Modern Parables 2: The Brothel

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The reign of God is like a prostitute in a brothel who owed a huge debt to her madam. One night her favorite client, a wealthy politician, had a heart-attack. So she forged a wedding certificate, inherited the senator’s money, and took over the brothel. The madam commended the prostitute and told her, “You will go far in this business.”

Modern Parables 1: The Lost Cat

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

Which of you, if you lost your cat, wouldn’t wander all over the city looking for him, leaving all your windows and your house door wide open in case he came back? And when you found him, instead of going home, you’d be so overjoyed that you would take him out for drinks with your friends, and celebrate for days.

Finely Crafted Fertilizer

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“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” That’s Max Black’s definition of humbug, and it provides a jumping-off point for Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit.

Of course, the essay is itself BS, an example of the kind of delightful writing that’s more poetry than philosophy. Frankfurt waxes rhapsodic about the metaphor: He says BS implies a lack of refinement: “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain strain.”

The key distinction, Frankfurt says, between BS and lying is that a lie requires the liar to know or at least be interested in the truth, and to misrepresent it. The BS artist, on the other hand, is not really interested in misrepresenting the truth. He is interested in misrepresenting himself. The truth is irrelevant.

As I said, Frankfurt’s essay is, in many ways, also BS. Like a signpost, though, it points beyond itself to something that is true. Much of our language is not about truth, but about performance: gaining the upper hand, making peace, shaming, praising, wooing, or persuading. We often do one thing while pretending to do something else: shaming while making peace, gaining political advantage while praising, and so on. It is drama, performed by actors (or hypokrites, in the Greek).

Jesus and Paul used similar scatological metaphors (see Luke 13:8, Luke 14:5, 1 Corinthians 4:13, Philippians 3:8) to describe flavorless followers or praiseworthy credentials. Our English translations tame the metaphors into “manure” and “rubbish.” First century “rubbish” did not consist of aluminum cans and take out containers. It was far more vile. Manure is… well, bullshit. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul would have a problem with the way Frankfurt uses the word.

What happens among Christians, though (and especially preachers), is that since we have these important commandments to love each other, and we want to be more Christlike in our behavior, we pretend. We wind up attempting to be bullshit artists. Honestly, we’re not very good at it. We have too much invested in creating the illusion that we are nice people. We are especially fond of smarm, the kind of BS that allows us to occupy a morally superior position because we are so nice about it.

You may have heard the famous Winston Churchill quote about diplomacy being the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. Most preachers, though, can only aspire to Churchill’s art. Instead of learning our rhetoric from schools (where it is no longer taught) we learn it from television. Our BS is not finely crafted. It is dumped.

At our Annual Conference, for example, one of my colleagues got up and made a speech, that went something like, “I am colorblind. Anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t see color. I don’t care who we elect to the delegation as long as we choose somebody who believes in the authority of the Bible.”

See, like cable news anchors, we have become practiced at using dog-whistles and code words. I actually agree with this colleague’s statement. (Well, except for the reality or even the desirability of being “colorblind.”) I, too, was eager to elect representatives who believe the authority of the Bible for faith and practice. I would say I want representatives who are orthodox (they can say the Apostle’s Creed without crossing their fingers,) evangelical (they believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ,) and Spirit-filled (they are pursuing sanctification.) But I mean very different things when I use those words. In the context of our Annual Conference, and in the context of the recent brouhaha over LGBTQ inclusion and rumors of schism in the United Methodist Church, what he said and what he meant were two entirely different things.

Of course, everyone listening knew it. There was no question that what he was really doing was making a campaign speech, asking folks to vote for someone who would not support LGBTQ inclusion. It was bullshit, a statement that had no interest in any particular truth-claim, that misrepresented the desire and intentions of the speaker. It was a performance. I could have made a similar speech by saying, “I think we should elect someone who really believes the gospel is Good News for all people.” With my voice and eyes, I could have communicated quite a bit. Of course, at that point, people would have groaned because I would have drawn attention to the BS performance in which we were all complicit. It would have been like polishing a turd.

