Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Google Zeitgeist

Mark Elrod (I always want to type "Mark Aelrod") posted about Google Zeitgeist earlier today. He just looked at the top searches in 2006, but he seemed to miss some interesting things in the other ratings:

The "where is list":

1. where is togo
2. where is matt
3. where is torino
4. where is darfur
5. where is villanova
6. where is montenegro
7. where is angola
8. where is .com au
9. where is palestine
10. where dubai

Well you can all stop searching. I'm right here.

(BTW, this is probably what they were looking for.)

(Also interesting: For those of you who know my last name, you can search for "where is matt lastname" and find an amazon list that is NOT mine, but looks suspiciously me-ish. If you search for "matthew blog" you will find on page 2 a blog about Matthew at Harding. Also not me.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


It's lunchtime, now. I traipsed through a rare Abilene drizzle to grab Subway's Two for Tuesday, and now I'm sitting at my desk, munching on one of the Two and drawing little boxes and arrows on a sheet of printer paper, three-holed to fit in one of my Very Important three-ring binders.

The boxes and arrows represent different areas of my life - the layout of my home is in one box, the schedule of my week in another - because I'm trying to get things straight. I have this emotionally pressing need to simplify my life. I'm not quite sure what this means, or what the benefits would be, but the feeling is there all the same. My life feels ... cluttered.

Maybe this drive to reduce clutter is one that has arisen from programming, and I'm trying to nest and encapsulate things neatly so that I can hold the entire idea of My Life in my head all at the same time.

Maybe it's about mastery, and I think that if I can reduce the number of entities I encounter on a daily basis - clothes, books, toothbrushes, vehicles, people - I can have more control over my environment.

Or maybe it's that I think that if I could clean up my life, it would be more efficient. I would get more benefit, or be more productive, or something more positive per unit time. Maybe I'm approaching 30 and developing an unsettling, subconscious feeling that I'm wasting my life.

Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom. The illusion of separation of subject from object is best removed by the elimination of physical activity, mental activity and emotional activity. There are many disciplines for this. One of the most important is the Sanskrit dhyana, mispronounced in Chinese as "Chan" and again mispronounced in Japanese as "Zen." Phaedrus never got involved in meditiation because it made no sense to him. In his entire time in India "sense" was always logical consistency and he couldn't find any honest way to abandon this belief. That, I think, was creditable on his part.

But one day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed the fiftieth time and Phaedrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes. That was the end of the exchange.

Within the traditions of Indian philosophy that answer may have been correct, but for Phaedrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left India and gave up.

He returned to his Midwest, picked up a practical degree of journalism, married, lived in Nevada and Mexico, did odd jobs, worked as a journalist, a science writer and an industrial-advertising writer. He fathered two children, bought a farm and a riding horse and two cars and was starting to put on middle-aged weight. His pursuit of what had been called the ghost of reason had been given up. That's extremely important to understand. He had given up.

Because he'd given up, the surface of life was comfortable for him. He worked reasonably hard, was easy to get along with and, except for an occasional glimpse of inner emptiness shown in some short stories he wrote at the time, his days passed quite usually.

What started him up here into these mountains isn't certain. His wife seems not to know, but I'd guess it was perhaps some of those inner feelings of failure and the hope that somehow this might take him back on the track again. He had become much more mature, as if the abandonment of his inner goals had caused him somehow to age more quickly.


I hadn't intended for this post to be about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but there you go. This bit makes me a bit nervous, if you want to know the truth. Phaedrus goes into the mountains and pretty soon he ends up insane. And if it's all the same, I'd prefer to avoid insane.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bah, humbug.

'Convert or die' game divides Christians

I expect you've heard about this game already, but here's some stuff I didn't know:

Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.


Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics.


The Rev. Tim Simpson, a Jacksonville, Fla., Presbyterian minister and president of the Christian Alliance for Progress, added: "So, under the Christmas tree this year for little Johnny is this allegedly Christian video game teaching Johnny to hate and kill?"

Thanks to Colby for the linkage.

I'm going to go hide under the bed now.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Zen and the Art: Changing the World

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. A surprising number of people (two) seemed to want to know what I thought of the book. So being the accommodating fellow I am, I'm going to attempt to write about it.

Now this won't be a scholarly literary analysis, or a cliffs note summary, or really any kind of review that any self-respecting publication might be interested in. Instead, I'm simply going to try to describe, in a fairly disorganized way, the sorts of things that happen when the thoughts in my head get mushed together with the thoughts in Zen.

What the book is kind of about

For those of you who haven't read Zen, a brief summary might be in order. Zen really seems to be two books, the first being a narrative about the author taking a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son, with periodic flashbacks discussing the author's life and thinking, all the way up to the point where some mental health experts got ahold of him and solved his various problems by applying choice electrical currents to the appropriate areas of his brain.

The second book, interleaved with the first, is a philosophical investigation of separateness. It's a thoroughly Buddhist attempt to contradict our tendency to reduce, subdivide and compartmentalize the world. In my opinion, this is the meat of the book: the narrative is just a framework for moving the reader along and, at some points, for illustrating the author's philosophy.

An interesting thing

Here's something from Zen that I found interesting:
I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts it at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important _end products_ of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values of[sic] right. The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.

How should you go about trying to change the world, if you're turned on by that sort of thing?

Pirsig seems to suggest that you're going to get the best results if you focus on improving yourself. And this approach makes a lot of sense: if all the leaves on a tree are green, one's experience of the tree should be green. If all the people in a society are kind, one's experience of the society should be one of kindness.

Then why write a book?

I suppose that one answer would be: you improve yourself to the point where you have something worthwhile to say to other people, and *then* you write your book. Another answer is: "Rob, you're full of crap." If you want to change the world, then bottom-up methods are important, but top-down methods are also good. Writing a book, reforming a government, starting a charity - all of these methods are just as likely to be effective as "make myself a better person".

This poses some problems from a Buddhist point of view: it reinforces my tendency to distinguish between myself and the world. But another problem - a related problem - is that one has to decide what kinds of changes to try to make. And this, I think, is why Pirsig's emphasis on introspection has merit: because effective change does not necessarily equal positive change. If your values are screwed up, then your broad attempts to change the world are likely to screw the world up rather than make it better.

So how do you get good values?

"Good values." Heh.

OK, I'm stuck. Somebody come pull me out.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Get wet

Hunh. I guess today's a day for baptism.

From Pastor K at South Bay Christian Church:
Anne Lamott writes that "Christianity is about water. 'Everyone who thirsteth, come ye to the waters.' It's about baptism… It's about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rains and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that's a little sloppy because at the same time it's also holy, and absurd. It's about surrender, giving into all those things we can't control: it's a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched."

And, if you're the audio-visual sermon illustration type, here's yer fix, courtesy of Steve Allison:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Calling God "He"

So I'm having a conversation about using gender-neutral language in church, and an acquaintance - a woman - injects this comment:
God is a man. And if he's not a man, well he's sure not a woman.

Props to me: I didn't bite through my tongue.

