A record of thoughts about teaching, writing, and living the academic life.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Apocalyptic Autobiography

I was asked (OK, maybe I volunteered) to talk about apocalyptic in a colleague's class on Christian Traditions.  I decided to approach the topic through the lens of my experience growing up in an evangelical Christian context, surrounded by apocalyptic and millenarian thinking and conversations. Here are some pieces of that presentation.

The picture on the left is my mom and me (it's actually probably 1973, but that's as close as I could come). My mom, one of the first college graduates in her family and an elementary school librarian, was a very observant Christian.  She was always interested in learning more about the Bible.  One of the topics that interested her was apocalyptic prophecy, so Hal Lindsey's books were part of our home library.  Although my mother didn't embrace millenarian thinking entirely, conversations about eschatology were familiar in our home and within our family.  In particular, my grandfather, a Russian immigrant, believed that the tribulation had begun in Stalinist Russian.

Like so many kids growing up in the 1970's and 1980's in an evangelical context, I was exposed to apocalyptic rhetoric in various settings, including camp meetings, church youth group, Bible study, etc. I remember attending a beach retreat when I was in grade school (probably about 5th grade) with my youth group and screening "A Thief in the Night" after a full day of fun at the beach. What a way to end a day of fun . . . with a good dose of apocalyptic horror.  (Here's a link to a great article about the 40th anniversary of the move.)

I was a very earnest kid.  In fact, probably too earnest, too serious.  And, beginning in the 4th or 5th grade I began having uncontrollable panic attacks, occasions in which I would experience a range of different symptoms, including rapid heart-beat and breathing, a sense of dread, sweats, nervousness, shaking, lowered blood pressure, nausea, faintness, blurred vision, ringing in my ears.  These panic attacks often would lead to fainting.  While I wouldn't link these panic attacks and the depression that accompanied them to the apocalyptic rhetoric that surrounded me, the fear of being "left behind" and not being "right with God" surely did not help my situation. (Watching films was  a trigger for my panic attacks and for a number of years I was excused from watching movies at school for fear that I would faint.)

In 1988, I was very involved with my church, working as a camp counselor for various congregations in our denomination. During this time, a number of people around me began to circulate the little booklet "88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988." While I had some doubts about the book, a part of me believed that it could be true.  I was worried and anxious and . . . I was about to start my first year in college.

This is a picture of me standing by the car that I would take with me to college.  My first week of school corresponded to the week that was supposed to be the end.  I remember be nervous about being away from home, away from my family.  I was confused about why God might choose this particular time in history.  Fact is, I wanted to go to college.  I wanted to experience being away from home.

FYI, the rapture didn't happen in 1988.  

I wasn't disappointed.

But, I did have to rethink my tradition and my understanding of the Bible.

Eventually, when I started a graduate program in New Testament studies, I was not interested in studying Revelation.  I didn't want to touch the book with a 10 foot pole.  I was actually concerned that it might give me panic attacks.  However, after taking a seminar on the text, a seminar which allowed me to think about the text in its historical context, I became fascinated with its imagery.  I became passionate about exploring how a text from the first-century, ostensibly written as a critique of the Roman Empire, could continue to capture the imaginations of readers throughout history.  Why is Revelation so compelling?  How has this poorly written Greek text managed to capture the imaginations of readers throughout history?

My answer begins here: It's the imagery, and the text's ability to conjure the audience's visual imagination.  Among other things of course . . . 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Who is My Family?

