Women in theology, book 2 of 10: The Gospel of Ruth

Yeah...it looked nothing like this.

Yeah…it looked NOTHING like this.

After realizing almost all the religious books I own were written by men, I decided to be more intentional about reading books by women. I asked for help from my readers, who recommended over 70 different authors. I chose 10 books to start with, representing authors from across the theological spectrum. A few weeks ago, I shared some reflections after finishing the first book on my list, Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt.

This week, it’s on to the next book, The Gospel of Ruth.

A note about these posts… they’re not meant to be reviews. I don’t see it as my place to critique or judge the value of each book. I want to embrace the posture of a learner. My goal is to share how each book challenges, teaches, or inspires me.

41xqAd4R2+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Gospel of Ruth
by Carolyn Custis James

Of all the writers on my list, Carolyn is probably the most evangelical. As for why I chose her book next, well… that’s a little embarrassing. It’s one I already own but never bothered to read. A colleague gave it to me a few years back… and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, collecting dust.

I couldn’t even be bothered to read the few female-authored religious books I did own. In this case, I was missing out in more ways than one. Carolyn Custis James’ book The Gospel of Ruth utterly changed my view of one of the greatest female characters in the Bible.

Carolyn may be better known for her other book, Half the Church, which looks at how women—who almost certainly comprise more than half the church—have been shut out from serving (and leading) in God’s kingdom, much to the detriment of us all.

I chose The Gospel of Ruth instead because, apart from the fact that I already own a copy, I don’t want to limit myself to books primarily about “women’s issues” (though I think it’s fair to say Half the Church is more than that). I want to experience the contributions women are making in the broader fields of theology, biblical interpretation, ethics, etc.

The Gospel of Ruth has plenty to say about women’s issues—in particular, the patriarchal gender stereotypes that color people’s interpretation of the Bible. Carolyn shows how the scriptures subvert these stereotypes at times. But The Gospel of Ruth is also a full-on, deep dive into the book of Ruth as whole. It’s not a commentary per se, but it provides a vital framework for interpreting Ruth just the same (and maybe even better than most commentaries do).

Carolyn shows how Ruth captures the essence of the gospel, centuries before an itinerant preacher from Galilee came along, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. Along the way, Carolyn corrects some common misreadings of Ruth, like the view that her sister-in-law was somehow selfish or wrong to go back to her family. Or the notion that Ruth was clueless or bungling when she deviated from Naomi’s instructions about Boaz. (More on that in a minute.)

Ruth was courageous. She was relentless. She was resolute, determined to keep her vow to Naomi no matter the cost to herself. And she was shrewd, too.

Ruth was a woman in a man’s world. She was a widow. A foreigner descended from Israel’s archenemies, the Moabites. Yet when she spoke, one of the most powerful men in Bethlehem listened—and obeyed.

Carolyn helps us see how the characters in Ruth’s drama repeatedly break the rules of “appropriate” behavior for the sake of doing what’s right. Specifically, Ruth breaks the rules in order to do what’s right for Naomi…

  • Like when Ruth silences her mother-in-law by refusing to leave her side…
  • Or when Ruth boldly requests the rights of a harvester—well beyond what gleaners were entitled to by law—earning Boaz’s praise and enabling her to provide more than just scraps for Naomi…
  • Or when she charts her own course with Boaz, ignoring Naomi’s instructions along the way. Naomi simply wanted security for Ruth. (This was, after all, a brutally patriarchal world where widows faced unimaginable hardship, neglect, and exploitation.) Ruth wanted something more: a future for Naomi. Ruth broke all the rules when she proposed marriage and called on Boaz to go beyond his legal obligations (again) by acting as kinsman-redeemer for Naomi.

To put it another way, Ruth challenges Boaz to go beyond the Bible. “The letter of the law says, ‘Let them glean,’ ” Carolyn writes. “The spirit of the law says, ‘Feed them.’ ” Where Old Testament law only required landowners like Boaz to permit the poor to glean the corners of their fields, Ruth forced him to ask, “ ‘How big is a corner?’ ”

The book itself is an exercise in breaking the rules, simply by its presence in the canon. Don’t let its brevity fool you. Ruth is not a sideshow or a pit stop in the Old Testament narrative. It’s a pivotal moment in the story of how God turned a wandering band of nomads into a kingdom through which to bless the world. And at this crucial point, women take center stage. As Carolyn writes:

The book of Ruth breaks all the rules, as two unescorted women take command of the storyline and men recede into the background. Naomi and Ruth do not climb to this high point in the action on the backs of men. They get here on their own.