I consoled myself with the thought that this isn't often an explicit theology: most conservative Christian churches probably hold that God is neither exclusively male nor exclusively female. The problem this presents is that the language most of these churches use to refer to God is exclusively male. And language matters. Because our language is currently at odds with our theology, we need to change one or the other.

One of the objections I hear for changing from masculine language is, "what are you going to use instead?" Specifically, the questioner usually wants to know what I am going to use as the singular pronoun when referring to God. So in a sentence like this:
God is good, and he wants us to be good.

they want to know, what am I going to use to replace "he?"

At first glance, this is a significant problem, because the English language has no gender-neutral singular personal pronoun.

"She" is not a good alternative, because it causes the same problems as "he". (Although one could argue for a sort of linguistic affirmative action, wherein we should call God "she" for the next several thousand years to make up for always having called God "he" before.)

Likewise, "it" is out of the question, because most of these people believe in a personal God, and calling a person "it" is degrading. (Although one could argue that calling a person "she" is also degrading.)

But the obvious answer, which sometimes gets overlooked, is: don't use a pronoun.
God is good, and God wants us to be good

Problem solved.

But won't this be cumbersome? Won't it sound really awkward?

Well, do the things said about God on this blog sound awkward? Because this is the language I already use, both in writing and speaking. It's what I've done for several years. And to my knowledge, nobody's noticed.

Sadly, this doesn't entirely solve our language problems, and here are two reasons:

1. Songs. It's hard to change them to be gender neutral, and not butcher them. (Gender-equal, maybe, but not gender neutral.) I'm sure you could come up with many more examples, but how would you reword these songs:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind
Forgive our foolish ways...

O worship the King
All glorious above
And gratefully sing
His wonderful love...

2. Gender-neutral language may not go far enough. Exploring God in the context of ideas that we have traditionally labeled "female" could be very powerful, but this is stymied somewhat by going to gender neutrality. In more conservative churches, though, going to even occasionally female language would be even harder than going to neutral language ... as you can see by the quote at the top of this post.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

One reason I haven't been posting: I've been reading, and it's hard for me to do both at the same time.

One of the books I finished recently: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. I may have more to say about the book later; for now, here's an excerpt.
The ugliness the Sutherlands were fleeing is not inherent in technology. It only seemed that way to them because it's so hard to isolate what it is within technology that's so ugly. But technology is simply the making of things and the making of things can't by its own nature be ugly or there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts, which also include the making of things. Actually a root word of technology, techne, originally meant "art." The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them.

Neither is the ugliness inherent in the materials of modern technology – a statement you sometimes hear. Mass-produced plastics and synthetics aren't in themselves bad. They've just acquired bad associations. A person who's lived inside stone walls of a prison most of his life is likely to see stone as an inherently ugly material, even though it's also the prime material of sculpture, and a person who's lived in a prison of ugly plastic technology that started with his childhood toys and continues through a lifetime of junky consumer products is likely to see this material as inherently ugly. But the real ugliness of modern technology isn't found in any material or shape or act or product. These are just the objects in which the low Quality appears to reside. It's our habit of assigning Quality to subjects or objects that gives this impression.

The real ugliness is not the result of any objects of technology. Nor is it, if one follows Phaedrus' metaphysics, the result of any subjects of technology, the people who produce it or the people who use it. Quality, or its absence, doesn't reside in either the subject or the object. The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use ...

The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of "style" to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it's not just depressingly dull, it's also phony. Put the two together and you get a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while. It's the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don't know where to start because no one has ever told them there's such a thing as Quality in the world and it's real, not style. Quality isn't something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Out to Lunch

I'll be away for a week or two.

Don't do anything fun while I'm gone, 'k?

Update: I'm back.

(So among all those people who share my warped idea of fun, let there be much rejoicing.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

So... close...

Barring any legal hijinks by the Republicans, it looks like the Democrats are going to pick up both the House and the Senate.


As far as I can tell, CNN has the best online coverage of the election results. They're also carrying some interesting exit poll data. For example, here's a snippet from their U.S. HOUSE SOUTH EXIT POLL:

Protestant (70%)42%57%

White Protestants (54%)32%66%

Yes (49%)41%58%

Yes (35%)28%71%

Well allrighty.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Unless you're stupid. Then stay home.

Bonus election day link! Leonard Pitts Jr. sums up my opinion about the Democratic Party.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Richard Beck's Universalism posts

In Christian theology, Universalism is the idea that all people will be saved.

I had been considering a couple of posts about universalism, but lo and behold, Dr. Richard Beck has already done a brief series on why he's a universalist. I'll start by linking you there, and maybe later I'll have some things to add.

Why I am a Universalist

I think my favorite post in the bunch is this one, which juxtaposes Universalism, Calvinism and Arminianism. An excerpt:

Talbott in Universal Salvation? asks us to consider three theological propositions:

1. God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.

2. Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.

3. Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.

First, it should be noted that significant Biblical support could be cited for each proposition. All are supported by the biblical witness.

However, and here's the rub, Talbott points out that these propositions are logically inconsistent. That is, a Christian cannot, logically, endorse all three propositions. Look back over the propositions and mull them over. You'll see he has a point.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Confession 2

Sometimes, crafty church gnomes place blatantly partisan literature in our church foyer. The latest brochure was a glossy little voting guide, but the local, jingoistic, "christian" "newspaper" makes regular appearances as well.

When nobody's looking, I extract the newspapers from the foyer, and add them to a neat little stack in the utility closet.

Underhanded, I know, but I figure this causes fewer problems than demanding equal space for a stack of Planned Parenthood brochures.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Engaging the Text

A series of posts on what the biblical text might have to say about the morality of homoerotic behavior.

(Note: This post is a trailhead. None of these posts are new, but a trailhead post makes it easy to add a link to the series in my sidebar.)

Hm. Now that I look at it, I skipped the holiness codes in Leviticus. Ok, give me a minute ... ah, here we go:

Also, remember that you're not allowed to wear the devil's own fabric, polyester. Maybe because it's fire-retardant? I dunno.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


"Odd," I thought. "I wasn't expecting this feeling."

But there it was anyhow, in the middle of an otherwise uninspiring paragraph about feminisim, atonement, and Jesus.

I had been meandering through a book my sister gave me for my birthday, trying to nudge the scattered bits of my feminism into something coherent, toting my theological briefcase, very businesslike, and then this old friend recognized me, leapt on me, overwhelmed me with an embrace that was more than half wrestling hold.

"Wow," I thought. "I remember this feeling."

It feels like hope, but it's not quiet, or rosy.

Instead, it's a firework that hits me in the eyes and the gut at the same time, occupying my mind's eye so fully that, for a long ecstatic moment, I'm blind to everything but that one unavoidable future, largely featuring the triumph of laughter, full of mountains, of warm days smelling like watermelon and feeling like river water, chilly days feeling like friends and smelling like warm coffee, everything limned in golden joy.

