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Category: Culture

Not with a Pure Heart

A few years ago, I began an experiment of reading the Bible with a dirty mind. I had been working with middle school students for years as an educator and as a youth minister, and it dawned on me that much of my work to correct their misconceptions about Scripture was based on my own assumptions about how the Bible is supposed to be read.

For instance, I expect time to move from a single point, along a line. Also, for instance, I expect that because the Bible is moral, it must of course reinforce the mores of my own culture. But I know from experience that time is not a line. Our memories are not like signposts along a road – fixed reminders of what happened and where. They are more like goats in a meadow – hungry, sociable, curious, and constantly in motion (part of why they’re so hard to grab hold of). And I know from experience that my cultural mores are not necessarily aligned with those of other cultures.

Not even close.

My expectations about time and morality were blinders, keeping me from seeing what the text has to say. To remove these blinders, I knew I would have to practice seeing what I am not allowed to see, what I’m not supposed to see. I needed to learn to read the Bible, not with a pure heart, but with a dirty mind.

What did I notice? I noticed so many things. Here are a few:

I noticed that it is better, in the Old Testament, to marry a family member than to marry outside the family. This noticing reminded me – as if I didn’t already know – that the Old Testament isn’t inherently Christian. Nor does it belong to Christianity. It is a collection of texts that Christians have adopted and adapted.

I remembered that humanity is created in the image of God, and I recognized that I’d always assumed this as the source of my potential for creativity. But what if it means that God has a body? Is God male or female? What if God is both male and female? What if God is neither male nor female? What if God is more than male and female? What parts does God have? This seemed like a dangerous question to think, so I embraced it. Might that have been the problem of the golden calf? Or of the bull at Bethel? Were they anatomically – correct?

Plato tells how original humans – being male, female and hermaphrodite – were bisected by the gods, and I thought of God making a woman out of Adam’s side. They are cut in two, male and female. But because the Scripture has them coming together as “one flesh” (something new), I wonder what this does to Adam’s maleness. Does a healthy marriage water down a man’s masculinity? Or require him to give it up altogether?

I thought about that problem between Noah and one of his sons (the one with the feet). I considered Jacob’s smooth skin and his skills in the kitchen. I thought about Moses’ relationship with God, especially the parts where the texts suggests that Moses has authority in the relationship (definitely a step beyond Abraham’s efforts to cut a deal at Mamre). I wondered about Potiphar’s lack of children and his relatively tame response to the accusation against his slave, Joseph. I took notes on all the women who remain silent. I tried to count how many don’t even have names.

As it turns out, once I started reading the Bible with a dirty mind, I noticed things. I saw things. I wondered.

And I’m not done yet.

Not even close.

What’s Wrong with Our Story?

Can I be honest?

I am learning to know myself, and I’ve been finding blind spots. Gaps. There is a gap, for instance, between my identity and my awareness. Sexuality resides in that gap.

Stick with me for a moment.

Sexuality includes interest and attraction; feelings of love, trust and care; social context; a sense of connection (spirituality) that goes beyond what can be known or observed. Sexuality is not a set of behaviors. It is more like a force of nature. Ingrained. Invisible.

Like hunger. Or longing.

Sexuality undergirds our economic and political systems. It’s a foundation on which we have built our theologies – our understandings of who God is and how we might be guided into both mystical union and communion.

Theology legitimates sexuality. Sexuality supports theology.

“Let us make humankind in our image.”

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

I’ve been exploring these gaps. My experience of God, for instance, occurs in the space between my identity and my awareness – felt but not seen. My understanding of God is interwoven with my sexuality. Two parts of who I am in struggle.

They’ve been coming undone.

Things fall apart.

Have you considered the grand narrative? The details of our culture were drawn on a blank slate – a world wiped clean by the genocide of indigenous peoples. It was built with slave labor. The New World was undressed and brutalized by the pure and virile masculinity of educated European minds and bodies. All our stories reflect this reality. Might makes right, and winner takes all.

Like it or leave it, we live in a patriarchy.

We say there are two sides to every story. But that’s not quite right. If there are two sides, it is because there is the inside. And the outside.

As Americans, then, we are male. Or we are not male. We are white. Or we are not white. We are normal. Or we are not normal. We are inside the story. Or we are excluded.

Why don’t we notice? Even our awareness is constricted by binary constructions of language. We have a sexuality of domination. We have a theology of control. Our authoritarian God cannot abide doubt, dissent, or disobedience. He cannot stomach difference.

Our theology is heterosexual, and heterosexuality is not neutral.

The very existence of sexuality that is not heterosexuality calls into question our understandings of the nature and authority of God. Even worse, if we are men, it calls into question our own authority. We perceive, then, that any sexuality that is not heterosexuality is a perversion and must be silenced. It is an offense against God. It is anathema.

This might be why people left out of the story love Jesus.

Jesus took instructions from his mother (John 2). Jesus saved the life of a widow (Luke 7). Jesus called women to follow him (Matthew 10). Jesus blessed children (Mark 10). Jesus “overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Matthew 21).

Jesus did not come to power through domination or by control. Jesus undid the powers. Jesus disrupted the dominant. Jesus introduced chaos into systems of control. And his followers didn’t fit the grand narrative. They were outsiders.

Up on that cross, Jesus breathed his last. All his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee –

– they stood at a distance.

I am learning to know myself, and I’ve been finding blind spots, gaps between my identity and my awareness. And it dawns on me that these blank spaces hold everything I need to know of God.

Something drawing me toward love, trust, and care – a sense of connection that goes beyond what can be known or observed. Like a force of nature. Ingrained. Invisible.

Like hunger. Or longing.

Depravity

02

My friends generally fall into two categories of thinking when it comes to questions of human nature:

1) People are basically good; 2) People are basically bad.

My Christian friends mostly fall into the latter category. They use a phrase – total depravity – as though it’s a kind of non-negotiable fact of life.

Or, sometimes, they talk about how everything they do is “like filthy rags.” I can’t help but think that filthy rags generally weren’t born that way. They get filthy from making other things clean. Which, I’ve come to learn, isn’t considered a helpful response.

We’re all evil on the inside.

Dark. Desperate. Depraved.

What a way to live.

Once, in a course on philosophy, the professor asked us if we thought human nature was good or evil. I raised my hand. I said it was good. The instructor, a Christian, asked how I reconciled my answer with scripture. I quoted Genesis 1:27. The easiest way to argue with that verse is to lay the blame for evil on the nature of God. Said instructor didn’t take the bait. He smiled. And he called on someone else.

Later, in a Sunday school class, I handed out blank pieces of paper and asked participants to write down one way in which they look like Jesus on the inside. I gave them five minutes of thinking time. To come up with just one thing. Lots of blank sheets of paper. And blank stares. I got an email from one class member. She suggested that Christians aren’t used to “thinking of something positive to say about themselves.”

Human survival requires both charity and social reciprocity.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust.

And we’re starving.

Because total depravity isn’t sustainable. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and share from our gifts. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and accept others’ gifts. It’s killing the work and witness of the Church. It’s killing the Church.

It’s killing us.

A friend asked me what happened. “Church used to be fun,” she said. And we didn’t get a chance to finish the conversation, but when we do, I think I know what to say.

Filthy rags can be overwhelmed by shame, paralyzed by questions of how and why and what if I’d only. But filthy rags – used to do what rags are made to do – get good things done. Which is good.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust. And we’re starving.

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