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. []

Women should be seen and not heard!

The Bible says

Well actually, of course, it doesn’t. What it does say, at least in a couple of places is shocking enough:

…women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. (1 Cor 14:34 NRSV)

And as many famous US pastors with powerful ministries have noted and proclaimed:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1 Tim 2:12 NRSV)

Which, you have to admit, sounds pretty close to my deliberately inflammatory title!

At this point, if you are like me, all your hackles are rising and you are muttering to yourself: What about the gospel? What about Paul? Paul summed up the consequences of being baptised ‘into Christ’ and so being (each and together) ‘clothed in Christ:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28 ESV)

Indeed, if we just look at the question of women teaching men, what about Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman who when he suggested that he should not offer her daughter the healing mercy that he was offering to proper Israelites, argued back against him and evoked the response:

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matt 15:28 NRSV)

You are just twisting the Bible

Anyone who tries to explain how context, careful attention to the wording, and other cues might cause us to understand the two passages about women being silent differently from their literal surface meaning will have met the response: ‘You are just twisting the Bible to avoid its plain meaning.’

This sounds like a ‘nice knock down argument’,1 after all surely we must all prefer the plain obvious meaning?

But that is precisely the problem. By their focus on the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a couple of passages, and their staunch and principled refusal to consider revisionist readings of these passages, these teachers must twist the plain, simple, obvious meaning of the gospel and of loads of whole passages and stories from across the Bible from at least as early as Deborah (in Judges) to at least as late as Jesus and Paul (in the New Testament).

Here is a rule you can trust

Whenever the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a few passages seems to conflict with, contradict, or merely seems uncomfortable alongside the great truths of the gospel that are proclaimed across the whole of Scripture then we have somehow misunderstood those passages!

  1. This phrase was chosen because it echoes Humpty Dumpty, because I believe these famous pastors with the powerful ministries are followers of Dumpyites. []

Scripture and the “gay marriage” debate

I had an unexpected visit from a friend this evening. Among the wide-ranging and inspiring (as well as depressing since we talked of the plight of the Rohingya) topics we addressed was the question facing the Baptist Churches of NZ of what to do faced with many churches who believe that to perform the marriage of a gay couple would deny the truths taught in Scripture and other churches convinced that to refuse to perform such marriages would in itself be a denial of truths taught clearly in Scripture.

I do not want to address this issue directly, but rather the similar issue of divorce – also a question of sexual ethics that can be addressed from Scripture fairly directly.

The Bible seems to me to speak with only two voices on divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” which allows divorce. The translation of the grounds is open to some debate (for an idea of the range cf. NIV and NRSV) but but in Jesus day the issue resolved into a debate between “conservatives” who only allowed unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, and the “liberals” who allowed divorce for “any reason” (pretty much the position the laws of most Western countries take today.

Jesus seems (Matt 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4) to take a hard line. Arguing that divorce contravenes God’s intention expressed in Gen 2 and concluding: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9)1

I am ignoring Mal 2:16 as this passage (in which God says “I hate divorce”) may not be speaking of literal divorce but rather Israel’s unfaithfulness to her covenant partner, God.

In terms of a Christian position on this issue I can see no justification for setting aside Jesus words and returning to the law of the Old Testament. One common approach to the “problem” of OT law for Christians is to argue the opposite, that only what is affirmed in the NT applies to us. I believe that position to be wrong, but still cannot accept setting aside a saying of Jesus (repeated three times)  in favour of a difficult to translate OT law.

Yet somehow almost all churches today in NZ accept divorce certificates issued by the NZ state as a result of a “no fault” process. They then remarry these divorced people.

I would be grateful for someone who can explain to me how the hermeneutics that allows this flagrant breach of Jesus’ clear and strong teaching applies to “gay marriage”!

[This is a genuine question, I am still unsure where I stand on the question of churches performing “gay marriages”, but I am quite clear on the biblical teaching on divorce. I do not understand how one can allow churches that practice the remarriage of “no fault” divorced people to remain in communion yet argue that churches that practice “gay marriage” should be excluded.]

  1. There is a case to be made that Jesus’ position is not as stark as it seems but that he was siding with the “conservatives” and only allowing divorce for unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse. []

Fishing on Galilee

Richard Bauckham (University of St Andrews) gave the 2014 Burns Lectures at the University of Otago. The podcast MP3 or MP41 Titled “The Sons of Zebedee: The Lives of Two Galilean Fishers”, the lectures (at least so far, I am finishing #2 as I write) provide careful and full descriptions of the geographical and social contexts of Galilee in the time of Jesus.

If you watch no more, watch the first few minutes of lecture #1! They alone will give you a fine sense of the little world of 1st Century lake Galilee and enrich your reading of the gospels out of all proportion to the time spent.

Here are links to mp4 (video) and mp3 files:
1) The World of the Lake of Galilee’ – Tuesday 12 August (video) (mp3)
2) ‘The Fishing Industry’ – Wednesday 13 August (video) (mp3)
3) ‘Zebedee and Sons’ – Thursday 14 August (video) (mp3)
4) ‘Called to Fish for People’ – Tuesday 19 August (video) (mp3)
5) ‘Sons of Thunder’ – Wednesday 20 August (video) (mp3)
6) ‘Jerusalem’ – Thursday 21 August (video) (mp3)

HT: Deane Galbraith

  1. The MP3s are excessively high quality, 160kbps, so are almost as big as the video, caveat downloador.  []

Sexist language hobbles scholarship

For decades I have battled with students who insist on using “he” to mean “she or he” and “Man” to mean “men and women”, even “a man” to mean “a human person”. I’ve explained to them, as patiently as I can, that research shows that such language slows comprehension, even among people like them who believe they are comfortable with such “generic” use of gendered language.

I’ve also more generally tried to show students, not just the unrepentant sexist ones, that different perspectives offer richer readings of a text than one monotonous one.

Michelle Fletcher of King’s College, London, in a guest post “Reading with fresh eyes: #heforshe, NT scholarship and sexism” on James Crossley’s blog offers a neat powerful example of how such “generic” language, by its unexamined sexism blinds scholars and hobbles their search for truth.

If you haven’t already, go and read her post. Even if her reading of Mark 7:14-23 were wrong, the very fact that this possibility has not been considered demonstrates how sexist language hobbles schlarship.

Preaching the short ending of Mark

I love the short ending of Mark. To end a gospel with “for they were afraid” is brilliant, to end this gospel like that is nothing short of genius. Add to the pleasure of real richly provocative composition the ending seems to focus on the theme of the “fear of God” – hardly a popular topic today ;)

I really enjoyed myself, but what do you think?

And before ex-Carey students complain, I admit, I broke my own advice and did not offer concrete local real application, but stopped with vague and general “theology” :( Maybe if this was a series on Mark 16 (in the best edition of Mark) then I’d have managed that too ;)

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. []