e-mail: "Why are Emergents so Angry?" [final, pt.4]



You said: "Why are so many “emergent” Christians seemingly so angry with traditional Christianity, or are they perhaps angry with a caricature of the traditional branch of the faith?"

I guess I’d jump back to my answer to your first question. And I don’t think we’re angry at a caricature. Caricatures are painted either to emphasize existing features (to simplify) or to make people laugh. Or to make money at a fair. All three are probably happening now. Too often, though, the caricatures are all-too-accurate. But there are caricatures of emerging/Emergent folk (of which I may be one: white, Gen-X, educated, privileged middle-class, hipster…) and sometimes they’re fair, and sometimes they’re unfair. In my view, your questions reveal a caricature you’ve developed (perhaps with validity, from experience) about emerging Christianity. But I know some “Emergents” who are FAR more conservative than I. And I know others who make me look like Pat Robertson. So there’s diversity here, as anywhere.

You said: "Also, what is the appeal of Obama for emergent Christians?"

I must admit, I think that some of it is generational. I’m twenty-nine, and for me, Barack Obama is the first politician I have ever seen who literally speaks my language. Whether that’s “postmodern” or “multicultural” or just terribly positive and articulate, he holds my worldview; my optimism; my hope; my belief in responsibility and hard work, as well as compassion and caretaking: “I am my brother’s keeper,” he said. Obama sees the world in a different way than American politicians I’ve witnessed in my brief lifetime, and he sees America’s role in the world differently. He is not a bully, and he does not seem to be an ego-driven leader. In fact, in a late election-night interview with Obama’s “Inner Circle” of advisors, they revealed their shared, earliest “concerns” about Obama’s candidacy: they worried that he didn’t want it enough. He wasn’t driven, in their minds, by a desire for personal achievement. He simply thought he could do a better job than anyone else. They feared that desire wouldn’t be as strong as the classic “need to lead.”


Finally, forgive me for saying this, but Obama is also a Christian without being a prick about it. Many Christians are exhausted with having to make excuses for why we aren’t George W. Bush sorts of Christians. Similar to Americans sick and tired of apologizing for America when abroad.

I like that Obama is a Christian, and I like even more that he can articulate it in a way that is personally meaningful, socially redemptive, but not defensive, retaliatory, negative or aggressive. I don’t think that sort of faith (of any religion) should lead a Democratic country. I just wrote an article about Elizabeth Dole’s “Godless” commercial, where she accused her political opponent of being an atheist.I ended the article this way:Personally, I’d rather have a Muslim or an atheist in offices of power (Obama and Hagan are neither), than corrupted, jaded Christians who use their spiritual status as campaign fodder.


Xxxxxxx,
I appreciate your e-mail (and new Facebook friendship) and I hope this e-mail doesn’t sound overly-defensive. I certainly hope it doesn’t sound offensive. I genuinely value your questions, and enjoyed writing this admittedly long-winded response. I expect to be blogging some of this e-mail for the next few days, so feel free to stop in and comment.

Keep in touch. I know you’ll feel free to disagree, and that’s absolutely fine – I so-much prefer Christians thoughtfully exploring these issues, rather than making blanket or knee-jerk reactions. Thanks for taking the time to listen. I hope I remember to do the same (my wife says I have a problem)!

Blessings to you, in Christ,
Peter Walker

e-mail: "Why are Emergents so Angry?" [pt.3]

Continuing the e-mail dialogue...

You said: "I also think that it is important to denounce abortion as well as care for the “widow and the orphan.” The two need not be mutually exclusive, as seems to be the case in American politics."

I agree with you, that the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. And I don’t like abortion. I’ve written several entries on abortion at my blog, so I won’t go into detail here.



I’ll just say, it’s a focus thing, for me. The church has made little progress in reducing the number of abortions through its picket sign battles and attempts at legislation. They are sticking to losing tactics based on principle. On the other hand, many Democrats want to see fewer abortions, and recognize that other types of programs (like education, healthcare, and yes – welfare) can have a positive impact. Abortion numbers decreased during the Clinton presidency. They increased with Bush II. And I’m not “pro-Abortion,” but to denounce something just for the sake of denouncing something doesn’t seem helpful. It seems stubborn. But I absolutely understand your position and sympathize with the spirit, conviction and compassion behind it.


You said: "I think the primary change agent in the world is supposed to be the 'ekklesia', but that for many the view is now that a strong, authoritarian central government is to usurp the role the church was meant for."

Interesting, I guess I would agree with your statement on the Body of Christ. But I would take it back a step and say that the Holy Spirit is the primary change agent in the world, manifesting Christ, and good fruit.

If at any time in the last two thousand years, the universal, catholic, Church effectively and consistently carried out the compassionate work of the Lord, then sure: I’d vote for smaller government. But that hasn’t happened. And it won’t happen now, not in the United States. American wealth and consumerism have devastated our ability to recognize the call Christ places on our lives. We don’t have a clue how to take up our crosses and follow him. I don’t understand how ending government programs that take care of the poor, the sick, the under-educated and under-represented, will “fix” the problem of an inactive, uncaring church. To me, it’s the cart before the horse. So I’ll keep voting big government, and trying to support Christian attitudes that are compassionate and redemptive.

As an aside, I don’t think liberals or Democrats support a “large, authoritarian central government.” That actually sounds very Republican to me, except for the “large.” Most Democratic ideals I am aware of favor a broad, diffused government that delivers a wide array of services to every necessary echelon of society, creating equal opportunity and representation, without overpowering or threatening the will and liberty of the people.

More to come, tomorrow...



Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm thankful for this tip for conscious breathing (learning to be in the moment)...

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

- Thich Nhat Hanh


The holidays are pretty chaotic for most of us. Let's take care of ourselves and remember to breath.

e-mail: "Why are Emergents so Angry?" [pt.2]

Continuing from yesterday's posted e-mail dialogue...


You said: "I have encountered a great deal of what I like to call subtle hostility from the emergent crowd because of the views I hold as a result of that."

It can be frustrating to "the crowd" when they feel their genuine complaints aren’t being validated. That’s not to say you or other Evangelicals aren’t validating. But defending “orthodoxy” and defending American Christian culture are two different things. Just as in cultural and racial reconciliation, or in family counseling, or group mediation, it’s crucial to acknowledge the felt-needs and/or perceived wounds of the other party. Validation isn’t something conservative Christians like to do. They (I speak from personal experience, as a former-conservative) tend to worry that validation equals endorsement.

I don’t like passive aggression, though, so I have little tolerance for subtle hostility. Several years ago, my wife said, “I wouldn't care if we went to a conservative church, as long as the people were kind.” I agree with her. We don’t go to a conservative church, but I’ll echo Jim Henderson from
www.OffTheMap.com in saying: “Being kind is better than being right.” May not sound orthodox, but I’ll still stand by it.

You said: "I think doctrine is important, partly because Paul and Christ Himself viewed it as important. I think the NT and yes the Old as well attest to that notion."

I think doctrine is important too: it helps us clearly identify where we stand, how we answer certain questions, what we are, and what we’re not. I grew up in all sorts of non-denominational churches, and to be honest, “non-denominational” is either a misnomer, or limiting. A misnomer, because non-denominations are often denominations-in-disguise. And they certainly have some sort of doctrine or statement of faith. Limiting, if there is truly no lens through which to view Scripture. Usually, extremely rigid, literalist fundamentalism emerges when there is no scholarly or historical context through which to approach and understand the Bible. And we all have lenses through which we see, so we’re being dishonest with ourselves when we attempt to “read the Bible as it is.”

More to come on Friday...

e-mail: "Why are Emergents so Angry?" [pt.1]

I got a good-natured e-mail from a new online friend recently. He had a lot of questions about the attitudes of emerging/Emergent Christians he's encountered: often, they seem very angry, indignant and even disdaining.

I will preface this first, by saying in my comments I made an assumption (so dangerous) that this reader was a Conservative Evangelical. He is not. Rather something closer to a Reformed Calvinist.

Anway, he gave me permission to reprint some of our e-mail conversation, so I'll share it here in several pieces over the next few days (it got long), chopped up a little...

I wrote:

Dear Xxxxxxx,
Thanks again for writing, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I wanted to give some actual thought to my response, and knew it would take awhile!

I understand we will likely disagree on much, but I want to convey a genuine hope for mutual respect, love and honor. I don’t wish to offend you at all. These are some tough questions that we all need to be continually asking. If any of this appears overly-vehement or harsh, forgive me. That’s not my intention. I’m sure those areas are still being worked on in my own heart, and likely have to do with my own direct experiences – not with you, your questions, or any potential disagreement.

