exploring intersections of spirituality, theology, and culture
Writer, thinker, coffee drinker. Seminary graduate. Mental health counselor. Play therapist. Dig deep, explore the core, be honest, be authentic. Speak the truth - speak your truth - even if no one is listening.
In the House of Friends: Understand and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in the Christian Church.
Cults, spiritual abuse, religious trauma. We might think of things that happen in books or only in extreme circumstances, but Ken Garrett presents a very cogent explanation of what it looks like when this shows up in churches and denominations we might not expect it to. First we must redefine “cult” from a deviant group with an unorthodox or heretical belief system, to a situation (in the book a church, but could also be a political organization, family, or even psychotherapy!) where a leader manipulates those with less power using controlling or coercive tactics. “Spiritual abuse” may be a more digestible term. Garrett shares his personal story of his family’s involvement in a cultish but theologically normative church, and the damage it inflicted on his family. This book is very important for pastors, counselors, or leaders who will likely be providing spiritual care to those fleeing such situations, because they need to be educated on what the abusive power dynamics look like. However, it is also important for anyone who has experienced trauma occurring in a situation with a manipulative, controlling other. The book is engaging, informative, and a fast read. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to understand the danger of narcissism in leaders, thought control, psychological manipulation, or religious trauma.
If you’re seeking a story friendly enough for children that’s also packed full of meaning for kids and adults alike, take a peek inside Cory & the Seventh Story. Authors Brian McLaren (of progressive Christian renown) and Gareth Higgins (writer and co-founder of the Wild Goose festival) teamed up to challenge us to consider the “seventh story” that provides a more compassionate, life-enriching path than the six stories our society has handed down to us.
Cory the raccoon and the other critters wrestle with how to navigate life in the village where the following six stories entrap: domination, revolution, isolation, purification, victimization, and accumulation. Each of those “stories” (ways of finding security in the world) is told in narrative form so that even kids can grasp the concepts. Things are looking pretty dreary due to this life-draining stories when a messiah-like figure in the form of a horse shows up. She offers a seventh story of reconciliation and of believing that we are better together than we are divided. Of course, as it goes with messiahs, some animals really don’t like this, and we start to get nervous about what will happen to her…
This is a timely book for our era (or any era, as we see how each of these stories have been around for a long time). It’s a beautiful and sensitive way to introduce kids to challenging topics they might hear about on the news or that happen globally, while giving them hope for something better. Illustrator Heather Harris creates charming and imaginative scenes that are a treat for the eyes. I highly recommend this book, whether you have kids or not. It would make a great resource for home, school, and churches / houses of worship alike.
Obviously you know the news by now from New Zealand: 50 people killed. Muslim worshippers at two different mosques. Suspected gunman with white supremacist, anti-Muslim beliefs with 5 legally purchased weapons, two of which were semi-automatic assault rifles. Hopefully, regardless of your own religious affiliation, your heart is broken and you are outraged.
I remember how shaken I felt after the Las Vegas massacre in
2017. The death count of this new massacre is nearly as high, but this time it
is on the opposite side of the world and against people of a religion most of
us do not identify with. What impact does this have on our concern? Our
compassion? Or the ever-timely question of what we can do to make change?
I recall to mind exchanges I used to have with a counseling client, a boy nearing adolescence who was quite small for his age but quite big for his britches. Now, typically my approach is very client-centered and client-led, and I create a lot of space for the person’s beliefs and working out issues at their own pace, not the pace I wish they would go at. I was very challenged by this with this client.
One day my client came in complaining about, and even
mocking, some of the new neighbors on his street and the kids in his class. He
hated their accents. He hated how they weren’t up to speed on the American
things he found important. My client (who was, by the way, a quarter black and
I wondered about the internalized racism he must experience) lived in a very
white suburb and to the best of my knowledge, it seemed this suburb was
suddenly and uncomfortably diversifying particularly with a population of
immigrants who also happened to be Muslim. My client’s family did not like
Sounds like New Zealand. Sounds like America.
