A Christmas Option for the Arm-Chair Bible Reader

My study guide on Galatians is all about making the apostle Paul accessible to the lay reader.

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You are a reader of my blog. That tells me you have an interest in the Bible. And you may have friends who share that interest.

Maybe yours is a strong interest; maybe just curiosity. But if you would like to explore one book of the Bible in depth, may I suggest you consider my new book as a Christmas gift option.

The book is titled: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It seeks to open up what has been one of the most influential theological writings ever written in the history of Christianity.

In addressing a crisis in a group of churches in what is today central Turkey, the apostle articulated a vision of the Christian life that has inspired theologians and ordinary Christians ever since. It helped spark the Reformation.  It even started a revolution in my own spiritual life years ago when I first read it.

Yet Paul’s thought can appear dense to people who do not understand the sometimes specialized vocabulary he uses. I try to translate that vocabulary for laypeople today. In this way I hope to make Paul’s thought accessible to people with no or a limited theological background. Periodically in the book I also take pauses to reflect on how I hear Paul’s thought addressing important theological issues today.

While not trying to dumb down Paul, I like to write in an informal, non-academic way that I think will communicate well to my readers. (It’s the same style I aim for in my blog.) From feedback I’ve received, it appears I succeed. One reader told me, “I expected your book to be a dry, scholarly tome. But it wasn’t. It’s really good.”

Copies may be ordered from Amazon or from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock. If you decide to buy and read it, I would love to hear your feedback afterwards.

 

 

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Table Manners

What really profanes the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Donald M. Baillie, a Scottish theologian born in 1887, once described how the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the Scottish Highland churches when he grew up.* They usually celebrated it once a year. When they did, only a small minority of the church’s members received the sacrament.

The reason for this? Highland Presbyterianism had turned the celebration into a highly solemn affair. The sacrament had acquired the feeling of something fearsome.** So sacred was the sacrament that people prepared for it through what was called the “communion season.” On the three days preceding they fasted. After receiving on Sunday, they celebrated a service of thanksgiving in the evening and maybe on Monday.

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The communion token used in a Calvinist church in Berlin, Germany, 18th century.

Others report that in the 18th century as the day of Holy Communion approached, elders of the church would visit all the church’s parishioners. Their purpose was to examine whether parishioners were living holy lives. If parishioners passed muster, they were given a token which they handed to the elders as they approached the communion table. Only people with tokens could receive. Talk about restricted communion.

Misplaced Scrupulosity

Behind this fear lay an interpretation of what the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. There the apostle writes:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. [1 Corinthians 11:27-29]

Many Calvinists reading this passage adopted attitudes of great scrupulosity about receiving communion. One needed to be free of all personal sin and worldliness. Otherwise people might eat and drink judgment unto themselves.

This was also the attitude of my Baptist mother. She too shared this sense of high scrupulosity about receiving what she called the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Given her attitude, I as a boy became a bit nervous about receiving communion. Had I properly prepared myself? Had I truly repented, especially of any sins of the flesh or of worldliness?

Only as an adult, when I learned to read the Bible in context, did I begin to realize how this scrupulosity was misplaced. When we read the passage in context, we find the apostle’s concern was not with personal peccadillos or worldly pleasures like dancing and attending movies. His grave concern lay elsewhere.

Rude Behavior at Meals

The church in Corinth was a church riven by conflict. People were splitting up into competing theological parties. Fellow church members were taking each other to secular courts to resolve disputes. There was one-up-man ship going on among practitioners of spirituality. The unity of the congregation was being deeply damaged.

Rude practices in particular marred celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. The celebration took place, it seems, in the context of a larger church fellowship dinner. However, dishes were not shared in common. Affluent members of the church brought lavish dishes that they enjoyed in separation from poorer members of the church. Poor members had to make do with whatever limited meal they could bring, if any.

Also no one waited to eat until the whole church had gathered. The affluent might start right in as soon as they arrived. They could not wait for poorer members, especially slaves, who had to finish their work day before they were free to attend church.