I copied several of what seemed to be your core questions/comments for my own sake, so here’s what I’ve got…

You said: "I am attempting to understand the disdain that 'emergent' Christianity has with the more traditional understanding of the faith."

Disdain is a tough word, but I know where you’re coming from because I’ve seen it in action. In fact, I’m certain I’ve been guilty of it. But I’ll get back to that in a moment… First, I would challenge the idea that “conservative Christianity” is equivalent to “traditional Christianity.” In fact, the incarnation of faith most professed “conservative Evangelicals” probably emerged in the late 19th Century.

Despite the hierarchical power of the Roman Catholic Church, historic Christianity managed to make space for mystery and uncertainty, mysticism and the supernatural, as well as incorporating theologies of darkness (negative, apophatic) and meditation far outside modern Western spiritual sensibilities. The Church was also one of the most productive sources of the word’s greatest art, as well as scientific study and discovery (of course there were more than a few Galileo-esque “hiccups,” and the Inquisition was more than an unfortunate “blip”…).

From a Western historical perspective, the Mainline denominations in America are probably far more “traditional.” Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopals can claim far more traditional and historical connection to the Protestant and eventually the catholic Christian Church. That many of these churches were on the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement seems a “given,” by responding to the Holy Spirit with a consistent ethic of peace, justice, love and Kingdom values.

Many will criticize the Mainlines today for the same ethics they were praised for in the ‘60s. They see a difference between issues of race, and issues of sexual identity. I don’t really want to get into a gay debate here. But the reality is, along with homosexuality, the conservative Evangelical church seems to put women in the same category: unworthy of equality, respect, love – even tolerance (which should not be a social goal, but rather a bare minimum). I don’t want to get into a theological debate about the biblical basis for female equality either (I will do that soon on my blog) but I think it’s important to point out that there are vastly divergent positions held by equally educated, “spiritual,” pious women and men. The Body of Christ was not intended (in my opinion) to demand uniformity – rather, faith, hope, love (and I’d add humility).

Eastern incarnations of Orthodox Christianity open into all sorts of theological diversities that could make you pull your hair out if your goal was homogeneous belief.

That said, back to your “disdain” comment. I won’t try to excuse bad behavior. I’m guilty of plenty, myself. I had a blog visitor tell me I needed my mouth washed out with soap, and he was probably right! But please understand that for many, many, MANY Christians, non-Christians (and ex-Christians) in America, the Christian church has been controlling, rigid, abusive, angry, mean-spirited, uncaring, enabling, unloving, and even aberrant.

For example, I have quite a few women in my life – family and friends – who have experienced sexism, sexual abuse and even assault, directly from men in the church – pastors, leaders and lay. We cannot talk about “the Church” in the same way to victims of abuse. We cannot hold our heads up as if we have some “moral high ground” to stand on. But not everyone is a victim. For me, I have experienced very good things, growing up in the church. So my frustration (perhaps bordering, at times, on "disdain") is over the injustice I see, experienced by others.

So, that’s my short answer: people are hurting. That’s why most of them are angry. But for the trendy hipsters (again, sometimes guilty, myself) who are simply jumping on the bandwagon because it’s a cool reframing of Christianity that lets them smoke cigarettes and talk with postmodern cynicism… well, I understand your frustration. And that’s a superficial animal we (emerging/Emergent) have helped create.


Blog readers: more to come tomorrow!

Be My Friend!

Online friendships can be a beautiful thing, especially when they encourage us to think, grow, challenge and stretch ourselves! Let me know if you're linking to me, and I'd be happy to place a reciprocal link here on the blog.

If you'd really like to make my day, include this EmergingChristian.com logo on your site!

Here are some good friends who are already linking here...




Religious Right R.I.P.

I'm not a fan of conservative columnist Cal Thomas. Plenty of his articles have made me mad enough to spit. But this recent article really caught my attention. Frankly, if conservative Christians held this sort of worldview, I wouldn't personally have all that much to complain about. What do you think?

Religious Right R.I.P.
Cal Thomas

When Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, he will do so in the 30th anniversary year of the founding of the so-called Religious Right. Born in 1979 & midwifed by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Religious Right was a reincarnation of previous religious- social movements that sought moral improvement through legislation & court rulings. Those earlier movements -- from abolition (successful) to Prohibition (unsuccessful) -- had mixed results.
...
...
Thirty years of trying to use government to stop abortion, preserve opposite-sex marriage, improve television & movie content & transform culture into the conservative Evangelical image has failed. The question now becomes: should conservative Christians redouble their efforts, contributing more millions to radio & TV preachers & activists, or would they be wise to try something else?

I opt for trying something else.
...
...
What is the answer, then, for conservative Evangelicals who are rightly concerned about the corrosion of culture, the indifference to the value of human life & the living arrangements of same- & opposite-sex couples?

The answer depends on the response to another question: do conservative Evangelicals want to feel good, or do they want to adopt a strategy that actually produces results? Clearly partisan politics have not achieved their objectives. Do they think they can succeed by committing themselves to 30 more years of the same?

If results are what conservative Evangelicals want, they already have a model. It is contained in the life & commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative Evangelicals engaged in an old & proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to "love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison & care for widows & orphans," not as ends, as so many liberals do by using government, but as a means of demonstrating God's love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?
...
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God teaches in His Word that His power (if that is what conservative Evangelicals want & not their puny attempts at grabbing earthly power) is made perfect in weakness. He speaks of the tiny mustard seed, the seemingly worthless widow's mite, of taking the last place at the table & the humbling of one's self, the washing of feet & similar acts & attitudes; the still, small voice. How did conservative Evangelicals miss this & instead settle for a lesser power, which in reality is no power at all? When did they settle for an inferior "kingdom"?

Evangelicals are at a junction. They can take the path that will lead them to more futility & ineffective attempts to reform culture through government, or they can embrace the far more powerful methods outlined by the One they claim to follow. By following His example, they will decrease, but He will increase. They will get no credit, but they will see results. If conservative Evangelicals choose obscurity & seek to glorify God, they will get much of what they hope for, but can never achieve, in & through politics.

"Giving Up On God"

Great article by Kathleen Parker, Washington Post:

Giving Up On God
As Republicans sort out the reasons for their defeat, they likely will overlook or dismiss the gorilla in the pulpit.

Three little letters, great big problem: G-O-D.

I'm bathing in holy water as I type.

To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn't soon cometh.

Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth -- as long as we're setting ourselves free -- is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that.

...
...

Even Sarah Palin has blamed Bush policies for the GOP loss. She's not entirely wrong, but she's also part of the problem. Her recent conjecture about whether to run for president in 2012 (does anyone really doubt she will?) speaks for itself:

"I'm like, okay, God, if there is an open door for me somewhere, this is what I always pray, I'm like, don't let me miss the open door. Show me where the open door is.... And if there is an open door in (20)12 or four years later, and if it's something that is going to be good for my family, for my state, for my nation, an opportunity for me, then I'll plow through that door."

Let's do pray that God shows Alaska's governor the door.

Meanwhile, it isn't necessary to evict the Creator from the public square, surrender Judeo-Christian values or diminish the value of faith in America. Belief in something greater than oneself has much to recommend it, including most of the world's architectural treasures, our universities and even our founding documents.

Click here to read more...

Conclusion: Why I am liberal... but not LIBERAL! [pt.7]

So! If you've been tracking with me this entire week, THANK YOU!

If you're just stopping by, I've been discussing whether or not emerging and/or postmodern Christian faith is just a semantic or ideological veil for classic liberal Christianity. I don't believe that it is; there are overlaps, and divergences. As with conservative Christianity.

So, am I a liberal, a LIBERAL, an assh*le, or all of the above?

I guess only God knows. You may have a hunch. Perhaps I'm a bit of each, with an angry little fundamentalist still fussing around in my gut.

Spencer Burke wrote in A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity that his beliefs are malleable. He suggests something is wrong if he believes the same thing tomorrow that he believed today. One might call that “evolution.” And then one might be drummed out of one’s church and encouraged to join the Unitarian Universalists. And one might be tempted to do just that...

Seriously, thanks for reading! I'm sure there is plenty you've disagreed with, conservative or liberal. You've probably seen that I am not - and CANNOT - speak for all of Emergent, or emerging Christians. I cannot - and certainly DON'T - speak for all liberal Christians, or conservative Christians, or postmodern Christians. And I wouldn't want to. You may still think I'm liberal after reading all of this. If that's the case, I'd really challenge you to think about what "equals" liberal in your mind. I am not a concrete thinker - I need space to adapt. What you believe to be my heresies may simply be "lilly pads" (read: Anne Lamott) - little hops I'm taking to get from where I've been to where I'm going.