And certainly, progressives often do the same thing. They can make pointed comments, insinuate, connote, and cast aspersions under a veil of politeness. People who claim to be neutral or moderate often bring buckets of smarm to the conversation, denigrating “both sides” as being extreme and virtuously claiming the middle. BS, all of it.

As Frankfurt concludes, insofar as we are unaware of our own selves, “sincerity itself” is BS. All language is, in some sense, a performance, and whether we find something convincing or not or even label it as true has a lot to do with how good the performance is and how much we trust the speaker. Most of us who read Catcher in the Rye resonate with Holden Caufield’s complaints about all the “phonies” in the world, even though the narrator himself is a compulsive liar. But we develop a sense that he is trustworthy. I have friends who I disagree with about a great many things, but I trust their yes to be yes and their no to be no. I trust them well enough to participate in bull sessions, in which we try out different ideas or points of view to see if we can convince ourselves of their truth value. If one can’t “pull off” the idea, another will usually point it out. So perhaps the real issue with BS is whether we trust the person with the shovel not to hit us with it.

I do not know if it is possible, or even desirable, to reduce the amount of BS in church life. Certainly, some of it is good fertilizer, well-seasoned, out of which may grow tasty fruit. But too much just stinks, and bad fertilizer can scorch roots and stunt growth. I’m not actually sure which I want more: better-quality BS, or more clergy colleagues who I can trust enough to fight fair. Honestly, I think I could go for either.

Noah’s Nonexistent Nosy Neighbors

This March, the blockbuster film Noah will hit theaters. I’m going to be preaching on the story of Noah and the flood this Sunday.

I always find the movie versions of Bible stories fascinating, because everything—everything—depends on the interpretation. I like to ask people, “If you were the director, how would YOU tell this story?” Who would you cast in what roles? Does the race or ethnicity of the people you cast matter? Where do you set the story? In the story of Noah, which has virtually no dialogue, what words do you put into people’s mouths? Why? Every camera angle, every CGI bird or snake, every line of dialogue, every music choice for the soundtrack are interpretations of this ancient story.

I find the trailer for Noah fascinating because there is no mention of Noah’s neighbors at all in the text. (You can read the story here.) I grew up hearing the popular version of the story: Noah must have had tremendous faith, because he obeyed God. His neighbors laughed at him, because who builds a boat in the middle of a desert? Boy, I bet they were sorry when the rain started falling!

Yet there is no mention of Noah’s location. He could be on an island, for all we know. The story probably originated in a place we call the Fertile Crescent, so it’s unlikely the author is thinking of a desert. There is no mention of neighbors. Perhaps no one lives nearby. So why a desert? And why do we feel it necessary to add skeptical neighbors? Is it because many of us who have never been to the middle east imagine that it’s all desert, and that we imagine people walked around in it wearing bathrobes and head scarves? Is it because as religious people, we find it galling to have skeptics point out our irrational faith, so we have to make them the bad guys? I find it fascinating that this version of the story still holds such sway over people’s imaginations. We just assume this is part of the story, like we assume that Jesus had long hair and a beard. We no longer even recognize these as interpretive choices that we make about the text. For us, they are part of the story.

Several non-religious folks I know wonder, “What does it matter? It’s a made-up story anyway.” But regardless of whether you are a true believer or not, the way we tell stories matters. Does it matter that Noah’s neighbors, never mentioned in the text, are portrayed in the popular telling as skeptics who laugh at his faith? Yes. Does it matter how “the wickedness of humankind” which God seeks to destroy is portrayed? Yes.

And if it matters to non-religious folks how the story is told, how much more should it matter to believers! This is why we need to study rhetoric, and film, and theories of interpretation (hermeneutics). As believers, if we don’t study the stories critically, we just embed our own prejudices in them and pass them along to the next generation. As skeptics, if we just exchange old myths for new ones, we do the same.

The author(s) of this story had an agenda. In order to faithfully read the Bible, interpret it, and apply it to our lives, we need to figure out that agenda and what it means for us today.