Perhaps most importantly, Carolyn de-romanticizes the story of Ruth. There is plenty of love in this book, but we trivialize the story when we reduce Ruth and Boaz to star-crossed lovers. As Carolyn shows in chapters 4-5 (which are worth the price of the book by themselves, even when it isn’t being discounted by Amazon), the driving question of Ruth is whether God’s hesed—his covenantal, sacrificial love, his vision for how we are to live for each other—has run out for Naomi.

Carolyn reminds us that submission runs both ways. When Ruth proposes to Boaz (honestly, it’s like she didn’t even read I Kissed Dating Goodbye), he responds, “Everything you have said, I will do for you.” Boaz submits to Ruth. In similar fashion, everything Ruth does, she does for Naomi. Submission is not unilateral. It’s not just for women. And it is not weakness. As Carolyn writes:

Ultimately the impact of submission means those with power over others give it up. Women grow strong and flourish as kingdom-builders. Children thrive and begin to realize their calling to give back. And slaves walk free, side by side in full equality with their Christian brothers who were once their masters.

Carolyn helped me to see how Ruth prefigures the gospel, envisioning a world where everyone submits to each other mutually in sacrificial, self-giving love. The gospel envisions a world where women and men share the same mission of extending God’s hesed to those for whom it’s run out.

Next up: it’s into unchartered territory (for me, anyway) with Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible by Dr. Musa W. Dube. 

Image credit: Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett

A sneak peek inside The Story of King Jesus

StoryofKingJesus_proofs

Yesterday I saw the final proofs for my book, The Story of King Jesus. Two years, three months, and I don’t know how many drafts since the original… and it’s finally off to the printer.

My book.

Well… no, actually. It’s not “my book.” Before anything else, The Story of King Jesus is the book I wrote for my daughter. I started writing it because I wanted to introduce her to a vibrant, living faith—instead of a formula for getting out of hell.

Recently, I’ve been reading the story to her. I’ve listened as she whispers some of the words to herself. I’ve watched her trace the images with her fingers. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to suppress a big, stupid grin when she asks me to read it to her “three more times.” (I don’t care if you’re just stalling before bed, Elizabeth. That’s one request I’ll gladly indulge.) And I’ve felt a mix of responsibility and excitement as the book prompts conversations about how we get to be part of making God’s world right and good again—right here and now.

It’s not “my book.” It’s also the work of an amazing illustrator named Nick Lee, who’s put about as much of himself into the design as I put of myself into the words.

Nick’s art inspires me. He captures all the things—the wonder, the hardship, the struggle, and the hope of the biblical story.

We all have a mental picture of Jesus in our heads. Unfortunately, for many of us, that picture looks something like the Norwegian supermodel Jesus of Hollywood films. (No offense to any attractive Norwegians reading this.) All I can say is, if my daughter’s mental picture of Jesus is influenced by Nick’s art, I’ll be pretty happy with that.

It’s not “my book.” I hope it will be yours and your kids, too.

Here are some of the first few spreads from the book, where our story begins. I can’t wait to share the rest with you.

SOKJ preview.001

SOKJ preview.002

SOKJ preview.003

SOKJ preview.004

SOKJ preview.005

You can pre-order The Story of King Jesus on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

Photo credit: Nick Lee

How an atheist’s crucifix helped my child learn about her faith

IMG_6143

It was a crucifix that caught my daughter’s eye during ArtPrize this year.

There’s no shortage of crucifixes to be found at the annual art competition. From the 2011 popular vote winner, depicting a bored looking, white American Jesus backlit by a Kinkade-esque sunset, to one of this year’s installations, “The Moment, Endured,” a more severe portrayal made entirely from nails.

artprize crucifix

Left: “Crucixion” by Mia Tavonatti; right: “The Moment, Endured” by Bill Secunda

“The Moment” was actually one of two crucifixes displayed at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the venues for ArtPrize. But it was the other one, a piece called “Love Does Not Harm,” that made my 4-year-old ask me to stop the car as we were driving by a couple Saturdays ago.

