Does the gospel rescue men from patriarchy? An interview with Carolyn Custis James on #Malestrom

malestromMEME_5Thrilled to host author Carolyn Custis James today for an interview on her important new book Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World. Buckle up and prepare to dive deep as Carolyn discusses God's intentions for men and for women.

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Once in seminary, I proudly showed a male professor my new copy of the InterVarsity Press Women’s Bible Commentary. Having heard that women have written less than one percent of all the commentaries on the Bible, I was thrilled to have found an admittedly slim volume that offered scholarship from respected evangelicals like Alice Mathews.

Let me just say that my professor was visibly less than impressed. His other comments only reinforced my assumptions. He said that it would be good if I became a chaplain, for there is a real need for chaplains to minister to women. I received the message loud and clear: women are needed in some roles, but not in the academy, not in the pulpit, and not next to a man’s bedside or desk with an intent to minister, counsel and bless. 

If there was one thing I knew then and know now, it is that God created two genders to enrich our experience and understanding of him. When the woman’s voice gets slighted, our practice and scholarship and theology become decidedly lopsided, with holes many of us are only now beginning to discover.

Have you ever wondered: What in the world have we missed in our theology because women have been kept from studying, exegeting and writing and teaching on God’s word over the centuries?

Heaven only knows.

Enter women like Carolyn Custis James. A scholar and student of both the Bible and the culture, James has now poured years into exegeting both, and the results have been a game-changer for many like me.

Her careful scholarship and insights from a female perspective have uncovered critical theological truths that have led other women to write books like the one my coauthors and I wrote, Reclaiming Eve, and so many others. While her books Lost Women of the Bible and Half the Church both opened my world to new vistas and hopes for God’s Kingdom and his world, her newest book utilizes the same razor-sharp analysis and deep thoughts on God’s desire to save men from the cycle of violence continuing to churl through our world. Her assertion is straightforward: Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity. Not for women. And not for men, either.

She answers a few key questions below on what she calls the “Malestrom,” prompted by her book of the same title:

Carolyn Custis James

Carolyn, you write that the malestrom (a play on the word maelstrom) is the particular ways in which the fall and sin impact the male of the human species, specifically pushing men toward being socialized by violence. From your view, what are the top three ways we see this play out globally today?

Traditional definitions of what it means to be a man vary widely from culture to culture. Each culture has ways of reinforcing those definitions and socializing men to conform. At its core, the malestrom is about those forces that cause men to embrace cultural definitions of manhood and lose sight of who God created them to be as men. Sadly, the malestrom does lead to violence against other men as well as women.

In more primitive cultures—especially where survival depends on the willingness and ability of men to defend and provide for the community—socialization takes the form of initiation rites that require young boys to endure brutal treatment without wincing or crying out. Achieving manhood teeters on a boy’s ability to endure, and there are those who don’t make the grade.

In our own culture, locker room violence and other forms of social pressure condition boys to reject any behavior or inclination that is deemed “unmanly” and to conform to the prevailing cultural definition of masculinity. It can turn men into emotional islands, unable to cry, to be vulnerable, or sensitive. It cuts men and boys off from the wholeness of their God-given humanity.

More socially acceptable forms of “violence” against men occur through shaming as men are berated from evangelical pulpits for failing to “man-up” and told, “you are not a man” for failing to measure up to some masculine criteria, such as taking charge at home or being the primary breadwinner and protector at home.

Unfortunately cultural definitions of manhood themselves can lead to violence. Sociologists identify an insidious link between concepts of masculinity the wars and violence that we hear about daily in the news. ISIS is a chilling example of masculinity gone awry and producing appalling levels of violence against other human beings, including fellow Muslims, and the exploitation and trafficking of women. The belief that a man is supposed to “be in charge” at home means his manhood is at stake if he doesn’t get the kind of submission he expects. Manhood definitions can wrongly legitimize abuse and violence on battlefields, city streets and behind closed doors. In the U.S. 1 in 4 women have suffered domestic violence. This statistic includes women in the church.

Besides leading to abusive and violent behavior, cultural concepts of masculinity not only are the antithesis of God’s exalted vision for his sons. He gives them their identity and calling at birth as his image bearers. It is a birthright, a gift. It cannot be earned. He creates his sons to know and reflect his heart for the world and to look after things on his behalf. No man or boy is left behind. It can’t be taken from them or lost or destroyed. Their identity is indestructible and designed for their full flourishing as human beings.

