Reflections on the debate over “marriage equality”

I’ve been watching the debate over the marriage equality bill with growing horror. Somehow the skill, humour and gentleness with which the “other side” has argued the case “for” has provoked many in the “Christian” camp to excesses that sometimes do deserve the accusations of gay bashing.

Of course the churches were on the back foot. Those Christians, that opposed the bill did so largely because they believe that Scripture teaches that homosexual activity is sinful. Without that conviction few have such clearly defined understandings of marriage or sex that they could bear the weight of the discussion. Yet by and large our society sees “sinful” as a positive adjective (“a sinfully rich” chocolate dessert anyone?) and the Bible as an outdated set of rules from a bygone age. (That both these views are dangerously false does not change their widespread adoption, or the fact that Christians cannot argue in the public square against gay marriage on the grounds that “the Bible says homosexuality is sinful”, and expect to be listened to.) Given this inability to argue from Scripture the public arguments offered have been tortuous and often false.  (Gays getting hitched will somehow destroy the meaning of heterosexual marriages, anyone?)

This, plus preparing to talk at Hillcrest Baptist on Sunday on “Gay Marriage”, has made me even more aware that, over the last century or so, the world has shifted on issues of sex and marriage and that Christians have by and large reacted, and often merely allowed themselves to be swept along by the social currents of the day. Before the current bill was passed the definition of marriage had already been changed drastically by reforms of divorce laws, changes in attitudes, language and habits have made sex merely about “pleasure”, and marriage about “self-fulfillment”, or (romantic) “love”.

The Pharisees cling to the old certainties and denounce the sins of others, while the Sadducees happily slide into the behaviour of the world around. The standard of the internal Christian discussion of the issues seems to amount to little more than one side bashing the same half-dozen Bible texts over their opponents’ heads, while their opponents suggest that somehow the changes in “culture” (seldom much more carefully discussed) mean those same texts are irrelevant. Either way the Bible loses its authority. The “Fundies” make Scripture a laughing stock, and the “Liberals” simply ignore it.

My response to the passing of the Bill? Christians need to take seriously the need to teach themselves and each other to read and interpret Scripture, and not merely treat it as a “promise box”,  or an armory full of convenient one-size-fits-all clubs.

Disbelieving the same god

“Unfortunately I was not able to gain access to the actual site.”

Deane Galbraith was kind enough to link to my podcast Was God married? Part two: the death of the goddess, as you might expect we do not see eye to eye. Deane prefers Stavrakopoulou’s version of things, pointing to a more recent TV show  in the BBC series, Bible’s Buried Secrets, in particular in episode 2.

In the programme Francesca rehearses much the same arguments more fully and in doing so the BBC provide stunning imagery and Stavrakopoulou presents the evidence well. The trouble is, she here also confounds history and theology, what happened in the past with what was written about it in the (more recent) past.

Her agenda is clear, and well-signposted. Near the beginning of the video she says:1

But there’s something about this ancient world that the Bible is not telling us… Hidden in its pages is a secret.

And according to her this “secret”:

Rocks the foundation of monotheism to its core.

Somewhat confusingly as the programme continues She changes her mind and says:

I think there’s evidence that the ancient Israelites also worshiped any gods… yet if you examine the biblical texts you find references to more than one god here in Jerusalem itself.

So, this is a “secret” when that suits her rhetorical needs “to undermine monotheism” but is clearly acknowledged in Scripture when admitting that suits her needs. This sort of fudging the evidence is not worthy of a scholar of her standing, though it does make “good television”.

In short (laying aside the places where Stavrokopoulou misrepresents the Bible, because she herself corrects those!) the facts are not at issue. Except at one point. She claims that biblical monotheism worships a male god, and she does not believe in such a god. I do not believe that the Bible presents Yahweh as a male god, and like her I do not believe in such a god.

  1. All quotations are my own transcriptions of the sound track, if there are any errors in the citations are problems of my hearing and I regret them.  []

And that sort of ship so suited me…

Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore Chapel End 2009 photo by highstone

Susanne at BLT: Not Just a Sandwich has an amusing post, The end of male headship, about the patriarchal assumption of male leadership and a British soap-opera currently popular in the USA, replete with upper-class twits and grovelling serfs.

