Abominable Practices

Leviticus 18 and 20--what a crazy couple of chapters. Here God vocally, in first person, declares those practices which are worthy of death. It's interesting that the entire set is bookended and shot through with a strict separation between Israel and everyone else, especially the Egyptians under whom they had previously lived, and the Canaanites whose land they would shortly be occupying. All of the admonishments are wrapped in, and expressed in, the vocabulary of holiness in the sense of separation: God has called out this people to be different. First, there are injunctions against sex with family members and various other sexual impurities, then an oddly-sandwiched reference to sacrificing children to Molech, and in the same breath, profanity; then finally, homosexuality and sex with animals.

Then we hit another bookend that says:

Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.

I'm just mentioning this in passing hoping someone can shed some light on the anthropomorphization of the land.

But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you.

Now it gets interesting. First of all, we have the word Tow'ebah, which is translated into English as "abomination" = ab + omen = "move away from a bad omen". Usually I steer away from etymologies of words in the target language, since they often possess semantic facets which the original words did not, and can lead interpretation astray. But in this case, I wonder how much the Hebrew word carried the sense of disgust and foreboding, and whether God experiences emotions like that (which, the more I read Damasio, the more I wonder whether God has/needs a body with which to emote).

Regardless of the corporeity of God, it's certainly true that these practices in Lev 18 and 20 deserve death. So the next crazy thing to note about these chapters is that it's one of the most crystal-clear examples of an issue on which God contradicts himself. Or, at least, Jesus contradicts God. In John 8:

"Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" ...And Jesus said, "I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more."

Aside: I'm aware of the questions about the authenticity of the Pericope Adulteræ (John 7:53-8:11). I'm sticking with it.

So on the one hand, we have God saying "keep My statutes and My judgments (κριματα)" declaring adultery to be one of the few abominations, that which causes defilement on a geologic scale, and which is worthy of death. On the other, Jesus hands out no punishment to, and even refuses to verbally condemn, (κατακρινω) an adulteress. Hmmm. Something's gotta give.

Where I'm leaning for now is the historical approach: God really did act in linear history, and the environment, needs, and injunctions of one society (15th century Israel fleeing Egypt and overthrowing Canaan) may be different from those of another (1st century Israel in subjugation to Rome). Specifically, I notice that Leviticus says "you...shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien". That is, the geographically focused, isolated, homogeneous people of God are supposed to enforce these interdictions on people of other cultures in their midst. Given an absolute social authority over a people, the majority is encouraged to exercise that authority over the minority population.

Syncretistic Rome, on the other hand, forced Israelites, especially in Jerusalem, to interact with other cultures much more often and involuntarily. Rome would not have long allowed the Jews to impose their own law on the aliens of that day: Syrians, Greeks, or Romans. It is in this context that Jesus chooses not to condemn and deliver a final punishment. Perhaps looking forward to a geographically dispersed, intermingled, heterogeneous people of God (those "in Christ") he chooses here to actively persuade people against enforcing his own purity laws on the woman in front of him, an "alien" with respect to his new kingdom. He does not condone the behavior, of course. But pay attention to the change in methodology; rather than exercising his ascribed authority as the primordial Judge and meting out physical punishment for her past, he instead exercises his achieved authority over the woman (achieved by saving her life) and verbally commands discipline for her future.

I look at the U.S.A. today and I see a culture much more heterogeneous than homogeneous. This is certainly true in terms of ethnicity, is even more mixed in terms of shared cultural behaviors and values, and possesses the additional overlay of God's kingdom drawing members from all ethnicities and cultures. There may have been a time when the set of members of our nation mostly overlapped the set of Christians (and was mostly coterminous with the set of White Europeans); at that time, it may have been advantageous to prefer Levitical methods to prevent defilement of the society. In my opinion, that time is past; that time has been past for at least 2000 years. It's comforting to think of God as wholly outside of time, but our collective experience of him at least is bound by a linear time and God's actions within it. In that sense, God limited himself by creating Time. Within those limits, I think the book of Hebrews shows quite clearly that the New Covenant is better than the Old, and that we should prefer the contract of Jesus over that of Moses. Further, I think that new contract allows us to operate with the methods of Jesus, and that, for our time, those methods are better than those given to Moses. The Law of Moses was an operational scaffold destined to be torn down; Jesus brought the Jeet Kune Do of spirituality by replacing the static Law with the dynamic Spirit.