So the evangelical discussion of manhood/masculinity is wholly inadequate if it fails to take into account the wider global issues or to consider the serious repercussions surrounding how masculinity is defined and lived out. We have ISIS to consider.

Tell us why you believe patriarchy—a system in which males rule over women and others—is Malestrom-cover-art-borderdismantled as we observe Jesus’ version of manhood. And if so, why do you believe exclusive male rule (although a gentler version than hard patriarchy) is still considered a norm in many evangelical churches? 

The fact that patriarchy appears on virtually every page of the Bible has led Christians to conclude that patriarchy is the way God intends for us to live. At the heart of the problem for the American church is the fact that we have embraced patriarchy (albeit in a modified version) as the Bible’s message. We maintain male authority and female submission but toss out common patriarchal elements such as the prizing of sons over daughters, child marriages, honor killings, polygamy, and slavery.

Although events in the Bible play out within a patriarchal context, patriarchy doesn’t emerge until after the Fall, in words of curse spoken to the woman: “He will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). That is a description of what the Fall will produce and how male/female relationships takes a terrible downturn from what God original envisioned for us.

The rule of any human being over another is an inversion of the cultural mandate which turns the rule of God’s image bearers outward to the creation, not laterally against each other. The “rule” of humans over one another quickly manifests itself in violence when Cain kills his brother Abel for outshining him. Attempts to make kinder gentler versions of patriarchy salvage pieces of a post-fall system that remains destructive both to women and to men. It turns our focus onto each other instead of centering us on our Creator and the monumental task at hand of cultivating and caring for his world and for one another.

What is disturbing and needs to be discussed within evangelical circles is the fact that global definitions of manhood, including soft complementarianism, sit on a cultural continuum. Here’s what I wrote in Malestrom: “Anthropologists describe a continuum of manhood that ranges from machismo (a strong, aggressive, masculine pride and bravado) at one extreme to cultures completely unconcerned about masculinity issues at the other. Modern urban western versions of manhood land somewhere in the middle. Evangelical definitions of manhood—all claiming to be built on what the Bible says—are scattered all over that continuum.”

The whole discussion of gender (both inside and outside the church) takes place on that continuum. I’m convinced that while patriarchy is the cultural backdrop of the Bible, it is not the Bible’s message. The Gospel Jesus proclaimed takes us off that continuum to a radically different, way of living as male and female.

Jesus completely upended the way human culture works by how he lived and what he taught. He even upended how we typically think. He was emphatic when his disciples started asking questions about authority and rank. He said in essence, “That’s how the world works. That's not how we do things,” and pointed them to serving others. We’ve dressed that teaching up and called it servant-leadership. But that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus’ gospel calls us to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves and to promote the flourishing of others. That’s leadership according to the Jesus model. He took it even to the point of laying down his life for us. That ought to transform how we think and talk about gender issues.

A recent gospel coalition review of your book insisted that the blog writer’s complementarianism and your egalitarianism (his words) were not that far apart. From where you sit, can we have mutual submission and the inclusion of both men and women in leadership in the church, home and world, and still recognize that we complement one another by design? If so, how?

One of the pitfalls of the current evangelical gender discussion is that it loses sight of the fact that this is a global issue. In American evangelical churches, we’ve reduced gender discussions to one of two options: complementarian or egalitarian, when the contexts in which people find themselves globally are significantly more complex than our egalitarian western society. Even here we face complexities and circumstances that make it impossible for a complementarian or an egalitarian to be consistent with their own views. How is a single woman, a widow, the wife of a non-Christian or a passive husband supposed to live out her complementarian convictions? How does an egalitarian function when her church or husband or culture prohibit that view?

I’m not saying the western gender discussion is unimportant. Just that we need to bear in mind that not everyone has the luxury of choosing which camp to embrace. In wartime, women do all sorts of things that go beyond a complementarian view of submission or of a woman’s role. When the gospel crawls under a burka, pushing egalitarian notions can get a woman killed.

There are deeper questions we must ask.

All through the Bible there are stunning moments when we witness powerful alliances between men and women and courageous, bold leadership of women that break the pattern, advance God’s purposes, and reflects the kingdom Jesus is bringing. I tell some of those stories in Malestrom. The probability of these kinds of alliances and actions emerging in the ancient patriarchal culture is close to zero. But again and again it happens.