This is just me, on an individual journey, surrounded by beautiful people, praying for deeper understanding. My prayer is that my own journey might resonate with you in some small way.

Peter

Why I am liberal, but not LIBERAL! [pt.6]

5. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Jesus was not literally (physically) resurrected from the dead.


I have less to say about this incredibly important (in my view) question because I simply haven’t done much personal research on it. Most of my thoughts on it are personal, experiential, and intuitive.

For me, personally, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ may be only one of two non-negotiables I have. The first is that God is love. Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t recognize the Christianity of persons of faith who don’t believe in the resurrection. But it’s one of the few areas for me, personally, that I do not question. Faith demands belief beyond reason or proof, and I believe that faith, on many levels, is a deliberate choice. I have chosen to believe (largely based on personal spiritual experience) that Jesus is the only son of God, and that when he died on the cross, he was physically resurrected three days later.

Marcus Borg (among many other) does not believe in the literal, physical resurrection. In a lecture I attended at Oregon State University, he talked about “shared visions” and “collective manifestations” in which disciples manifested the same ethereal images of Jesus. They even heard the same words. To Borg, the disciples’ intense loyalty to Jesus, and their love for him, coupled with their refusal to accept the finality of his death, allowed them to share the same spirituality awareness of Jesus – who continued to live through them in word, mission and deed.

I don’t buy that explanation. In fact, I tend to think that philosophies that remove the potential for supernatural occurrence are deeply uninteresting and symptomatic of modern reductionism. Boring!

But I have personally spoken with Marcus Borg, and I know he is a man of deep love for Christ, and deep faith in God. Yes, he is essentially a deist – so were many of our American “Founding Fathers” (we’ve since retroactively baptized them into Evangelicals the way Mormons keep baptizing Jewish Holocaust survivors). I will not make a personal judgment about his “salvation,” because that is not my role to play in God’s economy. It’s probably not yours, either. God knows the inner workings of Marcus Borg’s heart, and Thomas Jefferson’s heart, and St. Augustine’s [deeply misogynistic] heart, and my own silly, temperamental heart. I’ll trust God to be as gracious to them as God has already been to me.

… But yes, I do believe in Christ’s death and physical, literal resurrection. And I am deeply humbled and thankful for what it means (only a little of which, I understand).

Why I am liberal, but not LIBERAL! [pt.5]

4. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Jesus was not born of a
virgin.


This belief is a non-negotiable for many, perhaps even most Christians today. But that was not always the case. It is easy to take for granted the universal acknowledgement of the virgin conception by the early church, based on the story’s prevalence in modern church teaching. However, objectively supported by scripture alone, it’s somewhat surprising that the writers of Matthew and Luke were so unquestionably convinced of Jesus’ virgin conception, given that there is no other reference to it in all of the New Testament. Mark and John seem uninterested in this point in their gospel accounts, and Paul did not find it necessary in developing or supporting his own apologetics.

Moreover, the prominent differences and conflicts between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies create all sorts of problems that are not resolved in scripture. The complexity of these writers’ seemingly self-imposed predicament is even more puzzling as they each simultaneously attest to the Davidic Kingship of Jesus with little or no explanation as to how both could be true.

“Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph…” (Luke 3:23) So it was thought seems to have been good enough for both Matthew and Luke, but what about modern readers? Was Joseph able to adopt Jesus into the Davidic line? Why do both genealogies build through Joseph, as Jesus’ father? Was Mary’s virginity constructed to emphasize Jesus’ divinity? And why are the two genealogies so vastly different?

Click here to read an overview on research concerning the differing genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke and how they may pertain to the question of the Virgin Conception.

For me, I have not rejected belief in the Virgin conception, but I do not believe it to be a non-negotiable for Christian faith.

Why I am liberal, but not LIBERAL! [pt.4]

3. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: The Bible is not “Inerrant,” or (more extremely) the Bible is flawed and without value.


The Bible is precious to me – New Testament and Old. And there are lots of things in the Bible that piss me off.

Bishop John Shelby Spong is a classic example of Christian liberalism, where frustrating verses are simply thrown out. And I emphasize simply. I find his “solution” incredibly simplistic, and not very thoughtful. Spong lists “immoral Biblical text” in his book, Sins of Scripture. My concern about this sort of judgmental or editorial activity is that it relies on the moral compass of the particular writer/scholar/editor/human who is making the “cuts.” It suggests: “I understand better than the writer(s) of this passage, what God actually wanted or intended… my morality is superior to this morality.” To me, it feels very arrogant and very elitist. Even ethnocentric – a modern, Western white man judging ancient, tribal Jews.

Instead, I prefer to pray like this:

“Lord, I don’t like this verse. I don’t understand how a loving God – as you have been in my life – could order the extermination of an entire people group. Or how you could fire-bomb an entire city. Or identify women as second-class citizens. I trust that you are good, through the model of Jesus Christ, your son. I trust that you are good through the convictions of my heart, and the personal experiences I have had through your Holy Spirit.

Because of that trust, I will not tear these pages out of my Bible. But neither will I pretend to understand them, or choose to live by these specific, non-contextualized words, or defend them as good when I do not believe they are. They obviously meant something to your people long ago, so I will wrestle with these words. I will hold them in tension, and I ask you to illuminate my heart and mind. If there is something I can learn from them, help me to see.

In Christ’s name, amen.”

I enrolled at George Fox Seminary because it was the only seminary in Portland that did not use the word "inerrant" in its Statement of Faith. I want room to ask questions. Room for a little disbelief. Room to acknowledge that science is not an enemy of faith. Faith entails believing in something that can't be proven. I have no problem with that! But I have a real problem with trying to forcefully conform science (or history) into a religious worldview that makes certain demands of God - of how God functions.

And therein lies my deepest frustration: trying to force GOD into a box. Suggesting that our theological needs or expectations must take precedence over the universe God created and blessed us with. Denying reality for the sake of an overly-controlling dream.

Why I am liberal, but not LIBERAL! [pt.3]

    2. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Christianity is equal to, not greater than, all other world religions. Salvation can be found through faithful adherence to any of the world’s religions, philosophies, or through merely being “a good human being.”

As a religion – a human-constructed organizational structure – Christianity is no greater than any world religion. One might even argue that Christianity is inferior. It’s certainly caused far more pain and suffering in the world than Buddhism. In fact, any religion that has managed to enjoy the dominance of absolute political and military power (in particular, as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have) is generally guilty of all sorts of atrocities, oppression and human rights violation. The Christian religion is largely a corporate structure designed to be economically viable, effectively marketable, practically transferrable, and easily produced and duplicated (there is plenty to read about here, under the subjects of Christendom and Colonialism, Post-Christendom and Post-Colonialism).

As for salvation, I have not rejected Jesus’ words in John: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6) But I like C.S. Lewis’ inference from Mere Christianity: “the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” (p. 65) I could go on, concerning salvation in a pluralistic world and how other religions may fit in, but will be brief, only saying I believe God is far more gracious than any folks I happen to know, and probably likes a lot of Buddhist lifestyles more than my own materialistic, consumerist, bourgeoisie Christian living. I don’t believe easy lines can be drawn regarding “who is in, and who is out.” Read Brian McLaren’s More Ready Than You Realize for some great examples of transcendent salvation from an Emergent Christian perspective.

Why I am liberal, but not LIBERAL! [pt.2]

Ok, so let's get started. Please refer to yesterday's introductory post [pt.1] to see where we're going and where we've been.

  1. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: There is no absolute truth.


As a postmodern (read: my thoughts on Postmodernism) I do believe there is "absolute truth," (a term itself that probably needs more unpacking) but I do not believe human beings are capable of comprehending ultimate truth or objective absolutes. We are limited creatures with subjective, existential viewpoints. As a postmodern Christian, I believe that God, through Jesus Christ, is absolute truth. And I will spend my entire life seeking to know more of Christ… But I will always get it wrong, at least in part. I will never fully understand the truth of who God is, and how Christ lives in me, and how I am supposed to function in the Holy Spirit.

Neither will you.

As Christian mystics have understood for two millennia, the nature of God is an ever-unfolding mystery that we are invited to participate in, not an equation to solve.

All of us see "as through a glass, darkly," limited to dirty, imperfect subjectivity. I think about the purpose of theology, and the nature of (T)ruth and wonder, as frail, fragile beings: "how much is expected of us?" Likely, the answer is different for each person. What does God expect of me, my beliefs and my praxis? - Me, an educated [well, semi-educated], white, upper-middle-class kid who has been blessed with very little personal trial, hardship or sorrow (apart from the standard, easily-medicated suburbanite-depression)...

