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Masculine Christianity: A Cup Half Empty

Earlier this week popular reformed preacher John Piper addressed a crowd of conventioneers at the annual Desiring G-d 2012 event.  His message was entitled “The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle – The Value of Masculine Christianity“.  Read it here.  It is a fairly long address, so allow me to highlight a couple of pieces (with some intermittent responses.

“God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son.” – Piper

First I’d like to point out that Piper knows his Bible inside and out.  He knows full well that the logic of the first couple of sentences is misleading at best.  G-d is “revealed” in the Bible in the feminine as well as the masculine.  In addition the church is referred to in the feminine many times.  For example: G-d is likened to a mother in Numbers 11:12, Isaiah 49:14-15, Deut. 32:18, Hosea 11:1-4, Psalms 131:2, Job 38:8, and 1 Peter 2:2-3.  G-d is likened to other human feminine images in Psalm 22:9-10, Nehemiah 9:21Luke 13:18-21, and Luke 15:8-10.  God is liked to other non-human feminine images in  Psalm 17:8, Psalm 57:1, Deut. 32:11-12Matthew 23:37, John 3:5, John 1:13. The hebrew language has a gender-based linguistic system, much like Spanish.  Certain words are masculine, certain words are feminine.  When the Hebrew scriptures refer to the Spirit of G-d the word used is “ruwach”, which is a feminine noun.

Now the point here isn’t to have a biblical tit for tat with Piper.  It’s simply to point out that when we use terrestrial language to speak of the divine we are always speaking in symbolism.  When we attempt to explain our hopes regarding the nature of G-d we use analogies.  We use something that is familiar to us personally to express something magnificently mysterious.  Asserting that G-d is literally male, a “father”, or a “king” is no more appropriate than using Jesus’ analogy of a mother hen gathering her chicks to assert that G-d is a chicken.

Piper continued: “God appoints all the priests in Israel to be men. The Son of God comes into the world as a man, not a woman. He chooses twelve men to be his apostles. The apostles tell the churches that all the overseers—the pastor/elders who teach and have authority (1 Timothy 2:12)—should be men; and that in the home, the head who bears special responsibility to lead, protect, and provide should be the husband (Ephesians 5:22–33)…From all of this, I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel.”

Many of the prophets consistently uses the feminine Hebrew pronouns (zo’th & shilyah) to refer the nation of Israel.  In the New Testament Jesus and the apostles refer to the church in the feminine metaphor as bride.  There are a lot of powerful women in the Bible.  Most scholars will let you in on the fact that Jesus had female disciples.  Paul, yes that Paul, was discipled in part by a woman named Priscilla.  She and her husband were both pastors of a church in Ephesus.  The women Euodia and Syntyche worked with Paul to teach the gospel.  We could go on and on, but the assertion that only men lead or are called to lead in the Bible is obviously false.

If we move past antiquated chauvinism we will surely enjoy a much more robust and meaningful Christianity. Chauvinism restricts the analogies we can use to express the divine into a subset of what it could be.  If we refuse to see G-d in the feminine then we have lost half of our means to express our hope.  Our symbolic cup does not “runneth over”…it remains half empty.  A Christianity that embraces the feminine metaphors doubles the tools we have to express the divine.

Now what is interesting in this particular speech is that Piper eventually admits that women can do pretty much anything that a man can do (something I doubt to ever hear Piper’s macho-church companion, Mark Driscoll, admit).

The reason we call such courage “manly” is not that a woman can’t show it, but that we feel a sense of fitness and joy when a man steps up to risk his life, or his career, with courage; but we (should) feel awkward if a woman is thrust into that role on behalf of men…

The point is not that women are unable to lift the weight or bear the pain of the reality of hell. The point is not that they are unable to press it into those who don’t want to hear. The point is that one of the marks of mature manhood is the inclination to spare her that load and its costs….