Detail from the "Two Brothers" sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum.  Are they two brothers, Peter and Paul, or a couple?  Inquiring minds want to know?
Since I haven't posted in awhile, I thought I would post the sermon I preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Winston-Salem earlier this summer.  It was their Pride Sunday service:
I want to thank you for inviting me to speak on Pride Sunday.  I’m honored to mark this day with a congregation that stands in support of LGBTQ equality and justice.  I am, as I’m sure many of you are, still processing and trying to understand the implications of the vote on May 8.  Given this I want to frame my comments in relation to this vote, an event that signals that we still have a long way to go to winning over the hearts and minds of our neighbors.  Many of these neighbors, folks who supported the Amendment, identify as Christian and they claim the Bible as justification for their perspective, a perspective that is often described as “pro-family.”  Given the importance of this “family” language, the campaign against Amendment One was cast in similar terms, protecting all North Carolina families.  In some sense, the fight for LGBTQ equality here in North Carolina was cast in terms that tried to make LGBTQ individuals and families seem less threatening and, perhaps, even more “Christian.”  Gay and lesbians may seem scary, but surely families aren’t threatening . . . or are they?
As someone who studies and teaches the New Testament, I resist the notion that the writings of the New Testament unequivocally and primarily support the vision of family espoused by the Right in our country.  I also resist the suggestion that “family,” understood in terms of the heterosexual, nuclear family unit, is a superior value within the New Testament.  In contrast, the texts that we will explore today suggest early Christian ambivalence about traditional notions of family and prioritize love of God and neighbor before family and marriage.  Hopefully, thinking about these texts together can inform our conversations with our Christian neighbors, but also help us find pride in the variety of ways we configure our closest relationships.