Jesus’ gospel restores the vision God had for us in the beginning. We strive to understand and live out that vision within the context of a fallen world that impacts our cultures and our own hearts. God’s vision is global. No human being is excluded. It’s a far greater vision than our gender debates envision. It frees us to do what needs to be done and calls us to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves. It is the “Love your neighbor as yourself” kingdom ethos of Jesus. This means as women we are called to champion each other and also our brothers. Jesus’ gospel can be lived out anywhere, under any circumstance. God’s image bearers can reflect his character and love for the world, no matter where their culture lands on that continuum. The task God entrusts to us dwarfs our human resources. We need all hands on deck.

That’s why I prefer to talk about the Blessed Alliance between men and women. That language matches God’s blessing on his male/female image bearers in Genesis one where the first team he deploys is male/female. The Blessed Alliance is descriptive of the Body of Christ—where we join forces, recognize we need one another, and call every believer to give their all for the kingdom of Jesus. The male/female Blessed Alliance is a kingdom strategy that the Enemy has dismantled. Even egalitarians will say that simply affirming women’s ordination or adding space for women leaders doesn’t take us far enough. The whole creation narrative makes the point—not that men need to include women or that we need to get along better and share power—but that men and women need each other to do the job God has entrusted to us. How that works out in terms of who leads and who follows within any particular context or culture will no doubt be different.

On #ReclaimingEve: “I recommend this resource for every daughter of Eve!”
— Nancy Beach, leadership coach, speaker; author, Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church
Reclaiming Eve Small Group DVD sample here. Includes print Bible study piece; great for fall studies! Order here.

What does the gospel make possible for women in 2014? (@thejuniaproject)

I recently published a post over at thejuniaproject.com. Enjoy this preview, and click on over to their blog where you will find lots of great articles. You can also follow them on twitter.

What-Does-the-Gospel-Make-Possible-for-Women-in-2014

“100 years ago I could not have voted in the United States,” I told the pastor sitting across from my husband and me. “But I believe I could have found a place to preach.”

He shook his head in dismay, his passion to see his sisters raised up flashing like fire in his eyes. As we sat talking with him, pouring out our hearts about God leading me through seminary and my call to teach and pastor, I began to wish that I could have known a group of women in the last half of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries— fearless ministers who traveled to outposts and led small churches and went out widely as evangelists and preached the word wherever they could, wherever they were welcomed.

Read the whole article at thejuniaproject.com

Q&A with Ed Cyzewski, author of Coffeehouse Theology

EdC200_thumb1Ed Cyzewski blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com where he shares imperfect and sometimes sarcastic thoughts about following Jesus. He is the author of Coffeehouse Theology and co-author of the upcoming books Unfollowers: The Dropouts, Detractors, and Doubters of Jesus and The Good News of Revelation. Find him on twitter: @edcyzewski or Facebook, and preview his books through his e-newsletter. After recently meeting Ed online and being challenged and encouraged by his book Coffeehouse Theology, I thought I would give you the unique privilege of discovering what makes his theology tick in a question and answer format. Prepare to be challenged, amused, and encouraged. Enjoy!

What would you say to the average person in the church pew who asks, “Why should I care about theology?” I used to think I held to my particular beliefs because I was clever or really holy. Let’s face it: we’re all convinced that we’re right, even if there is tremendous diversity among Christians that should give us cause for humility and curiosity. 

It’s important to know where our beliefs come from, who has shaped them, why they’re so diverse, and how they determine the way we live. I’m a big fan of talking about our beliefs (i.e. theology) in community, and that’s why “coffeehouse” was part of my book’s title.

For instance, many evangelicals in America don’t realize how radically western Christianity shifted during the 1800’s, and how those shifts influence who we are today. We fight tooth and nail over theology because we know deep down that a shift in theology means we need to change the big and small decisions we make each day.

Coffeehouse-angled-160_thumb_thumbWhat are two of the biggest ways your theology has evolved or been shaped in the last five years? I’ll pinpoint one big thing since it impacts so many other areas.

I answer the question, “Why do we read the Bible?” very differently now. Even when I wrote Coffeehouse Theology, I wanted to find THE ANSWERS. That’s why I read the Bible. My answers were just more progressive or post-evangelical. You can be conservative or liberal and reduce the Bible to a guide with the right answers.