That got me thinking. The word that American Evangelical Patriarchs have invented to claim biblical support for their theories is “headship”. The origins of this usage seem clear, the suffix -ship attached to the metaphorically used noun “head” found in Bible verses like Eph 5:23. The meaning of the -ship suffix is clear:

-ship suffix
having the rank, position, skill or relationship of the stated type

(Definition of -ship suffix from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)
It is therefore usually attached to a title, job description etc. like the examples listed. Indeed the usual English usage of “headship” reflects this, it refers to the time when someone acts as head teacher of a school. There “head” is no longer a metaphor but has become through common usage a title or position descriptor.
Does “head” as Paul uses it work that way? To Anglophone readers used to head teachers, head nurses, heads of department etc. it sounds as if “Christ is head of the church” works like that. Except as we have seen, it doesn’t. There is no use of  kephale “head” as such a position descriptor in Koine Greek. Paul’s own usage does not support it.
This modern invention of male “headship” is just that, a modern invention. Paul uses the metaphor of head to describe a relationship of nurturing, uniting and nourishing, he uses kyrios  “lord” to describe leading and commanding.1
  1. Listen to “Headship”: What did Paul really mean? for more explanation of this. []

Wonderland Spirituality and the Canaanite Genocide

This post is much the same text as my most recent 5 Minute Bible podcast, you may prefer one or the other ;) I don’t usually cross post like this, but posting in both places has been solw in recent months!

JK Gayle posted recently on the problematic genocidal texts in Scripture. (He links to several recent blog posts for anyone wanting to follow this further.)

 He included this quote from Rachel Held Evans:

I mentioned that upon reading the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho for myself, I realized it was a story about genocide, with God commanding Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in the city for the sole purpose of acquiring land. I explained that this seemed contrary to what Jesus taught about loving our enemies.

Afterwards, a youth leader informed me that when it came to Joshua and Jericho, I had nothing to worry about…and had no business getting his students worried either.

“I don’t know why you had to bring up the Jericho thing,” he said.

“Doesn’t that story bother you?” I asked. “Don’t you find the slaughter of men, women, and children horrific?”

“Not if it’s in the Bible.”

“Genocide doesn’t bother you if it’s in the Bible?”


He crossed his arms and a self-satisfied smile spread across his face. He was proud of his detachment, I realized. He seemed to think it represented some kind of spiritual strength.

Her topic is emotionless Evangelical theology. But from where I sit it seems also another example of what I think of as the six impossible things syndrome. (Perhaps because I have been thinking about Alice in Wonderland recently.) It has long seemed to me that many Evangelical theology students seem to subscribe to a view that goes something like this:

  • God is beyond human understanding

  • So truth about God does not always make sense to us (e.g. that God is three in one, or that Jesus is both fuly human and fully divine)

  • Faith is giving intellectual assent to something

  • The more difficult something is to believe the stronger one’s faith is if one “believes” it.

This set of ideas leads to a sort of Wonderland Spirituality. In Through the Looking Glass: and What Alice Found There in response to Alice’s refusal to accept her claim to be Ome Hundred and One, Five Months and a Day old, she says that Alice needs practice in believing impossible things:

“When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

According to this Wonderland spirituality, if something appears to be stated in Scripture, but is abhorent or seems impossible one should not ask sensible questions, but merely “believe” it (that is claim to give it intellectual assent) the more unlikely or disgusting the “belief” the greater the spiritual credit in claiming it.

The cure is to recognise that “belief” and “faith” in Scripture are much more to do with trusting people than with assenting to propositions. If we really trust God it becomes less significant whether we assent to the “truth” of some claim people say is made in Scripture. We are freed to think through what the apparent claim really implies. As Paul puts it: “Test everything, hold fast to what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21)

Revelation for preachers (or ordinary readers)

He referred to this image (the first to come up when he searched for “apocalyptic”) which ironically couldn’t be more wrong :)

One of my ex-bosses (Paul Windsor) has a superb post on preaching from revelation. Understandably he overlaps a lot with Laurie’s book. But for a really short guide to making sense of Revelation (surely one of the most “difficult”, and most abused, books in the Bible) this post is great stuff.