Again the point is not that a woman is not able to speak this way. The point is that godly men know intuitively, by the masculine nature implanted by God, that turning the hearts of men and women to God with that kind of authoritative speaking is the responsibility of men.” – Piper

This is what is truly unfortunate about this theology.  There is no doubt in my mind that Piper believes that women will be happier living in submission to masculine authority.  What he doesn’t realize, blinded by doctrine, is that most women are not happy in that place.  His view does not match reality.  He doesn’t realize that women too sense a fitness and joy when they “step up to the risks of life, or career, with courage”.  He does not realize that they passionately desire to lead others and help them to make the world a better place.  They too have a nature to turn the hearts of others to the divine.

In teaching that leadership, careers, and individual divine calling are strictly for manly men, he robs women of their freedom to be fulfilled.  In this view, the only life they have been “blessed” with is one of perpetual cheerleading and baby-making.  He doesn’t even realize what he is doing…but this is the 21st Century, ignorance is not acceptable.  We have millions of examples of successful and fulfilled female leaders.  You don’t need to look far to find them.  We can easily observe all the diversity in life.  Men don’t always fit the masculine cliches, nor do women fit the female cliches…no matter how much Piper and Driscoll try to tell us everybody should fit into 2 predefined boxes.

 A couple of weeks ago author and blogger, Rachel Held Evans, was in Phoenix speaking at a couple of events.  She reminded us of a biblical story that receives little attention.  The story of Jephthah and his daughter can be found in Judges 11.  To sum up the story in short: Jephthah is called upon by the elders of Gilead to fight their enemies.  If he is successful they agree to make him their permanent chieftain.  During the battle Jephthah cuts a deal with G-d:  If he is given the victory he promises to sacrifice “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return”. He wins the battle, returns home, and his daughter comes out to greet him.  He is distraught, but Jephthah knows what G-d “requires” of him.  His daughter pleads with him to allow here to spend two months mourning in the countryside before her future and her life are sacrificed to meet the expectations of G-d.  He grants this postponement but at the end of two months “did to her according to the vow which he had made”.

The danger of Piper’s theology is that it asserts that G-d wants us to sacrifice the individual initiative, hopes, and dreams of women.  Many women are currently wandering in the wilderness mourning for the lives they wish they had, if it had not been for this “promise” we made to doctrine.  The good news is that they are not yet sacrificed…though “Masculine Christianity” seems anxious to light the pyre.  We can come to our senses and realize that this is a sacrifice that G-d neither requires nor wants.

For continued conversation check out the flood of responses over at Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

 

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Spiritual Abuse: An Allegory

His matted mane rested heavily on the slivered wooden floor.  A large paw stretched forward and began to knead the cold iron bars.  Leo, not a very original name for a lion, gazed longingly across the parking lot from his circus trailer.  It had been many years that he had traveled through the countryside…but tonight he longed for something different, something more.  Weighted pants pushed dust from the floor into the night air.  He knew not what laid beyond the darkness, but wondered.  There must be something…right?

As a cub Leo was bought and sold to a travelling circus.  City after city, show after show he would be presented to the crowds as they oohed and awed at his cuteness.  A story was told during each exhibition of how young Leo was saved out of a cruel life of caged captivity from the small breeder.  He would now enjoy the luxurious life that few lions would ever get the privilege of experiencing.  There would always be new places, new people, new experiences for Leo.  All his needs would be met from food to water to exercise and companionship. The lion tamer traveling with the circus was world-renowned and had years of experience training young lions like Leo.  Surely this would be a wonderfully exciting life for this little cub.

Within a few months of his life as a circus lion Leo started his training.  He would not be small and cute forever, he had to learn the tricks and routines that would keep audiences packing the big tent.  Three other lions filled out the small pride that became Leo’s family, two lionesses and one alpha male.  During the early training sessions the small cub would listen to the tamer bark commands at the older lions.  Upon hearing the tamer they were all impeccably obedient.  They climbed ladders, jumped from platforms, and leaped through hoops as Leo observed with wide eyes.  One particular trick really held his attention.  The large alpha sat gracefully before the tamer.  The man reached forward with two hands and opened the massive jaws of the great lion.  To Leo’s amazement the tamer then slid his head between the razor-sharp teeth of the great cat.  He knew then that this man wielded an awesome power that brought submission and compliance from even the strongest lion.  As Leo continued to watch the older lions obey every command an awareness began to form in his mind…this is what lions were meant to do.