When I read the Bible today, I’m reading it to hear what the Spirit is speaking to myself and to my community. I had some of those pieces in place when I wrote Coffeehouse Theology, but I still wanted to be “right.” While people get nervous at the thought of me saying this, the point of scripture is to become Christ-like and to join in God’s Kingdom work. So the “test” of our theology isn’t only “having the right answers." The test is what our fruit looks like based on our answers. If I may be so bold, there are people who love Jesus and have the right fruit even though they have what I consider the “wrong” answers.

As a case study, you mention that your views on women in ministry completely changed because of your experience of God’s work through women. Can you give us a quick synopsis of how you believe God, Scripture, Tradition, and the Global Church can work together to grow and deepen our theology? The ministry of Marilyn Lazlo opened my eyes to my hypocrisy about women in ministry during my college years. How could I praise a solitary woman for evangelizing a tribe in the jungle, teaching all of the men the Gospel, but then say she can’t teach affluent Americans in my own church?

Global Christian ministry in South Asia, meet western American theology.

I also saw my mother-in-law use her gifts of authority in prison ministry. It was authority that brought order and encouragement without shaming or holding anyone back.

Then I studied scripture and learned about the context of the New Testament and the tension in early Christian history where women were gradually shoved out of ministry roles by the male hierarchy.

My take on women in ministry now is that you can’t escape tension in the Bible whichever way you go on this issue (and many others). If God is opposed to women teaching men, opponents of women in ministry need to consider what Deborah, Huldah, and Priscilla were up to. If I support women in ministry, I have to explain why Paul’s commands concerning women made sense in his context but not in our own.

I also love to bring up Paul’s teachings about head coverings in 1 Corinthians. For Paul, women HAD to wear head coverings in order to pray. It wasn’t up for debate. There was no other practice in the church at that time. We overlook a tension like that without even blinking, but the truth is that the Bible creates tension like this all of the time.

In all of these issues we have to ask questions about Christian history and global Christian ministry without prioritizing American theology. If we’re reading for ONLY the right answer, that approach to theology will be unsettling. However, if we’re looking for Christ and desire to imitate him, we will be able to rest better with the tension these practices create.

As a fun aside, I’ll also add that Jewish students of scripture are WAY better at handling the tension that scripture creates.

Can you name a recent example where the American church has learned and grown from the global church’s perspectives on theology? The most important shifts among evangelical ministries in North America that I’ve seen have come from the lessons that missionaries brought back from the mission field and applied to the western context (this was especially huge at Fuller Theological Seminary). There are lots of buzz words and inaccessible scholarly books about this, but overall, the fact that American church planters are thinking of themselves as missionaries is such a wonderful shift that has been sorely needed for a million reasons. The more we learn from missionaries like Leslie Newbigin, the better prepared we’ll be for the challenges that American churches will face in the years to come.

What’s next for you in your writing, and why are you passionate about it? I’m co-authoring two books that release this spring. One is called The Unfollowers: the Dropouts, Detractors, and Doubters of Jesus, and it asks: What kept people from following Jesus and could those same things keep us from following him today? The other book is called The Good News of Revelation, and it suggests that Revelation had an encouraging message about persevering in the midst of suffering while trusting God to one day bring salvation and justice. So I’m pretty much calling out the theology behind The Left Behind series.

I provide book samples and previews each month to my e-newsletter subscribers. New subscribers also receive two free E-books.

Anything else you want to share?

  1. It’s hockey season. That just makes me happy.
  2. Thanks for hosting me at your blog! I really appreciate it.

Your turn: What is one way your theology has changed or deepened in the last five years? 

Blessing: a guest post by Jamie Wright

JamieJamie Wright is one of my talented coauthors for the book Reclaiming Eve, due to release in March 2014. She holds a degree in English literature and is pursuing an MA in Counseling. Wife to Ryan and mom to Toby (aka, Super Grover—you should see his cape), Jamie specializes in pursuing spiritual formation and the disciplines amidst the busyness of life and helping others to do the same. Some years ago I had a particularly engaging conversation with a checkout girl at Wal-Mart. She seemed to have such a beautiful spirit, and yet to be so tired, and I was struck deeply by the thought:

This woman is immensely loved by God, He longs to bless her and use her. 