This rudeness alarmed Paul. It meant that the social stratifications of the wider culture were making an entry into the church. That made a mockery of the church as a unity in Christ. As Paul will write in other places, Christ came to remove the walls that separate various peoples. We are called to be one united body in Christ.

This unity implied an equality among church members. Paul never stated that equality more clearly than in Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is therefore intimately tied into the church as the body of Christ on earth. In the sacrament that spiritual reality of the church is being reaffirmed and nourished. So you cannot separate the sacrament from what is going on in the rest of the church’s life.

True Profanation of the Sacrament

This social divisiveness is what truly profanes the sacrament. It fails to discern the church as the body of Christ. It introduces a hypocrisy into the heart of the church’s worship and witness. It is this hypocrisy that brings judgment down upon the heads of the congregation.

Finally, it undermines the spiritual health of the congregation. Since there is an intimate unity between the spirit and the body, it can also undermine the bodily health of individuals. Disrespectful behavior (which in the end is unloving behavior) can have consequences on our or other’s health. Many a psychotherapist can attest to that fact.

This understanding of the apostle was revolutionary for me, first as a maturing believer and later as I became a pastor. The apostle was not calling me to become obsessed with my petty flaws or my personal feelings, but with the quality of the communal life in the congregation where I worship and practice my faith.

Are there forces at work to shred the unity of that congregation? If so, how am I contributing to that divisiveness? Are my actions in the church consistent with the sacrament, whose purpose is to express and build up the unity of the body?

In the end, this sensitivity to rude behavior towards other members of the church may introduce a new form of scrupulosity into the practice of the sacrament. If so, then I see it as a form of scrupulosity that is more consistent with the spirit of the apostle.

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* Baillie describes this practice in his book The Theology of the Sacraments [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.

** Calvinism was not alone in developing this feeling about the sacrament as something fearsome. You see the same feeling expressed in the evolution of the Eastern Orthodox church architecture. The sacredness of the sacrament came to be seen as so fearsome that its celebration had to be protected by creating a barrier between the celebrating priest and the congregation. Hence arose that distinctive element of Orthodox church architecture, the iconostasis.

 

Men in Crisis

Another mass shooting raises questions about how we understand masculinity.

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“The Vitruvian Man,” a pen-and-ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci showing what he regarded as the ideal proportions of a male body. ca. 1490.

Oh, my God! Another mass shooting. In a Baptist church in Texas. I can’t be surprised anymore. Mass shootings have become too much a part of normal American public life.

This one, too, was perpetrated by another troubled young man, 26 years old. I note this, because we should be noting that the vast majority of those who commit our mass shootings are men in their late teens, 20s, and 30s.

Women are seldom the ones who engage in mass shootings. Likewise it is usually not old men, although the shooter in the Las Vegas shooting is a notable exception. Instead it is young men who over and over again express their anger, their despair, or whatever their motivating emotion in shooting innocent people.

It is also young men who predominate in the terrorist attacks by young Muslims, who march in the alt-right and white supremacist rallies, and populate violent street gangs in our cities. This is not to say that women and old people do not engage in violence. They do. But they are not creating the headlines in most cases.

As we deal with public violence, we talk most often about issues of gun control, mental health, and economic and social disparities. They are all factors. They need our attention. But I find myself more and more asking why so many young men are drawn to violence. What’s triggering them?

The Modern Crisis in Masculinity

I also find myself wondering if part of the reason is that modern life has sparked a crisis in how we define masculinity. Modern life increasingly espouses the ideal of gender equality. We believe that men and women should engage with each other as equal partners, not only in marriage and family life, but also in all aspects of public life, including business and government. We feel less tolerance for sexual harassment than did previous generations.

But for such equality to work we must come up with a new understanding of what it means to be a man. That means changing an ideal that has prevailed through most of human history, for millennia in fact.

One part of that traditional definition has been the ideal of the warrior hero. We see expressions of it in Homer’s heroic battlefield champions, in the medieval romance of the jousting knight, in the lone, rifle-toting cowboy, in the Star Wars jedi wielding his light saber, and in the helmet-clad football player plowing through the defense.

Men have traditionally gained honor, respect, and renown by victory in individual combat. We encounter this reality even in the Bible. Take, for example, the story of the duel between David and Goliath. In that combat David first makes a name for himself and is launched in his road to kingship.