So sexual sins, worship of idols, profanity, and child sacrifice are all abominable practices. God is disgusted with them. I don't think that has changed in 3500 years. What has changed is the best known method for dealing with such sins. No longer are we called to purify the land or society by capitally punishing everyone, whether inside our out of the people of God, by exercising corporate ascribed authority. Instead we are called to the much more difficult task of achieving personal authority through our care and protection of the lost one, persuading the zealous traditionalist to abandon their campaign of blind righteousness over thoughtful love, and then using that authority to command obedience to God.

Permalink 11/02/08 02:36:50 pm, by fumanchu Email , 1236 words, Categories: Misc , 7 comments »

Pastors and teachers

John Chandler writes:

I love this idea, but I must admit it is still threatening to me as well. What does it mean for me to pastor a community of people that are so engaged outside of the church that it can’t be measured? How can we shape a community that celebrates well the stories of what is happening outside of our structured times together?

Jesus and Paul seemed to foster engaged communities just fine and they didn't even have cell phones. If your definition of "pastor" doesn't coincide with what Jesus, the shepherd did with his sheep then I urge you to consider whether you've allowed your culture to dictate that role more than your ultimate role model has.

In short, we've allowed our pastors to become pale imitations of CEO's, setting "vision" for churches, managing professional Christian staffs, maximizing stakeholder value, and running Robert's Rules of Order into the ground. Jesus didn't have a vision other than "get back in the Kingdom, you stupid lost sheep." He had a "professional staff" of fishermen and tax-collectors, not MFC's and MBA's. He promoted and modeled sacrifice. And as far as I can tell, he never ran a business meeting.

You know, Ephesians 4 does mention some gifted church roles other than pastor: apostle, prophet, evangelist, teacher. How many churches do you know of that have an apostle or prophet on staff? I mean in their title. Doesn't that sound kooky and anachronistic? "Mornin, Apostle Frank!" "How are you, Evangelist Dorothy?" But I've been in plenty of churches where "Pastor Mike" was a perfectly normal appellation, and even some where you could hear people say things like, "oh, didn't Pastor give a great sermon today?" Why don't we give the same weight to the other gifts/roles?

You might even argue that the others should receive more attention, since they come first and word order can imply importance in Greek. You could also argue that the roles mentioned in Ephesians aren't a perfect bulleted list; the particles change in such a way that the categories probably should be read as "he gave some to be...:

  • apostles, yes

  • but also prophets

  • but also evangelists
  • but also shepherds-and-teachers"

...as if "shepherds and teachers" are nearly equivalent.

So, how can you "shape a community"? You can't. You can guide it. You can say, "the pasture of the kingdom is over there, guys." Don't even get me started on our fascination with measurement.

You want to celebrate stories? Ditch the "structured times". Tell me how much of the Old Testament consists of, "and then Hishbah the high priest went up to the altar and prayed the same prayer he prayed the week before, and gave the same offerings, and lo it was recorded in this book to be repeated at feasts forever." Structure grounds stories, but the stories worth celebrating are always about deviance from those structures.

Try this: duck the relentless pressure from stockholders, CEO's, and Bible college professors to "build something that lasts". Try making a church that has no Platonic existence outside of the people who minister and those whom they serve right now. We build social systems to insulate us from the poor judgment of tyrants, and are then surprised to find we are equally insulated from the good judgment of saints in creative works of service.

If you look at organizations throughout history, they're rarely started by teachers--start your new community with an apostle, prophet or evangelist instead.

Permalink 10/11/08 01:32:29 pm, by fumanchu Email , 607 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

Naming God

Our Russia team was not allowed to mention the word "God" on their recent trip to orphanages there, but was allowed to say things like, "the Creator of the world said such and such." This forced them to rediscover some of the titles God has had throughout history.

What is the Biblical precedent for labeling the persona of God?

In an excellent essay, Michael Gilleland demonstrates that it was considered rude for a disciple (of, for example, Jesus) to utter the name of their superior, whether to his face or when absent, but elevating when the Teacher mentioned the name of the underling. I don't feel the need to defend Saint Benedict, as the author apparently does, but the analysis of asymmetric forms of address between superiors and underlings in hierarchic societies is top-notch.