And although the feeling quickly fades, for the moment I am convinced. There really is hope for the world, and there really is power in the cross of Christ. It is a power we can trust and admire: not the power to live perfectly, or the power to appease a transcendent, merciless, bloodthirsty God, but the deep affection that seems to be the only way to transform hatred without fostering hatred, to eradicate violence without using force, and to grant joyful life despite the power of death.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Happy birthday to me!

In keeping with my longstanding tradition of throwing birthday parties for myself: today is my birthday! Happy birthday to me!

Here's a fun game: If you want to get me a gift, don't buy anything ... just copy the internet address from your browser and paste it into a comment. So, for example, you could put your favorite book from, or maybe your favorite video from YouTube. After you submit the comment, I'll put a picture of your gift at the bottom of this post.


Happy birthday to me!

(from Crystal)

(from Colby)

(from Jeff)

(from The Cute One)

(from Connor)

(from Scoots)

(from Stu. NSFW!)

(from Sandy)

(from Jessica)

(from Casey)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Great Britain held hostage by ... Harding?

OK, I feel bad about all this off-site linking - it makes me feel like a lazy blogger - but you ACU and Harding folks shouldn't miss this one. It seems that Harding's new missions globe has ... um ... misplaced Great Britain by a few thousand miles.

No wonder those Brits are post-Christian! We obviously can't find them so that they can be re-evangelized!

Click the image to visit the Lame-O Weblog of Mark Elrod, who teaches at Harding.

And speaking of Mark Elrod, does anybody know an ACU professor who has a blog, much less a blog as interesting as Elrod's?


Mark reports that Great Britain has been returned to its rightful place. Whew. That was fixed rather quickly, though. I wonder ... how easy is it to move those continents around?

Also, Colby suggests reading the blog of (ACU Associate Professor) Richard Beck.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Two wars

As I was walking down the hall this morning, I suddenly realized: During the first four years of the Bush presidency, the United States invaded not one, but two sovereign nations and initiated two wars.

Two wars in four years.

And instead of ousting the people responsible, we voted to give them another four years. More than 40,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq alone.

I think I'll go be sick now.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Church of Christ vs Episcopal Church

Connor has attended both, and provides you with this deep and meaningful analysis.

CoC - Kneel if you want to be stared at.
EC - Kneel or die.

Go, read, now!

Update: It would help if I actually put the link in...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Class update

OK, Connor requested a class update, so here it is.

We've spent the last three weeks talking about Genesis 1-3, and what it may or may not have to do with gender roles. I mean, we still haven't taken the five minutes we would need to define the terms "sex" and "gender", and consequently, people frequently say interesting things like, "Yes, I think Adam and Eve probably had sex ... um ... gender."

But moving on...

Like I said before, the class is tag-team-taught by Shane and another guy (Damon). After being in the class for several weeks, I can say that they've done a pretty good job of picking a direction and sticking with it. If I've understood their approach correctly, they're basically trying do apologetics for the creation narratives.

Shane has a sort of literary approach to the text, where you classify its genre and then you only listen to the messages you would expect to hear coming out of that genre. Damon has a sort of Rabbinical approach to the text, which means you try to tease out a lot of allegory and hidden meaning. But basically, both of them are doing a lot of work trying to get the students to interpret Genesis in a new way, and then, kind of parenthetically, following that up by arguing that Genesis talks about identity but not so much about gender roles.

I think this approach is pretty good. It makes the class of mostly college students stretch a little bit, and tweak their hermeneutic, and even reconsider their gender biases, but it doesn't require them to do anything terribly scary or off-putting. All in all, I think the students are going to come out of this class with a better way of reading the first 3 chapters of Genesis, and a little more play in their ideas about gender.

But I do think the teachers are a little reluctant to address certain issues, including

  • What modern psychology says about gender

  • What feminists say about gender

  • The church's sins against women

  • Why homosexuality is a gender issue

Maybe we'll get to these as we go along. At any rate, I'm hoping that before we get out of Genesis, we at least look at Jacob and Esau.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Gender and Creation Myths

OK, since a lot of you seem to be interested in gender and Genesis and all that, let's continue our discussion with a new post. There seem to be several questions that people are interested in answering, which I will summarize as follows:

  • Are there biologically-determined traits that occur more frequently in either sex? And if there are, can we distinguish them from other traits? And if we can, what should we do with this information?

  • Are there socially benefical roles for the sexes? That is, does a society gain significant benefits from encouraging women to behave a certain way and men a different way? And if so, are there also significant harms?

  • Are there divinely ordained roles for the sexes? That is, are there ways that God says women should be, and other ways that God says men should be? And if so, what are they, and how did we find out about them?

  • What should we expect to learn from the creation stories in Genesis?

OK, so the fourth one we haven't talked about much, and it really kind of folds into the third one, but hey, this is my post, so I can be as sloppy as I want!

My opinion:

When we read the creation stories in Genesis, we should not expect them to be literally true. Instead, we should expect them to provide a broad metaphor that will help us understand ourselves.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Missteps in Iraq

Well, this makes things a little clearer.

The decision to send the loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightest is now regarded by many people involved in the 3 1/2 -year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration's gravest errors. Many of those selected because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation, which sidetracked more important reconstruction efforts and squandered goodwill among the Iraqi people, according to many people who participated in the reconstruction effort.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Extemporaneous gender

Gosh, I suck at public speaking.

We're having a class at church on Wednesday nights: "Gender and the Kingdom of God". Sounds promising, right? Except that nobody really knows what they mean by "gender".

For maybe 30 years, the word "gender" has been used to denote the socially constructed part of a person's sexual identity. But most folks in the church aren't quite caught up on the latest thinking about gender. So our class starts its discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 by trying to divide the imago dei into "masculine" traits and "feminine" traits. This riles me up a bit, so I try to push people into defining their terms. I ask, "Who says?" Who says "nurturing" is feminine, while "powerful" is masculine?

The answer I want to hear has something to do with society or culture, but that answer is not forthcoming. So, nervous and agitated, I try to explain how sex and gender are different, and why the distinction is important. But what actually comes out sounds like five minutes of:

Bla bla bla nurturing bla gay men bla bla.

Did I mention I suck at public speaking?

Anyhow, I think my points are both important and simple, so I'm going to try again, and I'm going to limit myself to three sentences.

Here goes.

People like what they like, whether it's football or knitting, and attaching gender stereotypes to these preferences muddies our vision when we're trying to tackle the world's big problems: things like hunger, global warming, domestic abuse, and even terrorism.

But what's worse than gender stereotyping is looking to the Bible for support for our stereotypes, implying that we're not just failing our society when we refuse the roles of warrior male or submissive female, we're also rebelling against God's Will for all men and women.

If we fail to recognize that gender is socially constructed, and if we then fail to condemn the gender stereotypes in Genesis 2 as the rhetorical posturing of a patriarchal society, we will be bound to repeat the sinful patterns of bigotry, violence and self-hatred that have marred the church for generations.


Does that make sense?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Blogger Beta

My blog is now part of the blogger beta. It looks a little different, and in the sidebar I've added a "News" section that contains interesting articles that are coming through my feed reader.

