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| 28.8.03
Sarah: Women of Genesis, by Orson Scott Card

Sarah is the first book in what promises to be a great series of novels about the women of Genesis. As of this writing I know that a second book, Rebekah, is already out in paperback, and there may be more stories in hardcover. In any event, Sarah stands on its own as a fine piece of story-telling about the wife of a great biblical patriarch --illustrating the oft-neglected significance of the women in the Bible. Sarah is a helpful corrective to this tendency, showing her partnership with Abraham in a plausible, imaginative and meaningful way while still respecting the outlines of scripture.

Based on texts from Genesis 11-23, the Book of Abraham in The Pearl of Great Price, plus Orson Scott Card's historical research and unique interpretation of early biblical history, this book is a page-turner. I've read Card's science fiction, fantasy, mainstream novels, and now religious fiction. In every genre he is a powerful storyteller, creating characters that are vibrant, believable, and interesting. Sarah is no exception in this regard. She's depicted by Card as a strong, passionate woman whose relationships with husband Abraham and (for the purposes of the novel) sister Q'ira (Lot's wife) form a gripping dynamic that drives the plot forward from Ur-of-the-North, through Egypt, and finally to the Promised Land.

One very useful part of the novel, for those who are worried about what is true and what is made up in historical fiction, is the author's afterword at the end of the book. Here Orson Scott Card cites a partial bibliography, and discusses the historical and artistic choices he made in the telling of his tale. Be warned though --many people I have discussed this book with were so spellbound by the storytelling that they felt let-down reading the afterword. The novel is such a seamless piece of narrative that they didn't enjoy the illusion getting shattered --to a certain extent-- in the afterword as the author fully disclosed his options, choices, and justifications for telling the story the way he did. As one who enjoys deconstructing texts, however, I found the afterword to be a rare treat.

I didn't always agree with the author's interpretive choices. I felt he was purposely harsh in his depiction of Hagar and Ishmael in order to protect Sarah's reputation near the end of the story. Card also sets the time period for Abraham and Sarah as contemporary with the height of Sumerian culture --a choice I feel is centuries too early. Finally, he depicts the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as divine punishment for homosexual acts, whereas I believe that biblical passage is a story about violence, gang rape, and important cultural codes of hospitality. Lot's home town plays a relatively minor role in the novel, however, and setting the action earlier in history than is the scholarly consensus allows Card to explore a fascinating interplay between the religion of the pharaohs, Ur-of-the-North, and Abraham's God.

Quibbles aside, Sarah is a gripping, readable novel that will have you up all night finishing it and tired the next day at work. I heartily recommend it, and am looking forward to future novels in the Women of Genesis series.

PUBLISHER: Shadow Mountain, 2000; ISBN: 1-57008-994-9 (Hardcover Edition)

Hang Six

| 21.8.03
'Hang Six', by Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook's goal in this short article is to suggest a way out of the cultural and political impasse posed by those conservatives who favor monuments to the Ten Commandments in public buildings by appealing to six moral and ethical precepts upon which there is cross-cultural agreement --contained within the commandments.

What really grabbed me about this article though, is Easterbrooks' assertion that Jesus radically revised the Ten Commandments, trimming them down to six. I know that Jesus summarized the Hebrew law in the saying, "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. . . you shall [also] love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12.29-31 NRSV)

Easterbrook asserts something novel, however, stating that Jesus gutted the Ten Commandments, reinforcing only the ones that pertain to universal, cross-cultural ethical and moral norms. His main evidence is the story of the young man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life from Matthew 19:16-19. (parallel list also found in Mark 10:17-23) Jesus' answers here list only six precepts --"the ones concerning morality, love, and good character."

Part of Easterbrook's argument is from silence. He says that you must hear what Jesus does not say as much as what he does say. However, I do believe the Gospel author is intentional in his choice of words, and I must confront the fact that the passage appears in the same form in both Mark (the earliest Gospel) and Matthew --implying that it is something early and important in the emerging Jesus tradition.