After a few days of observation Leo was led into the middle of the training pen by the tamer.  One of the lionesses joined him.  A command was given and the lioness reacted by jumping up onto a platform.  He heard the command once again and looked nervously at the lioness…CRACK!  A whip had snapped behind him, startling him as he instinctively jumped onto the platform that was in front of him.  He was frightened, but quickly the tamer threw a chunk of meat in front of him.  Apparently he did something right, he was being rewarded.

The training continued day after day, month after month, with intermittent weekends of performances.  Leo learned quickly and was soon catching up with the skill of the older lions.  During one memorable training session he was going through the motions as he jumped through a set of hoops, a section of the act he had gotten particularly good at.  The tamer broke their normal routine as he went over to the hoops, fiddling with them for a while…then WHOOSH!  As flames danced around in frightening circles Leo felt his heart drop.  He cowered and began to crawl towards the pen door…he heard the command, but did not jump.  CRACK!  The whip was back but this time Leo didn’t jump, he only sunk lower.  CRACK!  A burning pain crossed his back.  He looked fearfully at the tamer with a slow side glance.  He had never experienced such pain, but he knew that he deserved it…he did not leap, he did not jump.  Tacitly he positioned himself to jump through the flaming hoops.  As the command was uttered once again, he leapt as quickly as he could.  Leo could feel the heat from the fire as he passed through the flames.  When at last he was past the danger he dropped down in the dirt.  A chunk of meat dropped before him…this time he did not eat.

The details of that day blurred over time, but the lesson did not.  Leo did not want to disappoint the tamer by disobeying a command.  He remained obsessively attentive in his presence.  As a result the young lion grew into a great performing cat.  He mastered the performances…jumping higher, roaring louder, and projecting more personality than all of the other lions in the little traveling pride.  The older alpha waned with age and Leo soon found himself as the centerpiece of the circus.  He enjoyed a couple of years of spotlight success.  His connection with the tamer was never better.  During performances the tamer hardly needed to gesture or call a command, Leo knew exactly what to do and when.  Leo was happy.  He had what he needed and enjoyed a purpose in doing exactly what he was trained to do.

As happens, life cannot sustain a single peak of joy and happiness perpetually.  Eventually the circus stopped drawing the crowds that had made it successful.  Financial difficulty soon followed.  The owners ended up selling the other three lions, leaving Leo as the sole big cat in the show.  The tamer was disgruntled at his loss, yet remained determined to bring success back to the circus.  As such, the stunts that Leo was expected to perform became increasingly difficult and dangerous as his leader became more aggressive.  Leo did his best to keep up with grueling training sessions only to find brief relief in short periods of rest.  The weight of obligation rested heavily on his broad shoulders.

It was during this difficult time when he found himself staring into the darkness that fateful night.  Somehow he wished he had done more in the past.  Every stumble in a performance haunted his thoughts, every time it took longer than expected to learn a routine, every disappointed look from the tamer.  He had done so much, tried so hard, but it wasn’t enough.  He came to the realization that there would always be more pressure, more hoops to jump through, more commands, more whips.  Hope clawed back from despair as, for the first time, he questioned what it meant to be a lion.  There could be something else, something more, something meaningful.  Whatever that was he knew that he would not find it from the tamer who told him what he was, what he was to do, where he was supposed to go.  He felt a surge of self-realization rise from within his gut.  He could seek meaning for his life, he decided that nobody else could do that for him.

Yet Leo still laid on his side in his cage.  For all the internal turmoil and wrestling…his body barely moved.  He knew the bars would keep him in place.  He knew that he couldn’t escape.  As hopelessness creeped over his body with an eery chill he continued to knead the equally chilly iron bars.  His large ear twinged as the faint sound of a click pierced the silence.   The cage door moved slightly under the pressure of his paws.  Apparently the tamer had failed to make sure the lock was secure before he left for the night.  Moonlight caught his large brown eyes.  With a shove the door flew open.  Quickly he hopped down, shuddering with excitement as his paws dropped onto the asphalt. For a moment he hesitated.  Could he really do this?  Could he really run?