My client would sometimes tell me about the things he was
learning from his stepgrandma and how he was learning to distrust all the
things he was learning in his public school. She told him the textbooks he
studied were wrong. She told him that Democrats were actually the party of
racists. She told him that the Qu’ran was filled with commandments to kill the
infidel and about jihad and that Muslims were dangerous, bad people.
I remember the first time I met a Muslim and actually got to know her. I was raised on the same rhetoric that my client was hearing, and I learned a very one-sided view of Islam. I also came of age around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which shaped my understanding of who Muslims were. In college, I was befriended by a sweet Muslim girl, because she happened to be the dorm neighbor of my best friend. She wore a head scarf almost all the time but would sometimes take it off in the safety of the all-female dorm hall. She had a smile to melt your heart, a warm and kind spirit, and a disarming tendency that drew you in. At the age of 18, my encounters with her were my first step toward a radical change in my exclusivistic Christian views and toward interfaith thinking.
Meanwhile, these recent encounters with my client became blood pressure-raising, cheeks-flushing 45 minute sessions. As I said, I typically interfere little with belief systems of clients, but I could not stay silent while he spouted off the rhetoric – propaganda – that he was picking up from a parental figure who was probably getting her own news from extraordinarily biased sources. I tried to challenge him on his notions of Islam, explaining what else Islam stood for: peace, respecting others, loving God. I even reminded him that his own Bible held some pretty ugly passages, but we generally choose to not focus on them. I questioned him on the blatant prejudice of categorizing “all” people of a certain group because he had a negative interaction with one of them.
I couldn’t not speak. I
questioned whether it was okay to insert myself in such ways, but I also
recalled the values I have promised to live by as a counselor to be culturally
sensitive and stand up for the oppressed.
I don’t know if what I said in our conversations made any
impact on him. I don’t know if the color of his own skin or his remarkable
intelligence might one day have him think twice about people he perceives as
outsiders or different, or if he will adopt defense mechanisms of paranoia and
projection and view the “other” as evil and dangerous. But I knew then as well
as I know now that the line of thinking he was following was not just
discriminatory, not just hateful, but has the potential to be incredibly
So how will we respond to this latest tragedy? Can our country self-examine and quit deceiving ourselves that policies like an attempted “Muslim ban” and broadly referring to neighbors across the southern border as “bad hombres,” gang members, rapists, and murderers might actually be part and parcel of the very same fabric from which this mass murderer arose? Might we admit that “nationalism,” as we understand it today, is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be? Can we understand that when a significant portion of our country thinks the Qu’ran is only filled with hate for the infidel and assumes that to be Muslim is equivalent to being a terrorist, that we are all in danger and the worse off for it? Both because of people like this recent shooter and because actual terrorist organizations thrive off of angry, skewed views of Muslims?
Can our churches respond and say “We stand with Muslims”? Can we boldly proclaim that we are all God’s children and the heart of God and our own heart breaks with the loss of life and the proliferation of hate?
We are not left with our hands tied, regardless of how many
time zones away this tragedy is this time. The problem is in our own backyards
as well. What are we willing to risk to send the message that love – love of the
neighbor, love of the stranger, love of the immigrant, love of the Muslim – is stronger
than the hate that constantly threatens to divide and even kill us?
In his provocative, controversial-at-times book, James Krueger makes his case why environmentalism is inherently a conservative cause. He prefers the term “conservation” to make clear the word’s ties to conserving and conservatism. This book is of supreme relevance in a time when political divisions are becoming starker, nuance feels like a relic, and we seem to have forgotten how to submit to one another for the good of the whole. At times his rhetoric is abrasive and grating, especially when he adds in inflammatory topics of LGBTQ and abortion rights. But don’t give up and throw the book aside. We already do too much of that in our inabilities to truly dialogue anymore. Krueger has much of value to say and it is important to at least be open to his challenges, lest we only wall ourselves into echo chambers of those who think and believe just like we do.