Who is my family?
The Gospel of Mark is my favorite Gospel.  This is primarily because Mark’s depiction of Jesus is so different than the saccharine portraits of Jesus we’re used to seeing around us.  Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark doesn’t dwell on the birth and infancy of Jesus, instead introducing us to an adult male who seeks baptism from a radical religious leader in the wilderness before preaching his own message about the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God (1:15).  Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is a man of few words and when he does speak, nobody quite understands him for he speaks in parables and riddles (Mark 4:12).  Mark’s Jesus is more interested in faith, than understanding.  Early on in the story of Mark, Jesus is noted for challenging social mores, eating alongside of tax collectors and sinners and even taking it upon himself to pronounce people forgiven of their wrongdoings.  That is, Jesus flaunts social expectations and acts in ways that seem . . . perhaps . . . a little queer.
In Mark 3, after healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath (another action that resists social convention), Jesus returns to his family home only to have a crowd begin to gather around him.  The crowd is so large, in fact, that Jesus and his followers can’t even eat, according to the text.  The scene is one of chaos.  Given this, those “around him,” which English translations often render as “his family,” try to restrain Jesus because he is “beside himself” or “out of his mind” (3:21).  In other words, those who should be close to him, namely his family, have been made so uncomfortable by Jesus’ actions that they think he’s crazy.  Perhaps they are embarrassed by the company he keeps.  Or, perhaps, they are offended by his failure to follow social rules and expectations.  Whatever the motivation of those around him, the idea that Jesus’ family might have tried to restrain because of his odd and inappropriate behavior is a striking image, as we think about all the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and trans children, teens, and even adults who are rejected by their families because their behavior is deemed strange, abnormal, or sinful.  Families, for many of us, can be threatening.
In the first century world of Roman occupied Judea, the land in which the Jesus movement emerged, family was the most important social unit.  According to historian Ross Kraemer, “much ordinary social life was family life” (p. 539).  You ate with your family, cooked with your family, worked with your family, worshipped with your family.  Your family determined who you would marry and what type of role you played in the wider community.  It was through the nexus of the family that you interacted with the rest of the world.  Families were so important in this context that an individual’s actions necessarily shaped how the entire family was understood and treated by the rest of the community.  The last thing anyone would want to do would be to bring shame upon his or her entire family in some way.
Eventually, after contending with some local officials who accuse him of being an agent of Satan, an evil person in other words, Jesus’ mother and brothers begin asking for Jesus.  At this point maybe they are trying to do some damage control.  If they could just get ahold of him and get him inside the house, maybe, perhaps, the family could still save face.  Jesus, however, resists their attempts at bringing him back into the household.  He rejects those who would have him restrained, turning to the crowd of people who had followed him there and asking the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  In one question, Jesus challenges the importance of the biological and socially determined family.  And then, answering his own question, Jesus explains, “"Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."  Risking social shame by rejecting his biological family, Jesus proclaims that true family is defined by a shared commitment.  In these few lines, Jesus replaces his biological family with an intentional and alternative a family. 
The commitment that binds the alternative family affirmed by Jesus is a commitment to God’s will, which in this ancient tradition is associated with loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (12:28-31).  This is described in Mark as “the greatest commandment.”  In fact, this understanding of God’s will as love of God and neighbor is not unique to Jesus, but was a part of the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ day.  This is important for a number of reasons.  First, Jesus does not define his true family by whether or not they do what he wants. This radical new family structure is not built out of narcissism, it is not a cult of personality.  Rather, it is a family based upon acting in love toward God and neighbor.  Second, given the history of Christian oppression of Jews and Judaism, it is important to recognize that in this moment Jesus isn’t rejecting his tradition, but building an alternative family based upon the heart of this tradition.
From my perspective, I find in this text a bit of good news, which is what “gospel” literally means.  For those of us who have been rejected by our families, we see that experience being acknowledged here.  The Gospel story is our story.  We also see that the option of creating an alternative family through intentional community is honored.  Moreover, we are offered a precedent for challenging the norm of what’s socially acceptable in terms of our family configurations.  Here, family, as traditionally understood and socially sanctioned, is not the ultimate good; instead, the love of neighbor that binds us to one another is essential.