We circled the block a few times until we found a place to park. The sky couldn’t make up its mind between “partly sunny” and “vaguely apocalyptic,” so I put her in a stroller and we made a run for it.

—//—

“Love Does Not Harm” is the work of a local designer named Timothy Gabriel. His crucifix doesn’t exactly play on subtlety. If Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion” pandered to a deeply religious West Michigan audience, “Love Does Not Harm” poked it with a stick.

IMG_3317

The silhouetted figure is made up of anti-gay slogans. It hangs from a cross comprised of similarly ugly rhetoric. In place of the traditional “INRI,” the sign at the top features the logos of Christian organizations that oppose same-sex marriage. The entire scene is draped against a rainbow banner declaring that “Love does not harm.”

The piece drew attention for the political statement it made (and because it was vandalized during ArtPrize). But I wish we’d pay more attention to the scripture Gabriel chose. Whether he realized it or not, Romans 13:8-10 is one of the seminal texts of the New Testament.

“Love does no harm to a neighbor,” Paul writes. Every other law there is—don’t murder, don’t steal, etc.—is summed up in this one command: love others. Do not harm.

Paul is not breaking new ground here. He’s echoing one of the most pivotal teachings of the gospels, in which Jesus declared that “love God” and “love your neighbor” are the two greatest commands in the Bible—and that they are two sides of the same coin. The way you demonstrate love for God is by loving your neighbor. You cannot do one without the other.

Would anyone like to argue that we’ve kept this law with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors? Have we ever been good at “doing no harm” to those who are noticeably different from us?

Even the Vatican is beginning to wrestle with these questions, acknowledging this week that gays and lesbians “have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community” and suggesting we should be capable of “accepting and welcoming their sexual orientation.” (Though they backtracked a bit under the weight of a conservative backlash.)

Gabriel’s piece did not major on subtlety or nuance. But it challenges us to consider one of the more central teachings of the New Testament and its potentially jarring implications for today. Regardless of how we may think about sexuality or marriage, it is something that should make us pause.

—//—

Of course, I didn’t get into all this with my daughter. She is only four, after all. She’s too young to read the words that made up the silhouetted figure. But she knows a picture of Jesus on the cross when she sees it, even an abstract one. Her eyes were also drawn to the colorful words behind the crucifix, so I told her what they said.

We talked about “love does no harm” and what this means. We talked about how we should accept and embrace others, no matter how similar or different they are. I told her this is part of what it means to love others the way Jesus loved us.

And then we went home and had lunch.

—//—

A week later, we made one more visit to ArtPrize.

As we were driving, out of the blue my daughter asked if we could see Gabriel’s piece again. “The one that says, ‘Love does not harm,’ ” she explained. Then she told me what it means—how we should accept others, no matter how similar or different they are. She remembered our week-old conversation almost perfectly.

IMG_6148

The artist invited people to leave responses on the back. Elizabeth happily drew lots of squiggles.

Artistically, it may not have been the greatest piece at ArtPrize this year. It may have struck some as a bit heavy-handed in its message. And of course, many will find it divisive. But its core idea, “love does not harm,” shouldn’t be controversial. More to the point, Gabriel’s piece helped my daughter grasp something central to the Christian faith—how we are called to love as Jesus loved.

If you read the title of this post, then you know the not-so-surprise ending: Timothy Gabriel is an atheist. In his official ArtPrize bio, he refers to himself as a proponent of secularism. And I am eternally grateful to him for teaching my daughter something important about Christianity.

When we stop viewing those who are different from us—whether it’s in their orientation or their beliefs—as enemies, we might just find they have something to teach us.

What have you learned about your faith from surprising sources? 

Photo of “Crucifixion” via ArtPrize.org

Women in theology, book 1 of 10: Reframing Hope

Reframing Hope Cover 2

A few weeks ago on this blog, I wrote about how a disproportionate number of religious books are written by men. In response, I was flooded with suggestions of female religious writers, more than 70 authors in all, to help correct the imbalance on my own bookshelf.

After taking some time to learn about each author, I narrowed down the list down to ten books I plan to read by the end of the year.

Earlier this week, I finished the first book on my list, Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt. My choice of where to start was driven partly by a pragmatic consideration: I’m starting with the books I already have. Carol was generous enough to send me a copy of Reframing Hope. (She also sent copies of her other books, Tribal Church and Fighting for Peacewhich look equally intriguing.)