Let me know if anything's acting weird; I'll report it.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Response: Hart's Comments on Theodicy

(I'm pulling these comments up into posts because I think the articles and issues mentioned deserve posts of their own.)

Crystal links us to an article on theodicy by David B. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian. It's an excellent article, and eloquently communicates the problems implicit in certain Christian responses to evil:

"these attempts can span almost the entire spectrum of religious sensibility: they can be cold with Stoical austerity, moist with lachrymose piety, wanly roseate with sickly metaphysical optimism."

But Hart's understanding of how the world works is apparently quite different from mine. He talks about creation's fallen state, but this is a problem for me: how can we accept evolutionary theory and also accept the idea that creation was once perfect and then became corrupted?

Similarly, his discussion of Aquinas makes it clear that he thinks there are spiritual beings pushing and pulling on the visible world, and as I've said earlier, this doesn't work for me.

The theodicy i'm hoping to end up with will probably rest some of its weight on the panentheistic idea that God is present in all creation, and so fully rejoices in the good, and fully suffers in the evil, but for one reason or another, doesn't personally act on the world. (Instead, God's agency seems to be expressed through people, and most perfectly in Jesus.)

But coming from the tradition I come from, first I have to deal with the Bible. The modern/premodern move is mostly an attempt to salvage the Biblical text by translating it into terms that I (and maybe a few other materialists) can accept; to understand what seem to be blatant falsehoods as mere differences in language.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Friday, September 01, 2006

Response: That Samaritan woman

The quote at the end of my previous post comes from a story in John, wherein Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman and teaches her a little about the nature of God's spirit. In the course of the discussion about this story, Scoots said that when the Samaritan woman brings up a religious argument, she is attempting to "distract Jesus from prying into her sketchy personal life".

While Scoots seems to come to excellent conclusions about the point of the story, I disagree with his characterization of the Samaritan woman, and think it is worth providing an alternative reading.

First, notice that the woman's long list of husbands actually shows her not to be a promiscuous woman, but a victim. As far as I know, a woman couldn't divorce a man, so either she had been divorced by all these men, or they had died, or some of both. And as a result, the Samaritan woman was probably living in the next best arrangement she could manage, given her culture and history of husbands. Sure, she might be changing the subject out of shame, but it's just as likely she's changing the subject because dead or deadbeat husbands aren't particularly pleasant to talk about.

Second, it's worthwhile to observe that the discussion Jesus has with the woman parallels the conversation he has with the highly educated Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3. As Thomas Robinson, minister for the Manhattan Church of Christ, writes in "A Community Without Barriers":

Here, Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman in exactly the same manner as he spoke with Nicodemus. He showed the same degree of seriousness, the same concern to lead both to deeper insights, and the same perception as to where they each were in their own spiritual development ... to this Samaritan woman, Jesus chose to begin to reveal the reality of the Spirit, which even Jesus’ closest disciples did not fully understand until years later.

And furthermore,

In the Gospel of John, it is to this Samaritan woman that Jesus chose first to affirm his identity as Messiah. He found in her an openness and a level of understanding that suggested that such a revelation to her could be fruitful. She in turn led others of her town to listen to Jesus and to come to believe in him as the Christ. Thus, remarkably, the Gospel of John suggests that the first real community of believers in Jesus was among the Samaritans, led to their own personal faith (though they were reluctant to admit it) by this Samaritan woman (John 4:39-42)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A bit of a quandary

Ok, now I've got my butt in a crack.

I still think it's useful to recognize that the Bible was written in premodern language by premodern people. In fact, I suspect that we're liable to get ourselves into lots of trouble if we don't make this distinction when we interpret. But I'm still a little bit dubious about how the premodern/modern lens will actually affect how we read the text.

Because Randy's mentioned Ephesians 6, let's use that as our first example. Maybe it will help if we start by pretending that we've just picked up some Ancient text and started reading it.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

OK, so the author starts talking about the devil and spiritual forces of evil, and immediately my brain starts sending up flares. "Danger!" it says. "Premodern language is being used here!" The author continues with his metaphor, recommending that his readers adopt defenses such as righteousness, truth, peace and faith against these supernatural attacks. Hugs, kisses, end of Ephesians, hooray.

Now how should I interpret this passage?

As a hair-splitting modern person, I think I should go about it by dividing the "truth" of the passage into two distinct parts. The first is the author's worldview, in which spiritual forces manipulate people and everyday events. The second is the author's statement, which is couched in the language of his worldview.

Now honestly, I'm very reluctant to try to evaluate the truth of a person's worldview. I can see some value to thinking of things in terms of spirits and spiritual realms, and it's not like empirical evidence can prove or disprove the existence of spirits. But the "spiritual realms" worldview is not my worldview. And so before I evaluate the point that the author is trying to make, I am obligated to translate it into language that is compatible with my worldview. In this case, I would be obligated to translate the author's supernatural language into something a little more helpful for my modern sensibilities; perhaps I would translate his "spiritual realms" language into a description of the shadowy regions of the human psyche.

As a result, I would then be able to get some benefit from the text: instead of trying to make myself believe that we are constantly manipulated by spirits, I can go ahead to what I think is the author's real point: that we should adopt virtues as means to produce goodness in ourselves, despite the ways in which we sometimes tend toward evil.

Put another way, I can treat the author's language about evil spirits as metaphor, and then try to apply or interpret the metaphor.

OK, great! So when I run into stuff about spirits manipulating the world, I'll just kind of gloss over that as a premodern metaphor, and try and translate the ideas into modern language.

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.


Thanks a lot, Apostle John. Now what am I supposed to do with that?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A bit of an epiphany

Reading your comments on my "Evolution" post gave me a lot to think about: Connor's move toward panentheism, Shane's suggestion of a new creation myth, Jeff's version of intelligent design, and quite a few other things. As I drove home from the Texas hill country this weekend, I was rolling all these things around in my head, hoping to wear away the incidental ideas and pluck out a few smooth, polished insights.

First, I decided that my problem begins with my experience of the world. So far as I can tell, we live in a world full of meaningless destruction and suffering. People are buried alive in earthquakes. They die of various diseases They starve to death. Children are abused by parents who were also abused. Towers fall on people. The strong exploit the weak.

But there's also a lot of beauty and goodness in the world, and it's not restricted to rich people in western nations. The sun sets in spectacular style. Rain falls and makes the world green. Friends and family lighten our hearts. Our appetites are sated by good food and good sex.

The problem that I encounter is that joy and pain are apparently distributed at random. There does not seem to be a divine intentionality about any of it; all of the beauty and all of the suffering simply seem to be the ticking of a mechanistic universe. Tsunamis are triggered by a set of causes and effects that, on the small scale, are trivial to predict and understand. Birds evolve from reptiles, and there's no need for a guiding intelligence to complete the picture. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And so based on my experience, what can I say about how God acts in the world?

It seems that the only thing to say is that God does not act. That if God is present, God simply allows the world to continue ticking away, and doesn't interfere.

But there's a problem with this conclusion: faith traditions all over the world contradict it. The Bible paints a picture of a God who is intimately involved with the world, and who frequently acts on it. The good guys get rescued from fiery funaces and lion's dens ... the bad guys get zapped with plagues or swallowed up by the earth.

