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A Gender-Neutral God in Hymns

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The other day, I found myself going through some hymns of hope and comfort that a hymn blogger has been posting daily through the coronavirus pandemic.  The style (organ plus choir) isn’t my thing; from my perspective, you’ve got a nasty instrument drowning out the good parts.  However, the hymns themselves were generally quite good, even the ones we don’t sing, like “All My Hope on God Is Founded”.

In time, I came to this version of “How Firm a Foundation”.  I was particularly interested in it; after all, the very title of my blog comes from the hymn!  Rather than the lyrics I’ve known all my life, though, here’s how the first verse went:

How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in God’s excellent word;
What more can be said than to you God has said,
You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

My first thought was, “Ewww!  Were the hymnal editors allergic to pronouns?”  My second thought was, “No; they’re only allergic to masculine pronouns.”

Gender-neutrality in hymns has been a topic of discussion for several decades if not more.  I find some forms of it to be utterly unobjectionable (writing hymns that refer to both men and women) and others to be mildly so (rewriting older hymns to refer to both men and women).  However, I have serious problems with taking hymns that refer to God as Father and King and rewriting them so that God is no longer even masculine.

First, the only way to justify such a change is to perform some dramatic surgery on the Bible too.  How many times in Scripture is God a He or a Him?  How many times in the New Testament is He the Father?  How many times in the Psalms is He King?  Reading out of a Bible that says such things on the one hand and singing hymns that deny their truth on the other creates massive cognitive dissonance.

(Yes; I am aware that there are Scriptural texts--Isaiah 49:15, for instance--that compare God to a woman.  In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul compares himself to a woman.  That doesn’t mean that Paul was feminine.)

To be quite frank, we live in a society that needs to spend more time considering the patriarchal authority of God, not less.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that the same folks who deny God’s masculinity also reject what the word of God has to say about sex and gender roles (and many other things).  At that point, regardless of what they might think about their “worship”, they are not prostrating themselves before Him in any meaningful sense.  We don’t need hymnals that encourage us to abandon reverence and subjection.  We need the opposite.

Finally, it shows a great deal of disdain for the hymnists of earlier eras, their convictions, and their work.  I’m as sure as I can be that if I had asked Robert Keene (the probable author of “How Firm a Foundation”) if God was masculine, he would have replied incredulously, “Of course!”, and he certainly would not have approved stripping out the evidence of His masculinity from his hymn.

Such lack of respect is par for the course for our amnesiac society.  We are very concerned about diversity and honoring the views of people from the different cultures of our time, but we have zero interest in (dead white male) voices from the cultures of the past.  In fact, we’re so willing to stifle them that we’ll do a hack job on a great hymn, rendering a beautiful line ugly and graceless, just to make sure that it expresses our viewpoint rather than the author’s.  Diversity that ain’t.

In Romans 8:15, Paul notes that we have received a spirit of adoption as sons, by which we cry out, “Abba!  Father!”  If, on the other hand, we no longer are willing to cry out, “Abba, Father!”, well, that too reveals a great deal about the spirit that is in us.

Coronavirus and Human Limitations

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Even as the epidemic continues to ravage the United States, the blame game is already ramping up.  It’s the fault of the Chinese.  It’s President Trump’s fault.  It’s the fault of the CDC.  It’s the fault of those moronic Gen-Z spring-breakers.  And so on.  COVID-19 will have run its course in a year or two, but I would imagine the culpability debate will outlive me.

There’s a sense in which all of this is quite reasonable.  We are faced with a generational tragedy, and already it has become apparent that not all the decision-makers involved have done everything exactly right.  It’s fairly easy to indict any of the above people or groups for what they did or didn’t do. 

However, foolishness and poor judgment has been par for the course for the human race since the beginning.  As a history enthusiast, I’ve read countless books that show how the failures of some leader led to catastrophe.  The story of the Civil War (the period of history I know best) is a story of if-onlys.  If only McClellan had been willing to launch a final assault during the battle of Antietam!  If only Lee had declined battle at Gettysburg and sought a better opportunity through maneuver!  Nearly every battle in the war is defined by someone’s consequential mistake.

In short, the flawed people and organizations of today have plenty of company.  Theoretically, all of them could have done better than they did.  Practically, humankind never does do better. 

Our power exceeds our wisdom.  Our ability to predict the future is not nearly as good as we think it is.  We think of ourselves as rational actors, but when we most need to think clearly, our judgment instead is clouded by our desires and fears. 

However, we find these truths about ourselves difficult to face.  It’s easier to play the blame game, to pretend that with the right leaders and policies, we would have gotten it right, and indeed that once we put the right leaders and policies in place, from now on, everything will be right.  It’s easier to pretend that we are imperfect but capable of perfection.

Rather than calling us to better performance, though, these tragedies should remind us of our inherent fallibility.  In reality, the new policies and leaders will fail somewhere like the old policies and leaders did.  There will be new catastrophes and new disasters, every one of them avoidable--in retrospect.  Our striving for perfection is a doomed struggle.