Krueger’s main premise is that our political identities have strayed far from their origins, and both sides now believe in the goodness of progress (however that is defined) regardless of cost (e.g., neoliberalism), and very often to the detriment of the very earth we live on. He re-defines (or rather hearkens back to) definitions of conservative and liberal. “Conservatives” were once defined as those who use tradition as a guide for the future, who strongly value family life and other social organizing systems that keep us beholden to one another, and who prioritize morality and personal integrity (p. 6). “Liberalism,” as he defines it, prioritizes progress for the sake of progress, supports technological advances, and a market- and profit-driven system that is given free reign by a limited government (p. 7). Clearly, our conservative and liberal political parties have moved a tad from such origins. Today’s Republican party has much more of a libertarian instead of a conservative ideology, and both parties swim somewhere in the soup of classical liberalism. Because of this, classical conservatism has been lost.
A conservative by his new / old definition, Krueger is not against a government with authority to set limits on businesses and provide social safety nets for the vulnerable in society. He acknowledges that big business is very poor at self-regulation and believes it is the role of government to set the needed limits that then benefit all instead of the few. What is important to him is respecting the laws and limits of nature and being humble about our own place in the world.
Krueger brings in LGBTQ and abortion issues because these
are often, for Republican voters, issues that keep them away from a
pro-environment vote (which is now solely the realm of Democrats). He does not
support governmental promotion of LGBTQ or abortion rights, because he believes
that both of these issues go against laws of nature and traditional moral
principles. In some ways, especially with LGBTQ rights, I feel he is setting up
a straw man argument (though it may appeal to today’s conservatives) about what
the LGBTQ population wants: the destruction of the marriage institution, sex
and sexuality becoming un-sacred and used solely for one’s personal pleasure,
without concern to how we are responsible to one another in relationship.
Perhaps it is my own personal experience of knowing so many married or
monogamously committed, and very often Christian, LGBTQ couples that this
argument barely makes sense to me. He also assumes there is no biological basis
to homosexuality, whereas I do not think you can make such an argument based on
what we witness even in the rest of the animal kingdom. On the issue of
abortion, I give him credit that he supports much more social, governmental
support for single mothers who keep the babies they are not ready for. I too
wish for this and wish the Republicans could take this up as a pro-life issue.
Krueger’s book is a thin volume but very densely and academically written. It is not for the faint of heart if you fear being challenged, inspired, and even angered all in the same chapter. I do not agree with all of what he has written, yet I still want to shout the underlying message from the rooftops: Conservation is not an inherently liberal issue! Conservatives need to take up the issue of conservation! We have no time (or land, or water, or air) to waste!
Those of us who live in small towns, who naturally have more connection to the land and may either farm or know farmers nearby, easily understand this. My own town of Bellefontaine, Ohio has a free recycling program, has reduced their trash waste by 24% just this last year, and many people compost in their own backyards. They also tend to vote Republican. Conserving and being a conservative are not mutually exclusive.
So what is it we must do? In my opinion, people on both sides of the aisle must stop monolithic thinking and bring some humility to the table. Democrats, especially big-city Democrats, must gain respect for the giant red swath of America in the heartland, the people who are often much more intimately connected with the land and submission to the cycles of earth. Republicans need to recall their roots and end the unhealthy marriage to big-business interests and false individual autonomy (e.g. through lowering taxes no matter the cost) that has somehow come to define them.
Additionally, I appreciate Krueger’s bold yet hard-to-swallow stance that we cannot continue our technological race forward that serves to consume more and more resources, even when we try and commit to using renewable resources in our gluttonous consumption. A lesson that seems most difficult for Americans to learn is that we cannot have it all, we should not have it all, and we must stop thinking we can have it all instantly. I’m only a fish swimming in this same water yet I know this greedy desire is one of our great moral downfalls. Are we willing to give up our pride, our greed, and be willing to submit to each other and to the earth in time to rescue our planet from destruction?
“It’s not hard. I have my alarm system turned off.”
