Purity and the Muezzin

Over a few years I have been watching with interest different friends’ responses to the various ‘hot button’ issues that emerge. The most recent, and one of the most interesting the NZ Government’s decision to call on the state broadcaster to transmit an Islamic call to prayer for the 2 minutes silence for the victims of the Christchurch tragedy.

While often people’s responses are predictable, sometimes people surprise. I have begun to think that a significant component in many of these examples is the question of purity. Among 21st C Christians the priority of concern for purity is probably correlated with respect for the text of Scripture, but that correlation is far from perfect.

This should be expected because the priority the Bible gives to purity (among the virtues) varies. In Leviticus purity ranks very highly, in the prophets it stands alongside social virtues. In the New Testament’s lists of virtues and vices purity seldom features positively – James 3:17; 2 Cor 6:6 and 1 Tim 4:12 are exceptions. On the other hand ‘impurity’ is listed as a vice in Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; and 2 Cor 12:21. Lists that seem to omit purity are Rom 12:9ff.; 13:8ff.; 1 Cor 13:4ff.; Eph 4:5ff.; 1 Thess 5:12ff.; 1 Tim 2ff., 6:3ff.; 2 Tim 2ff.; Titus 1:6ff.; and 1 Peter 3:8.1 In the NT too, as almost all these lists make clear, ‘purity’ is primarily associated with sex, while in the OT it more often has ritual connotations.

This prwho prioritise oves nothing, but does suggest that both Christians who prioritise purity and those who prioritise the way we treat others can support their position from the Bible. Purity focus is seen (I think) in my friends who objected or hesitated significantly over the Muezzin’s involvement in the recent two minutes silence.

I am not posting this with the thought that either those who prioritise purity or those who prioritise the way we treat others are ‘right’, of course both are important. However, it seems to me that if this difference in priority (and hence in knee-jerk reactions) were (to be true and) recognised then we might be able to have more fruitful conversations about such contentious issues.

  1. These lists are very approximate, produced quickly, but may give an impression of the presence of purity in these lists, but the extent to which it is not a positive focus. []

White privilege in NZ


White privilege is invisible to white people, just like water is invisible to fish. The case of some friends of mine is instructive. They are white as you like, Kiwi through and through (though whether Pakeha or plain vanilla Tauiwi I am seldom sure – I have an ‘English’ immigrant friend who did all his schooling in NZ, yet still does not have citizenship)1 when one has to attach labels race is complicated).

These friends are kindly folk, so decades ago they fostered ‘difficult’ children. Treated them as part of the family, I don’t know if they adopted them… Now, being difficult children one grew up to be a complicated adult. So CYPHS intervened to take their children from them. Being ‘part of the family’ my friends adopted the CYPHS children. Because they ‘adopted’ them rather than (like sensible white folks) simply ‘long-term fostering’ them they get little or no support from CYPHS and now beyond retirement age seek to give the kids as good a life as they can. Their problem is that our government and society are organised by and for white folks. The default assumptions are the capitalist individualist assumptions of white folk, not those brown folk make. Brown folk (almost all of them and of whatever race know the importance of whanaungatanga. My friends’ mistake was to learn this virtue too well. The system assumes that if you adopt chilkdren it is because they bring you satisfaction and pleasure, they help you flourish and feel good about yourself – so, of course, you should bear the cost each individual (or couple) is responsible for themselves and their own decisions. Whanaungatanga says those kids are family, we can’t leave them to be fostered and cared for by strangers, let’s adopt them and give them security and stability.

The system is organised by and for white folks – or at least people who think like white folks!

It’s nice that CYPHS has got a nice Māori name now, but when will they learn whanaungatanga?

  1. I put ‘English’ in scare quotes because though, I suppose faut de mieux his nationality is English his culture and speech are pure Pakeha. []

Changing our Mind

I’m reading Gushee’s book Changing our Mind.1 While reading, I posted a short quote on Facebook, which provoked interesting discussion, and happily no vitriol. One of the points made there, which was also made by Gushee’s main critic back in 2015 when the book was new, is that Gushee does not do serious exegesis on the key passages. I plan to think about that critique in this post. This post is not a careful presentation and analysis of Gushee’s writing, rather it summarises what he seems to me to be saying – that is, I may have got him wrong, or gone beyond what he says, but this is how his argument looked as I read it.2

The first part of the book (roughly half), after setting the scene, deals with the biblical texts and arguments most often cited in support of the traditional Christian ethical position on LGBTQ sexuality. As I understand it, Gushee is making the point that all of the passages that may directly address the issue are either seriously debatable (the story of Sodom, or what the terms malakos and arsenokoitos referred to exactly) or are not directly addressing our questions but are concerned to make other points (Romans 1).