My plan over the coming weeks is to share some of my takeaways from each book. I’m not planning to review each book, per se. I don’t see it as my place to judge which voices are worthy of a hearing. Instead, I want to adopt the posture of a learner. My primary hope is to learn the art of listening to voices I haven’t always been very good at hearing.

Now, on with the show…

Reframing Hope CoverReframing Hope
by Carol Howard Merritt

The premise of Reframing Hope is to help churches to thrive in a constantly shifting world so they can meaningfully connect with their communities—and, in particular, with new generations. Carol argues for churches doing what they’ve have always had to do: contextualize the “hope within us” for the world in which we find ourselves, not the one that existed 50 years ago.

Some of the things I appreciated most about Carol’s book…

The way she transcends the extremes of stubborn resistance to change on the one hand and, on the other hand, a reactionary tendency to throw everything old out the window.

The way she expertly diagnoses recent trends in three distinct streams: mainline, evangelical, and emergent—and relates them to the larger cultural and technological shifts taking place. She connects the dots in ways I hadn’t considered before.

The wisdom she shares on using technology as a tool for ministry. On the one hand, Carol unpacks some of the dangers of relying too much on faceless digital technology. One danger I hadn’t thought much about until reading Carol’s book is how all this technology, if not carefully used, can reinforce inequality between the economically privileged and the disadvantaged, who have less access to technology. Yet Carol also shows how social media can be a tool for nurturing community, alongside (not in place of) more traditional means.

She practices what she preaches, too. Case in point: Carol and I have never met in person. Our interaction to date has been confined to a few tweets and maybe the occasional blog comment. Yet she saw my post about wanting to expand my reading list so I could start listening to more female voices, and she offered to send me some of her books. That may not sound like much, but look at it this way. She made a meaningful investment in my spiritual formation. It required the gift of her time, a certain amount of money to send me her books, and genuine concern on her part for someone she’s never even met. All made possible by Twitter and her willingness to use her platform for community-building rather than empire-building.

Loyal radicals

I also appreciated how relatable some aspects of Carol’s journey were. We both grew up in evangelical churches, we both intersected (to varying degrees) with the emergent movement, and we both wound up finding a home in the mainline church. I’m especially grateful to Carol because she gave me new language to help make sense of my own journey. She writes about “loyal radicals” who possess many of the same proclivities as their emergent counterparts, yet find themselves drawn to more “institutional” expressions of the church.

Carol makes a powerful case for the importance of these institutions, too. Some in the emergent stream like to think of denominations as a thing of the past, having long outlived their usefulness. Tony Jones, for example, talks about the “denouement of denominations.” To him, this is not a tragedy but something to celebrate. Elsewhere, he writes, “Few things piss me off as much as the sinful bureaucratic systems of denominational Christianity.”

Emergent Christianity imagines itself breaking the shackles of organized religion in the name of inclusivity and progressive values. Yet the leadership of emergent is almost entirely white and male. And if some of the more explosive charges made recently are true (see the comment thread on David Hayward’s recent post), then the emerging church has a long way to go before it can claim to have put sexism and misogyny behind it.

It was the mainline church—for all its bureaucratic inefficiencies (and oh there are many) that gave Carol a platform for ministry, that affirmed her calling and made room for her and others like her to lead. As she writes:

The organic leadership model, where pastors are raised up through the community without the shackles of a denomination, did not work for me—and I daresay that model probably fails to work for countless other women, as well as some historically disadvantaged minorities…. Although many emergent church leaders point to the denominational church as an unredeemable bureaucratic structure that stifles innovation and is inseparably bound to modernism, I have a different experience. I have found denominational congregations to be less hierarchical because they encourage leadership of women more and have a longevity that allows the community to thrive long after the pastor is gone.

Carol makes a crucial distinction between the empire-building so pervasive in some corners of the church and the community-building she advocates. She offers a prophetic critique of the “bigger-is-always-better” mentality that has shaped much of evangelicalism—and the broader culture—for the past 50 years:

From our produce to our political power to our pulpits, we decided that bigger is better. We opted for less personal contact. We began to lose sight of what is good for our communities and began to focus on the individual. However, the bigger-is-always-better attitude left us empty, anxious, and depressed.