Which is why you need to come to worship at Saint Junia on Sunday 😉

Three Axioms and an Apology

1. All theology is political.

2. Theology which claims it is not political is both political and dishonest.

3. Theological language which attempts to transcend politics, casts aspersions on “both sides” of an issue, or is deployed to make its users feel better about their privilege is political, dishonest, and condescending.

4. I’ve definitely been guilty of #3.

The Love Chapter (Dave’s Paraphrase)

Not to be confused with an actual translation:

If I speak in the languages of humans and of divine beings, but do not have love, I am white noise and static, distortion without melody. And if I have a huge blog following, and can read Greek and Hebrew, and have written best-selling books, and if I can quote whole paragraphs of the Discipline, and if I am just generally more religious than you, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my stuff, and die like a martyr in an inspiring story, but do not have love, I gain diddly.

 

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not condescending or paternalistic or patronizing or rude. It does not employ disingenuous rhetoric: religious code words, race-baiting, gay-baiting, ad hominem attacks, scapegoating, or mansplaining. It does not insist on its own privilege; it is not fearful of science or of being proven wrong; it does not indulge in schadenfreude, but rejoices in the good of others. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 

Love never ends. But as for policies, they will come to an end; as for institutions, they will cease; as for the internet, it will come to an end. For we do things only in part, but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was immature, I threw tantrums and argued like a child; when I became an adult, I stopped that sort of thing. For now we see dim reflections of our world, our selves, and our God, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. So three things will outlast all this temporary, immature stuff: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

A Scandalous Rhetorical Reading of Romans 1 and 2

In debates about homosexuality and the church, people who want to maintain that homosexuality is a sin often quote Romans 1:26-27. I do not think this scripture supports their views. In fact, I think it undermines them.

The following is a rhetorical reading of Romans 1:8 through 2:29. I have paraphrased it, updated it, and made it as scandalous as it might have been to its original hearers. It is not meant to accurately reflect all of the nuances of Paul’s original argument, but to highlight the fact that the whole first chapter is, in fact, a parody of exclusivist Christian thinking. It is a prologue. The second chapter is where he brings the hammer down.

There will be people who read the following paraphrase and won’t get it. They will accuse me of twisting Paul’s words. But maybe (I hope) they will get a taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of Paul’s hyperbolic rhetoric. I believe this reading is far more true to his argument than their use of a handful of verses ripped out of context.

If you’d like to follow along, open Romans 1:8-2:29 in a new tab.

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First, I thank God for all of you good Christian folks, because the whole world knows how faithful you are. I want nothing more than to come and be with you in person, good religious people, so that we can encourage each other. I would love to share with you the same kind of experience I’ve had among the non-religious and the pagans, who have been coming to Christ in record numbers. I’ve been helped in my work and taught by both civilized people and savages, philosophers and fools. That’s why I’m so eager to come and share the Good News with you good Christian folks in the big pagan city of San Francisco. (1:8-15)

Sure, both religious people and pagans want me to be ashamed of this Good News that I share with both the cultured pagans and the religious minority. But I’m not ashamed of the Good News, because it’s the power of God for everyone who has faith, to the religious minority and also to the pagan elites, because the Good News reveals God for who God really is. If you get it, then you really get it. (1:16-17)

Look, I know you already know this, but it bears repeating: God is furious with everyone who would suppress the truth. The kinds of hellfire and brimstone you have preached to the pagans is true: God has already shown everyone, Christian and pagan alike, who God really is: you can see who God is through the beauty and awesomeness of nature. (1:18-20a)

So these non-religious people around you have no excuse: these pagan elites, the agnostics and the culture worshipers, because although in their hearts they probably already know God, they are ungrateful and irreverent. Their brains have become clouded. Even though they believe themselves to be smart and hip and wise, they are really dolts, and they choose instead to worship idols and mascots: supermodels and superheroes, gods of sex and money and power and death. (1:20b-23)