So how do we reconcile the Biblical narrative with our own experience?

I think the secret, for me, lies in how we interpret passages like these, which I have unabashedly yanked from their contexts in Matthew 5 and John 3.

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

The first passage says: the wind blows where it pleases. And if we stop to think too long, we may run into some real difficulties here. We know that the wind doesn't blow where it pleases. The wind blows based on variations in temperature and pressure on and above the surface of the earth. It has no preference as to whether it blows east or west.

Generally, though, we don't worry about this passage. "It's a figure of speech used by people with a premodern worldview," we say. "This passage, after all, was written by premodern people for premodern people."

We do the same thing with the second passage, although we have to be a bit more explicit. There's really no good reason to suppose God fiddles with gravitational fields and hauls the sun up over the horizon every day, or to think that God causes the rain to fall by pushing around some molecules. This is just the language used by people who didn't have any more functional explanation for what caused the rain and the sunrise.

But these aren't the only passages in the Bible that were written by premodern people. In fact, the entire Bible was written by people, and for people, who had no recourse but to explain natural phenomena using supernatural language. Consequently, the lens that we use to read "God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous" is the same lens we should use to read about God killing Aninias and Sapphira. The lens that we use to read "the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well" is the same lens we should use to read "the wind blows where it pleases".

Does this mean that we have to dismiss all the miracle stories in the Bible as fables written for a premodern audience? Not necessarily. Premodern people would be perfectly justified in using supernatural language to describe supernatural events, and any good empiricist will admit that it's notoriously hard to prove that something never happens.

But it does mean that we should be reluctant to accept at face value passages that attribute action to God. Although they may be theologically helpful for a premodern reader, they may be theologically destructive for a modern reader. Some of us are simply incapable of believing in a God who heals the illnesses of middle-class Americans, but fails to prevent earthquakes that slaughter thousands of Kashmiris.

I'm fairly excited about exploring the implications of this premodern/modern distinction, because I think it will allow me to affirm my experience of the world, affirm the theological value of the scriptures, accept my own modern (or post-modern) worldview, solve some really hairy theodicy problems, and take a step toward panentheism. But that should probably wait for another post.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Once upon a time, people thought that the sun revolved around the earth. This was CLEARLY the biblical worldview: The Bible talks repeatedly about the sun "rising" and "going down" (Ps. 104, and others). God makes the sun stand still for Joshua (Joshua 10). The earth has a "foundation" (Job 9,38). (A lengthy summary of the biblical cosmology can be found here.)

But in the late 15th century, a few obnoxious fellows begin pushing an evil, contra-biblical cosmology: the heliocentric model, wherein the earth revolves around the sun! The Catholic church forced Gallileo to recant, but the genie was out of the bottle. Eventually the heliocentric model of the solar system overtook the geocentric, and most people stopped worrying about the conflicts between modern astronomy and the biblical text.

A few centuries later, this guy named Charles Darwin showed up, and things got all messy again. Seems that Darwin had this theory that organisms evolved over time as a result of random mutation, environmental pressures, and other factors. Birds seemed to have evolved from reptiles, and (gasp) humans from primates. This was CLEARLY against the biblical worldview, which described God as a creator-God who fashioned the earth and all its species in six literal days.

Sadly, the inquisitors of Gallileo's day have come and gone, and the church has much less power to control what people say. So this "evolution" idea has gotten out, and scientists have been free to investigate it, both by looking at the fossil record and in the evolution of microorganisms. Oddly enough, most have decided that evolutionary theory is the best way to explain this evidence. On the other hand, many Christians continue to reject evolutionary theory because they think it conflicts with the biblical worldview. Some even go so far as to insist that you can't be both a Christian and a "Darwinist".

For a while, I was opposed to that approach. I thought of evolution like heliocentrism: as a discription of the natural world that in no way compromises the Bible, because the Bible is about theology, not biology or cosmology. But now, I'm starting to think that there may be actual theological issues implicit in evolutionary biology.

With heliocentric cosmology, the major theological issue was the primacy of humankind in God's creation. It wasn't too much of a stretch to suppose that an omnipresent God could have created an immense universe, but still be intimately involved with the people on a single planet.

Evolution, on the other hand, seems to present some major challenges to our traditional theology. For example:

  • Evolution calls into question God's status as creator-god. The God of evolution sounds a lot like the watchmaker that the deists talk about: one who creates the universe, and then simply lets it run. This threatens the idea of a God who is intimately involved with humanity.

  • If we accept evolutionary theory, we can no longer "prove" the existence of God using the argument from design. A bird's wings are complicated but that doesn't mean anyone designed them. Complex systems are just as likely to arise from blind chance as they are to have been created ex nihilo by a benevolent creator God.

  • If the crowning glory of creation is humankind, why would a good God muck about with evolution? Millions of years of species competing for dominance, going extinct in evolutionary dead-ends, and all that sort of thing ... seems like a lot of pain when God could just poof humans into existence.

So there you go. Big theological issues. No way to reconcile evolutionary biology and Christian theology. You can be a Christian or a Darwinist, but not both.

I'm right about this one, so don't argue with me.

I mean it.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Contact your congressman!

So for the last month or two, I've been trying to get a response from my congressman, Randy Neugebauer. Neugebauer is kind of a n00b politician, who unseated our incumbent (Democratic) congressman of seventy-odd years by being the best candidate because the Republicans gerrymandered our district. (You can see the district boundaries in the image above.)

Having finally overcome my bitterness about the redistricting, and expecting to have Neugebauer around for a while, I set about to discover how to help him hear the moderate and liberal voices in his district. My first efforts were through Neugebauer's website, where I entered tons of personal information so that I could send an email that will probably be ignored. I sent the email twice: once on June 16, and once on July 13, and it went like this:

Congressman Neugebauer,

I've been looking at all the Web sites devoted to sending email to members of Congress, and thinking that it must be impossible to read all of the emails and letters you receive from your constituents.

So I'm wondering how you handle this flood of information. Does someone read all the mail and summarize it for you? Or do you actually read each letter? And if there's too much to read, does it just get discarded?

In general, what have you found to be the best source of information for understanding our needs and opinions?

I look forward to your reply.

I'm still looking forward to a reply. I'll send the message again today, but I suspect I will be looking forward to a reply for some time to come.

On the other hand, an interesting thing happened last night, which may have been something like a reply. I was playing with my son, and my wife took a phone call that happened to be some sort of town-hall meeting with Congressman Neugebauer. Unfortunately, I didn't get to take the call, and I couldn't find anything about it on his Web site.

However, Neugebauer's Web site does advertise something he's calling "Coffee with the Congressman", wherein he goes around to cities in the district and ostensibly listens to what people have to say.

"Hooray!" I thought. "Now I can actually show up and ask him my question!"

I perused the list of towns Neugebauer was visiting, and found Abilene at the bottom of the list.