Denominations, for all their faults, offer a means of accountability and stability. It’s harder to build your own empire within the confines of a denomination. There’s a reason why there are fewer “celebrity pastors” in mainline churches. We understand that, as Carol writes, “When a church rises up around a charismatic leader, the congregation tends to dissolve when that leader leaves.” Outside of a denomination, there’s nothing to hold someone like Mark Driscoll accountable to charges of abuse, because he is an empire unto himself. Denominations value continuity, accountability, and inclusion. And as Carol can attest, there is often more follow-through on these commitments within denominational structures than outside them.

“Words create reality.”

Carol’s book is not about helping aging mainliners come to grips with modern technology. (Though for anyone who’s wondering how to bring their church into the digital age, she has lots of great advice to share.)

Reframing Hope envisions something bigger. It calls for a renewal of both the medium and the message. Carol understands the power of narrative for igniting change. And, dang, she can preach. One of my favorite extended passages in the book comes from the chapter on retelling the message:

Scripture reminds us that we have the power to bless and to curse (Gen. 12:3). This may seem like a foreign concept, but any father who hears the words “I love you” from his child knows the power of a blessing. The words create a reality. Parents also often have the power to bless and curse, and indeed we parents are typically the first ones to create our children’s realities. Our answers to their question of “Who do you say that I am?” have a lasting effect on them, for better or worse… We are a storied people. Our lives are formed by the truths and lies we’ve been told throughout the years.

In the same way, as people of the Word, Christians are connected through words to a larger history and tradition. In the story of creation, we recall how God created out of nothing, through the use of words… The Word then became the history of a people. As the story unfolds, we read of the fiery and comforting words of the prophets. Words are eaten. Words blacken the mouth. Words become as sweet as honey. Words are set in stone and carried around in a dramatic covenantal ark. They are lost and they are found.

Then we read how Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, dwelt among us. Over the centuries, as the church formed and continues to form, the Word becomes central to our lives. We say and hear, “This cup is the new covenant,” and we know these words signify a new reality, a new relationship of promise, forgiveness, and reconciliation…

All of these words bind us to a story, a purpose, a community; they form as they inform us.

What we need, Carol writes, is to recover a narrative understanding of the Bible. We need people “who can present the facts [of our story] within a context and with an emotional impact.” We need to recover the art of sharing the good news—that is, sharing our story.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing mainline churches is that we are too easily fixated on what Carol calls a message of deprivation: “Come to our church because we need more people, money, and energy (which doesn’t sound like good news at all).”

She continues:

If churches can develop and communicate a narrative that invites people to enter—if they are places where a person can slip into the pew for an hour of internal wrestling, where she can mentally question everything that happens, and at the end of it, she knows that such questioning is okay—then people will attend again… It’s an extensive, tough, and beautiful process. And it is one of the great things about being the church.

That’s one of the most important things that I took from Carol’s book. She reminded me of some of the genuinely good things that are still true about the church, while prophetically inviting us into a new era of ministry.

Next up: the other book already on my shelf, The Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James

What art can teach us about theology and faith formation

IMG_5830

Every year, I take my daughter to ArtPrize—one of the world’s largest art competitions, right in our backyard—hoping she’ll have a different experience with art than than the one I had as a child.

Growing up, art was something I chose to endure rather than appreciate. I viewed trips to the art museum as almost a form of punishment. ArtPrize takes art out of the museum (well, mostly—our favorite piece this year happens to be in the Grand Rapids Art Museum), and in doing so, it’s helped Elizabeth cultivate an enthusiasm for art I never quite managed when I was her age.

She runs from one exhibit to another, yelling, “Let’s go see more art!”

OK, so the artistic quality varies rather widely at ArtPrize. Not everything that catches Elizabeth’s eye would be regarded as fine art by most connoisseurs and curators. Every year, there seems to be an excess of kitsch and recycled scrap metal, especially among the outdoor installations.

But ArtPrize is about inviting everyone into the process of creating and experiencing art—not just the connoisseurs and curators.

Unsurprisingly, the art Elizabeth is most drawn to—the art she talks about the most afterward—is the art she can interact with.