For my attempts at making sense of Revelation try these podcasts.

The theory of evolution and the theology of creation

Joel Watts posted this image and quote:

I must say I disagree with the reverend gentleman. I believe in the theory of evolution because the hypotheses that it requires in it’s commonly espoused forms today are better supported by the evidence than any alternative theory. I believe in the theology of creation for the same reasons. In both cases my upbringing and the many people I have talked to and read contribute to the firmness of these beliefs.

NB I call evolution a “theory” and creation a “theology” to highlight that the two explanatory schemas are used to answer very different sorts of questions. And NOT because one (evolution in my case) depends more on trusting the authority of others, while the other (creation in my case) depends more on personal observation and experience.

PS: The theory of gravity has been reformulated considerably over the years and now seems to fit the data even better ;)

More on the Bible and marriage

From a webpage titled: History of Winnie the Pooh

Gavin (at Otagosh) posted a fairly long response to my piece Biblical marriages. Since he took the trouble to reply at some length as a post, I’ll do the same.

His critique starts

Then Tim makes an amazing statement: “In terms of the teaching of Scripture it is clear that Gen 2 is a privileged text (Jesus and Paul both cite it when discussing marriage).”

Genesis 2 is a privileged text?  In what sense?  Both Jesus and Paul cite other texts too.  Or, to be more specific, Paul and the Gospel writers cite other texts.1

Well, yes, evidently both Jesus and Paul2 also refer to other parts of Scripture. A full treatment of what the Bible says about marriage would need to treat them and yet other texts (that neither of these use) also. But still it seems to me, for a Christian reading of Scripture the fact that both Jesus and Paul (more than once) cite Gen 2 does make that passage a somewhat privileged locus for seeking a biblical understanding of marriage.3 No, Gavin, I cannot accept that all texts, or passages, are equal. Like most people4 I have a “canon within the canon, though it will be different for different purposes and I think that (as I began to here)5

From a webpage titled: History of Winnie the Pooh

Gavin continued:

There were no “red letter” options available to indicate Jesus’ actual words, quotation marks had yet to be invented, and speaking of “invented”, much (please note that I’m not saying all) of the material attributed to Jesus has clearly been put into his mouth.

This seems to assume that when I say “Jesus” my interest is historical. There is a terrible tendency in modern thought to value history and “facts”. But I am not a historian, I am a theologian, my primary interest is not in reconstructing a plausible history but in the character “Jesus” who inspires and is the centre of the New Testament. This Jesus whether or not “invented”6 does make special use of this passage.

This section of the post concludes:

Tim’s decision to anoint Genesis two as “privileged” is entired [sic]7 theological and subjective.

I hope that I have shown that the first is entirely true, but perhaps to be expected of a theologian, and that the second is true only in the most general sense. I gave a reason that Gavin did not like, and in a short post failed to present any of the others, perhaps I have begun to rectify that lack above.

Gavin then quotes something I wrote and rejects it. I wrote:

“in this (as in everything else) human sinfulness warps and twists God’s intent. All of the ‘biblical’ marriages listed in the graphic reflect this.”

Gavin replied:

The problem is that, as Tim knows full well, the documents themselves contain little or no condemnation of these customs.  If there’s warping and twisting going on, wouldn’t you assume that this would be signalled within the text

Well, Gavin and I might assume that, but the fact is that biblical narratives though they frequently recount the most terrible breaches of God’s desires (as expressed in the texts themselves) seldom mark them as such, we cannot rely on such explicit markers. But then the simple fact that no Bible character (with the arguable exception of Jesus) is presented without faults, sins and failings might suggest – and certainly does to my theological reading – that the Bible sees humans as sinful, warped and twisted. Nice middle-class liberal moderns may not like it, but we are all broken and in need of repair.

On the charge of biblicism that Gavin closes with, perhaps I’d be happy to plead guilty.