Tuesday, August 29th
4:00 - 5:00 pm
Dyess Air Force Base
Heritage Club
217 5th Street, Bldg. 7402

Immediately, I saw two problems. First, the meeting is from 4 to 5 p.m. Lots of us work until 5 p.m.

Out of Neugebauer's 17 stops, only one stop runs until 5:45 p.m., and none of the stops occur before 8 a.m., which would allow the attendence of citizens with day jobs, and which, I have to say, would be the most logical time for coffee.

But the second big problem I noticed was that the meeting is actually ON Dyess Air Force Base. Having some experience with Air Force bases, I knew that you usually have to have a pass to get on base. Certainly not my definition of "accessible". But maybe I could get a pass, or maybe the Heritage Club is on a low-security section of the base -- outside the fence, maybe -- so I wouldn't need a pass to get in.

I called Dyess. The protocol staff was very helpful, and after telling me that 5th street is indeed behind the fence, they called Neugebauer's office for me. Neugebauer's people explained to them that the visit was for "Air Force Personnel", but that I could go to one of the coffeehouse get-togethers in another city if I wanted.

Gee, thanks.

(I guess this explains why Neugebauer's two "in the district" photos had to be taken at Dyess.)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Fighter jets mixed up with the cross

Many thanks to Casey for her link to this New York Times article:

Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock

An excerpt:

[The Rev. Gregory A. Boyd] said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing “God Bless America” and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.

“I thought to myself, ‘What just happened? Fighter jets mixed up with the cross?’ ”

I find it interesting that this guy has a fairly conservative set of morals, but he also thinks that those morals don't need to be legislated. In my experience, that's a rare combination of opinions.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Distraction

You may hate me for this, but I'm going to introduce you to my current favorite among online comics: Ozy and Millie.

The cartoons aren't always as political as the one shown above, but if you like political cartoons, you can always visit the author's other comic, I Drew This.

Also, please feel free to continue to comment on the conclusion to the "Examining the Text" series, below. (Notice how the comma before "below" totally changes the meaning of the sentence? I love sentences like that.)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Engaging the Text: Ethics and Romans 1

At this point in our investigation of Romans 1, we're standing at the crossroads of theology and ethics. Previously, we asked what this chapter had to say about the nature and preferences of God ... now we would like to know how this passage should inform our day-to-day behavior.

Frankly, the crossroads of theology and ethics is a confusing place to be. Stretching off in one direction, you have millennia of speculation, argument, and perhaps revelation about the divine. In the other direction, you have millennia of theory, argument, and perhaps revelation about the nature of the good. One of the most difficult questions to be found at this intersection is the question of who gets to say what's good: is God good because God knows the good and does the good, or is God good by definition, so that everything that God does or commands is the good thing to do, and ethics are thereby created ex nihilo.

While some choose the latter definition, I think that this makes it meaningless to say "God is good". As C.S. Lewis writes in one of his last letters*:

Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham's, Paley's) leads to an absurdity. If "good" means "what God wills" then to say "God is good" can mean only "God wills what he wills." Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

I think the need for the goodness of God to mean something is my primary motivation for believing that we should define "goodness" as something other than simply what God does or wills. Lewis speaks directly to this issue again in the same letter:

The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

While I think we could argue about whether the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain doctrine, it seems very clear that this is the most critical doctrine for justifying our worship of God (as opposed to, say, Satan).

So I am going to assert that God's commands don't create the good, although it's possible that they will always align with the good.

Now we run into another troublesome question, which is: "How do we extract moral imperatives from the text of the Bible?" Remember, first, that I am not supposing the Bible to be the source of all moral instruction. I am assuming that people have some notion of good and evil, and the Bible's moral teachings are primarily useful for honing or enlightening that moral sense. Furthermore, I am also assuming that the Bible contains some passages that are ethically questionable: the flood, the conquest of Canaan, God's command to keep the virgins but kill everybody else, any of David's darker episodes, Jesus' commands to reject your family:Passages that are easily interpreted as endorsing evil. **

For these reasons, we can expect to find two types of moral injunctions in the Bible: first, those that resonate with our moral sense, and second, those that scrape against it. It would be nice if we could just accept the injunctions that sound right, and reject the ones that don't ... but this won't work, because we would like to preserve the possiblity that the Bible can teach us something we don't already know. "Love your enemies" sounds pretty iffy to me, but I expect that if everyone practiced this, the world would be significantly better.

Consequently, I'm just going to kind of punt here, and proclaim, "it is difficult to extract moral instruction from the Bible." It is difficult to understand which scriptures should directly apply to modern-day readers, know their background, examine them in context, consider the biases of the writers, attempt to set aside one's prejudices, and so on. Maybe when I read The Moral Vision of the New Testament, I'll be able to suggest a more systematic and reliable approach. But until then, my advice is: Mistrust anyone who says that they can draw a clear and universal moral injunction from the clear meaning of any single chapter or verse. It's just not that simple.

So what do we do with this passage in Romans?

With regard to homoerotic behavior in this passage, it seems to me that we have to consider two opinions. First is the opinion of God, which I've argued is not clear. As I said in the previous post, Romans 1 is merely a setup for Paul's larger point about the mercy of God, and so its theological implications should be limited to:

Because the Gentile culture was rebellious, God allowed it to become even more rebellious and corrupt.

On the other hand, we also need to consider the opinion of Paul. Granted, it's not very explicitly stated, but I think Scoots is right when he says that Paul is presenting a set of behaviors as "the epitome of fallenness and wickedness." (Or at least the things that his audience will think are the epitome of fallenness and wickedness. It's a set-up, remember?)

So what should we do with this negative portrayal of homoerotic behavior? Should we elevate it to a moral imperative? I don't think so, and briefly, here are some reasons why. I've mentioned some of them in previous posts, but I'll try to gather them together here.

First: Homoeroticism is a gender issue, and Paul has a track record of going contrary to the gospel on gender issues. Some speculate that this is because Paul had to walk a middle line in order to get the church going, and had to give up certain issues (women, slaves) to work on the toughest issue of the day (Jews and Gentiles).

Second: The Bible as a whole has kind of a shady reputation with regard to sex and gender issues. Take, for example, the aforementioned virgins, or the treatment of victims of rape, or the double-standard for adultery (it's OK for men as long as the woman isn't married, but for women it's never OK), or Old Testament polygamy, or the notable lack of guidance with regard to premarital sex. Until Christians can come up with a coherent sexual ethic, we need to be very careful about the parts of the Bible we elevate to rules for other people.

Third: The passage only speaks to homosexual lust, not committed homoerotic behavior. Some scholars think that it really only applied to the odd sexual practices and self-mutilation involved in Roman cultic worship, and to make it an all-encompassing prohibition would be to overextend.
(a link from Crystal has the best discussion of this perspective that I've read, as well as some very interesting Catholic insights).

Fourth: We've tried the anti-gay interpretation, and it has had bad results for homosexual people. It has pushed them out of the church, and resulted in violence and hate against them. It seems that we're incapable of "separating the sinner from the sin", and the moral imperative to love the alien and stranger simply trumps any moral imperative we might be able to derive from this text. As far as I can see, telling gay people "we think God thinks you should get married" can't make their situation any worse, and it may make it a whole lot better.