On Romans 1 it seems to me that Gushee follows Loader in agreeing that Paul understood sex between partners of the same biological gender as abhorrently unnatural. This indeed tells us Paul’s attitudes, but the text does not address our questions, and aspects of sex are mentioned as illustrations rather than the main point. To me this implies that Paul is not teaching about sexual ethics here.3 Now, when we affirm Scripture as authority we are careful not to claim that everything the Bible seems to say is authoritative (thus when it is apparently describing the sun orbiting the earth, or a flat earth with corners, these are not things that Scripture is teaching and so are not authoritative). The fact (assuming with Loader, and I think Gushee, that it is a fact) that Paul perceived sex between same gender partners as disgusting and unnatural, and thus sinful, is not binding on us if this was not what Paul and the Holy Spirit was ‘teaching’ here – and I do not think it was the point of his teaching here.

Because these direct passages are weak (debatable, difficult to translate with confidence, or talking about something else), and certainly not addressing our questions, the main weight of the traditional case must rest on the doctrine of marriage derived (by both Jesus and Paul as well as us today) primarily from Gen 1 and 2. But these passages also are not concerned with the ethics of stable covenanted sexual relationships between homosexual partners. (Unlike the shepherd in Jesus’ parable their interest is in the 95%4 and not in the others.)

Thus the biblical case for claiming that ONLY heterosex is ethically acceptable under any circumstances (the traditional position)5 is weaker than most of us (e.g. Gushee, me, and probably you) assumed.

The conclusion from this is that this set of issues and questions around sex and sexuality cannot be answered responsibly by an appeal to our exegesis of a small set of texts – almost however we understand them after careful exegesis, they simply will not respond to our 21st C questions. We are therefore required to engage in some deeper and broader hermeneutics – as we have had to do consciously or unconsciously on many other issues. Gushee has not stopped being an evangelical ethicist who writes about and believes passionately in marriage as a lifelong covenant, though he has stopped believing that such a lifelong covenant ought necessarily to be restricted only to heterosexual couples.

  1. I was given a copy by friends who hope it will help me change mine. It is the 2017 edition – though the blog posts on which the book is based appeared first in 2014 and the main response to the book dates from that time. Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics. Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2017. []
  2. That is do not hold Gushee responsible for anything I say, and do not complain too much if I have not reproduced his thought closely enough. []
  3. Note this approach is not the same as the minority who claim that this passage does not express Paul’s own thought but rather the approach he is criticising – because that IS a minority position it does not seem helpful to depend upon it. []
  4. In this case, unlike Jesus’ sheep, it is far more than 1 in a 100. []
  5. NB even this heterosexual expression is only acceptable within the stable lifelong covenant relationship we call marriage. []

Biblical Studies in November

Biblical Studies Carnivals are like people, some are longwinded, others mercifully brief, some are careful or even careworn, others care less. Yet these month by month listings of posts on biblical scholarship, especially when they cast the net widely, but use a large mesh so that only the serious or seriously funny posts get included do us all a great service.

Bob McD has done a typically thorough and careful carnival for November 2018. If you are interested in the Bible and its scholarship, especially if you are interested to hear its scholars think aloud, then at least glance through the carnival. For as Bob demonstrates despite the dearth of commenting and cross referencing (features of this technology of publication we all anjoyed in ‘the old days’ and miss terribly) biblical studies online is a thriving and interesting common room of ideas, and in this carnival you will find treasure – I guarantee it.

The End of the World: important announcement

It must be such fun to be a literalist with an interest in End Times. The whole Bible becomes a playground, the smallest detail can be twisted into place. For such literalists Scripture becomes a sort of intellectual Lego set from which all sorts of fun and frightening robots can be made.

But, next time someone seeks to scare you with the imminent end of the world, if you read this post to the end, and totally free with no donation required, you too can have the answer. [No, you pagan, it is not ’42’.]