I wouldn't mind seeing some footnotes, or at least some indication that Easterbrook is relating a theological take on the passage that doesn't just originate with him, so that an interested reader can do some additional research into what was for me a very thought-provoking idea. His conspiracy theory take on why denominations don't like to emphasize what for Easterbrook are Jesus' "anti-religious sayings" doesn't inspire confidence either.

Still, I find the idea intriguing.

PUBLISHER: Beliefnet, 2003
(source: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/117/story_11719.html)

What Paul Really Said about Women

| 14.8.03
'What Paul Really Said About Women', by John T. Bristow

Here is an argument I haven't seen before. I guess you could say it amounts to a hard-core biblical literalist argument for equality of the sexes in Paul's epistles. The author of this book (which is excerpted in the Beliefnet article I read) goes back to the original Greek of Ephesians 5:21-33 and other texts in almost excruciating detail, arguing that if Paul had really meant what we mean by such English words as "submit," and "head of," he would have picked other, more accurate Greek words that more exactly render his meaning. Instead, Paul chooses words that are more accurately interpreted as suggesting equality and mutuality in relationships between husbands and wives.

According to this author, Paul is arguing for something radically different than Aristotle's philosophy, which was popular in Hellenistic times and would have mandated that women are inferior to men. In fact, Paul may be giving traditional Aristotelian-ism a subversive Gospel-twist --showing his genius in turning the dominant philosophy of his age into something he could use to spread his own message.

Beyond the issue of equality, however, I think this book is the perfect illustration of how what we bring to the text determines our reading of it. If you're expecting Paul to be sexist, it's not hard to find sexism in his letters. If you expect equality to be God's truth for humanity, you will find radical equality in the New Testament. While some may find this observation to be disturbing, I find it to be a compelling reason for why the Bible has endured as a source of meaning and values for people throughout the ages.

PUBLISHER: Harper San Francisco; Reprint edition (March 1991); ISBN: 0060610638
(source: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/130/story_13009.html)

Reflections on General Convention

| 10.8.03
Reflections on General Convention 2003, an original essay

Well, it's over. Another General Convention of the Episcopal Church is done. With the confirmation of the first openly gay bishop in a mainline Christian denomination, and the dis-approval of liturgies for same-sex unions, we as Episcopalians have taken a step in a new direction on one front while acknowledging ambiguity on another --and all the consequences, intended and unintended, won't be known for some time to come.

As one who has agreed in principle that gays and lesbians' committed, monogamous sexual relationships should be recognized by the church on an equal footing as comparable relationships between heterosexuals, I still feel a lot of ambivalence about the twin decisions made by the Convention. No small matter is the seeming contradiction between allowing an openly gay man be a bishop, yet rejecting a liturgy to bless unions between gay people! I'm also concerned about the unity of the Anglican Communion, and how troubling this must look to those fellow Christians outside of Anglicanism for whom the Bible clearly prohibits same-sex sexual acts.

Despite the historic decisions on the part of the Convention, the decision was far from unanimous. Attending services this morning at my own mostly conservative parish, a feeling of sadness was palpable in the air as people mourned a church which to them has fallen into serious doctrinal error. One thing General Convention failed to do was promote a theological rationale for its decision. As with the ordination of women in the 1970s, once again General Convention has seemingly let their actions precede their theology on this matter. This seeming lack of concern has saddened and angered conservatives within the Episcopal church, and must totally bewilder those outside the Anglican tradition.

As for my own views --key to understanding the theological divide is the way the Bible is understood. Ever since Martin Luther broke from the medieval Catholic church with the cry of "Sola Scriptura," or "Scripture Alone" most protestants have believed that God's truth could be obtained through reading the Bible for oneself and comprehending it's most obvious meaning. Luther believed that if everyone could read the Bible for themselves, they'd come to the same obvious conclusions he did. They didn't, and now we have thousands of Christian denominations. Yet most protestants believe that there is an obvious meaning to the Bible, and it's a matter of either understanding it correctly or incorrectly.