Like “Weave Peace” by Michele Miller-Hansen, a 30-foot dome of pole and fabric outside the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Visitors are asked to write hopeful messages on colorful strips of paper and attach them to the dome, effectively transforming it into something new—something barely resembling the original, unadorned version. It wasn’t one of my favorites until I thought about what it means for an artist to invite others to contribute to—and radically alter—their own work.

weave peace

Or “Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha, inspired by the geometrical patterns of Islamic art. Her installation explores the “binaries of public and private, light and shadow, static and dynamic.” The light transforms the entire room, making it part of the exhibit. The artistic experience, in this case, would change from one space to the next. The viewer also becomes part of the exhibit—albeit temporarily—casting their shadow about the space, as Elizabeth gleefully did while dancing around the room.

IMG_6005

IMG_6039

Art becomes meaningful, transformative, and captivating when we’re able to participate in it—when we’re invited to contribute to it, rather than being forced to just stand back and observe in silence.

I wonder if there’s a lesson to learn from ArtPrize about how we do theology and faith formation.

When we confine theology to the “elites,” when we reduce it to merely an academic discipline, do we lose something along the way? True, there is something to be said for advanced study and expertise. (I wouldn’t want someone who hasn’t mastered Greek or Hebrew translating the Bible for me.) But in our desire to “protect” theology from amateur interference, have we deprived ourselves of the gift of illumination from unexpected sources?

There seems to be little tolerance for imagination and creativity in theology. We act as if such things have no place here, reducing theology to something that resembles scientific analysis, dissecting texts so we can extract objective meaning from them. There is a place for all this. But what about also making room for wonder, imagination, and exploration in our theology? What about welcoming the learned and the unlearned, who turn out not to be so unlearned after all; they just have a different form of knowledge—what if we welcomed them the same table, so we can “do theology” together?

What if we intentionally blurred the lines between art and theology?

What about inviting people to participate more actively in their own faith formation? To experience religion rather than just observe it? One of the things I appreciate most about our (relatively) new spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, is that kids are welcomed as full participants. They are not second-class citizens. They aren’t on probationary membership. They don’t have restricted benefits. My daughter is welcome at the table each week. Worship is participatory—for everyone.

Encouraging her to participate in—and actively shape—the faith to which she belongs is no guarantee she’ll continue to embrace it when she grows up. But if she feels a sense of ownership—if she is encouraged to become a meaningful participant rather than a silent spectator—then it might just stay with her through life.

IMG_5909

Why I won’t spank my children

11237645093_5d25a9d602_o

I was spanked as a kid, though it was only a handful of times. My brother was more of an instigator, which meant he had more experience with the wrong end of a paddle.

Our experience of corporal punishment was nothing like what Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son endured. There were no belts or switches in our case. No open wounds or other physical injuries. Typically it was one swift, sharp swat—administered after a requisite “cooling off” period and followed quickly by an affirmation of our parents’ love for us—and then it was done.

My parents’ approach to discipline marked a significant departure, if not a complete one, from that of their parents’ generation. Which is pretty remarkable, when you consider the overwhelming pressure that fundamentalist churches put on parents to spank their kids. (To this day, 80 percent of born-again parents think it’s appropriate—even necessary—to spank. That’s down just slightly from 90 percent when I was growing up.)

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Texas, but parents weren’t the only adults who thought they had the right to spank a child. I remember being spanked by my third-grade principal… at a public school. (I was surprised to learn that 19 states still allow spanking in public schools, and that a quarter-million public school kids were physically punished as recently as 2008.)

The incident from third grade has been lodged in my memory for almost 30 years. Maybe it was the perceived injustice of being physically punished for such a minor infraction. (In my case, it was playing flick football with a plastic straw during lunchtime). Maybe it was the shame attached to a disciplinary trip to the principal’s office. Maybe it was the giant wooden paddle he used, which sat ominously perched against the office wall when not in use.

As parents, my wife and I have decided we’re not going to spank our children. There are several reasons for this, but there is one in particular that’s especially important to me.

The false gospel of spanking

We could talk about the religious arguments for and against spanking. To me, using the Bible to justify spanking is one of the more egregious examples of an overly literal—and highly selective—approach to Scripture.

In a recent article for The Week, RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt took apart the religious argument for spanking. He might be overstating things a bit when he says the “rod” mentioned in Proverbs 13:24 and 23:14 was a shepherd’s staff used for guiding, not hitting. It is indeed the same Hebrew word, shaybet, used elsewhere for a shepherd’s staff—notably in Psalm 23. But the context of Proverbs 23:14 in particular suggests it sometimes had a more violent use, unfortunately.