  1. I am sorry, I have spent half an hour playing with HTML but cannot reproduce gavin’s emphasis in these quotes, something to do with the way this theme handles blockquotes :( []
  2. See below, I’ll continue to use these convenient shorthand designations despite Gavin’s scorning of them. []
  3. Much like a blog post getting lots of links would privilegeit in Google’s algorithms ;) []
  4. Except raging fundamentalists. []
  5. Though of course in a longer treatment I should have added other reasons, like the claim that Genesis serves as a preface to both the Torah and Scripture as a whole, and the further claim that the early chapters are particularly “laden” with significant teaching, and the claim that Gen 2 is “about” marriage and is one of few Old Testament texts that are… []
  6. I know why I put quotation marks round the word, since i seriously doubt that the gospel authors or the traditions that may stand behind them intended to “invent”, but why does Gavin use scare quotes here? []
  7. PS3/2/12  now corrected in the original post. []

Biblical marriages

A popular infographic claims to present interesting, even shocking, information about “biblical marriage”. This biblical marriage infographic is unhelpful.

Biblical marriage infographic

Facebook does not seen good at giving attributions, so I don’t know who produced biblical marriage infographic, if it was you write to me and I’ll gladly attribute it :)

I’ve seen several people, including Rowland Crowcher, post this “infographic” on Facebook. Since I’ve spoken quite a bit on “Family in the Bible”, and am due to speak to a leaders group from the NZ Christian Network on the “Theology of Marriage” really soon it makes me hopping mad!

In one sense the graphic is “true”. The Bible does present all these, and more (some arguably worse) patterns of marriage. It is also true that God chose to work in and through many of these. Just looking at Abraham (the “father” of the three monotheistic religions) or Jacob (aka “Israel”) makes it clear that God does not turn aside from some convoluted and perverse human arrangements in choosing who to use as a channel of grace.

But, do any of these represent “a biblical view of marriage”. Hell no! It is time for some stakes in the ground. In terms of the teaching of Scripture it is clear that Gen 2 is a privileged text (Jesus and Paul both cite it when discussing marriage). This passage, and the teaching of Jesus and Paul make some basics clear:

  • was ordained by God
  • is the union of a man and a woman
    • produces and nurtures the next generation
    • provides necessary partnership

However, in this (as in everything else) human sinfulness warps and twists God’s intent. All of the “biblical” marriages listed in the graphic reflect this.

See some of my earlier posts for background to this one:

I am aware that some people will understand what I have written in the very short and angry post as endorsing particular views on the currently hot and vexed topic of “Gay marriages”. It does. Gay marriage is perhaps an oxymoron if marriage the partnership of a man and a woman, and is intended to produce as well as nurture the next generation. However, the view endorsed above says nothing about either Civil Unions, or about the possibility of blessing (or even solemnising) them in churches. As far as I am concerned that seem to be separate issues, and ones on which my view of marriage does not entail any particular position. I wish that we (Christians of all stripes, marriage activists of every opinion, and especially the authorities of both states and churches) would just sit back and separate the two things and issues.

Study Bibles are cursed: let’s all join the chorus

Photo by unaesthetic

David Lamb has a fine rant: I hate Study Bibles. Here’s the heart of it:

Study Bible comments are kind of like stuff on the internet. Sometimes the information is good, sometimes it’s junk. But at least when you go to the internet, you know you’re going to find some junk. You don’t expect to find junk in your Bible. At least you shouldn’t.

Some Study Bibles are relatively harmless, and even helpful at times. The notes are limited and just provide context and background that most typical Bible readers just don’t know.

The curse in Rev 21:18 is fairly explicit:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.

A charitable interpretation would be that the curse only applies to Revelation (“this scroll”) in which case I suppose a “study bible” with ZERO additions to Revelation escapes the curse. But friends your trusty NIV Study Bible is cursed with all the plagues described in Revelation!


How Fundamentalists muck up the Bible

My title is less precise, but I think more evocative of what I see as the real problem that Randal Rauser’s How fundamentalists undermine the authority of scripture. But then no one would accuse me of being systematic, even if they do understand that I’m a theologian ;)

Randal is rapidly becoming my go-to for a Systematic Theologian or Philosopher who understands the Bible. In this post he neatly and surgically dissects the “literal where possible” claim that Fundamentalists make, and shows it to be daft, dangerous and a disaster for those of us who love, but do not worship, Scripture.

Read it!