For Anglicans discerning God's truth is more complicated. We believe that God's truth comes to us through Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. These three things don't stand alone and against one another, as if you could poll them on any given issue, and get a 2-1 split decision. Like the Trinity, they are three-in-one and one-in-three. They cannot be divided, and they complement and inform one another.

I see this triad as a way of acknowledging that no one can just sit down and read the Bible and get truth directly from it. The truth that one gets from the Bible (Scripture) is influenced by how one has been taught about the Bible by their parents and their church (Tradition), as well as one's life experience, knowledge of science, history, and the worldview they bring to the text (all aspects of Reason.) Going further, the knowledge gained from Reason and Tradition can open up some possibilities for interpreting Scripture, while closing other paths as unacceptable. Likewise, Scriptural ethics can inform what we do with our Reason and how we shape our Tradition.

Applying this schema to same-sex unions goes like this --at least for me it does. I start by looking at the world around me --a world in which I see equal amounts of promiscuity, brokenness, struggle, faithfulness, love, monogamy, and commitment from both heterosexuals and homosexuals. My Christian upbringing tells me that faithfulness, love, monogamy, and commitment are positive values, but it also points me to seven or eight verses scattered throughout the Bible that seem to condemn homosexual acts. Yet when I read these passages closely and carefully in their contexts, noting the kind of people they describe, it doesn't match up very well with what I see around me today. Moreover, I see other issues in these same passages that don't seem to have anything to do with the homosexual people I know. So I take all these varying sources and attempt to synthesize out of them a course of action or an ethic that is as faithful as possible to the Scriptures, Tradition, and Reason.

It can get messy. Complicated. Confusing. Scary. Sometimes I really have my doubts that we're doing the right thing. Sometimes I think we're doing the right thing, but in the wrong way. But I truly believe that this process tries to make the best use of all the gifts God has given us to discern truth, and do right by ourselves, our God, and our neighbor.

PUBLISHER: Tomte, 2003

Paul on Sexuality

| 5.8.03
'The Apostle Paul On Sexuality', by Neil Elliot

This insightful article stands out from among many I've read that attempt to refute traditional church views of homosexuality. Unlike some whose agenda is merely to deconstruct traditional theology, this article provides a compelling, meaningful, and relevant alternative reading of Paul's letter to the Romans --especially Romans 1:24-27.

Elliot challenges us to consider that we are reading our own prejudices in the text when we make Romans be about homosexuality. First, he examines some of the popular ways theologians have treated this text in the past, noting that "importing" Jews as Paul's original audience doesn't make sense, nor does claiming Paul used stereotypes and exaggeration to make his points do Paul much credit. Instead, Elliot shows that within the context of the first Century Roman empire, Paul's insightful words are a biting critique of the excesses of Empire, and Romans 1:24-27 would have been immediately recognizable to a first century reader as describing the idolatry and excesses of Nero, Caligula, and others in the Imperial family.

Elliot ends with this quote, which not only sums up his position elegantly, but gives us hard questions to ask ourselves about the applicability of this text for us today:

The challenge we face, I believe, is to get beyond our own cultural and sexual prejudices and to hear what Paul has to say. As we ask about the ways our lives are corrupted by imperial culture — by any culture where power over people is the highest value — we begin to understand the true challenge of Paul’s letter: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:2).

PUBLISHER: The Witness Magazine, July/August 2003. Volume 86.

(source: http://thewitness.org/agw/elliott071203.html)

The Reinvented Church

| 3.8.03
'The Reinvented Church: Styles and Strategies,' by Donald E. Miller

A few things struck me about this article. I was very impressed that someone whose own personal spirituality is so far away from that of the "new paradigm" churches would write such a glowing report on them. I would have expected all harsh criticism, especially of the way that the Bible is interpreted in such churches. Instead you get the image of someone really struck by the way that God is experientially real in these churches.