Does God expect more or less from a refugee in Darfur? Does God expect a "Lost Boy" to waste his time with such theological posturing - or does God merely whisper love and hope into that young man's life, by every means available, and reward any goodness or compassion that might flower amidst the horror and wreckage of war?

Our stories are the lens through which we see and understand everything else. How can we not be impacted by the cracked and dirty glass held in front of our eyes?

Does God expect us to see clearly?

Does God magically reveal True ("correct") theology?

Or does God recognize the texture of the glass through which we see, and make allowance (grace) for blurred vision?

I've confessed this before: in grade school, I prayed to Aslan because he was easier to conjure in my mind...

Why I am liberal... but not LIBERAL! [pt.1]

-or- "Is this just a postmodern brand of Christian liberalism?"


It’s a good question to ask. And since I’ve confessed in other posts to being liberal (read: my Liberal Confession) I can’t see why someone wouldn’t ask this question… Or make this assumption: emerging=neo-liberalism (but I don’t believe it does).

Over the next week I will be making a new post, every day, to tackle this question, so keep checking back and please engage with questions or comments!

So, to begin. I am a liberal human being, but I am not necessarily a “Classic Liberal Christian.” First, I suppose it depends on what your definition of liberal is. Liberalism itself contains a wide variety of worldviews, ethical priorities, and socio-political goals. I am liberal for lots of reasons (not the least of which is my extremely conservative background). I believe in the equality of all individuals, in the right to liberty for all peoples, and in foundational principles like freedom of speech, thought and belief.

www.Wikipedia.com says:


Cultural liberalism focuses on the rights of individuals pertaining to conscience and lifestyle, including such issues as sexual freedom, religious freedom, cognitive freedom, and protection from government intrusion into private life. John Stuart Mill aptly expressed cultural liberalism in his essay "On Liberty," when he wrote, “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”


Traditional stereotypes of Liberal Christianity include the following assertions:
  1. There is no absolute truth.
  2. Christianity is equal to, not greater than, all other world religions. Salvation can be found through faithful adherence to any of the world’s religions, philosophies, or through merely being “a good human being.”
  3. The Bible is not “Inerrant,” or (more extremely) the Bible is flawed and without value.
  4. Jesus was not born of a virgin.
  5. Jesus was not literally (physically) resurrected from the dead.

In the next 6 posts, I'll attempt to try (humbly) to unpack each of these ideas, and how my beliefs conflict or align, and why I think that's relevant in a postmodern context.

Keep reading!

On Liberalism...




Is this just a postmodern brand of Christian liberalism?

It’s a good question to ask. And since I’ve confessed in other posts to being liberal (read: my Liberal Confession) I can’t see why someone wouldn’t ask this question… Or make this assumption: emerging=liberalism.  If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I have radically changed many of my positions and outlooks since starting EmergingChristian.com in 2004.  At the time, I would have been terrified of calling myself "liberal."  I assumed that it not only meant I could not have faith in Jesus Christ, but that I would lose my evangelical friends and the support of my church.  Well, the last fear was well-founded.  I haven't found my way back into an Evangelical church in several years - but that's not entirely there fault.  As I came to believe in the equality of women and homosexuals, I found my own ability to culturally connect with evangelicals diminished.   I grieve this, because evangelicals are my family-of-origin.  But I continue to call myself a "liberal evangelical," because my relationship to and with God retains much of the intimate dynamic it always has.  What's changed, in part, is what I have come to believe God actually cares about... I don't think God cares about the interests of nation states, economic dominance, free trade, military defense, or any issues relating to cultural safety, sterility, or homogeny.  

All that said, I disagree with pundits who state that "emerging equates to liberalism," because I know far more people who participate in Emerging Church conversations and activities, who remain fairly traditional in their theology, than I know outright liberals who came to their liberalism via Emerging Church. For me, however, the Emergent Conversation and the Emerging Church movement served as a "slippery slope" into liberalism. Yes, the things naysayers tell you are true for some folks. Or at least, they were for me.  I was given permission to go places and ask questions that had been previously forbidden.

I am a liberal human being, I am a liberal Evangelical, but I am not necessarily what many might classify as a “Classically Liberal Christian.” First, it depends on what your definition of liberal is. Liberalism itself contains a wide variety of worldviews, ethical priorities, and socio-political goals. I am liberal because I believe in the equality of all individuals, in the right to love, respect and autonomy for all peoples, and in foundational Civil Rights principles like freedom of speech, thought and belief.

I am not a Libertarian.  I do not believe human beings should have complete, individual autonomy that is not balanced by a communal priority toward the greater good of all.  I do not believe in the myth of free markets.  Free markets are not divinely created, inherently equalizing, or even neutral.  "Principalities and powers" - the systems created by humankind - including churches and religious organizations - should be cautiously regulated.  The people should have the ability and power to monitor and supervise the activities of the elite.  Presidents, Senators, Priests and Bishops should not be allowed the power of institutional hierarchy without checks and balances.  In the American nation state, and in the Christian church (across denominations) these checks and balances have fallen away to the detriment of common people.

Of Liberalism, www.Wikipedia.com says:
Cultural liberalism focuses on the rights of individuals pertaining to conscience and lifestyle, including such issues as sexual freedom, religious freedom, cognitive freedom, and protection from government intrusion into private life. John Stuart Mill aptly expressed cultural liberalism in his essay "On Liberty," when he wrote, “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
Traditional stereotypes of Liberal Christianity include the following assertions:
  1. There is no absolute truth.
  2. Christianity is equal to, not greater than, all other world religions. Salvation can be found through faithful adherence to any of the world’s religions, philosophies, or through merely being “a good human being.”
  3. The Bible is not “Inerrant,” or (more extremely) the Bible is flawed and without value.
  4. Jesus was not born of a virgin.
  5. Jesus was not literally (physically) resurrected from the dead.
I don't necessarily adhere to all these statements. And I certainly don't live my Christian life under their logic. However, I am not threatened by any of these statements, and in some ways I may be closer to them than to traditional Evangelical stances. Let me try to unpack each of the ideas a bit, and how my beliefs conflict or align. You'll quickly recognize that I'm still barely breaking the surface of each topic or question. I could list plenty of liberal Christian bloggers who would more accurately define their viewpoints. But for any deeper digging, you'll ultimately need to go beyond blog content and read some scholarly journals and books.

1. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: There is no absolute truth.
As a postmodern (read: my thoughts on Postmodernism) I do believe there is absolute truth, but I do not believe human beings are capable of comprehending absolutes. We are limited creatures with subjective, existential viewpoints. As a postmodern Christian, I believe that God, through Jesus Christ, is Absolute Truth. And I will spend my entire life seeking to know more of Christ… But I will always get it wrong. I will never fully understand the truth of who God is, and how Christ lives in me, and how I am supposed to function in the Holy Spirit.

Neither will you.

As Christian mystics have understood for two millennia, the nature of God is an ever-unfolding mystery that we are invited to participate in, not an equation to solve.

All of us see "as through a glass, darkly," limited to dirty, imperfect subjectivity. I think about the purpose of theology, and the nature of (T)ruth and wonder, as frail, fragile beings: "how much is expected of us?"

Likely, the answer is different for each person. What does God expect of me, my beliefs and my praxis? - Me, an educated [well, semi-educated], white, upper-middle-class dude who has been blessed with very little personal trial, hardship or sorrow (apart from the standard, easily-medicated suburbanite-depression)...

Does God expect more or less from a refugee in Darfur? Does God expect a "Lost Boy" to waste his time with such theological posturing - or does God merely whisper love and hope into that young man's life, by every means available, and reward any goodness or compassion that might flower amidst the horror and wreckage of war?

Our story is the lens through which we see and understand everything else. How can we not be impacted by the cracked and dirty glass held in front of our eyes?

Does God expect us to see clearly?
Does God magically (or divinely) reveal True ("correct") theology?
Or does God recognize the texture of the glass through which we see, and make allowance (grace) for our blurred vision?

In grade school, I prayed to Aslan because he was easier to conjure in my mind...
Although I assert the Absolute Truth of Jesus Christ, I am a Universalist.  I do not claim to know what arrangements God has made with other human beings.  I believe that most human beings are a mix of lazy and afraid, along with beautiful and loving.  The lazy and afraid parts make us all hesitate to really dig for truth.  That means there are lots of Christians and lots of Buddhists who don't really care about what is true - they have settled for what is easy and comfortable.  But if there is truth in the universe, that truth must be approachable and knowable outside of human religious constructs, and outside of cultural barriers and linguistic limitations.    So I believe Jesus Christ is true, and that Jesus Christ is true far beyond the parameters in which we know about Jesus Christ.

2. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Christianity is equal to, not greater than, all other world religions. Salvation can be found through faithful adherence to any of the world’s religions, philosophies, or through merely being “a good human being.”As a religion – a human-constructed organizational structure – Christianity is no greater than any world religion. I affirm that without reservation. One might even argue that Christianity is inferior. It’s certainly caused far more pain and suffering in the world than Buddhism. In fact, any religion that has managed to enjoy the dominance of absolute political and military power (in particular, as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have) is generally guilty of all sorts of atrocities, oppression and human rights violations. The Christian religion is largely a corporate structure designed to be economically viable, effectively marketable, practically transferrable, and easily produced and duplicated (there is plenty to read about here, under the subjects of Christendom and Colonialism, Post-Christendom and Post-Colonialism).

As for salvation, I have not rejected Jesus’ words in John: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6) But I like C.S. Lewis’ inference from Mere Christianity: “the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” (p. 65) I could go on, concerning salvation in a pluralistic world and how other religions may fit in, but will be brief, only saying I believe God is far more gracious than any folks I happen to know, and probably likes a lot of Buddhist lifestyles more than my own materialistic, consumerist, bourgeoisie Christian living. I don’t believe easy lines can be drawn regarding “who is in, and who is out.”  Manifestations of Christian Universalism are as old as Christianity itself.

3. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: The Bible is not “Inerrant,” or (more extremely) the Bible is flawed and without value.The Bible is precious to me – New Testament and Old. And there are lots of things in the Bible that piss me off.

Bishop John Shelby Spong is a classic example of Christian liberalism, where frustrating verses are simply thrown out. And I emphasize simply as the problem with this approach. I find the “solution” of picking and choosing incredibly simplistic, and not very thoughtful. Spong lists “immoral Biblical text” in his book, Sins of Scripture. My concern about this sort of judgmental or editorial activity is that it relies on the moral compass of the particular writer/scholar/editor/human who is making the cuts. It suggests: “I understand better than the writer(s) of this passage, what God actually wanted or intended… my morality is superior to this morality.” To me, it feels arrogant and elitist. Even ethnocentric – a modern, Western white man judging ancient, tribal Jews.  On the other hand, I am guilty of this practice in day-to-day living.  I choose what seems right to me.  We all do - conservative and liberal fundamentalists alike.  It is humility, "fear and trembling," that should keep us cautious and thoughtful about the choices we're making.  We cannot speak for God.  I come to some of the same practical conclusions that Spong does in writing, but I am not ready to throw out what I don't like.  I think we can hold onto it, recognizing historical, cultural and socio-political contexts.  Faithful people have always attempted to discern the will and nature of God, and faithful people will always get it wrong.  Holy Bible or not, our interpretations and assumptions are deeply imperfect and unavoidably tinged with our humanity.

So rather than discard what is human, I prefer to pray like this:
“Lord, I don’t like this verse. I don’t understand how a loving God – as you have been in my life – could order the extermination of an entire people group. Or how you could fire-bomb an entire city. Or identify women as second-class citizens.  Or demonize people who love each other, because of their gender.

I trust that you are good, through the model of Jesus Christ, your son. I trust that you are good through the convictions of my heart, and the personal experiences I have had through your Holy Spirit.

Because of that trust, I will not tear these pages out of my Bible. But neither will I pretend to understand them, or choose to live by these specific, non-contextualized words, or defend them as good when I do not believe they are. They obviously meant something to your people long ago, so I will wrestle with these words. I will hold them in tension, and I ask you to illuminate my heart and mind. If there is something I can learn from them, help me to see.

In Christ’s name, amen.”
I enrolled at George Fox Seminary because it was the only seminary in Portland that did not use the word "inerrant" in its Statement of Faith. I want room to ask questions. Room for a little disbelief. Room to acknowledge that science is not an enemy of faith. Faith entails believing in something that can't be proven. I have no problem with that! But I have a real problem with trying to forcefully conform science (or history) into a religious worldview that makes certain demands of God - of how God functions.

And therein lies my deepest frustration: trying to force GOD into a box. Suggesting that our theological needs or expectations must take precedence over the universe God created and blessed us with. Denying reality for the sake of an overly-controlling dream.

4. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Jesus was not born of a virgin.This belief is a non-negotiable for many, perhaps even most Christians today. But that was not always the case. It is easy to take for granted the universal acknowledgement of the virgin conception by the early church, based on the story’s prevalence in modern church teaching. However, objectively supported by scripture alone, it’s somewhat surprising that the writers of Matthew and Luke were so unquestionably convinced of Jesus’ virgin conception, given that there is no other reference to it in all of the New Testament. Mark and John seem uninterested in this point in their gospel accounts, and Paul did not find it necessary in developing or supporting his own apologetics.

Moreover, the prominent differences and conflicts between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies create all sorts of problems that are not resolved in scripture. The complexity of these writers’ seemingly self-imposed predicament is even more puzzling as they each simultaneously attest to the Davidic Kingship of Jesus with little or no explanation as to how both could be true.

“Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph…” (Luke 3:23) So it was thought seems to have been good enough for both Matthew and Luke, but what about modern readers? Was Joseph able to adopt Jesus into the Davidic line? Why do both genealogies build through Joseph, as Jesus’ father? Was Mary’s virginity constructed to emphasize Jesus’ divinity? And why are the two genealogies so vastly different?

Click here to read an overview on research concerning the differing genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke and how they may pertain to the question of the Virgin Conception.

For me, I have not rejected belief in the Virgin conception, but I do not believe it to be a non-negotiable for Christian faith.

5. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Jesus was not literally (physically) resurrected from the dead.I have less to say about this incredibly important question because I simply haven’t done much research on it.

For me, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ may be only one of two non-negotiables I have.  The first is that God is love. But these are personal non-negotiables, not prescribed for others.  It doesn’t mean I won’t recognize the Christianity of persons of faith who don’t believe in the resurrection. But it’s one of the few areas for me, personally, that I have not found reason to question. I emphasize personally. Faith demands belief beyond reason or proof, and I believe that faith, on many levels, is a deliberate choice. I have chosen to believe (largely based on my own spiritual experience) that Jesus is the only son of God, and that when he died on the cross, he was physically resurrected three days later.

Marcus Borg (among many others) does not believe in the literal, physical resurrection. In a lecture I attended at Oregon State University, he talked about “shared visions” and “collective manifestations” in which disciples manifested the same ethereal images of Jesus. They even heard the same words. To Borg, the disciples’ intense loyalty to Jesus, and their love for him, coupled with their refusal to accept the finality of his death, allowed them to share the same spirituality awareness of Jesus – who continued to live through them in word, mission and deed.

I don’t buy that explanation. In fact, I tend to think that philosophies that remove the potential for supernatural occurrence are deeply uninteresting and symptomatic of modern reductionism (i.e. I think they're boring!).

But I have spoken with Marcus Borg, and I know he is a man of deep love for Christ, and deep faith in God. Yes, his panentheism sounds a lot like deism – as so many of our American “Founding Fathers” were (we’ve since retroactively baptized them Evangelicals the way Mormons keep baptizing Jewish Holocaust survivors). I will not make a personal judgment about Borg's “salvation” (although I'm sure his soul is in no danger) because judgment is not my role to play in God’s economy. It’s probably not yours, either. God knows the inner workings of Marcus Borg’s heart, and Thomas Jefferson’s heart, and St. Augustine’s [deeply misogynistic] heart, and my own silly, reactionary, temperamental heart. I’ll trust God to be as gracious to them as God has already been to me...

But yes, I do believe in Christ’s death and physical, literal resurrection. And I am deeply humbled and thankful for what it means (only a little of which, I understand).

So! In conclusion: Am I a liberal, a LIBERAL, an asshole, or all of the above?
Only God knows (you might have an opinion, though). Perhaps a bit of each, with an angry little fundamentalist still fussing around in my gut.

Spencer Burke wrote in A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity that his beliefs are malleable. He suggests something is wrong if he believes the same thing tomorrow that he believed today. One might call that “evolution.” And then one might be drummed out of one’s church.