As I watched my regiments of groceries slide across the scanner and into bags, an awkward urgency began to build. I needed to say something. Now. But I was loathe to punch a hole in the flow of pleasantries in order to make an opening: “So… do you go to church anywhere?” 

Instead I took my bags, gave her my most genuine fake grin, and told her to have a great day. Walking away I had an inner arm-wrestling match with the Holy Spirit.

I got about as far as the car.

It is much worse to go back and make up for disobedience after the fact. I packed my groceries in the trunk, and shambled back in, making bargains with myself. Well, if she has a customer, obviously I’m just going back to the car. Of course this was the one time that there were no customers in line anywhere in Wal-Mart.

I gave the sort of apologetic preamble that’s common among believers these days. I know this is going to sound weird, but… And I simply told her I needed to share God’s blessing and love. She seemed surprised but pleased.

Months later I happened to find the same employee again and this time was faithful to mention God before leaving the store. Her response: “Oh yes! I thought I recognized you!” My oddness or God’s blessing had made an indelible impression on her, just as they had made on me.

I find that the topic of blessing is a difficult one to really dig into when steeped in evangelicalism. All too often, a blessing is a sort of spiritual-sounding salutation in an email, or maybe even a way to gloss over a dig or gossip. The appropriate response to a sneeze. We have no real culture of spoken blessing or an understanding of the gravity of these words.

Digging into scripture quickly reveals the importance of blessing in the lives of the people of God. Abram is first called to leave everything he knows in order to be a conduit of blessing:

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  Genesis 12:2-3

Later scriptures present blessing as something that is gravely important, non-transferable, and highly desirable when Jacob steals the blessing of his older brother, Esau:

His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”

“I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”

Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”

When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”                                Genesis 27:32-34

What these scriptures and countless others have in common is the source of the blessing. Any good things we have to offer – verbal affirmations, practical help, Godly example – are always to point the way back to our Heavenly Father, the source of every good and perfect gift. (James 1:17)  Isaac may have been surprised that his younger son was blessed first, but God was not.

At the same time, our words and actions are a vitally important part of the equation. Not only does God still desire to make us a conduit of blessing for the world, but the way we bless – or curse – those around us has a huge impact on our own hearts and minds. Psalm 109:17-18 describes a wicked man, an enemy of the psalmist:

He loved to pronounce a curse— may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing— may it be far from him. He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil.

This image of curses sinking into our bones like oil, becoming a fundamental part of who we are, is sobering to me.

At times I wonder how I will teach my son about the gravity of his words. After all, language is powerful. It connects us or alienates us; it defines us and protects us. A word, once released from our lips, cannot be reeled back in, though we throw thousands of words after it. The same is true for a needed word left unspoken.

How much more should we consider the importance of words that we are given by God for others?

Let me be clear. This is not about eloquence; this is about love. If we are commanded to love those around us through our words, how dare we keep silent? If we are designed to be a blessing, why do we allow curses to come so much more easily?

And if we feel that God is prompting us to affirm another person, whether we know them or not (and whether we like them or not!), what sorrowful disobedience if we keep silent for fear of prying or presuming!

I feel so inadequate to this task, too timid and unwise. However, I have hope that while I may be inarticulate (or even inaccurate!), God is not. He is the source of all blessing, and he wants to use me, me in His work here on earth. How can I refuse?

So may God’s blessing be heavy in your own lives and on your own lips,  that you might experience the loveliness of being the voice and hands of God in the life of a person whom Jesus longs to bless.

Your turn: Describe an incident in which someone blessed you significantly through their words. How have you blessed someone in the last month?

Submission

This week, formation Fridays features a sermon on "The Sweet Surrender of Submission" from yours truly. Hit play when you have a 30 minutes to discover the discipline that changes our posture, our relationship to Abba, and our lives. Jesus says: dying to self is the only way to truly live. Yet pastor and author Richard Foster noted, “Of all the spiritual disciplines none has been more abused than the discipline of submission.” While the Church worries and frets about external submission, Jesus calls us to a better way: submission of the heart, a voluntary emptying of ourselves so that we might truly be set free. Learn from his example and experience the sweet surrender of submission.

Did you know I'm available to speak at your church on this and other topics? Visit my speaking page to learn more. I'd love to hear from you.

Do you struggle with submission, or have you reached a place where you willingly embrace it? What are the fruits of a life fully surrendered?