So God lets them. God lets them turn themselves into a joke, because they worship creatures rather than the Creator. They become sexually promiscuous and perverted, believing that to be cultured means to indulge themselves in a buffet of pornographic delights. Their emperors lead the way (and some of them, like Caligula, were killed by the boy toys they kept in bondage). Their women are no better. They all swap partners as if every body were just a set of interchangeable orifices. They treat people as sexual objects to be used for personal gratification. The most important thing in their universe is their own pleasure. You’ve seen reality TV, so you know what I’m talking about. (1:24-27)

And since they chose to ignore God, God let them fill themselves with perversion: greed, petty rivalries, envy, murder, violence, lying, gossiping, racism, bigotry. They created a culture of cynical antipathy, live-and-let-die, contemptuous of family, or religion, or civic-mindedness. They know such things are wrong and lead to the death of everything good, but they not only do them, but they make heroes of people who celebrate these values of the culture of death. (1:28-32)

So, by now you’re nodding along with me, because I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. The world is going to hell in a hand basket. But here’s the kicker:

You ain’t any better than the pagans you rail against. (2:1)

You are also without excuse, because you yourselves are no better and yet you stand in judgment of them. You religious-types say “God will send them to hell.” Do you imagine that when you judge them for doing these things, and yet do them yourself, you will escape judgment? Or do you fail to appreciate what the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ really means? Don’t you realize that the repentance you should be most concerned about is your own? But because you are judgmental and self-righteous, you are making your own personal judgment day that much worse. (2:1-5)

Everyone is going to get what’s coming to them: people who humbly do good will be treated well, and people who are self-righteously wicked will truly understand the hell they preach toward others. You want to talk about hell? Self-righteous sinners will indeed experience hell, but the religious hypocrites will have a front-row seat. The self-righteous pagans will follow. But the same is true of heaven and the reward of the kingdom of God: Good religious folks will lead their righteous pagan brothers and sisters into their reward. Because God shows no partiality. (2:6-11)

Sure, all who are wicked without religion will die without religion, and those who are wicked and religious will be judged by the faith they supposedly hold dear. Because it’s not those who hear or parrot their religious precepts who are judged righteous by God, but those who actually do good. When non-religious people instinctively do good, they show that they have God’s religion written on their hearts. And on the day of judgment, it’s their hearts that will matter to God. (2:12-16)

But if you call yourself a Christian and rely on your religion and your heterosexuality and the fact that you don’t rob banks, and you brag about your relationship to Jesus, and if you are sure that you are the bright spot of civilization in a world of darkness, and you’re going to bear God’s message to all of creation, will you not hear it for yourself? You already know the stereotype of religious people: They are embroiled in scandals about money and sex and pyramid schemes. They police other people’s bedrooms, but they spend more money on porn than anyone else. It’s even written in the Bible: “religion” and the name of God is practically a cussword among the non-religious because of you. (2:17-24)

For example, your heterosexuality or your straight marriage is indeed a great thing if you actually follow the Bible. But if you don’t do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, the virtue of your heterosexual marriage in God’s eyes is a sham. So if gay and lesbian persons actually follow Jesus better than you do, won’t their marriages be virtuous in God’s eyes? For a person is not a Christian who is one outwardly, nor is true marriage something about your genitals. Rather, a person is a Christian who is one inwardly, and real marriage is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual. Such a person may not receive praise from others (or from you), but they receive it from God. (2:25-29)

Reframing Heterosexist Rhetoric: Playing Offense Instead of Defense

Christian arguments about LGBTQ issues follow a pretty rigid rhetorical structure, and you can probably lip-synch to most of them. Too often, Christians in favor of full inclusion or marriage equality wind up playing defense with scripture, letting their opponents rattle off a series of proof texts while they scramble to offer one alternative interpretation after another. It’s like playing rhetorical Whac-a-Mole! There are some very good ways to play defense (I recommend both Mark Sandlin’s Clobbering Biblical Gay-Bashing and Matthew Vines’ moving sermon on the topic), but in order to shift the conversation, you have to play offense. This is part of what I was attempting to do by writing God Shows No Partiality: to offer biblical rhetoric to people who often abdicate the Bible to literalists and fundamentalists.