Instead, we should strive for humility and grace.  It is not only the powerful who have failed and always will fail.  It is our families, our friends, our co-workers, our brethren, and ourselves.  We shouldn’t think that we will get it right, nor should we expect others to.  Failure is part of the human condition.

Above all, we should learn to rely on God, precisely because He is not like us.  We don’t know what we’re doing, but He does.  The future is hidden from us, but He sees the end from the beginning.  We continually fail, but His word continually accomplishes His will. 

Rather than pretending that we’ve got it figured out, or even that we have the capacity to figure it out, we need to follow and trust Him.  This is true when His will makes sense to us but especially when it doesn’t.  Regardless of how it seems to us, we never will put a foot wrong when we walk in His footsteps.

Throughout this crisis, then, seek God.  Continue to seek Him when it is over.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

Beatitudes and Woes in Luke

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Luke 6:20-49 is often described as the Sermon on the Plain, as opposed to the Sermon on the Mount.  There are many explanations for the similarities and differences in content between the two sermons, but I believe the simplest one is the best.  Like most preachers, Jesus was willing to preach the same sermon to different audiences, adapting his content to the need of the moment.

One of the most obvious differences between the Beatitudes as presented in Luke 6:20-21, rather than Matthew 5:3-10, is the physical focus of the former.  Matthew 5:3 speaks of the poor in spirit; Luke 6:20 speaks simply of the poor.  Matthew 5:6 is about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; Luke 6:21 is about those who are hungry.  

So too, the woes of Luke 6:24-26 are concerned with the physical condition of the hearers.  It is those who are literally rich, well-fed, happy, and honored who should be concerned.

At first glance, this appears to be class warfare written into the pages of the New Testament.  Poor = good, rich = bad.  However, such a flat reading harmonizes poorly with other texts, such as 1 Timothy 6:17-19.  There, Paul is quite clear that in order to please God, the rich don’t have to become poor.  They merely have to become rich in good works.  The rich can be righteous, and the poor can be wicked.

Instead, we need to read Luke 6 not only in the context of the rest of the text of Luke, but in the context of its time and place.  Here, as in many places in the gospels, the Great Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 is lurking just offstage.  We must consider Jesus’ words with that calamity in mind.

During that time, though the Romans certainly did destroy Jerusalem, their work was not limited to its immediate area.  Instead, they crushed the Jewish rebellion throughout Galilee and Judea.  Nor were the legions troubled by modern-day concerns like good optics and minimizing collateral damage.  From their perspective, collateral damage was a feature, not a bug.  The more horribly the Jewish people suffered, the less likely other subject peoples would be to defy the majesty of Rome.

As a result, the decade around the destruction of the Temple was a pretty terrible time to be a prosperous Jew.  If you had it, the Romans were going to take it away from you.  Jesus’ prophecy proved exactly correct.  The rich did become destitute.  The well-fed did become hungry.  The laughing did weep. 

Because everybody was going to end up with nothing, those who started with nothing had an important advantage.  In Jesus’ time, the literally poor, hungry, and grieving were most likely to listen to Him because they didn’t like the status quo.  Even today, people whose lives aren’t going well are more likely to listen to the gospel than people who are prospering.  Hard times predispose people to change.

As a result, even though they didn’t realize it, the poor who followed Jesus were making the best preparations possible for the painful years ahead.  On the other hand, the rich thought they had everything figured out but weren’t truly prepared.  Poverty is nobody’s idea of a good time, but even it can be blessed if it causes us to turn to the Lord.

Kaitlin Hardy Shetler and the Basis of Authority

Friday, April 03, 2020

I think this was the only time in my life that I ever willingly clicked on a Facebook ad.  It was from an organization called Authentic Theology, and the title was, “"Interview--Female Church of Christ Preacher, Poet Who Reached Millions, Kaitlin Hardy Shetler".  Well done, adware!  That’s the sort of link I’m going to click on!

Anyway, for those disinclined to read the article, the deal is that last December, Shetler posted a poem or short sermon about Mary breastfeeding Jesus that ended up critiquing churches that exclude women from the pulpit.  Churches of Christ, that means you! 

The poem/sermon attracted many thousands of shares.  In another article, the writer for Authentic Theology notes that it attracted more attention on Facebook for 2019 than all (other?) writers from the churches of Christ put together.  Apparently, even atheists found its message inspiring, which might be a tell of some sort.

The poem/sermon ain’t half bad, and though I did not find its message inspiring, I did find it fascinating.  Abstracted out, the point of the poem/sermon is this:  Mary’s unique experience should entitle her to preach, and men who have not had similar experiences should not silence the voices of those who have.  In other words, personal experience is the source of authority and truth, and no one has the right to keep the one who has had the experience from preaching their truth.

No wonder the poem aroused such widespread enthusiasm (though not among members of churches of Christ)!  That’s the postmodern credo in a nutshell.  To the postmodernist, truth is not external and objective.  It is internal and subjective.  It doesn’t matter what my DNA says.  If I feel like a man, that’s what I am (note that at the end of the interview, Shetler puts in her plea for acceptance of trans people too).