Book Giveaway - Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery

A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old niece and I were talking chocolate over lunch. The conversation took an uncomfortable turn. Since I had recently finished reading the book Refuse to Do Nothing, I had learned that up to 40% of the cocoa used to make the chocolate we eat is slave-harvested.  Suffice it to say, there was no Hershey's on our s'mores that weekend, as I have not yet been assured Hershey's is doing what it can to eliminate "slave-free chocolate." Up until this conversation, I don't think my niece was aware slaves still existed. Her face fell when I said, "They estimate there are 27 million slaves worldwide." I didn't want to tell her what I've learned, but I can no longer keep quiet. Those of us who follow Jesus are called out to uphold justice, free the oppressed, and love like our Savior loves.

That's why the purpose of this important and necessary book is not guilt, but action.

Refuse to Do NothingAuthors Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim, two abolitionist mamas, have crafted a book that not only informs us of the dark evil happening in our backyards, our cities and around the world, they convinced me I could do something about it.

Here are a few quotes:

“Poverty and extreme levels of gender inequality play a significant role in why women and children make up 80% of trafficking victims.”

“Pornography today…is a world where women are dominated, urinated on, spit upon, beaten and raped. But we are told pornography is a matter of personal choice and something we engage with in private. We keep silent because the world has told us we are prudish if we voice our concern about the effects pornography has on our children or our society.”

“The average time it takes for a runaway child to be approached by a trafficker is 48 hours.” -Polaris Project

While the book often took my breath away, it also covered the beautiful story of how women in the U.S. rose up to abolish slavery in the 19th century. The opportunities it afforded them were ironic; because they stood up on behalf of the defenseless, women began to be treated more and more equally themselves. They preached, they entered new spheres of influence, and they eventually garnered the right to vote.

All of this makes me wonder: what might we accomplish in abolishing modern-day slavery if brothers and sisters tackled this evil TOGETHER?

Instructions: 1) To enter, leave a comment below stating why you would like to read this book or tell us a story of what someone is doing to abolish slavery in your community.

2) Through random.org, I will choose a winner and contact them. (Be sure you’re signed into DISQUS with an email address.) Contest runs through Thursday, July 18, at which point I will notify everyone of the winner. 

(Participants must live in the United States or Canada to accommodate mailing costs. Thanks!)

Note: Shayne and I met through Redbud Writers' Guild, a fabulous group of ladies crafting some beautiful material that you should read. "Like" our facebook page or visit our website to learn more!

When Jesus Exaggerates, part 1

Many Wednesdays, I'll be taking an "underneath-the-hood" look at Scripture, pushing us to go deeper and to read the Bible for what it is, not for what we want it to be. "Your heavenly Father will evaluate you based on how you wrestled with His Word and whether you were obedient to what you discovered," wrote our hermeneutics professor. I could almost hear the small online class breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Our debate forums were filled with discussions on what the Bible says about divorce, women in ministry, the essential meaning of the Old Testament word hokmah or wisdom, and how literary devices or forms change the meaning of what we are reading in God's Word. Sometimes we felt like we were making educated guesses and best choices, all while realizing we viewed Scripture through a Western, modern lens.  It's enough to make a Bible student run for cover and pray for mercy!

Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New TestamentWhat a relief to realize that those things we can understand and evaluate provide enough light for us to travel the path, if we are faithful to study, discover, and to humbly admit when we aren't entirely sure. One of the areas in which we have often—quite frankly—missed the boat, may be when we go to interpret the words attributed to our Savior himself. In our giddiness to meet this flesh-and-blood Jesus in the gospels, we have often imposed a structure on his words that would have been foreign to the original Jewish and Greek hearers. Indeed, it would have been foreign to Jesus himself.

So while we want to be careful not to water-down the firm words of Jesus in the gospels, we also want to make sure we understand what he means when he exaggerates. And exaggerate he does, as a way of making a point. Let's talk about the first  two ways he does this from the book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament:

" A statement which is literally impossible may contain an exaggeration." Since a statement can be physically impossible or logically impossible, let's examine two examples:

1. physically impossible "But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Matthew 6:4

Paradox alert: Jesus wants us to make a conscious effort not to know what we are consciously doing! Right. You knew this instinctively, but someone new to the Bible might not. As for the next one...