Classical education involved the study of rhetoric—an education which we desperately need today.

I apologize, in advance, that rhetorical metaphors often use combat and sports metaphors. In ideal world, we would have conversations around an open table where every voice is equal. But the very definition of rhetoric recognizes that language is always connected to power and privilege, and that there are social dynamics hiding beneath the things we say (and do not say). (The word “dynamics” comes from the Greek word for “power.”)

Any given debate is an attempt to control or shape a public narrative. This applies to everything from formal arguments in a court of law to the most juvenile trolling comments on the internet. Discussions among equals happen when we share power in shaping the narrative; we may disagree about some things, and we may advance certain arguments, but ultimately we’re cooperating in telling a story about the way the world is. Debates happen when we wrestle for control of the story.

If you read through the comments on my previous post, How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking About Homosexuality, you’ll see that commenters who disagree with me seldom spend much time addressing the scriptures I cite, or my comparison of anti-gay attitudes to the parallels with the anti-Gentile attitudes in the gospels and Acts. This is because they believe they control they narrative, or frame, of the biblical argument on this issue, and addressing the points I am actually making would give me control of the narrative.

So, in the spirit of playing offense, here are some questions for dialogical opponents, along with scriptural references. I offer these not because they are definitive or exhaustive, but simply to illustrate how to reframe and refocus an argument. I will also say that I deploy these kinds of questions only when it’s clear that we’re not actually having a discussion, but instead wrestling for control of a narrative:

  1. How is your objection to homosexuality different than the Christian Pharisees who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised? How is it different than their insistence that Gentiles follow Jewish dietary laws? (Acts 10, 15)
  2. Which is more difficult: changing one’s sexual orientation or cutting off one’s foreskin? Which is more difficult: changing who you love or refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols?
  3. Paul describes women with short hair as being “against nature” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). He also says that Gentiles being grafted on to Israel’s tree is “contrary to nature” (Romans 11:24) This is the same word he uses in Romans 1:26. Is being “contrary to nature” a bad thing? Is a woman having short hair worse than, better than, or equivalent to homosexuality? What about a man with long hair?
  4. What does Jesus mean when he says that the Pharisees “lock people out of the Kingdom?” (Matthew 23:13). How did they go about doing so, or what does this phrase mean? Does anyone “lock people out of the kingdom” today, or was it just something that happened then? Who does it today?
  5. What does Jesus mean when he says his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:29-30)? Was he only talking to Jewish people? Is your opposition to committed same-gender relationships increasing or decreasing a religious burden on people? How would Jesus talk about requiring something of someone else, like celibacy, that you don’t do yourself (Matthew 23)?
  6. Jesus complained that the Pharisees were more concerned with what goes into a person than what comes out of them (Matthew 15:10-20). How is your concern with homosexuality different than their concern with unkosher food? What makes someone pure: the food that they turn into poop, or the language that comes out of them? What makes someone pure: where they put their genitals, or how they talk to other people?

I find that, in general, questions are more powerful than statements. Questions can be open and welcoming, inviting further discussion. But questions can also be power plays that people use to draw you into their way of framing an issue. I have also found that simply exposing the rhetoric operating in any given argument helps to shift people from debates toward discussions—it makes us into equals again. “How do you interpret [such-and-such a scripture]” can be met with, in a non-antagonistic way, “Do you really want to know how I interpret that scripture, or are you just offering it as a proof text?”

One commenter cited scriptures prohibiting sexual immorality, as though we had already established that same-gender romantic love was a sin. At best, this is begging the question (assuming the conclusion), a simple logical fallacy. But the goal of citing those scriptures is to shame one’s debate opponent instead of actually engaging the argument. By arguing for inclusion, I become an enemy of God and false teacher, promoting sexual immorality. Which might be true—if I’m wrong. But if I’m right, advocates of exclusion become the Pharisees of Matthew 23, “locking people out of the Kingdom of God.” Now we have a different way of looking at what’s going on.