Reading a student essay on one of the less interesting (at least as this student presents it) books of the Bible, I found the key. No, not in the student’s work, that would be plagiarism, but in the simple literal meaning of Scripture. The text at issue is Deuteronomy 7:9, there we read:

Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations…

The world will end in somewhere between 25,000 and 46,000 years from now (approximately and allowing nothing for errors). I need no longer fear each creative  but, oh so, literal reading of Revelation, or even from the mysterious apocryphal book of Revelations.

Why am I so sure? Well if a generation is between 30 and 40 years and Moses, the speaker of the words, lived about 4,000 years ago or perhaps quite a bit less, we have a yonk or three before this earth-bound promise ends. Namely, between 30 and 40 thousand years from Moses, or at least 25,000 years from now, though thankfully not more than 46,000, which would be far too long to wait.

Since I am not now, nor have I ever been, a literalist,instead I will continue to pray along with John ‘Come lord Jesus!’ and given the sad state of the world the sooner the better.

PS naturally there is plenty of room for minority opinions not only about the length of a generation but also about the timing and influence of ‘the millennium’.

Fifty years ago God called me to serve the church

God didn’t call me because the church (any church) was great and good. I was still almost a teenager, and I knew that was not true. (If you ever want to know what’s wrong with your church ask the teens, they have strong noses and weak stomachs for pride, conventionality, comfort-seeking, and hypocrisy.)

God didn’t call me because I was great or good. Let’s face it I am, and was even then, just as or even more likely than the next person to look for the easy way, to try to appear better than I am, and even to fool myself that I have succeeded and am better than I am.

God called me because like the church (my church, your church, every church) I am broken and twisted and not at all ‘up to’ the task we have been set. There is no task more glorious than the church’s calling: to declare the Creator’s glory in the world, to be Jesus’ witnesses here, there, and everywhere, and to set loose the power of the Spirit among dispirited people.

Those are not tasks for mere mortals, they belong to Wonder Woman or Superman, not you and me. Yet whenever my friends (or other overgrown teenagers) point out the sadness and hypocrisy of the church, or I read the latest idiocy from the US Christians, I am reminded: ‘You are part of the solution, because you are part of the problem.’

That’s the call God laid on the recently but no longer teenaged me, no more and no less, and I have tried to live up to it ever since. I AM part of the solution, BECAUSE I am part of the problem.

Best carnival yet?

Karen R. Keen has done a superb job of collecting posts from  far and wide for the 149th Biblical Studies Carnival. It is wonderfully comprehensive with variety of genre (especially podcast as well as typescript), location (not just the USA), gender (not just male) etc. There is also so much here I had not seen, I have hours of productive procrastination before me!

Is this the best Carnival yet?

A lesson we need to keep on learning and an argument from silence with the power to convict

[Fill in the blank] are people, treat them as such!

It’s a lesson we (human beings, poor broken and ‘fallen’ as we are) need to keep on learning. Three things have reminded me of this recently.

First encouraging students to discover this message in composing essays on Ruth or on Jonah, and leading a group in a local ‘village’1 to study the same beautiful little books.

Second Hannah’s Blog-On Still Believing and a Little Narnia posted a beautiful quote from Dorothy L. Sayers (from her brilliant article “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man-there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them! ”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them, and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.2

[See aside below.]

The other was an equally, but quite differently, brilliant combination of research from several disciplines reported in “How To Get Kids To Pay Attention“. The gist of which is so simple, be like the Maya, and not like ‘Modern” Westerners, and treat children like real people, and they will learn to pay attention, and so learn much better.

So, two recent posts in the electronic world remind that women are people, and that children are people, and two little stories from the ancient world remind that foreigners are people. Revolutionary!

[Aside: Dorothy Sayers’ argument is a really neat example of the untruth of the claim that arguments from silence always lack force. That Jesus’ words and actions, remembered by four different (often quite different) streams of tradition3 and recorded in dozens of pages each, NEVER not once patronise a woman because of her gender – however we read them not matter how we twist them! It is an argument from silence with the power to convict.]

  1. In NZ a ‘village’ is a retirement settlement, usually a mix of houses and apartments with a medical ward for those needing more assistance. []
  2.  Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women, ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood (SUNY Press, 1983), 13. []
  3. Plus, if Mark Goodacre and others are quite mistaken, a fifth Q. []