If we’re going to accept experience as the foundation of moral reasoning and the basis of moral conduct, then yes, Shetler is exactly right.  There is no reason why my experience should be privileged above my sister’s experience, my wife’s experience, or anyone else’s experience.  It’s an injustice to keep women out of the pulpit.

If.  And therein lies the rub.  I, along with everybody else who belongs to a church of Christ and has considered the matter at all, do not believe that truth is internal and subjective.  Instead, I believe that it is external, objective, and epitomized in the word of God, which is inspired, infallible, and authoritative until the end of time.

Part of that truth is 1 Timothy 2:12.  Despite the valiant efforts of folks like Craig Keener to prove otherwise, the text means what it says, and it says that women don’t get to exercise authority over men in a religious setting.  Doesn’t much matter how I feel about it.  If I want to please God, I need to do what He tells me to do.

It is interesting and telling that in her sermon/poem, Shetler doesn’t engage with this argument.  Reasoning from a standard doesn’t resonate with her, any more than determining religious practice by studying the livers of sacrificial animals resonates with me.  Instead, she describes the opposition as “ministers who say women are too delicate to lead.” 

That makes for a nice rhetorical contrast (women face the burdens and indignities of childbirth and breastfeeding, but they are “too delicate” for the pulpit), but it doesn’t reflect the actual arguments made by me, anyone I know, or, I suspect, anyone Shetler knows.  I don’t think she’s intentionally building a strawman, though.  I think it’s the best experience-based argument against women in the pulpit that she can come up with.  If we’re playing rhetorical ball on her ball field, that’s the scrub that comes trotting out for the away team.

Of course, the decision to emphasize experience over revelation is fraught with consequences.  Toward the end of the interview, Shetler expresses the hope that in the churches of Christ of the future, women will be church leaders as fully as men, preaching, teaching, and everything else.

What she does not see is that such a decision would kill the churches of Christ, and indeed the entire Restoration Movement.  We’re the people who do Bible.  We’re the people who follow the pattern.  Once we start ignoring one part of the pattern, there’s no point in holding to any of it.  Once our experiences rather than the Bible become our guide, those experiences, which are common to the world, will make us indistinguishable from it. 

Maybe the churches of Christ in the United States are doomed.  I don’t know the answer to that.  Only God does.  This I do know, though:  If we fail because we held fast to the word until the end, God will be honored by that. 

If we fail because we exchanged the word for the world, He will not be.

Training Our Kids During Isolation

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

In every congregation I’ve ever been a part of, the message has been the same.  Children’s Bible classes, as wonderful as they are, are not supposed to be anything more than a supplement to parents fulfilling their Ephesians 6:4 duty to bring up their children in the training and instruction of the Lord.  How widely parents in any of those congregations have combined in-building training with at-home training, I have no idea.

Regardless of what Christian parents have been doing beforehand, things just got real in the teach-your-children department.  If you’ve been bringing your kids to Bible class, they’ve been getting 90 minutes of instruction every week.  If those Bible classes have been cancelled because of coronavirus, though, all of a sudden, their weekly Bible instruction has dropped by 90 minutes.  Maybe it’s dropped to zero. 

If, as I suspect will happen, restrictions on social gatherings are kept in place for the next couple of months, that’s a significant problem.  Without in-home replacement, your kid is going to come back to Bible class thinking that Saul of Tarsus hosts a Minecraft channel on YouTube.  Even those of us who have been doing teaching at home will need to step up our game.

The solution to the problem is not, I think, to invent a whole Bible-class curriculum for our children from scratch (though if you want to do that, it’s certainly fine).  Instead, there are a number of alternatives that will help us bridge the gap without quite so much effort.

The first is to use daily Bible readings as a springboard for daily spiritual discussion.  At Jackson Heights, Clay designed the Bible-reading program we’re using this year specifically with children in mind.  The readings are all from the gospels, which means that many of them are story-based, and they’re generally short enough that even an early-stage reader can navigate them with help (particularly in a kid-friendly translation like the New International Reader’s Version). 

Work through the day’s reading with your kids, and then spend 10-15 minutes talking about you’ve read.  You don’t have to offer deep, compelling exegesis.  Just make sure they have gotten the point and understand some applications.

There are, of course, plenty of other great reading resources for children out there.  I know that in his Bible-reading posts, Edwin Crozier always includes a note for children.  Those would be a great starting place too.  I’m sure there are many other places to turn that I simply don’t know about.

Similarly, parents should take advantage of all the livestreamed-and-recorded sermons on YouTube and church websites.  Jackson Heights has years’ worth of worship services on its YouTube channel, and the same is true for many other congregations.  Just pick a sermon and listen to it with your children.  If you can tell that they’re struggling to understand something, stop the video and talk through it with them. 

Basically, whatever you might imagine would be useful for teaching your children during this time, there’s probably somebody online who has provided it.  You can find curricula; you can find worksheets; you can find all sorts of things.  The key is to look and be diligent, and to remember that God has entrusted your children not to the church, but to you.  If you live up to your responsibility, your children will be benefited, and He will be pleased.

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