Is it a dishonor yet today to call Christ by the name "Jesus" instead of Lord, Teacher, Master? Postmodern Western society would certainly say it isn't. I know lots of Christians who prefer to value Jesus' pronouncement that we are his friends over those more asymmetric roles, but even that passage says we're his friends (φίλοι) if we do what he commands us. So there's still some inequality involved.

Look, your parents were authoritarian and saw clear boundaries between acceptable behavior for peer interaction and acceptable behavior for interaction with superiors and underlings. So in your rebellion you've spent your whole life fighting that, and now teach your kids those lessons at every opportunity. The funny part is that you're overloading them to the point that they will reject your lassez-faire approach to religion, and will respond by fighting for more austere forms of religion. So don't be surprised when your kids mention the name of Jesus less and less. You may interpret their preference of "Lord" over "Jesus" as a slide into Docetism or form criticism, but if you rarely use the word "Lord", you may simply be at the opposite extreme, for "...no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit" I Cor 12:3b. Even the demons know his name; maybe their use of his name as an address was an insult.

How far should we allow our culture to dictate our relationship with Christ? Should we carry our American appetite for iconoclasm over to the very person of God and make him our best buddy? I'd prefer to say "no" but I'm a tiny grape in front of the steamroller of progress. What I can do is choose myself to address and discuss the Christ with respect.

Permalink 08/31/08 03:47:29 pm, by fumanchu Email , 479 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

Oral Tradition

"Please turn in your Bibles to..."

Heard that one before? Oh, every sermon ever? Yeah.

I don't want to knock the good people who have donated so much time and money to buying Bibles for their local church pews, but is it really a good idea to have your entire congregation reading the Sunday passage off a page? Maybe I'm just lazy, but in case you didn't notice, someone always reads it aloud anyway. And here I am using my own oculomotor nerves like a sucker.

Stop reading along in your Bibles in church. Listen instead of reading.

Text spoken by another is more understandable than text which is read to oneself. I proved this when I ran my spontaneous Shakespeare company; there were plenty of occasions when a spontaneous actor would read lines aloud from a script and not understand those words themselves, yet the audience understood them quite well (and that was Shakespearian English!). Studies of aphasic injury to Wernicke's area show us that subvocalization is critical to understanding what we read with our eyes, but there's something about actually hearing audible words that makes that comprehension more resonant.

When hearing speech, our other senses (especially the kinesthetic) produce an associated emotional response that aids in comprehension. Reading, which requires us to minimize movement and the distractions of our other senses, can't do that. Reading printed text can also lead to "passive" reading, where the visual cortex processes symbols but the auditory/semantic processing is quiescent. Surely you've done this many times, especially with the Bible and especially with well-known verses--you read a passage and are completely unable to explain or even remember what you read just moments before.

Closing your Bible and listening will do several things:

  1. Increase your understanding.
  2. Express solidarity with the billions (trillions?) of Christians throughout history who never got to read the Bible.
  3. You'll understand better the actions and reactions of Biblical characters, most of whom rarely read, if at all. Jesus' audience for the Sermon on the Mount had no recording equipment other than their own ears. You might also start to believe that oral traditions can actually be better transmitters of semantics than written ones, which tend to transmit syntax more accurately.
  4. You can use it as an opportunity to improve your phonographic memory. But keep in mind that memorization can actually reduce comprehension--recollection from memorized text can actually skip some of the semantic-processing portions of the brain.

Ignorance is strength, and that ignorance is maintained through shared hatred, triumph, and self-abasement, so maybe I'm crazy for asking you to experience more emotional impact during a sermon. Definitely read the passages again in the pew or at home until you've supported whatever febrile spirit-led conclusion your pastor threw out this time. But take the opportunity every Sunday to focus your attention on the spoken word when it's read for you.

Permalink 08/24/08 11:17:19 pm, by fumanchu Email , 485 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

Mr. J. Christ

"Jesus Christ" has two connotations in English, both of them bad. Either:

  1. It's a common curse, or
  2. It sounds like "Christ" is Jesus' surname.

Both of them get worse when you add the middle initial "H". ;)

So please stop saying it. I recommend using one of the following instead:

  1. Christ Jesus
  2. Jesus the Christ
  3. Jesus the Messiah

Odd how so many old hymns prefer #1 to "Jesus Christ".

Permalink 08/17/08 08:00:05 pm, by fumanchu Email , 67 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

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