This ideal has also assumed that men exercised superiority over women. Women were often the prize for victory in combat. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles which lies at the heart of The Illiad began over a disagreement as to whom a woman won as war booty belonged to. For the medieval knight, the greatly desired prize for winning a jousting victory was receiving the torn sleeve of his lady.

We find this ideal of masculinity has roots in most cultures and goes back several thousand years. Which means it is well entrenched in the masculine psyche. So deeply entrenched is it that a social scientist like Brené Brown says that her research has shown that for most American men today, their understanding of normal masculinity includes these five factors:

  • Emotional stoicism (big boys don’t cry),
  • The primacy of work in life,
  • Pursuit of status through violence,
  • Control of women, and
  • Outward disdain for homosexuality. *

This traditional ideal, however, does not sit well with the new, modern demand that men and women relate to each other as equals. Such a relationship requires different attitudes, different skills, and different ideals.

The Transition Crisis

Here’s where the crisis arises. The old traditional ideal is well understood, both by men and women. It is pervasive in the raising of young boys. But a new ideal of masculinity that is compatible with a new understanding of the relationship between genders has not yet fully emerged. We are in an era of transition.

We do not know how to articulate the new ideal. We do not see it clearly yet. We sense that it cannot involve a feminization of masculine identity. That would be to substitute a form of matriarchy over patriarchy, which would simply substitute another form of gender superiority for the old one. Nature has created a gender difference. I don’t think most human beings will be happy with an erasure of that difference in a universal unisex.

How do we affirm the unique characteristics of masculinity while at the same time affirming the unique characteristics of femininity? In fact, what are those unique characteristics of both sexes? How do we affirm them without sinking into various forms of supremacy?

Furthermore, which characteristics are rooted in nature and which are products of culture? That is, I think, at the heart of many Christian debates over what is the proper role of men and women in the family, in society, and the in the church. When Christians argue over gender roles by appealing to proof texts in the Bible, they are, I believe, just trying to wrap what they regard as nature in the trappings of divinity. But how much of those roles are truly grounded in nature/God and how much in culture? The distinctions are not quite as clear cut, in my opinion, as some Christians believe.

We are living through so much confusion on these issues at the present time that I believe young men, in particular, have been psychologically set adrift. We do not know what it means to be a man today. The anxiety is intense. And as Brené Brown points out, when men are afraid, the old masculine ideal says that they are not allowed to be afraid. So they turn their fear into rage. Is this possibly at least one fundamental reason why so many young men are perpetrators of the mass shootings and terrorism we experience today?

Furthermore, this is not just an American dilemma. It is a world-wide phenomenon. When we explore some of the reasons for the anger of Islamic radicals, one theme comes up over and over again. That is the threat they feel to traditional gender relations by the Western ideal of gender equality.

I confess that I experience this confusion just as much as other men today. I do not have a clearly drawn alternate understanding for masculinity to offer for the old traditional one. However, whatever the new understanding that emerges turns out to be, I am firmly convinced it must be one that gives dignity and value to being a man just as it also gives dignity and value to being a woman. We cannot revert to a new form of gender supremacy.

What Help Might We Expect from the Bible?

As a Christian, I must ask what guidance in this contentious discussion can we expect from the Bible. I do not think we can just simply appeal to various proof texts alone. Too often such proof texting simply kills discussion. Here is the proof text. Discussion closed.

Instead I would want to begin the discussion by a taking a careful look at the figure of Jesus. How does the person he was and the life he lived expressed his masculinity? He certainly did not exemplify the heroic warrior ideal, unless, of course, you want to totally spiritualize that ideal. Nor does he come across as spineless. There is strength, but there is also the ability to surrender strength for the sake of love.

If you, my readers, have any thoughts on how Jesus might serve as a model for what it means to be a man, I would like to hear from you.

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* I am indebted for this insight to Brené Brown’s two-CD lecture series Men, Women, & Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough, Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2012. I found the two CDs an amazingly rich and engaging discussion on how differently men and women experience shame. She also gives very helpful insight into how we can build shame resilience.