For a long time, I didn't used to like the religious tag of "liberal" because of the baggage it carried - largely unhelpful. But I'm coming to use it more and more, because I think the distinctives of liberalism are becoming increasingly important for our society to readopt - to stop apologizing for - to stop hiding from. This is certainly shaped by my political and social convictions. But as a liberal Christian, I believe in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. I believe that real sin exists, and that there is a real spiritual enemy waging war against goodness. I believe that Jesus Christ offers a way for humankind to be saved from the mire, the darkness, the emptiness and unhealthiness of sinful life. But that's only if we let him. Too many Christians put on a "saved" hat and call it good as they continue to participate in the principalities and powers of this world. I'm still too guilty of this, too often.

One bumper sticker reads, "Christians aren't perfect, they're just forgiven."

I think that's a tacky, unconscionable way of looking at grace.

I'm sure that attitude led to this bumper sticker: "WWJD? He would probably smack the shit out of you."

And he'd probably like to. I deserve it.

I know, I know: this was hardly an exhaustive look at the term "liberal," but I hope it offers a glimpse into the sort of questions many emerging Christians are asking. And how those questions don't lend themselves to easy, black-and-white answers. If you're worried that becoming a part of the "Emerging Church Movement" will eventually lead you to becoming a new kind of liberal - well, you might have good reason. It's what happened to me. And I'm thankful for that, beyond words.

Thanks for reading!
Peter

Clarifying Thoughts on Women in Church...

Kim Said…
Great post!! I'm a recent "outted" liberal Christian (i.e., a liberal who is also a Christian) and you said perfectly what I've been trying to say to friends and family.

There was one part of your post I didn't quite understand: "My wife and I were at George Fox last night and saw a poster for a women's conference: Warrior Brides. That kind of language and rhetoric is b.s. It's like telling a field slave to be satisfied with becoming a "house slave." Awful becoming better isn't redemption. It's patronizing. Some second-class wives are treated more lovingly and respectfully than other second-class wives. But none of them are equals."

Could you try to explain? Thanks!
Kim


I Said…

Kim, that's a great question, and looking back at it I realize I left some ambiguities - as well as making some comments that sounded more hostile than intended.

What I wanted to say is that a lot of churches have programs "for women." Many of them even use empowering language like "rise up" or (as mentioned) "Warrior Brides!"

The problem is, my wife and I feel most of the underlying messages from such rhetoric and/or ministries is narrowly focused on "empowering" women to stay in their existing traditional roles. We (I should speak for myself now - I) completely believe that women can be empowered feminists and still completely healthy and happy in "traditional" femine roles: like stay-at-home-mom, homemaker, etc... but that shouldn’t be a boundary or limit.

I believe some of these ministries subversively try to use empowering language without actually empowering. They affirm and excite women into... well... submission. And if every woman at the seminar is excited, and the female seminar leader is excited, well, "I should be excited too!"

So we're telling women to have a "warrior's heart" (already patriarchal language) “but do it in the confines of your existing role, which we have deemed acceptable."

Another example: when women are constantly affirmed for being "prayer warriors," (as I've found to be the case) it's often probably true. But it's often true because prayer is the only place we've allowed women free expression. Especially if they're not allowed to teach over men (“children's Sunday school is ok”).

Does that make more sense? Churches should be empowering women and positioning them as equals, not pretending to, as is so-often the case.

As an aside, what’s really sad and convicting about all of this for me personally, is that I didn’t believe or acknowledge these things until I was nearly twenty-five or twenty-six. I’m a slow-read.

Thanks for pressing me on that, Kim, and welcome to the conversation.
Peter

"The Gays Are Coming!": Christian Cultural Warefare...

One of my friends recently put a "status" on Facebook, celebrating the passing of California's Prop. 8, banning gay marriage. He suggested that it was a sign of surprising "morality" in California.

Yesterday, on the first Sunday after a gay marriage ban passed in California, activists rallied in defiance, including hundreds of protesters outside Rick Warren's Saddleback megachurch, where Barack Obama and John McCain appeared together last summer for a "faith forum."

  • Is this type of "morality legislation" the role Christian churches should be taking?
  • Is the Kingdom of God furthered by suppressing supposed sins of the culture at large?
  • Is the church grown, enriched and strengthened by fighting these battles?
  • Are we fulfilling Christ's commission when we focus our energies on attacking what is wrong?

Some questions I'd enjoy response to,
Peter

The Abortion Debate Continues (respectfully)...

Sarah said...
haha, as usual, Peter, it seems as though I only get a chance to read your blog about once a month. Then it's a whirlwind of emotion where I agree and then vehemently disagree, and sometimes just shrug my shoulders and shake my head. But I always enjoy the exposure to a view so often completely different from my own. I try to always embrace opportunities to actually think.

The issue of abortion is, I think, an interesting one. Because the argument that you set up really has nothing to do with abortion. You are distressed by the reasons that women chose to abort babies and feel, obviously passionately, that if women were treated as 'equals,' if poverty was dealt with in a better manner (eliminated, perhaps, by government intervention, because you also apparently feel that it is the responsibility of the government rather than the church to care for the poor, which I find a rather interesting view), if, if, if... then abortion would be eliminated naturally.

And you're right.But the question is, just because all of those "if's" haven't been dealt with... does that make abortion okay? If, in fact, abortion is wrong... and I always feel that cold-blooded murder is wrong... then why is it only wrong when all other circumstances are fine? Just because we have not yet fixed the causes leading to abortion, we cannot justify the wrongness of abortion. It is still the murder of an innocent baby who had nothing to do with the circumstances of its conception. By your logic, it is okay for a poor, single minority woman to get an abortion, but wrong for a rich, married, white woman to do so.

I agree with you wholeheartedly that those who claim to be 'pro-life' do not take that stance seriously enough... their focus is usually far too narrow. But that does not release us from doing our best to care for the women and poor around us and for protecting the lives of the innocent whether or not they are yet born.

This is the holocaust of our generation.

Obama Did It!

I am very happy. I feel proud to be American - maybe for the first time (call me "Michelle"). Jen and I have gotten past our tears - it took awhile.

Ok. Let's get it together. This is a big step. But there's work to do now... let's make it mean something.

Better pray,
Peter

Election Hopes: Christian Victory?

So, obviously I've sold my soul to the Obama/Biden ticket. But if they win tonight, do I think my Christian agenda has somehow won?

Absolutely not.

If Obama wins tonight, my Christianity doesn't win. My worldview is validated. My internal sense of humanity, of society and culture, is validated. My own ideas about social responsibility win. But there is a lot of work for people of faith to do in either scenario.

My political views are informed by my Christianity, but despite what readers may think, I am not so naive or reckless as to confuse my Christianity for my politics. I may blur them at times, but I have not confused one for the other. A follower of Christ can endorse and speak on behalf of political issues, even politicians, without inferring that "any Christian must come to the same political conclusion." That's imply not reasonable. All of this is part of the Empire, not the Kingdom. We merely pray for a more benevolent Empire.

I know a lot of faithful, fervent, prayerful and loving Christians who are voting for McCain. I also know Christians who have been sold a lie that they must vote for a Republican, as people of faith. This breaks my heart.

I pray for Obama. I pray for his wisdom, leadership, and his safety. I pray for McCain too. But I am not so blind as to believe one is "The Christian Candidate" and the other is not.

The Genealogies of Jesus

Jesus’ Conception & His Genealogies:
A Summary of Major Viewpoints on the Heritage & Birth of Jesus Christ

Peter J. Walker, 2008


It is easy to take for granted the universal acknowledgement of the virgin conception by the early church, based on the story’s prevalence in modern church teaching. However, objectively supported by scripture alone, it’s somewhat surprising that the writers of Matthew and Luke were so unquestionably convinced of Jesus’ virgin conception, given that there is no other reference to it in all of the New Testament. Mark and John seem uninterested in this point in their gospel accounts, and Paul did not find it necessary in developing or supporting his own apologetics.

Moreover, the prominent differences and conflicts between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies create all sorts of problems that are not resolved in scripture. The complexity of these writers’ seemingly self-imposed predicament is even more puzzling as they each simultaneously attest to the Davidic Kingship of Jesus with little or no explanation as to how both could be true.

“Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph…”[1] So it was thought seems to have been good enough for both Matthew and Luke, but what about modern readers? Was Joseph able to adopt Jesus into the Davidic line? Why do both genealogies build through Joseph, as Jesus’ father? Was Mary’s virginity constructed to emphasize Jesus’ divinity? And why are the two genealogies so vastly different? In this paper I will explore some of the major assumptions and arguments concerning the two genealogies, and how they may impact teachings on the conception, birth, and parentage of Jesus Christ. The length and scope of this paper will not allow for deep development of each perspective, nor for their defense or refutation. This will merely serve as a topical overview.
First, as mentioned above, the two genealogies are strikingly divergent. While Matthew’s genealogy descends from Abraham to Jesus, Luke’s list ascends from Jesus through Abraham, and then continues all the way to Adam and subsequently to God. In doing this, Luke includes the pre-Abrahamic period, itself anomalous in Semitic genealogies. Matthew includes four women in addition to Mary, the mother of Jesus – this is rare but not unheard of in such writings. Luke’s genealogy provides 77 names, and Matthew’s utilizes forty-one. Even within those periods where the two lineages overlap, Luke’s is still longer with 56 names, compared to Matthew’s 41 names. During the 400 year “monarchical period”[2] from the start of King David’s reign to the Babylonian Exile, the lists agree only on David.