Even so, Merritt is 100% right when he points out that the Bible hardly mentions corporal punishment outside the non-literal book of Proverbs. The sayings in Proverbs were meant to express general truths—which, like all the other writings in the Bible, were shaped by the culture that produced them. (This, by the way, was a culture that practiced a far more severe form of corporal punishment than anything endorsed by most evangelical proponents of spanking today, with the possible exception of Adrian Peterson.) Turning these proverbs into absolute, literal, universally applicable statements creates all kinds of problems.

Merritt is also right when says spanking is never encouraged in the New Testament. Meanwhile, there are plenty of passages that discourage Christians from engaging in violence of any kind.

And that’s what spanking is. It’s an act of violence, no matter how much restraint is exercised in the application. Which means Merritt is also right when he refers to the promotion of spanking by Christians as a “false gospel.”

The overwhelmingly negative effects of spanking

We could review the overwhelming evidence, summarized well in Merritt’s column, that spanking is an ineffective deterrent and has long-lasting negative consequences for children. Spanking is linked (not surprisingly) to hostile behavior in kids, impaired brain development, and depression.

Especially troubling to me is that when we spank our kids, we’re teaching them that violence is a legitimate way of resolving conflict. Whether we mean to or not, we show our kids how to deal with their anger and frustration by how we handle our own. If my anger at my child’s misbehavior leads me to strike, all I’ve done is teach her to do the same when she gets angry.

We cannot proclaim a gospel of peacemaking while at the same time using violence to solve our short-term problems. We cannot show our kids what it means to “turn the other cheek” if we’re busy swatting theirs.

Spanking is a sign I’ve given up  

But for me, one of the most important reasons to swear off corporal punishment is that spanking my kids would mean I’ve given up trying to find another way.

Believe me, there are times when I’m tempted to spank my 4-year-old. There are times when she puts my parenting skills, such as they are, to the test—when she goes for gold in the Tantrum Olympics. She is a normal kid, after all, which means she can yell, hit, kick, and claw with the best of them.

There are times when I just don’t know how to help her calm down, how to help her channel her behavior in a more positive direction. There are times when it’s tempting to believe a quick swat on the butt will snap her out of it. There are times when I feel my own anger welling up, feeding off of hers.

Whenever I feel tempted to resort to corporal punishment, it means I’ve run out of other ideas. It means I’ve given up finding another way to help my daughter learn how to behave. It means that instead of helping her work through the tumultuous and often confusing emotions of childhood—instead of helping her find a more constructive way to express her feelings—I’m teaching her to shut them down, to stifle them. It also means I’ve given up practicing a nonviolent ethic of love.

Refusing to spank—even as a last resort—forces me to be more creative as a parent. It forces me to engage with my child rather than simply trying to control her behavior. It keeps me honest when I tell her that we shouldn’t ever hit someone else… and especially when I tell her about a person named Jesus who responded to all the violence of this world with disarming love.

Have you sworn off spanking your kids? What are some creative ways you help guide their behavior instead?

Image credit: Boston Public Library on Flickr

My new reading list

photo

Last week I decided to get real about the patriarchy on my bookshelf after I realized that nearly all the theological and religious books I own were written by men. It started when I shared a list of 10 books that have stayed with me over the years. There was not one female writer among them.

There is no use in men like me claiming to be “allies” or advocates of gender equality if we’re so busy speaking for women that we don’t bother listening to them. If all I am is another voice speaking in their place, then nothing’s really changed, has it? Being an “ally” might make me feel better about myself, but it will accomplish little else until I allow myself to start being shaped by their voices.

So I decide to ask for help… and you responded, big time. I got dozens of suggestions through email, blog comments, tweets, Facebook messages… more than 70 names in total, from all ends of the theological spectrum. Not all of them fit neatly into my original criteria of being theological or religious writers. But all of them are important voices, well worth listening to.

Below is a list of the recommendations people shared. It’s likely I missed a few, but I tried to keep track of all the ones that I saw. The other day, I spent a few hours learning about each author and made note of one or two books by each. (Or three, in some cases where I just couldn’t narrow it down.) If you’re like me, some of the names will be familiar to you; some won’t. Probably 80% of the names below were new to me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to get through the entire list, but I intend to make a start. Namely, with 10 books—a new list of 10 books that I hope will stay with me over the coming years. (I’ll share that list at the end of this post.)

