of social justice, war, economy, health care, freedom, and life itself are, to say the least, important.  And each of us must use our minds and think Christianly about the relative weight each must be given to make an informed decision.  Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that the “right” person will win the election and lead America to greater prosperity.  Indeed, there is no guarantee America will continue to exercise global hegemony for the indefinite future.  After all, all great empires, from the Roman to the British, have risen and fallen.  But the world carries on, and will do so until the blessed hope of our Lord’s return to consummate the kingdom he came initially to establish.  And this prospect should not cause any Christian to become fearful or depressed.  For our ultimate hope does not reside in the United States, but in the Kingdom of God, and in King Jesus who will continue to reign until he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Cor 15:25).

Monday, September 10, 2012

Richard Hays on the "Syntax of Salvation"

Over the past few weeks I have been reading Richard Hays’s short commentary on 1 Corinthians[i] as a supplement to some work I have been doing on Anthony Thiselton’s magisterial — and massive —commentary on the letter.[ii]  It may come as a surprise to some, but I have considered Hays to be America’s most significant New Testament scholar ever since I first encountered his work twenty years ago while working on my doctoral dissertation on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.[iii]  Hays’s work is not only characterized by penetrating insight, but by a facility with the English language that befits a man who earned his BA at Yale in English literature.

The other day I came across a prime example of this combination in his discussion of a peculiar statement of Paul’s at the end of 1 Corinthians 8:1-3, which read as follows:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all possess knowledge.”  This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.  If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.  But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.[iv]
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul introduces a matter for discussion brought to his attention in a letter from the Corinthians themselves.  The issue concerned ta eidōlothuta, rendered “food sacrificed to idols” by both the NIV and NRSV.  Better is the REB’s “meat consecrated to heathen deities.”  But best, I believe — in accuracy if not in felicity of expression — is Thiselton’s “meat associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[v]  Such a rendering allows for the term’s use in all of the various social contexts discussed by the apostle in chapters 8-10.  Primary among these contexts, in view of the discussion in 8:7-13 and 10:1-22, was the eating of meat consecrated to an idol in one of the many dining rooms attached to the temple of the god(dess).  Apparently, the “strong” at Corinth were insisting on their “right” (exousia, 8:9) to eat “idol meat,” even to the extent of participating as guests at explicitly cultic meals at the temple.  And they were doing so on theological grounds! 

As surprising as this might seem to us for whom Paul’s Corinthian correspondence has been recognized as authoritative for more than 1900 years, the “strong” at Corinth reasoned that they had such a right to dine because of their “knowledge” (gnōsis) that the “idols” to whom the sacrifices were offered had no genuine metaphysical reality in view of their shared confession that “there is no God but one” (8:4).  Not only that, but it appears likely that they took pride in their having arrived at this possession (egnōkenai, perfect tense [v. 2]) of such knowledge, and hence utilized such pagan feasts to public exhibitions of their freedom and supposed spiritual maturity.

Paul exposes the bankrupt pride produced by such so-called “knowledge” as mere self-important inflation (physioō), akin to that of the frog who burst in his attempt to inflate himself in Aesop’s The Frog and the Ox.  Indeed, the apostle subverts their worldview in two ways.  First, he affirms the priority of love over the knowledge in which they took pride because only the latter results in true “edification” (oikodomeō) — the genuine enlargement of others (8:1b, 7-12).  Secondly, he redefines true knowledge so as to expose the inadequacy of their perception (8:2-6).  It is in this context that Hays writes profoundly:
In sharp contrast to this “soteriology of knowledge” …, Paul insists that what really matters is love, which builds up the community (8:1b).  Paradoxically, those who boast in their own exalted knowledge demonstrate precisely by that boasting that they do not yet “know as [they] ought to know (v. 2, NIV).  Implied here is that the one who knows rightly will love the brothers and sisters in the community.  Paul, however, goes on to make a different point: “anyone who loves God is known by him” (v. 3).  We would expect Paul to say, “anyone who loves God knows God truly,” but the reversal of subject and object in the last clause of the verse expresses a truth close to the heart of Paul’s theology: The initiative in salvation comes from God, not from us.  It is God who loves first, God who elects us and delivers us from the power of sin and death.  Therefore what counts is not so much our knowledge of God as God’s knowledge of us.  That is the syntax of salvation.  The dominance of this syntax in Paul’s thought is shown in Galatians 4:9, when he commits an error of theological grammar and stops to correct himself in midsentence: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God. …”  Anyone who understands that the logic of the gospel depends on God’s initiative will not become puffed up by the possession of knowledge.[vi]
True knowledge, according to Paul, is not mere creedal confession —though of course it contains such knowledge, as Paul’s own citation of a Christologically redefined Shema in verses 4-6 indicates.  True knowledge, for the Christian, is fundamentally bound up with his or her relationship with the God of Christian confession (in these verses, a God explicitly described in binitarian terms [cf. 10:9!]).  Moreover, this true knowledge is incapable of being “arrived at” in this life.  It is only in the consummated eschaton that we will, as Paul later says, “know even as we are known” (13:12).  Most importantly, however, this is a knowledge prompted by God’s sovereign initiative (cf. Romans 8:29) in choosing us and bringing us into relationship with him.  As Hays notes, those of us who recognize this fundamental truth of soteriological syntax can never inflate ourselves with pride for the “knowledge” to which we imagine we have attained.  And if indeed we live in relationship with the sovereign God we confess as “one,” our loyalty to this God will supersede in importance any self-centered rationalizations of dalliances with idolatry based on poorly thought-through understandings of the ramifications of his ontological uniqueness.

[i] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1997).
[ii] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000).
[iii] See, e.g., Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans; Dearborn, Mich.: Dove, 2002); idem, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven/London: Yale, 1989).
[iv] There is a major textual problem in verse 3, with three significant variant readings in the manuscripts:
·         “But if anyone loves God (ton theon), he or she is known by him (hyp’ autou): P15, A, B, D, F, G, 81, 1759, Byz, it, vg, syr, cop
·         “But if anyone loves God (ton theon), he or she is known: א, 33
·         “But if anyone loves, he or she has experienced “true knowing”: P46, Clement
Despite the overwhelming manuscript support for the longer reading, the work of Günther Zuntz (The Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition upon the Corpus Paulinum [Schweich Lectures; London: Oxford, 1953] 31-32) has convinced a growing number of scholars of the originality of the shorter reading (e.g., Fee; Yeo; Cheung; Thiselton) and, hence, an understanding of the verb egnōstai as middle rather than passive.  Fee, for instance, thinks that the way the shorter reading provides a short, concise response to the misunderstanding of the “strong party” at Corinth demonstrates the originality of the shorter reading.  But that could precisely be the point, couldn’t it?  Indeed, Bruce Metzger argues for the originality of the longer text by positing the shorter text as an assimilation to verse 2 (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [London/New York: United Bible Societies, 1975] 556).  For me, the overwhelming manuscript support and the coherence of the longer text with such parallel and near parallel Pauline texts as Galatians 4:9 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 make it marginally the more likely reading.
[v] Thiselton, 620.
[vi] Hays, First Corinthians, 138.