Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What is a eunuch doing in church?

What is a eunuch doing in the church? What is a eunuch anyway? Eunuchs were common enough in the ancient world. Jesus was confident that his hearers knew what a eunuch was (read Matthew 19:12). In Acts 8, the disciple Philip encounters a eunuch reading a passage of Scripture in Isaiah and explains it to him and then at his request baptizes him into the church of Jesus Christ! In her fascinating book, Sex Differences in Christian Theology, Megan DiFranza includes a study of eunuchs in the Bible and the culture of the time. Eunuchs could serve in some types of official positions but they were routinely despised. They were seen as "not normal", inferior males. Due to their lack of sexual organs, either naturally or involuntarily castrated, they were the "epitome of other". To Jews their identity as other, or outsider, prohibited Temple worship. Jesus, however, turned this thinking upside down with his (a Jewish teacher!) positive evaluation of them in the context of his teaching on marriage. This group of people who were commonly seen as sexually different, not really male or female, and morally suspect were given a new identity by Jesus and welcomed into the church by Philip who was led by the Holy Spirit!

This was at a time when the power structures of the ancient world were built on a chain of gendered being. As DiFranza says elite men were at the top, women were at the bottom and eunuchs and effeminate men were somewhere in the middle. Jesus challenged this powerful system when he said that those who renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom would no longer be defined by traditional gender markers. Their primary identity would be a non gendered one (DiFranza, p105). "In calling his disciples to learn from eunuchs Jesus was calling them to learn from those whose gender identity was not secure, to learn that gender identity is not the central value in the kingdom of heaven." (DiFranza, 105)

As our congregations are roiled by questions of sexual identity and gender issues today, DiFranza's book deserves a close reading.

Is the Old Testament Dead

The Old Testament is dying if not dead is the theme of Brent Strawn's new book, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment.  Strawn does not mean the OT is really dead  but that it is practically dead in the sense that it is mostly forgotten. There is a long history of the neglect and at times purposeful ignorance of the OT. Recall Marcion in the early church and the attempts by the German state church to erase all OT references to Christianity during Hitler's reign of terror. The attempt to undermine the OT has always been there. Today we are reaping what we have sowed or not sowed. When I arrived at one of my first churches I was stunned to read in our confession of faith that we were a church founded on the New Testament. In my travels I see "New Testament" churches proudly proclaimed on their signage. Strawn does a good job documenting the decline of the OT in churches today. It is not read, or preached from, or taught or sung as the Psalms invite us to do. Instead, Strawn calls what remains of the OT a kind of "Pidgin" language. We can talk about the OT in dumbed down ways and we still tell the stories with their morals to children but the OT is not the meat that we eat. That would be the New Testament which is preferred over the OT. It is about Jesus after all and we are not so sure about that God of the OT. If we have to choose what we are going to read with our limited time it might as well be the NT (although Strawn cites surveys that show Christians don't read that much either). Even those churches following the lectionary readings every Sunday never hit on great chunks of the OT. Most Christians believe that the NT has subsumed the Old. Whatever is important has been taken up in the New. There is even an animosity toward the Old that is signified by saying things like, "well that was in the OT but Jesus said this." We are followers of Jesus but not the OT.

Well, Jesus followed the OT. He prayed from the OT, and studied the OT, quoted the OT at the great turning points of his life. Like Psalm 22 from the cross! OT books like Deuteronomy are frequently referenced in the NT. The OT was the only Scripture the early church had. The NT writings were added to the OT and apocrypha which was the whole Bible then. (The apocrypha was part of the Scripture until the Reformation which made those works non-Scripture for Protestants). The OT is the revelation of God just like the NT is.

Wherever the OT has been dismissed or ignored anti-Semitism has been close by. Why do we choose to call it the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. Why do we produce Bibles that are really only the New Testament. Why is it so difficult to find Christian worship songs that come out of the Old Testament.

Strawn has recommendations for the treatment of this problem. Mostly, they have to do with reading it so that it becomes a vital part of our faith and life again. We can pray the Psalms as Jesus and Paul did. We can sing them too with the help of modern groups like the Sons of Korah. We can study the OT for what it shows about God who is the only God of the Bible. I am not optimistic that Srawn's recommendations will do the trick. The OT may be too far gone. As in Josiah's day we need a miracle  of rediscovery.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bible reading and fishing

I have tried to get into Joy Williams book, 99 Stories About God, several times. And I've given up. I was attracted by the title and I have liked others of William's short stories. This little book of the shortest of short stories proved nearly unknowable to me. I could read them but they seemed so obtuse I had no idea what they meant. After many attempts to get what she was saying I realized I was reading them wrong. I was reading them too fast, expecting them to give up their meaning in the time I had allotted to them. I was looking for information, a smart turn of phrase, instant wisdom. Something  profound communicated in 144 characters or less. Something I could smile over - that was good. A good use of my time invested in reading. In further -now slower readings, I have found associations I had missed. I saw things I passed over quickly since they did not give up their sense easily.

It's much like we read the Bible or don't. Recent surveys state an alarming drop in Bible reading among people who identify as Christians. Is that because we know what it says? Or, is it because it's too hard to get what the Bible is saying. We would rather have someone tell us what it means (we think we cannot get it if we have not had the proper training). The popular Christian view of God is One who reveals all God has to reveal in simple ways we can understand. Even though the disciples did not understand Jesus and no one else did either when he spoke in parables, and we still don't although we have lots of scholars to help us. There are lots of other stories in the Bible that are Williams - like. Jonah, for instance, a man swallowed by a big fish, or Adam and Eve, a couple that listens to a talking snake. The book of Proverbs is all short stories - parables - that are meant to be taken and "chewed over".  Meditated upon is what the early wisdom teachers said. Who has time to meditate any more? So much easier to take our news on Facebook.

Joy Williams stories are intended for meditation. Slow reading and thinking. Her stories like most of the Bible do not give up their meaning easily. The reader has to work on them, has to think, imagine, sit with them awhile. Enjoy them?

She has one story that baffled me. A noted humanist scholar was invited to give a talk on whether or not there was life on other planets. The humanist thought it was possible but believed a world devoid of human beings was not worth imagining.  Humans have the ability to appreciate beauty. After the talk, at lunch at a small, fine restaurant, he was served a speckled trout beautifully presented. From his plate he heard beautiful music faintly playing. Horrified, he jumped up, ran into the kitchen and attacked his waiter and the chef. Later, after he was taken to the psychiatric facility for observation he discovered no one appreciated his story of the beautiful singing trout. Williams concludes, "His ravings about the trout being no more appreciated than the ravings of any of the other lunatics there."

Perhaps, the reader of the Bible needs to appreciate the ways God chooses for revelation. Once Jesus got a lesson out of a fish's mouth. It can take some time to appreciate such things, however.