In my own experience I've found that mainline denominations are borrowing what works from the "new paradigm pattern and applying it to their own congregations. The last time my wife and I went church shopping, we found numerous Lutheran and other churches who incorporate small cell groups, contemporary Christian music, etc, and mix them into their own worship experience. So in that sense some of what Miller is calling for has already happened.

Spiritual experience. Personally, I'm at the point where I don't just want to read about God in the Bible or elsewhere, I want to experience God. The "new paradigm churches" as presented in the article struck a chord with me because experience seems to be a major theme there.

Miller seems to imply that the weakness of "new paradigm churches" is the same as their strength. Because they identify with the popular culture to a certain extent, they are blind to some of the excesses rational materialism has brought us.

I think its an interesting phenomenon because consumerism and capitalism (at least the forces of the free market economics) are major American values, and now we can see how those values have impacted everything, even down to our choice in faith communities and how we look at our relationship with God. Moreover, these assumptions are so taken for granted that almost no church in the land is left untouched.

PUBLISHER: The Christian Century, December 22-29, 1999

(source: http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showarticle?item_id=1519)

Restoring a Damaged Faith

'Restoring a Damaged Faith,' by Mary Tuomi Hammond

After reading this fascinating article about people who grew up in a churchgoing tradition only to leave it as adults because of the abuse they suffered within organized religion, I'm starting to realize that it's a much more serious issue for myself and others than I'd previously let myself imagine.

I come from the perspective of someone who has been in the church all my life. Unlike many, I've tried many different forms of Christianity, because I've always been looking for something from church that I've never quite found. Despite a regular history of church attendance, the church has, to varying degrees always disappointed me. To varying extents I've always felt like an outsider.

As I look back on it, what I've been looking for is twofold: 1) I'm looking for worship through which I can experience God (something where I perceive myself as being connected with God), and 2) I'm looking for a safe environment in which I can undertake spiritual exploration with others.

In my experience, I can find number 1. That's probably what keeps me in the church. However the church stinks at number 2. I think the problem is that the church only provides a "safe" environment on its own terms, and woe be unto those who don't meet those terms!

Here are some example "terms," from a church that I attended in the past. This church would only provide a safe environment for spiritual exploration with others if you fall into or agree with the superiority of these categories, and the extent that you step outside these categories is the extent that you are labeled, ostracized, held suspect, and encouraged to leave:

White, Straight, Biblically-inerrant, (male) Authority-driven, Capitalist

In the church I attend now, I've exchanged these terms for a somewhat different list of terms:

Gentile, Straight, Evangelical, Volunteer-driven, Sacramental

While before I would have congratulated myself on finding a place that had terms within which I could explore my faith while avoiding the wrath of my peers within the church, after reading the article on a damaged faith I'm realizing what a dismal vision of church this really is.

Is it healthy to have any sort of terms or conditions like these? I don't think so. On the one hand it's a straight-jacket for people like me who are within the church --I'm confined to only exploring my faith in community within this box. If I hear God calling me outside this box (a call I have heard already with regards to evangelicalism) I'd better not act on it in the church, or talk about it with anyone in the church, or I'm just asking to be spiritually abused.

On the other hand, these categories are even more of an insult to people who fall outside them --the church is saying, by the existence of these categories, that it has already pre-decided that anything that lays outside them --including people-- is not worthy of respect, or contains anything of value that could enrich the church.

I don't think that the church actually believes that it is abusing anyone, but through the use of standards of inclusion and exclusion abuse is taking place. The church needs to wake up and recognize what it's doing before any healing can begin to take place. I don't think Mary Tuomi Hammond goes far enough when she seems to imply that using a few different words (like "reconciled to God" instead of "saved," and "sharing one's faith" instead of "witnessing") is going to stop people from experiencing hurt in the organized church.

Maybe we need a church where the only criteria for taking the faith journey is the desire to take the faith journey, trusting God to take care of the rest, and not worrying about what ground we may cover or what boundaries we might cross along the way.

PUBLISHER: The Other Side, May-June 2000, Vol. 36, No. 3.

(source: http://www.theotherside.org/archive/may-jun00/hammond.html)

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