On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Arlie Hochschild
You know the feeling. My alarm system is on almost all of the time, so much so that I don’t even realize I have an alarm system. My hackles get raised when Fox & Friends plays on the gym’s TV during my morning workout, or when I think people are going to speak derogatorily about immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, Millennials, etc. Such things are my alarm system finely tuned to.
Our church is doing a book study called “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” by Carolyn Helsel. Talk about an opportunity for alarm bells! “Anxious” is an appropriate word: we can be anxious that we will say something offensive, anxious that the conversation is going to devolve into politics, anxious that someone else is going to say something that really gets under our skin and our face will flush and we will try and talk honestly about systemic racism without being written off as a naïve, bleeding-heart liberal (oh whoops, was that just me??).
What would happen if we could just listen to people without alarm systems going off? With the
understanding that others will say things we don’t agree with, but that we don’t
have to let this hurt us. They got to their positions and beliefs somehow, just
as we got to ours.
Don’t think I’m suggesting we just roll over and play dead
when the “other side” starts raising its voice. Not at all. I firmly believe in
the importance of truth-telling, honesty, and objectivity. But I’m also aware
that facts do little to change people’s opinions when their emotions point them
a different way.
Our brains are ruled by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not exactly objective: it feigns objectivity while really just reinforcing what we already believe at an emotional, gut level. We want so badly to understand the world we live in and make it a safe, habitable place. We make it safe by making it small. Once we think we understand something, we try and fit in all new pieces of information into the systems we have already worked out for ourselves. This has been our survival strategy for millennia upon millennia: we had to quickly learn how to categorize stimuli into “safe” and “not safe,” so we could, you know, act quickly and not get eaten by bears or stomped on by wooly mammoths.
So what can help us increase our capacity for feeling safe –
and also for helping others feel safe?
There are many routes to do this. Just being aware of our own hyperaroused alarm system is a step. I would add in cultivating qualities of curiosity, compassion, empathy, and openness.
For me, spirituality helps inform the approach to the “other.” In non-dualistic ways of being (which I would describe, in part, as the place God dwells), the distinction between “self” and “other” is a false dichotomy. We are somehow deeply interconnected even with those who feel like enemies. Yes, that means I’m even connected with Trump. My ego may throw a little fit about that and my surface-level skin might crawl, but the deeper part of me has compassion for the both of us because we’re just human, trying to get by. Our wounds are different. He has a little more power (in the traditional sense) than I do. He has more of a temper than I do. But a belief I hold is that we are both image-bearers of the divine, muddled as that image may be.
Perhaps one of the hardest tasks of spirituality is navigating the path between the contemplative knowledge that we are all connected and everything is, ultimately, okay — with the reality that we are in a world where real-life issues need to be addressed, people’s rights need to be protected, where the poor, broken, and wounded receive real-life healing. I’m not saying I have the answers. But I believe we need both parts to be fully human. Hating the perpetrator while tending to the victims does not actually bring about the beloved community.
These are hard words to swallow. I write them and I want to believe them, but it is so difficult to live into. But if we can, we find the alarm system is suddenly a relic. We don’t have to hate and be alarmed by the other. And then, maybe then, will our world start to become the place we so desperately need it to be.
My best friend and her wife were in town this weekend when we had the happy coincidence of a big, gnarly snowstorm holding us all hostage in our house. This meant we were trapped inside with them, forced to play multiple games of Carcassone and Sequence, eat copious amounts of cookies, cook hearty Southern food, and talk shop about the Enneagram. I know. Rough times, right?
Having them around gives me the chance to have long conversations about topics of interest to me (I love my husband dearly, but he’s more of a doer, not much of a conversationalist…). One realization I had (am having) is the surprisingly little amount of insight I sometimes feel I have into myself. For instance, although I know the Enneagram pretty well, I have the worst time knowing (or staying on) what type I am. I’ve been very good at persuading my listener that I am really a certain type, only to change my mind a couple months later. What that means to me is that sometimes I identify so strongly with an idea of what/who I am, that it is hard to step back and see the stable, unchanging Self that lies underneath all the preconceptions I hold about myself.