This will sometimes be met with complaints that “You’re being just as X as the other side.” This, too, is sly, shaming rhetoric. I am sure that Paul’s opponents in Corinth and Rome also accused him of being “divisive” and “judgmental.” It is also an attempt, by so-called  neutral Christians, to capture the moral high ground, to claim a pastoral and more Jesus-like perspective. In the debates between those who say “I follow Paul” and “I follow Apollos,” they sanctimoniously claim, “Well, I follow Christ.” This is an attempt to assume the position of referee or commentator while pretending you aren’t actually playing the game. In my own experience, they are the bossiest kids on the playground, and they usually side with the bullies.

Jesus had a knack for seeing through questions to the narrative and rhetorical tricks behind them (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 12:18-34). While he probably had divine insight into people’s hearts, he also lived in an age where rhetoric was part of a typical education, and he had such a firm sense of his purpose and his mission that he couldn’t be drawn into someone else’s narrative.

If someone actually wants to discuss how the Bible is an inspired document, or how to interpret various texts, or how Christians should think about the authority of scripture, I am more than happy to discuss any of those things—as equals. But if we’re just going to compete over who controls the narrative, and which of us is doing what by speaking, I’m going to play offense, not merely defense.

Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees

Simon the Zealot

In my last post I mentioned that there were at least four political groups of homeland Jews in Jesus’s day: Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sadducees. I think modern Christians could learn a bit about their own politics from each of these groups. At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a thumbnail sketch of each group:

  • Zealots believed in the overthrow of the Roman Empire. They would not tolerate pagan idols and practices in their land. God would bring about the Kingdom with their help.
  • Essenes believed in withdrawing from the corrupt Temple system and the Empire. They would live holy lives in an alternative world until God brought about the Kingdom without their help.
  • Pharisees believed in radical personal holiness. They believed in internalizing their religious law, and that God would give punishment and reward in the afterlife.
  • Sadducees believed in the establishment. They made peace with Rome and focused on religious ritual. They believed divine punishment and reward happen in this life.

Rather than thinking of the world in terms of liberal and conservative, I like thinking about how Christians of various kinds fall into similar groupings. For example, Zealots are those social activists who are passionately committed to political action. Essenes react negatively to Zealots, warning them against putting their faith in politics.

There were also polarized parties in the early church. While we often love to talk about the unity of Acts 2, when believers were “all of one mind,” I think Luke’s depiction of the church is a bit more rosy than other evidence indicates. There were disagreements between Greek and Hebrew Jewish Christians. They fought over gender equality. They fought over food regulations. They fought over circumcision. They fought over how literally to understand resurrection. They fought over who was in charge. Of course, the most sanctimonious ones claimed they simply followed Christ.

They struggled to figure out how to deal with slavery, classism, and their relationship to a pagan government. Sound familiar? Of course, Paul’s words to the Corinthians give disputing groups some guidance on how to treat each other. Basically, if you can’t be loving, at least be civil! And while he acknowledges that some members may be jerks (what he called “body parts you do not display in public“), they may also play an essential function.

I believe our contemporary polarization is not some aberration from the ideal early church, but entirely consistent with the action of the Holy Spirit within a group of highly committed political and religious people. In any given conflict, there will be winners and losers, as there were from the debates before, and the terms of debate will shift, and we’ll be arguing about something else fifty years hence. But if we don’t look at the history of these disputes, and only focus on the rosy picture of church unity in Acts, we will never really ask, or learn, or care what God is doing, right now, in the midst of this debate. How has God acted before? Where would you have stood in the circumcision debate? In the food-sacrificed-to-idols debate? In the women-in-leadership debate? In the prohibition debate? In the civil rights debate? Are your religious and political attitudes closer to the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, or the Sadducees? We’re really good at finding prooftexts for our own beliefs in scripture. Can we also find examples of how to talk about those beliefs?