So there you have it: so far as I can tell, there is no compelling reason to interpret this passage as saying "all homoerotic behavior is evil." If there is a moral prescription to be drawn from this text, I think the best we can do is, "don't mess around with cult prostitution."

And so this completes our round of the major scriptures that seem to touch on homoerotic behavior. In my opinion, these scriptures -- whether taken individually or together -- should not be interpreted as communicating God's displeasure with homoerotic behavior per se, or as constituting other evidence that might convince us that homoerotic behavior is inherently evil. As a result, we as Christians are free to affirm the value of the scriptures, while also saying that they do not require condemnation of homoerotic behavior in a consensual, committed relationship.


For more (and much better) reading on this topic, I'm going to post three PDFs excerpted from books. These were provided to some faculty members at ACU before the SoulForce ride. If someone who owns the rights to these documents complains, I will take them down. (In other words, get 'em while they're hot.) I'm also going to repeat the link to the Catholic theologian that Crystal referenced, just because I think his argument communicates well.

Also, because I'm lazy, I have decided not to take my own snarky notes out of the PDFs. Read them at your peril.

  1. "Awaiting the Redemption of our bodies: The Witness of Scripture Concerning Homosexuality", by Richard B. Hays

  2. "The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Texts in Context", by Victor Paul Furnish

  3. "The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Theology, Analogies and Genes", by Robert A.J. Gagnon

  4. "Six Perspectives on the Homosexuality Controversy", by Theodore Grimsrud

  5. "'But the Bible says...?' A Catholic Reading of Romans 1" by James Alison

I remember finding the Gagnon piece to be fairly repugnant, but I wanted to include all the PDFs, so there you go.


*Quoted in a letter from C.S. Lewis to John Beversluis July 3, 1963. The letter can be found in C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, and portions are quoted in Biblical v. Secular Ethics: The Conflict ed. R Joseph Hoffman.

** I'm pretty sure that I'm not using the words "morally" and "ethically" correctly. Any insight would be appreciated.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Back to Capitalism

A rehash of my conversation with Timothy Sandefur about the justice of Capitalism, for the benefit of folks from

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Engaging the Text: What Romans 1 Says About God

In the previous post, I asked what the Romans passage says about the nature and preferences of God. While we did talk about the issue a bit, I don't think we really came down on this question. So I'm going to answer it. Obviously, much more about this passage has been said elsewhere, and my arguments are far from perfect. Feel free to disagree.

I think the Romans passage says this, and not much more, about God:

Because the Gentile culture was rebellious, God allowed it to become even more rebellious and corrupt.

To review, here's the passage in question:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

First, let's observe that throughout this bit of Romans, Paul is talking about groups of people. In other words, the things that he says are about God's interaction with cultures -- Jewish and Gentile --not about God's interaction with Peter and Mary. For example, in a passage that's particularly troublesome for free-will theists, Paul speculates that God has created some vessels "for destruction". While this passage has been used to argue for predestination (basically, the idea that God has planned out precisely who will go to heaven and who won't), this is probably not what Paul intends. Instead, Paul is probably trying to figure out why the Jews, as a people, won't accept Jesus as the messiah. So any theological conclusions drawn from this argument have to be drawn about God's interaction with cultures, not God's interaction with individuals.

Second, let's observe that Paul's intent in this passage is diagnostic, and not morally prescriptive. He's trying to investigate and describe what's wrong with humanity, not prescribe a moral code that will fix the problem. Particularly telling is the order of events that Paul describes: First the pagans turned away from God, and as a result, God allowed them to slide into "unnatural" behavior. As Richard B. Hays writes*:

Homosexual activity will not incur God's punishment: it is its own punishment, an "anti-reward." Paul here simply echoes a traditional Jewish idea. The Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental writing that has surely influenced Paul's thinking in Romans 1, puts it like this: "Therefore those who in folly of life lived unrighteously [God] tormented through their own abominations" (Wisd. Sol. 12:1).

Paul does muddle the issue a bit by saying that men who commit indecent acts with other men "received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion". The use of the word "penalty" would seem to suggest that the indecent acts themselves are worthy of punishment. But I suspect the confusion here is just indicative of our larger confusion about free will, determinism, or whatever it is that motivates our behavior. When we step back to view Paul's whole argument, we can easily see that it is not setting out to establish a moral code. Instead, it assumes a moral code and attempts to show how the rejection of God has lead people to reject the code.

Third, although we have labeled Paul's argument in Romans "theological", this section is much more about people than it is about God. Notice that God's only action in this passage is actually inaction, as God "allows" or "gives people over" to various behaviors. In retrospect, It may have been a mistake for me to expect any firm statements about God's actions and preferences to come out of this passage in Romans.

Consequently, I think that it is problematic to portray this passage as a clear communication of what God thinks about homosexual behavior. We might be justified in doing so if we had more support from other scriptures, but as we have seen in previous posts, that support is flimsy at best. The strongest statement about homosexuality that we might be able to affirm is the narrower statement: "God disapproves of homosexual lust", but even this statement would get most of its support from other scriptures about how God views lust, homosexual or otherwise.

The only argument I can see for a broader statement would come from the adjective "unnatural", but to support such an argument one would have to show first that homoerotic behavior is indeed unnatural, and second that Paul is implying something true about God: namely, that God disapproves of all unnatural behavior. Based on Scott's earlier comments regarding the moral neutrality of our natural inclinations, I think such an argument would be very difficult to defend.

Instead, I think it's best to interpret this passage fairly conservatively: to read it as simply saying that God allowed the rebellious Gentile culture to degrade into wicked behavior. Perhaps we can even extend this as a way of understanding past and current events: if people reject the goodness of God, they slide downward into wickedness. But we are in no way obligated to affirm that all homoerotic behavior is contrary to the will of God, particularly when that behavior occurs in a committed, loving relationship.

Finally, I think it's worthwhile to note that as we have approached Paul's theology, we have been assuming that everything he says about God must be true. As a few of us have been discussing on Scott's blog (and also, here, and perpetually, on Darius's blog), this assumption is by no means universal, and it may not even be correct. If God allowed some simple numerical errors and other contradictions into the Bible, isn't it possible that there might be some incomplete or imperfect theology in there as well? Sure, it may be scary to suppose that some of the things that the Bible says about God are wrong, but as Darius suggests in earlier comments, perhaps we would be best served by admitting what seem to be errors in the text, and trusting the Holy Spirit's ability to use even this flawed text to lead us to a better understanding of God.

So. I think we're about done here. Interest on this topic seems to be waning a bit, and we're coming to the last of my original questions about the Romans passage, which was, what are the moral implications of this statement?

Feel free to discuss the theology question, and then we'll finish up in the next post.

* "Awaiting the Redemption of our Bodies", in Homosexuality in the Church, Both Sides of the Debate. Jeffrey S. Siker, ed.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Happy 6-6-6!

Just wanted to wish you all a happy 6/6/6.