In that same vein, this weekend I realized that the tagline I had for my blog is misleading. Not intentionally, of course, but rather because I thought it was what I was about – or what I was supposed to be about. My tagline was “thoughtful explorations of spirituality, psychology, and their intersections,” as you may recall. After all, I’m a counselor, and I feel myself to be spiritually inclined and want to write about it. So that’s what I do, right?
Actually, no. When I take a cursory look at the podcasts I listen to, the books I gravitate to (currently just dived in to Karen Armstrong’s A History of God), and the things I often write about on here, I have a different inclination. I unabashedly enjoy writing about theological issues. I particularly enjoy looking at those issues through a lens of culture: both our modern culture, and the culture in which ancient texts were written.
I have a passion that cannot be extinguished (at least it hasn’t been, yet) for the urgency of not letting constricting theologies and religious views lead society around like a bull on a nose ring. My heart quickens when I think about helping free an enslaved Christendom from its patriarchal, colonial, xenophobic, unbridled capitalistic chains, and help restore it to the justice-for-the-oppressed, freedom-for-the-enslaved, dividing-walls-broken-down, grace-filled emancipator that Christianity was meant to be.
That is what I feel called to write about here. Sure, I might say things that some perceive as polarizing, or too political, in ways that writing about psychology would not have me do. But look at our world around us. Is the time not an urgent now?
What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt you were “supposed” to do one thing but realized your heart was drawn toward another? Have you ever realized your conceptions of yourself were really misconceptions – and humbly chose your new way? Have you ever felt you must speak, but were afraid to, but maybe you did it anyway? My heart extends toward you, anonymous you, because I know your struggles to do so are probably greater than mine. This is no easy work. My hope is we push toward truth and emancipation together.
Our world is undeniably diversifying. Our “tribes” of people
who used to be separate and not in contact with one another are now rubbing
shoulders more often, working at the same workplaces, living down the street
from each other. There is still resistance to this encounter with the other, of
course, but it seems inevitable that this pattern will only continue this way
in the long run. One question this can raise for people is: what do we do about
encounters with people of other faith? Do we pretend they don’t exist? Do we
convert them? Will they convert us? Or is there a way to engage in productive
conversation and respectful learning from one another?
Susan Strouse, author of INTRAfaith Conversations: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?, has created a guide for church members and leaders who are interested in doing the work of inter- and intrafaith learning. Strouse was (at time of writing her book) a Lutheran minister in California who is passionate about facilitating interfaith conversations. She has her DMin (doctor of ministry degree), and it appears much of her research for her doctoral thesis made it into the book. The pages are replete with all kinds of references and there are helpful appendices at the end. That being said, her writing is scholarly but not stuffy, and the book is very approachable. (My regret is I wish I had the hard copy version instead of the electronic version, because there’s so much information packed in!)
Having an interfaith conversation, or learning about
interfaith matters, is altogether distinct from having an ulterior goal of
wanting to convert the other faith-holders. Thus, for Christians (for whom
evangelizing is often a big concern), there are many resistances that might be
had about doing interfaith conversations. Strouse adeptly addresses questions
that arise, such as “How do I stay true to my faith if I’m not trying to
convert the other person?” or “But what about how the Bible says, Jesus is the
way, the truth, and the life?” She encourages the questions to be vocalized in
congregations, because that is the whole point of an intrafaith dialogue. There are no single answers to the questions;
no one “right” perspective to hold.
Strouse lays out some different frameworks for thinking
about religious diversity. One such framework is pluralism spectrum: one end being
exclusivist (e.g., faith in Jesus as described by Christianity is the only way
for salvation); a middle ground of inclusivism (e.g., other faiths can hold
their own beliefs, but it is the saving grace and way of Jesus that ultimately
saves them, for that grace is for all regardless of if they choose it), or
pluralistic (other religions are authentic paths on their own terms, regardless
of if they include Jesus or not). Simply to have a framework to form one’s
thoughts within can help people identify more clearly where they are at and be
able to communicate to others their stances on issues. No position is declared
right or wrong in the interfaith dialogue, but the intrafaith conversation allows
for deeper self-understanding.