The ambivalent attitude exhibited by Mark’s Jesus toward his biological family is not unique in early Christian tradition.   Historically, the Christian tradition has challenged the societal tendency to lift the family relationship, including the marriage relationship, above all others.
The apostle Paul, the Christian tradition’s earliest witness and one of its most controversial, offers the most detailed discussion of marriage in the New Testament in a letter sent to the Corinthian Church.  This is a congregation in turmoil.  It is a congregation divided, as different groups compete for status, trying to one up each other in terms of piety, faithfulness, and wisdom.  They are apparently arguing about who offers the most important gifts to the congregation, who has the best or most “faithful” diet, and who is the best leader to be baptized by.  The congregation seems a mess.  In fact, the congregation also is trying to out-do one another in terms of their familial arrangements, arguing that one type of familial arrangement is better than another—some apparently advocating marriage, while others advocating celibacy.  You can imagine that each group brings to the argument an absolute sense of being right.  “Surely, God wants us to be married!”  “Surely, God wants us to be celibate!”
During the first century Roman Empire, the setting for Paul’s ministry, marriage was understood in terms of being a good citizen.  Marriage supposedly ensured the strength and longevity of the Empire, by promoting childbirth.  There were legal incentives, as there are today, for citizens who married.  While marriage was highly valued in the Empire, only Roman citizens could legally or officially marry one another.  Soldiers, even if there were citizens, were not allowed to marry.  In other words, only some within Paul’s communities, only a portion of early Christians, would have been able to legally marry; most would have lived in common-law, unofficial, marriages.  In light of this, when Paul talks about marriage he might actually not be talking about legal unions since marriage was limited to only an exclusive group.
But back to the Corinthians, Paul responds to the issue of whether marriage or celibacy is the best way, by explaining that while his personal preference is that people are unmarried, as he himself is unmarried, both positions are fine:  marriage is fine and being unmarried is fine.  If you can’t keep yourself from having sex, get married.  If you can exercise self-control, stay unmarried as marriage leads to anxieties.  The reason for Paul’s ambivalence here has to do with two things.  First, he believes Jesus is coming back any minute . . . so, it doesn’t much matter if people are married or not.  Second, and more important for our purposes, is that these social relationships are secondary to the primary relationship the community should embrace.  That is, the community should be focused upon living as a single body, in spite of their differences.  Arguing over what to eat, proclaiming superiority because of one’s gifts, debating over whether it is better to marry or not marry creates division.  Instead of division, Paul advocates unity through love.  It is in light of this that Paul writes one of his most famous passages.  Talking about the Christian community and not about couples, Paul proclaims,  4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
In this way, the members of the community are called to love one another; they are to put aside differences, hierarchies, and status markers to be united in love.  For Paul, the greatest virtue within the community is not marriage, but love within community.
While we would be hard pressed to say that Paul offers a positive perspective on homosexuality, as a product of his day “gay” and “lesbian” identities are a completely foreign concept to him.  However, Paul does go against the norm of his day by suggesting that marriage is an option that is no better than not being married.  In other words, he challenges the perception that a heterosexual pairing is the best and most desirable relationship to have.  He refuses to mimic imperial rhetoric that values marriages as a means of strengthening the state.  Rather, Paul downgrades the importance of marriage in favor of the love shared within Christian community.  Again, love of God, love of neighbor, love of community is valued over the socially dominant vision of the family. 
I share these two New Testament traditions with you today, Pride Sunday, because, first of all, they complicate the dominant assumption that the Bible is “pro-family,” meaning that the Bible values heterosexual families as an ultimate value.  And, as we saw in Mark, there are instances when the traditional vision of family is challenged or rejected.  There is the recognition that families sometimes can be threatening and that there are times when there is a need for redefining family and for creating intentional families.  There is a precedent for creating families outside of the strictures of what the broader family finds acceptable.  This, for me, is a powerful witness to the importance of non-traditional families.
Second, in both of these traditions we see the valuing of love.  This does not preclude love within traditional families, but it includes love of family within the context of something bigger—love of God, love of neighbor, love of community.  This is an expansive notion of love, which calls us to put aside differences and loves none-the-less.  We can and should love those within traditional families and we can and should love those within non-traditional families and we can and should love those who would understand themselves as family-less.  This is a picture of love that I hope we all can embrace.  A picture of love in which we can find our pride.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Perspectives on Marriage: Elon Community Church Town Hall