To avoid inferring modern sensibilities into the text, it is important to begin by identifying the nature of these genealogies themselves in ancient Jewish culture.

Genealogies serve different purposes and… an individual can be accorded two or more different genealogies according to the purpose for which they were drawn up. Only rather rarely and to a limited depth do ancient Semitic genealogies afford us a list of strictly biological ancestry – a factor that does not necessarily make them inaccurate since the intention of those who preserved them was not strictly biological.[3]


If the genealogies were not intended to establish concrete historicity, what was their purpose? “Our authors were not concerned to present detailed or exhaustive lists of Jesus’ actual ancestors, but only to highlight some aspects of his heritage which would best illuminate for their respective audiences Jesus’ significance and nature.”[4] Raymond Brown contends that “both of them may be accurate in terms of the function they serve, e.g., Matthew’s intention to show that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, and Luke’s intention to show that Jesus is the Son of God.”[5] Given each of those endeavors, was it necessary for Matthew and Luke to assert a virgin conception?

In fact, in 2 Sam. 7:12-14, God promises David of his ‘offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body… I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me’. In other words, God will be the ‘father’ of David’s biological son! From a scriptural viewpoint, the establishment of Jesus the Messiah as ‘Son of God’ did not necessitate his being born of a virgin. The same is true within the early church. The writer of Mark, for example, uses the term ‘Son of God’ repetitively, without any need for a virgin birth to explain the concept. To him, we might assume that the idea of a Royal Messiah being God’s adopted son seems quite natural.”[6]

While there is biblical precedent for men to be adopted by God, a Hebrew concept of adoption by a human, with all of the lineal accoutrements of Jewish parentage, is more of a stretch. Jesus likely could not have been considered both the Son of God and the legal son of David in strictly Jewish culture, contrary to inferences by many theologians. However, Yigal Levin suggests that Roman precedent could have provided a societal atmosphere in which Joseph could “adopt” Jesus, not only into his household, but into his family line, and in which Matthew, Luke, and their contemporary readers could agree on the nature of that dualistic relationship.

The answer must be found in the primary legal system that was current in the Mediterranean world during the first century CE and that the authors and audiences of Matthew and Luke would have been most familiar with – that of the early Roman Empire… in stark contrast to Jewish law and, in fact, to that of most other ancient societies, the Roman paterfamilias of the late Republic and of the early Empire had almost unlimited power to define his own familial ties and loyalties.[7]

Rejecting any suggestion of supernatural adoption of Jesus, by God, the “traditional genealogical view” is that Matthew’s account traces Jesus’ lineage through Joseph as a “legal genealogy,” and that Luke traces it through Mary as a “natural genealogy,”[8] both affirming virgin conception to help validate Christ’s godhood.

According to Matthew, Joseph’s father was named Jacob. So who was Heli? The most obvious solution is that he was Mary’s father… The reason Mary is not named is that Luke abides by convention and includes only males in his list. Since Luke acknowledges a biological father for Jesus he begins with Joseph as a ‘stand-in’ but qualifies things with the phrase ‘as it was supposed’… If Mary’s parents were indeed named Joachim and Anna, as early Christian tradition holds, it is possible that Heli is short for Eliakim, which in turn is a form of the traditional name Joachim.[9]


With such a “legal” nature to his genealogy, Matthew may have been trying to show Jesus as a true Israelite, particularly one of Davidic descent, while Luke attempts to show a truly human Jesus. “Matthew shows a particular interest in the title ‘son of David’ for Jesus. John never uses it, and Mark and Luke use it only four times; but Matthew uses it a total of ten times. In fact it is not uncommon to find the affirmation that for Matthew ‘son of David’ is the most important title applied to the Jesus of the ministry…”[10]

But even Matthew records Jesus’ admonition:

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?"

"The son of David," they replied.

He said to them, "How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him 'Lord'? For he says, 'The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ If then David calls him 'Lord,' how can he be his son?"[11]


Regarding Luke’s Gospel, there is some suggestion that the genealogy was added after the initial writing:

If we are right in thinking that the Gospel existed at one time without the infancy narrative and that 3:1 was its real beginning, the genealogy could have been part of that earlier form of the Gospel. In such a case, it is not unlikely that Luke added hos enomizeto, “in the minds of the people” (3:23), to bring the genealogy into line with the affirmation of the virginal conception of Jesus in the newly added infancy narrative. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the genealogy was also added at the stage of the composition of the Gospel that is represented by the infancy narrative.[12]


Luke furthers the tension yet again in verse 2:48, where Mary admonishes Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Joseph Fitzmyer’s hypothesis above may help reconcile the conflict between Mary’s virginity and Joseph’s parentage, but asserting Joseph’s biological fatherhood is an unacceptable conclusion for many Christian scholars and theologians.

Another common reading of the genealogical differences suggests that Matthew presents a royal or legal genealogy, while Luke presents David’s actual physical descendants. “Luke does not intend that Jesus should be recognized as God’s son merely in the adoptive sense in which a king on David’s throne could be called his son; his explicit relation of the title to the conception of Jesus connotes much more.”[13]

But Luke may have been far more pragmatic in his approach to tracing Jesus’ lineage. His choice could reveal an attempt to avoid God’s curse on Jechoniah’s line, found in Jeremiah.[14]

Joseph’s branch of David’s family, even though it had supplied all the ancient kings of Judah, had been put under a ban or curse by the prophet Jeremiah. In those last days just before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Jeremiah had made a shocking declaration about Jechoniah, the final reigning king of David’s line: ‘Write this man down as stripped… for none of his seed shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling in Judah again. Joseph was a direct descendant of the ill-reputed Jechoniah (Matthew 1:11-12).[15]


Matthew may have been unaware of the curse, but it is also possible that Matthew saw Jesus as the redemption of all curses on humankind, much in the way Luke envisions Christ as a second Adam. Jesus as a new beginning.

Based on a literal reading of scripture, and faith in the testimonies of Matthew and Luke, the traditional view of Christ’s conception affirms Mary’s virginity. “Luke does not call Mary pais, ‘girl,’ paidiske, ‘little girl, maid,’ or korasion, ‘maiden,’ but rather parthenos, the normal understanding of which is ‘virgin.’”[16]

It has been proposed that Mary’s virginity and the literal fatherhood of God were both intuited by early Christians based on the title, “Son of God.” This is a stretch, as the figurative title had extensive historical precedence, not the literal. Egyptian pharaohs were called sons of God. It was used in the Roman world for rulers. In the Hellenistic world it was a name given to famous historical and mythological heroes.[17] In Genesis, Nephilim were referred to as sons of God.[18] None of these meanings implied the kind of virgin conception agreed upon by both Matthew and Luke. There is no precedent in the ancient pagan world for this story; only stories of gods in human form, having intercourse with women.[19]

[This is] not the story of some sort of sacred marriage or a divine being descending to earth and, in the guise of a man, mating with a human woman, but rather the story of a miraculous conception without aid of any man, divine or otherwise. The Gospel story is rather about how Mary conceived without any form of intercourse through the agency of the Holy Spirit. As such this story is without precedent either in Jewish or pagan literature, even including the OT.[20]


Arguments are still made for the recurring human myth of supernatural impregnation. Though unique to the cultural context into which Jesus was born, the idea of virgin conception is not entirely unique. John A. Saliba, of the University of Detroit, refers to the work of British social anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach, who argued against the literal reading of Jesus’ conception.

Leach ignited the debate with a paper he delivered at the annual meeting of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1966. He began the discussion on the Virgin Birth in the context of the belabored ethnographic reports on the Australian aborigines, who were believed, and still are believed, by some to have been ignorant of physical paternity.”[21]

Leach, who did not believe such accounts, became famous for listing other such alleged phenomenon in other parts of the world.