Just then he heard a holler from a nearby trailer.  The tamer had spotted Leo.  Immediately he found himself at a sprint.  A tree-line appeared in the distance, providing a target for his flight.  The oaks moved closer…closer…closer…BANG!  Leo’s right hind leg collapsed under his weight as he tumbled into some loose gravel.  Burning consumed his thigh.  The determined lion found his way back to his feet…he had been trained to push through pain to accomplish a task.  Leo now sprinted faster than ever and disappeared into the thick forest.  His pace slowed to navigate through all the obstacles, but he continued to flee.  He would not stop, he would not go back.  He ran with chilled nocturnal air rushing through his mane.  Leo felt alive.

Eventually the light of morning sun shone across the horizon.  Exhausted the large cat found a place in the underbrush that seemed safe to collapse.  As breath caught up, Leo’s attention turned to his injured leg.  The dart had grazed him, the wound was shallower than he expected.  It seemed excruciating at the moment of impact but now the pain was little more than dull now.  He licked his wound but felt confident it would heal.

Leo surveyed all that surrounded him.  No concrete, no cages, no tent, no tamer.  Freedom rang in the relative silence of the forest.  A subdued breeze rustled through leaves.  Leo closed his eyes as his thoughts finally caught up to him.  He knew he was free now…captivity and control were in the past.  The emotions of new reality were overwhelming.

Excitement

Liberation

Joy

Insecurity

Loneliness

Hope

Leo had never felt the tensions of such complex emotion before.  He didn’t know what life would hold for him from this point forward. He felt confident that he was moving into a more authentic life…he was now embarking on a journey to find what it really means to be a lion.

Commentary

This allegory was prompted in part by the story of a man who was excommunicated recently from Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church.  The story was told to the world on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog.  Read about it here:

It is important to note though that this allegory is not meant to simply re-tell Andrew’s story. Over the past week many have been sharing their stories of spiritual abuse and the difficult process of escaping religious control.  Their stories can be found in the comments sections of the linked posts, other blogs, on social media, likely (if you run in religious circles) amongst your friends, or possibly in your own life experience.  The volume indicates that there is a serious and systemic issue that needs to be addressed.  Too often religion has been used to control others.  I agree with MPT, it must stop.  This is my contribution to the fight against the dehumanizing process of caging a diverse, complex and beautiful humanity in the constricting boxes of religious regulations and systems.

 

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Satan and Christus Victor in the 21st Century

First, I must apologize for the past couple months of absence from blogging.  Life has been busy through the holidays.  I have found a moment to catch my breath and as such now have time to write a bit more.  I currently sit overlooking an ice covered lake with a backdrop of snow blanketed mountains.  Perhaps this post will find a somewhat more positive tone then the previous…although we should start there to address this topic.

If you haven’t had a chance to read my last post please take a second to do so: An Abusive Relationship with G-d.

This last post was a reaction to a particular doctrine that I formerly affirmed, namely Penal Substitutionary Atonement (I’ll refer to it as PSA for convenience throughout the remainder of this piece).  I felt it necessary to express my frustration with this commonly espoused atonement theory to perhaps point out some of its short comings and the damage that it can do to us personally and our relationship with G-d.  However, it certainly isn’t enough to tear something down and walk away with the dust of the rubble falling off my boots.  So then, I offer an alternative for consideration.  Please keep in mind that what I will present is just another theory.  I am not advocating that this is the final and true atonement theory…only that it is perhaps a better alternative to the popular PSA.  I wouldn’t suggest anybody simply take this explanation and build a rigid doctrine around it, but rather use it as inspiration to continue the journey of finding new ways to experience G-d, love, and life with each other.