The following are my comments from a community town hall meeting at Elon Community Church on April 17th, 2012.
I want to thank Elon Community Church for sponsoring this important event and I want to thank my co-panelists for their comments, and I want to thank you all for having a spirit of inquiry.  Our state will be making an important decision on May 8 and I hope that I can help folks become more informed as they go to the polls.  When Rev. Orwig approached me about this panel, he underscored that the panelists should present a balanced perspective regarding Amendment One.  I hope to do my best to provide a fair accounting; however, as someone trained to interpret the New Testament, the best I can do is to give you a glimpse at the biblical text’s approach to marriage and family within the text’s historical context.  In other words, in the next few minutes I want to highlight some of the ways that the writers of the biblical texts have understood marriage, so that you might use this information as a lens to assess different groups’ claims about Amendment One.
  One of the claims made by those in support of Amendment One is that it preserves a “traditional” or “biblical” view of marriage.  Supporters of Amendment One and legislation like it, maintain that historically marriage has been between one man and one woman and that this legislation will offer an unprecedented change to a historically static and even “God given” institution.  In particular, supporters of Amendment One note that the Bible never commends marriage between two men or two women, that the codes in Leviticus forbid a man laying with another man as with a woman, that the first couple imagined within the Book of Genesis is comprised of a male and female.  Thus, marriage “traditionalists,” as we might call this position, argue that these point to a relatively fixed and historically consistent picture of marriage being between one man and one woman. 
This traditionalist perspective, however, glosses over the fact that Old Testament depictions of marriage also include positive evaluations of men who took slaves as concubines (e.g. Abraham) and men who had multiple wives (e.g. Jacob had two wives and Solomon had 700, according to 1 Kings 11).  In the biblical texts and in the ancient world, these marriages were considered appropriate, even though we, living in the twenty-first century, may see these marriages as far from ideal or fair.  The issue here is, the biblical texts present marriage as something shaped by historical context and cultural practices, and the texts suggest that marriage changes over time.  In light of these examples we, particularly Christians who claim the Bible as source of God’s direction and guidance, are forced to ask which depictions or discussions of marriage in the biblical texts are authoritative, for the biblical image of marriage is more complicated than the “one man plus one woman equals marriage” often depicted on bumper stickers and yard signs.
In fact, one of the most poignant images of faithful love in the Old Testament tradition is Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi.  Just as in Genesis it suggests that a man will leave his home and “cling” to his wife, so Ruth clings to Naomi in Ruth 1:14.  To be sure, Ruth and Naomi are not necessarily described as married (even though some might argue the word “cling” conveys this), but their story brings into relief the fact that Old Testament tradition also does depict a range of relationships between men and women, and men and men, and women and women.  There is a valuing in the texts of familial configurations beyond the traditionalist vision. 
But let me turn to the texts and traditions with which I am most familiar, the texts that for many are the heart of the Christian tradition—the New Testament. 
One of the things that my students find most surprising when studying the New Testament is the portrayal of Jesus as disinterested in what were traditional notions of marriage and family in his time.  The Gospel writers record one instance (recorded by both Mark and Matthew) in which Jesus offers an explicit teaching about marriage or, to be more accurate, about divorce.  In response to questioning, Jesus teaches that divorce should happen only in the case of un-chastity; a teaching that is reinterpreted by many today.  Very few Christians take this text literally, especially Jesus’ explanation that remarriage after divorce is adultery.  In response to Jesus’ stringent proclamation, for Jesus’ teaching is stricter than other first-century Jewish teachings about divorce, the disciples suggest, perhaps facetiously, that it is better not to marry.  Jesus doesn’t disagree with them and then he positively references those who are eunuchs for kingdom and those who renounce marriage.  This episode, described in Matthew 19, surely does not offer a clear support of marriage.  In fact, the importance of marriage is qualified by commitment to the kingdom of God.  Marriage, here, is not God-given and Jesus explicitly seeks to offer a new and different teaching about marriage or divorce. 
Jesus’ disinterested in traditional perspectives on marriage is also evidenced in his call to the disciples.  Culturally and historically, we can imagine that Jesus’ closest disciples, as adult Jewish males, would have been married.  Families were eager to have sons marry, as it meant another set of hands to work within the household.  In spite of this, Jesus still calls them to follow him as wanders throughout Judea and Galilee.  They are to leave everything, including presumably wives and children, as they accompany Jesus toward his certain death at the hands of Rome.  Throughout the Gospels Jesus calls individuals to abandon their familial connections and to follow him.  In fact, Jesus shows little respect for his own biological family and is depicted, in the Gospel of Mark, as defining those who follow God’s commandments as his true family.  This was pretty radical in a time when one’s family was the primary means through which an individual related to his or her community.  Individuals were defined by their familial relationships (e.g. Jesus is the son of Joseph, James the son of Zebedee), but Jesus is portrayed as defining individuals by their commitment to the greatest commandment, loving God fully and loving ones neighbor.  Marriage, in the Gospels, isn’t the greatest good.
The apostle Paul, the Christian traditions earliest witness, offers the most explicit discussion of marriage in the New Testament in a letter sent to the Corinthian Church.  In this letter, Paul clearly explains that marriage is fine . . . for those who cannot manage to remain unmarried as he happens to be.  Marriage is a compromise; instead, given his belief that the Lord will return soon, Paul advocates a life of celibacy or virginity.  In fact, within the first century Roman Empire, the setting for Paul’s ministry, only Roman citizens could legally marry.  Soldiers, even if citizens, were not allowed to marry.   In other words, only some within Paul’s communities, only a portion of early Christians, would have been able to legally marry; most would have lived in common-law, unofficial, “marriages.”  In light of this, when Paul talks about marriage he might actually not be talking about legal unions since marriage was limited to only an exclusive group.  Again, this points to the fact that in the biblical texts, marriage is not depicted as something unchanging and eternal, as something that should be protected as an ultimate good.  To use the biblical text in this way is problematic.
More importantly, throughout his message to the Corinthian community, a community torn up by divisions, Paul advocates putting aside hierarchies and status markers to be united in love.  Talking about the Christian community and not about couples, Paul proclaims in 1 Corinthians 13,
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
For Paul, the greatest virtue is love within the community and not love in marriage. 
I’m sharing these perspectives with you to underscore two things.  First, the Bible as a whole and the New Testament in particular does not offer an unequivocal picture of marriage and family.  Just as it does not commend same-sex marriage, it does not offer a pro-marriage, vision.  It does not idealize or idolize the image of one man and one woman, as some would argue.  Second, the writings of the New Testament, including the Gospels and the Pauline letters, subordinate social relationships, such as marriage, to love, love of neighbor and love within the community.  I hope that as you listen to perspectives on Amendment One, you think carefully about how people use the biblical texts to justify their position.  The Bible is not a tool for arguing for or against other-sexed or same-sex marriage. 
Speaking personally, as someone within the Christian community, my fear is that Amendment One runs the risk of bringing animosity between neighbors and dividing communities.  To pass legislation which is redundant, to go out of the way to amend the Constitution with the only outcome being the reassertion that one group has rights and privileges that another group does not have is antithetical to love.  It is hurtful and hateful.