Strouse goes much further into other issues on the interfaith and intrafaith landscape, including the rise of the spiritually independent, how to do theology in an interfaith context, mysticism and the contemplative heart, and more practical aspects of how to actually host the dialogues.
I strongly believe one of the best antidotes to fear and hatred of the other is having actual person-to-person contact with the other, or at least taking the opportunity to be directly educated by the other (letting them teach you about their experiences. We can do this through reading if need be.). Strouse points out that we must not compare our best with their worst, but our best with their best. In an era seeming beset by division and skepticism about the “other side,” I wish that we could all be as humble and gracious to learn from others different us, yet as grounded in our own tradition to teach others the best of our best.
I wonder what you, my reader, think of the inter- and intra-faith dialogue. I wonder if these are issues you have thought about, or if you have wrestled with the theology behind it (I’m aware not everyone gets as excited about theology as I do…). What symbol might you choose to represent where you are? Would it be a picture with multiple religious symbols? A symbol of only your particular religion? Maybe a cross-shaped umbrella, sheltering all other religions (the “inclusivist” position)? Wherever you find yourself, this is a conversation worth having!
This is a book review for Speakeasy. I receive certain books for free in exchange for providing an honest review. If you have more curiosity about joining Speakeasy yourself, leave me a comment!
Links: Find INTRAfaith Conversation on Amazon Check out the website #TheINTRAfaithConversation
It will be four years this June since the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in the United States. This post might feel a little behind the times given all the societal changes going on already. But as many of you know all too well, the church often drags its feet when it comes to change, coming kicking and screaming into relevance — if it isn’t already too late when it gets there.
Today’s post is a follow-up to the one entitled “Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile.” It will go through some of the passages used to condemn same-sex relations and talk about why we have the freedom to interpret them in a new way.
There are 6-7 main verses that are used in support of “traditional marriage” and against homosexuality. And for perspective: When we compare that to the amount of verses that talk about the poor, wealth / poverty, and economic justice issues: well, it’s miniscule. Jim Wallis and his peers created a “holey” (haha) Bible when they cut out all verses about the poor: 2000 verses on poverty and justice as opposed to just a handful about same-sex relations. (I got some great info from a guy who already wrote this post I’m writing: here’s his link if you’d like to check it out!). I won’t go through all the verses on same-sex relations – just read his article, after you get through reading mine!
The Old Testament
The first stop on our tour is the Old Testament Levitical
laws. Some Christians use verses from the Old Testament to support their
traditional marriage approach, such as Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with
a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”). Levitical prohibitions are
included as part of “purity code” law. These codes are intended to set the
Israelites apart from other people groups, to preserve their identity. Most
Christians today don’t have any issues mixing their fabrics (Deut. 22:11, Lev.
19:19, etc), and unless allergic or vegetarian, are willing to eat shellfish
(Lev. 11:10); we no longer refer to women’s menstrual cycles as their
“sickness” (Lev 20:18, NRSV), and except for in the Handmaid’s Tale, don’t stone
both parties when a man rapes a woman who is engaged to (and thus the property
of) someone else.
Okay, fair enough. Sounding a little antiquated already.
Later on in the New Testament, Peter has a vision where all the animals are
spread out on a sheet together, and he hears that all is allowable for eating.
The old Levitical laws don’t seem to matter so much when all they cause is discord
between Jews and Gentiles. “Do not call anything impure that God has made
clean” (Acts 10:15) is what the passage says.
This is an important idea. We will come back to it later:
and not just in regards to food and Levitical laws.
One last stop in the Old Testament: Sodom and Gomorrah. Modern-day fundamentalists worry America is turning into a modern-day equivalent, with moral licentiousness, depravity, and excess. I mean, I might agree with them on some points – but not quite the way they are thinking, and probably closer to the real meaning of the story.