Let’s start by taking a step back in history, considering where PSA came from and why it emerged.  Throughout most of the first millenium of Christianity the atonement was understood by a vast majority of followers through either of 2 metaphors.  The first would be the Ransom theory. It teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom, paid to Satan, in satisfaction of his just claim on the souls of humanity as a result of sin. The second is closely related and is known as Christus Victor.  This theory sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor.  In the 11th Century the established western church officially rejected both of these theories in favor of the Satisfaction theory at the direction of Anselm, then Archbishop of Canterbury.  Satisfaction theory eventually emerged into PSA under the Reformers 500+ years later.  As a reminder, PSA argues that Christ  was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so G-d can justly forgive the sins.  So here we are in present day…dealing the the Mark Driscolls of the world telling us that G-d hates us and that we need to feel guilty because we aren’t holy enough for him, that G-d demanded a human sacrifice to appease his wrath against us.  If such an assertion came from any other religion we would immediately be able to identify how dangerous such an understanding of G-d would be…but since it comes from our own tradition we seem to be generally quite blind to it.

I’d like to pose this question:  Why did Anselm send us down this path?  Why did he see it necessary to change the path of a millenium of Christians before him.  It is reported that Anselm rejected the ransom theory because he had discerned that Satan, an actual spiritual being, could not have possibly had any just claim to G-d’s creation, thus eliminating the legal requirement for a ransom to be paid.  For Anselm a similar dilema was posed by Christus Victor in that it portrayed Satan as such a powerful being so as to be able to enslave G-d’s creation against His will.  Anselm contended it was much preferable to see us (humanity) as enemies of G-d, through our sin, then to assert godlike power to the spiritual being of Satan.  I wouldn’t argue with Anselm on his identification of a problem, but I would obviously have some contention with his resolution (again, see my previous post).

In the tradition of this blog I would approach the resolution of the criticisms of Christus Victor by exploring the metaphorical interpretation.  We have already established that it is fairly unattractive to view our condition as a subjection of humanity to the literal spiritual power and authority of a being that is not G-d, namely Satan.  If we do this we effectively create another god who is just as powerful as, well maybe just a little less powerful than, the main G-d, in so doing we become polytheists.  So what if Satan is a metaphor for something?  Is there some problem, power, set of issues that humanity faces from which we would need a savior, a hero?  If there were, then perhaps the analogy of the spiritual battle of Christus Victor could still be maintained, albeit slightly modified.

In searching for the villain, our Satan, in the narrative of Christus Victor I would introduce us to, or for some remind us of,  another atonement theory that has seemed to exist in some form or another throughout the history of Christianity.  This atonement theory is known as “moral influence“.  It teaches that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection.  If we let moral influence inform our decision on choosing a metaphorical definition of “Satan”, then it would appear that immorality, as defined by Jesus, would be the villain in our narrative.  If we review Jesus’ teachings it appears that our Satan, the one he came to defeat, is/are the systems and individual interactions that are unloving, those that cause alienation and oppression, those that ignore or perpetuate poverty and need, etc.

This way of approaching the question gives us something real and tangible to work with.  We are no longer fearing and struggling against some lower diety who is manipulating our life events (I hate it when Satan hides my keys on Sunday mornings to keep me from getting to church, but Jesus usually overcomes the attempts of the Devil by helping me find them! PTL!).  Rather we move into addressing real world problems by practicing “The Way” (for those who don’t already know, early Christians identified themselves not as “christians” but rather as followers of “The Way”…that way of course being the one Jesus taught and demonstrated).  We are trying to solve issues like poverty (locally and globally) with generosity and compassion, we try to find ways to create and maintain peace by rejecting the cycles of violence and retribution, we seek to have relationships that are healthy, beneficial, and that demonstrate authentic love regardless of race, class, religion, or sexuality, etc.

If we see the reason for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the context of this collision of Christus Victor and Moral Influence then we effectively resolve Anselm’s problem with these traditional atonement theories while simultaneously avoiding the afore mentioned pitfalls and abuse of penal substitutionary atonement.  I see this approach as much more beneficial, hopeful, and as calling Jesus’ followers to a higher responsibility in the narrative of life and existence in the universe.

 

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