2. logically impossible "All things are possible to him who believes." Mark 9:23

Not quite so easy, eh? Many a new Bible student has been deceived into thinking they should be able to make something happen through faith when in fact "all things are simply not possible for the believer." For instance—you and I cannot become God. How about "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:48 // Classic hyperbole, a goal to reach for, a thing God is doing in us as he grows us into his own likeness. Take these at face value and you will be disappointed, maybe even despairing. Take them as statements of exaggeration, and you will be challenged to live in the tension of a grace-filled life.

(This post based on observations from the book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament. Check amazon.com or half.com. One of the most helpful and accessible books I've seen on this topic.)

Comments: Can you name a saying or teaching of Jesus in which you have wondered if he is exaggerating? 

Next week: When statements of Jesus appear to conflict with each other, he may be exaggerating. (Why does Jesus tell us to "pray in secret" while also giving us the very-corporate "Lord's prayer?")

Welcome to the blog: hope you'll pull up a chair!

Anyone who's anyone is blogging. That's one of the very reasons I've been reluctant to do so. In the last five years alone I have:

  • gotten married
  • moved out of state
  • faced several years of infertility
  • turned 40
  • decided to pursue adoption
  • served as an interim pastor
  • led a Bible study for recovering addicts
  • coauthored a book
  • pursued a theology degree
  • weathered the loss of my husband's parents

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Look at your own life and you'll note: a lot can happen in five years. Along the way, I tried to blog but couldn't sustain it. My heart was all wrapped up in questions and quandaries, and I simply had no need to speak of these things publicly. Frankly, some of these things felt too terrible for words. 

And yet.

I've been through a refining fire that has transformed my heart, renewed my mind, and somehow, someway, shaped my theology to the point that I can tell you that God calls me His Beloved even if I never have a child, even if I don't find the perfect spot to exercise my calling, even if there are some things in the Bible I will never understand this side of eternity.

Here lately, with theology classes rumbling around in my head, and a heart scanning the horizon for God's beauty expressed through His World and His Word, I have longed to speak and write of these things too precious for words. So here we are, you and me. And here's what you can expect.

A place of longing, hope, careful biblical reflection, heart formation and transformation, and amidst it all, a search for the Beauty. I heard it this week in a child's laugh. I saw it last night on the face of a husband who is fighting for his wife's heart; I observed her fighting for his as well. I was reminded that God's promise-plan to Abraham, and likewise to us, reeks of the Beautiful. And that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is overwhelmed by it, brimming over with Kingdom hope and rightly-ordered affections. Stick around very long, and you will see that I long to see His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. I seek that my heart would agree with God's heart for all of His big, beautiful Creation. And lest there be any mistaking it, I long for each one God has created to be reconciled to Him through Jesus.

And so, a few notes on particulars. I'll follow weekly posts as much as I am able. Here's what they'll look like:

Barren Mondays & God Stories

How does one discover beauty and meaning when life appears to be stripped of hope and fruitfulness? How does a woman living out her infertility battle her brokenness to discover beauty? Tune in for true stories of inbreaking joy found through the laments of life—we'll be talking physical, emotional and spiritual barrenness and how God breaks through the dry and cracked soil of our broken places to bring new life.

When I served as a pastor, I would occasionally share "God Stories" with the congregation—that is, stories of the inbreaking of the Kingdom in our everyday lives and our everyday church. As stories occur in my life and the lives of those God puts in my path, I watch my theology grow, evolve and become grounded in a God whose goodness overshadows every pain and struggle we might face. Read the stories and remember that God is alive and active, restoring, renewing, and bringing hope in the most unlikely places.

Word-filled Wednesdays 

Sometimes the Bible surprises you, slaps you upside the head, knocks you over with intensity and begins to promise you more than you ever dreamed you could hope for. Welcome to the last five years of my life. Take a fresh look at God's Word and discover the freedom of  reading it for what it is, not for what we want it to be. Surprises await! Go ahead, drink deep.

Formation Fridays

What was lost will be found. Find grace in these disciplines that always felt like they were confining us, reining us in, keeping us in line. Instead, explore old and new ways to be beautifully formed into the image of Jesus. Formation Fridays are for you, dear one. Because He calls you Beloved, the One that He loves, the One that he delights in. 

Aside from these scheduled conversations, I'm hoping you, the reader, will create ideas for conversations yet to be conceived. We are in this together, and together we will add to the Beauty that God intended from the beginning. Let's get this party started!