Many believe Matthew attempted to justify the “unusualness” (or potential scandal) of Mary’s pregnancy through comparison with the other four women in his genealogy. Others read it as an effort to identify Jesus with sinners.[22]

The most frequent characteristics noted for Matthew’s four women are (1) that they were regarded as sinners or (2) foreigners; (3) that their relationships to the fathers of their children are ‘extraordinary or irregular’; and (4) that their initiative led to the furtherance of God’s plan and revealed the work of the Holy Spirit.”[23]


There are other theories as to how the genealogical differences can be justified. One of them posits that both the Matthean and Lukan genealogies are through Joseph – one through Joseph’s father, the other through Joseph’s maternal grandfather.

Taking a cue from the reading that Matthew was subversively pointing to God’s divine providence through sinful women, many scholars suggest outright that Jesus was not born through a virgin conception.

Each of these four women was a foreigner who had a scandalous sexual reputation in the Old Testament. The first, Tamar, a widow desperate for a child, purposefully got pregnant by dressing up as a roadside prostitute and enticing her own father-in-law. Rahab was a tavern keeper or ‘prostitute.’ Ruth was a Moabite woman, which was bad enough since Israelites were forbidden to have anything to do with Moabites because of their reputation as sexual temptress. But Ruth crawled into the bed of Boaz, her future husband, after getting him drunk one night, in order to get him to marry her. Uriah’s wife – her name is not even given here for the disgrace of it all -was the infamous Bathsheba. She had an adulterous affair with King David and ended up pregnant, blending his fame with shame ever after… It is clear that Matthew is trying to put Jesus’ own potentially scandalous birth into the context of his forefathers – and foremothers![24]


However, a proposal first popularized by St. Jerome contended for the virgin birth because of a defense utilizing Matthew’s scandalized women.

The four OT women were regarded as sinners; and their inclusion foreshadowed for Matthew’s readers the role of Jesus as the Savior of sinful men. Some would even see in Matthew’s usage a cryptic apologetic against Jewish claim that Mary was an adulteress who conceived Jesus as the fruit of a sinful relationship – Matthew would be rebutting this by pointing to irregularities on the part of women in the acknowledged genealogy of the Messiah.[25]


But many such arguments assume the biblical and prophetic necessity of Jesus’ virgin conception. The writers of Matthew and Luke obviously presupposed it. Mark and John either didn’t care, weren’t aware, or already assumed an understanding by their readers. However, many of the prophetic materials attributed by modern Christians to messianic Christ prophecy may not have carried the long-term expectancy often inferred. The virgin birth itself may be a distraction from who Jesus was and is.

[The] conception of prophesy as prediction of the distant future has disappeared from most serious scholarship today, and it is widely recognized that the NT ‘fulfillment’ of the OT involved much that the OT writers did not foresee at all. The OT prophets were primarily concerned with addressing God’s challenge to their own times… while they sometimes preached a ‘messianic’ deliverance, there is not evidence that they foresaw with precision even a single detail in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.[26]

This does not mean that prophesies are contingent upon the full understanding of the receiving-oracle; only that contemporaries of Old Testament prophets often understood more immediate fulfillment.

During Isaiah’s time, Messianism was not well-developed to a point where his prophesies would look toward a single, future, universally-redeeming king, as with Jesus. Instead, ancient Jewish interpretation identified the child Isaiah spoke of as Hezekiah. Further, in the Masoretic Text “the word ‘alma, used to describe the woman, normally describes a young girl who has reached the age of puberty and is thus marriageable. It puts no stress on her virginity…”[27]
If Isaiah’s language does not demand virginity of its “young woman,” some scholars may be validated in suggesting that Jesus was the biological son of Joseph. They find difficulty in establishing a Jewish precedent for Jesus’ “adoption” into Joseph’s Davidic heritage. “There is nothing in Jewish law, in either the Hebrew Bible or in later Halakhah, which can be seen as the model by which Jesus, Son of God, could have been considered the legal, but not genetic, heir to the Davidic throne.”[28] A singularly literal reading of the genealogies alone would lead any reader to the same conclusion.

[Edmund] Leach makes a number of important statements on the Virgin Conception. First, he asserts that this Christian belief cannot be taken literally. He refers to Matthew and Luke as giving a genealogy ‘which places Jesus in the direct line of patrilineal descent from David though Joseph.’ This he interprets to mean that these two Synoptic Gospels are affirming that, after all, Jesus was born like every other human being.[29]


While revealing his distaste for it, Brown explains another argument for the biological fatherhood of Joseph, based on one particular translation. The translation, though a syntactical stretch from existing biblical texts, reorganizes the genealogy into a more consistent, internally cohesive structure.

A reading with even less textual support may be translated thus: “Jacob was the father of Joseph; and Joseph, to whom the virgin Mary was betrothed, was the father of Jesus, called the Christ.” Although… this reading avoids calling Joseph the husband of Mary and specifically designates her a virgin, it is the only one of the three readings to preserve in part the formula-pattern of the [Matthean] genealogy.[30]



In terms of Joseph’s parentage, the title Son of Man has been surrounded by debate regarding what it does or does not imply. “Along with the other evangelists Luke preserves the tradition of the early church in putting the title ho huios tou anthropou on the lips of Jesus himself. In classical Greek that phrase would mean ‘the man’s son,’ i.e. ‘the son of the man (human being).’”[31] Attempts have been made to connect this language to similar references in both Daniel and Revelation, which more clearly articulate: “like a son of man”[32] but there has been no conclusive determination.

Finally, in a sort of prophetic one-upsmanship, Fitzmyer suggests that because John the Baptist’s conception involved a miracle, “the step-parallelism requires an even greater one in Jesus’ conception. Hence the conception by a virgin.”[33] But W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann warn against making assumptions about underlying or overt motives by Matthew and Luke:

That there is formal inconsistency here is not to be doubted: both evangelists claiming Davidic descent through Joseph, while at the same time giving us a tradition of virginal conception and birth. To make charges of dishonesty or to impugn the motives of the writers is – at this remove of time – perilous. Allowing for the very tenacious traditions with respect to ancestry among Jews at the time of Jesus, we are certainly entitled to say that both evangelists were faithfully recording the traditions which they had received, whatever the inconsistencies.[34]

Perhaps this is the sort of tension believers are called to take on faith, trusting God to reveal whatever it is we need. On the other hand, throwing hands up in frustration and avoiding intelligent criticism is an undesirable outcome. There are strong arguments for why the Christian church’s tradition of virgin conception may not be a biblical or prophetic certainty. There are good explanations for potential motives the authors of Matthew and Luke may have had in deliberately choosing to record the genealogies as they did. Conversely, it is hard to understand why the two writers would have purposefully caused as many textual challenges as they did, unless they were both entirely convinced of the dualistic truth of Jesus’ sonship.
Whatever the specific truth in these circumstances, the nature of both gospels is consistent with these broader truths of the Old and New Testaments: that there is truth in paradox. In tension and clarity, in mystery and revelation, and in faith and reason, we find deeper understanding of ourselves and of God.

References:

[1] Luke 3:23 (NIV)
[2] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York:
Doubleday, 1993), 85.
[3] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 65.
[4] Joel B. Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 66.
[5] Ibid 85.
[6] Yigal Levin, “Jesus, 'Son of God' and 'Son of David': The 'Adoption' of Jesus into the Davidic Line,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament vol. 28, no. 4 (June, 2006), 419.
[7] Ibid 425.
[8] Joel B. Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 65.
[9] James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 52.
[10] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 134.
[11] Matthew 22:41-46 (NIV)
[12] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 489.
[13] Ibid 207.
[14] Jeremiah 22:30 (NIV)
[15] James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 51.
[16] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 343.
[17] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 205.
[18] Genesis 6:2-4 (NIV)
[19] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 342.
[20] Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 70.
[21] John A. Saliba, “The Virgin-Birth Debate in Anthropological Literature: A Critical Assessment,” Theological Studies vol. 36, no. 3 (September, 1975), 430.
[22] Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 65-66.
[23] Irene Nowell, “Jesus' Great-Grandmothers: Matthew's Four and More,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly vol. 70, no. 1 (January, 2008), 10.
[24] James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 50.
[25] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 71-72.
[26] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 146.
[27] Ibid 147.
[28] Yigal Levin, “Jesus, 'Son of God' and 'Son of David': The 'Adoption' of Jesus into the Davidic Line,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament vol. 28, no. 4 (June, 2006), 425.
[29] John A. Saliba, “The Virgin-Birth Debate in Anthropological Literature: A Critical Assessment,” Theological Studies vol. 36, no. 3 (September, 1975), 431.
[30] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 62.
[31] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 208.
[32] Daniel 7:13, Revelation 1:13 (NIV)
[33] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 337.
[34] W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann, Matthew: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 6.

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