If you're worried about bad things happening today, you might feel a little bit better if I let you in on a little DaVinci-code type secret: The number of the beast is really 616, and we got through January just fine.

As an interesting side note, I think this papyrus was found after Southern Hills church of Christ changed their address from 666 Buffalo Gap Rd. Oh, the waste of letterhead!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

So Much Irony

Church Leader Says He Was Lured into Abramoff Web

(Don't miss the response from DeLay's PR guy. It's guaranteed to make you chuckle.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Engaging the Text: Stuff about God

Well, I think Scoots gave a good answer to our first question: How do Paul's comments about homosexuality fit into his argument in Romans? I'll reproduce his answer here:

As I understand Romans, Paul uses 1:18 thru 3:20 to establish that all of humanity – both Jew and Gentile – stands sinful and helpless before God. The idea is that humans are simply unable to be righteous on their own, which sets up Paul's proclamation of justification of both Jew and Gentile through faith (3:30).

Roughly speaking, the section consists of three moves.

The first move (which Matt has quoted) describes the thorough sinfulness of Gentiles. The idea is probably to catch the Jews in the audience thinking, "Yeah, those Gentiles really are awful."

But Paul goes on, in his second move (2:1ff), to say that those standing in judgment (perhaps Jews) are sinful as well. Finally, in a third move, (3:9ff) Paul throws out a litany of verses claiming that all of humanity is helplessly sinful.

Scoots' summary, up to this point, jives with every commentary I've ever read.

Consequently, one reaction to the passage in question could be to dismiss it out of hand, as something particularly Pauline, or at least Jewish, perhaps purely rhetorical, and in any case, incidental to Paul's real point: Jew and Gentile are both justified through faith.

However, this passage is a bit different than the vice lists we looked at earlier, because in Romans, Paul is doing some heavy-duty theological work. Rather than simply giving a list of do's and don'ts to particular congregations in Asia Minor, Paul claims to actually be telling us something about God. And this, of course, is the question that most of us care about – we may not trust Paul's patriarchal proclamations about sex and gender, but it sure would be nice to know what God thinks about the whole business.

Now it may be that we can still short-circuit this whole discussion, and I'll provide a couple of ways that we might do so.

First, it may be that Paul's statements about homosexuality here are universally applicable and universally understandable. Regardless of our worldview, the translation that we're reading, the connotation we might apply to different words, and the ineffable nature of God, it may be that these few verses represent a capsule of real live Truth, and that once we read them, we immediately have the option of receiving God's clear truth, or rejecting it.

The nice thing about this answer is that it's simple: Paul means I understand him to say and says what I understand him to mean. The nature of God is inherently simple, there are no mysteries, there are simply the things we ought to do, and the things we ought to avoid. The bad thing about this answer is that it's ... well ... too simple. It makes no allowance for the complexities of God, much less the complexities of human existence.

Second, it may be that Paul's statements about homosexuality conflict with our experience of the world, and must simply be judged inaccurate. This is a good approach for those who don't accept scripture as normative, or who mistrust Paul in particular, or who can't accept traditional interpretations of these parts of Romans.

The benefit of this approach is that we can be honest about our experience of the world without abandoning our faith in God. Problematic scriptures can be discarded, and edifying scriptures can be accepted on the basis of their self-evident truthfulness. But the problems with this second approach mirror the problems of the first. It becomes more difficult to allow scripture to convict us and teach us new ways to behave, plus it becomes very hard to explain how Paul's other theological statements – and likewise, any biblical statements about the nature and preferences of God – can be understood to be true.

But if we expect that Paul's statements about God are true in some general sense, we should probably spend a bit of time trying to figure out the sense in which his statements are true. Here are some possibilities.

    The gentile culture worshiped other gods, so God allowed the introduction of homoeroticism.

    In general, when cultures worship other gods, God allows the introduction of homoeroticism.

    In general, when individuals worship other gods, God allows them to become homosexual.

    In general, when individuals are rebellious, God allows them to corrupt their own bodies.

    In general, rebellion against God tends to lead to the corruption of one's own body.

    God disapproves of homoerotic behavior.

    God disapproves of homoerotic lust.

    God views heterosexuality as "natural", and homosexuality as "unnatural".

    God approves of anything "natural", and disapproves of anything "unnatural".

Feel free to mix and match, or add your own.

Friday, May 19, 2006


Several blogs I frequent have been hosting heated discussions about charity. Seeing as how I'm going to spend entirely too much time writing comments for these discussions, I figured I may as well cross-post to my own blog. This is something I've been meaning to address, anyway.

One fellow said:
American and European consumption is part of what will gradually help end poverty.

While capitalistic nations have historically provided a higher standard of living to their citizens, this outcome is by no means guaranteed with capitalism on a global scale. One of the nasty side effects of capitalism is a gradual trend toward a wealth gap, where the rich get richer because they have the resources to do so, and the poor get poorer because they don't. Nobody really seems to know where this trend stops ... whether, for example, a global capitalism would produce food and shelter for everyone, or simply preserve current standards of living, and funnel more resources to the extremely rich.

We should keep in mind that we are talking about economic models here, not well-established scientific facts. And in light of that uncertainty, Christians are absolutely justified in trusting the simplicity of Jesus over the claims of capitalism, and rejecting the seductively convenient theory that we can best help the poor by buying whatever it is we want. Faith that capitalism will solve all our problems is kind of like "pie in the sky by and by" theology ... it sounds nice, but it does little to help the people who are starving today.

Another fellow said:
Jesus tells the rich young ruler, after he kept all the commandments, to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus. Are we doing the same as we read these meaningless posts on our high dollar computers, wasting our valuble time at our overpaid jobs? I would say no!

Speaking of waste, this is a huge waste of the story of the rich young ruler. Obviously, none of us live up to what Jesus asks from this pitiful rich kid. None of us ever live up to the absurd ideals that Jesus presents. But in my opinion, that's what makes the point.

The rich young ruler is out to negotiate his salvation. He's playing the game of "how much do I have to do before you'll love me?" And in response, Jesus smacks the crap out of him. Jesus shows us that he can never give enough -- that we can never give enough -- that the lexus guy is doing the wrong thing, and so is the go-out-to-eat guy, and so is the two-pairs-of-pants guy. We all hold something back, so we're all sinners. Thanks for the info, Jesus. We'll just go on our way feeling guilty.

But I think we can do better than that. Because if Jesus' absurd demand teaches us anything, it teaches us that we're pretty stupid to suppose that God is concerned with what percentage of our income goes into a collection plate. That we're kind of crass to suppose that -- in this situation -- God is terribly concerned with "the condition of our hearts". God is concerned with people. And people are starving to death. So many people are starving that even the wealth of a rich young ruler won't feed them.

So instead of feeling guilty, or worrying about whether God approves, I expect we'd be better off giving as much as we can possibly make ourselves give. And next week, maybe we'll be able to give a little more. Because giving a little today is better than giving nothing as we tie ourselves in knots trying to figure out how much we have to give before God loves us.

So get after it. People are starving, remember?