Honestly, when I read the Sodom and Gomorrah passage just now in my NRSV (Genesis chapter 19), I had to go consult the internet for why this is used as an anti-homosexuality prooftext (prooftext = passage, often taken out of context, to support a belief the reader holds). In the story, Abraham is basically talking God down from utterly destroying the city of Sodom. First, if you believe in a God who is all-knowing and unchangeable, realize you are also probably not reading this passage “literally” as Abraham appears to literally be negotiating with God. But I digress.
So what is the point of the story? Scholars say the story is about God testing Abraham (making sure he’s the guy he’s cracked up to be) and finding him to be noble, ethical, and worthy. God is able to be argued out of wholesale destroying the city and agrees to save it (temporarily) for the sake of ten good people.
The next part of the story is really disturbing. Lot is now the main character, and he is hosting some angels in his home (like you do) when some evil men (from S & G) come to his door sounding like they are demanding sexual relations – aka RAPE – of the male angels in the home. Instead of his guests being dishonored in such a terrible way, Lot offers his virgin female daughters for the men to rape. WHOA! Call the cops!! And I’m sorry: did you want to make the main point of this story that being gay is wrong? It seems to me the obvious message has more to do with sexual violence, lust and power, and inhumane treatment of others, far more than the particular genders of who is mistreating whom.
So when you hear the story, what part of the passage do you give the most weight to?
The New Testament
Moving on to the New Testament, which Christians generally
give more credence to and really have to consider the weight and meaning of
passages. We’re going to spend some time with our dear friend Paul. Paul is so
formative for Christianity as a whole. Could it have spread as well as it did
without his influence? It seems unlikely. But he can be quite challenging to
many progressive-leaning Christians, because he says some pretty uncomfortable,
seemingly intolerant things.
The passages often used as prooftexts against homosexuality are Romans 1, 1st Corinthians 6, and 1st Timothy 1. We’ll look at Romans 1:26-27: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.” The context of this passage is that Paul is writing a letter to the Christians in Rome arguing that the Jews and Gentiles all need to be reconciled together under one identity of being in Christ. They are needlessly divided. Part of his argument is pointing out that both groups do the same things, including the above references.
Some people argue that since unity is Paul’s point here (throughout the first couple of chapters of Romans), we can smooth over the rest. I do find that important, but also think we can acknowledge safely that Paul appears to be anti-homosexual here. Some people work through interpretative issues by saying Paul is only talking about uneven power balances of men with young boys. I wouldn’t say that doesn’t influence him and how he views homosexual relations, but I don’t think it’s the full story.
So come on, Paul. Why do you make things hard on your modern-day readers?? I wonder if the answer might be surprising.
For those in the “oh my gawwwd Paul, cut me a break!” crowd because of passages like this and why women should be silent in church, etc, ponder this. Imagine ancient Rome and ancient Jewish culture, round about, oh, 60 CE. Women do not belong to themselves, but are the property either of their male relative, or their husband. They have no rights. The society is very patriarchal, and there is a strong power dynamic of how people relate to one another. And especially in Jewish culture, the shame/honor dynamic is especially prevalent. Presenting the right image to others, and not bringing shame upon oneself or the family, is of ultimate importance. A man had to preserve the image of virility and power, honor and status. Women were protected only by the men in their lives. In their society, a man with a man means one of them is dishonored (in the weaker, un-masculine position). A woman with a woman means no one is protecting them.
And aside from all that, Paul seems to be making an argument for the “natural” way of things to take their course, which to him seems obvious that male and female genitals only belong to each other. I wonder if Paul’s mind might be changed if he knew that the “passions” each sex can experience for its own kind (i.e., same-sex attraction) can be as ingrained as eye color, skin color, temperament. He didn’t have the science we have today. He didn’t have the culture of legal equality among sexes and sexual orientation (equality we’re working on, at least). But you know what? I think Paul would be open to changing his viewpoint if he only knew more. Just think about his conversion experience where his whole life turned upside down.
Let’s go back to the passage where Peter hears, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
In our culture today, I think that on the whole Christians get more of a bad rap for narrow views on sexuality (and here I include both sexual orientation and abortion issues). Except, of course, from within certain folds, where those same Christians feel self-righteous for upholding the faith and moral conduct. But society is changing. Gay marriage is becoming more and more normal, and we see these couples living everyday lives like the rest of folks, falling in love, committing to each other in sickness and health, buying homes, having kids.
“Do not call impure anything that God has made clean.” Do we not know that God has called all of God’s children clean, and loves them ferociously? Do we not know that when we can live free of shame and guilt and oppression, we are that much more capable of producing goodness, grace, justice, kindness, faithfulness in our world?
It is high time we stop allowing a narrow reading of the Bible to dictate policy, whether in our country or in individual churches. I can’t force change, but my hope is that with some education and the softening of hearts, people will change. With that change, we can look at our lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, and queer siblings in the eyes and say “you are one of us. You belong here. I belong to you. We all belong to each other.” And then they may at last feel the love, and with a love like that, then might you find the answer is “YES.”
It’s now 2019, and many people have written sweet, thoughtful posts on Facebook or other social media and blog accounts reflecting on the old year and sharing hopes for the upcoming one. I like reading the reflections, but admittedly, I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions. Besides, the only times I managed to temporarily conquer my sugar problem were for a couple of Lents in years past. Apparently religiosity is sometimes more motivating to me than the time of year when you keep writing the wrong date on things…
Reluctance to resolve aside, I was inspired by (naturally) a podcast from Homebrewed Christianity, interviewing Gareth Higgins, that talked about a way to gather in community and reflect on the directions our lives are going. I love reflecting, but being in a routine about it is tough, and even tougher is being in regular relationship with people I would be this vulnerable with. I want to share about the practice with you here, in hopes that I will also find a way to birth this practice into my life.
First: gather a small group of people. At least three, up to 8 or 10, to form a community (as two is just a friendship). This will be something like an accountability group (call it something else if that feels to evangelical-y for you). Gather regularly and ask each other the following four questions:
What’s coming alive to you? What is life-giving to you right now?
What is challenging you, draining you or taking your life away?
How is your purpose for the common good showing up? (What am I here for, what is my vocation, what gift do I have and how can I use it to help heal the community? Your gift is often where your wound was. How am I leaning into this and how am I running away from it?)
Having heard what we’ve heard, how can we help each other? (whether practical or existential; economical or spiritual)
Even just writing out these questions, I feel compelled to start mulling them over. Here are where my answers are leading me this week. What about for you?
What is life-giving to me is my vacation home to Colorado for the holidays, full of abundant sunshine, friends and family, and my beloved mountains (see below!). I am continuing my never-ending Enneagram exploration (currently listening to The Road Back to You), which is fun for me. I am excited for friend and family gatherings coming up in the near/near-ish future, like my brother’s wedding!
What is/was challenging me recently was the feeling I have when I am not my whole self, either because I am not seen for who I am or because I refuse to bring my whole self to the table (for various reasons). I also realized how much I can daydream and tune people out when I am in the presence of others, which was rather startling when my family started pointing this out to me.
My purpose for the common good is showing up when I still make time for my counseling clients this week after getting back home early Friday morning, and then when 100% of them show up, which feels validating! But using my job as a therapist also feels like a cop-out, so I’m going to add that when I do things like write or make some kind of connection with others (which for me, takes intentional effort), I am also showing up for the common good. There are so many doubts and reluctances in play that keep me from writing or believing my words or my presence really matters much at all. Sometimes it takes a lot to show up.
How can you help me? By reaching out and letting me know something I said or wrote mattered. By sharing your own experiences and stories – I try and let you know when I “hear” or “see” you (online) or I try to give you my full presence when we are in person (see my struggles in #2; it is easier with friends than with family). If you feel curious and maybe a little compelled to give a group like this a shot… well, it would mean a lot if you let me know!
My beloved Colorado mountains: definitely life-giving.
Do you guys have any inspiring (or just regular) New Year’s resolutions? Do groups like this sound intriguing, boring, or terrifying to you? What is giving you life and how is your purpose showing up in your life today?