Some of these authors fall safely within my comfort zone. Some are sure to challenge me in interesting and perhaps uncomfortable ways. But that’s the whole point of reading, isn’t it? To step outside your own limited perspective and allow others to shape it, even if you don’t end up fully agreeing with them? How much of our impoverished discourse can be traced to the fact that we tend to hear only the voices that sound like our own?

This is my first small step in trying to change that, in trying not to be as much of an “ally” as a listener. To every one of you who took the time to recommend an author (or several, in some cases), thank you. And if, like me, your reading has felt a bit one-dimensional, I hope you’ll take a moment to peruse the names below. You might find something that sets you on a new journey, that gives you a new perspective…

Religious and theological writers

Karen Armstrong, comparative religion
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
The Case for God

Karen Baker-Fletcher, systematic theology
Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective
Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation

Nancy Beach, church ministry
Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church

Sarah Bessey, writer
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women

Jeannine Brown, hermeneutics, New Testament studies
Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics   

Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor
Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest
The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity

Laurene Bowers, UCC minister
Becoming a Multicultural Church

Barbara Brown-Taylor, Episcopal priest
An Altar in the World
Learning to Walk in the Dark
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

Kelly Brown-Douglas, religion
Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective

Diana Butler-Bass, Christian history
Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun
The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century

Lynn Cohick, biblical studies
The Story of God Bible Commentary: Philippians

Carlene Cross, writer
Fleeing Fundamentalism

Sarah Cunningham, writer
Beyond the Broken Church

Carolyn Custis-James, writer
The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules
Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women

Mary Daly, feminist philosophy
Beyond God the Father

Lillian Daniel, UCC minister
When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough

Marva Dawn, theology
Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down

Denise Dombkoski Hopkins, biblical theology
Journey Through the Psalms

Musa Dube, feminist theology
Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible

Margaret A. Farley, ethics
Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Cherith Fee Nordling, theology
Knowing God by Name: A Conversation Between Elizabeth A. Johnson and Karl Barth

Sister Maureen Fiedler, activist
Rome Has Spoken…: A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements and How They Have Changed Through the Centuries

Katie Geneva Cannon, theology
Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader

Beverly Harrison, Christian social ethics
Justice in the Making: Feminist Social Ethics

Rachel Held Evans, writer
A Year of Biblical Womanhood
Faith Unraveled
Searching for Sunday

Carter Heyward, Episcopal priest
Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right

Joyce Hollyday, UCC minister
Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us
Then Shall Your Light Rise: Spiritual Formation and Social Witness

Carol Howard-Merritt, practical theology, PCUSA pastor
Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, ethics and theology
En La Lucha: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology

Karen Jobes, hermeneutics
Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles
Invitation to the Septuagint

Elizabeth Johnson, theology
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God

Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, theology
Refiner’s Fire: A Religious Engagement With Violence

Anne Lamott, writer
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Amy-Jill Levine, New Testament studies
Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
The Jewish Annotated New Testament

Henrietta Mears, Christian educator
What the Bible Is All About

Sara Miles, founder of The Food Pantry
City of God: Faith in the Streets
Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion

Rita Nakashima Brock, theology and culture
Proverbs From Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us
Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire

Carol Newsom, Old Testament studies
The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations
Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition  

Elaine Pagels, religion
Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

Christine Pohl, Christian social ethics
Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition

Kwok Pui Lan, theology
Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology

Rosemary Radford Reuther, theology
Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology

Sharon Ringe, hermeneutics, UCC minister
Biblical Interpretation: A Roadmap

Jane Rogers Vann, practical theology
Gathered Before God: Worshiped-Centered Church Renewal

Sarah Ruden, classical literature, biblical linguistics
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time

Cheryl Sanders, Christian ethics, Church of God pastor
Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People
Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth, & the Poor

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, theology
Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward and Emancipatory Educational Space

Angela D. Sims, ethics, black church studies
Religio-Political Narratives in the United States

Dorothee Sölle, theology
Dorothee Sölle: Essential Writings

Marti Steussy, hermeneutics
Chalice Introduction to the Old Testament

Elsa Tamez, theology
The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead
Bible of the Oppressed
The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith From a Latin American Perspective

Phyllis Tickle, writer
The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why

Krista Tippett, broadcaster
Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How We Talk About It
Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit

Maren Tirabassi, UCC pastor
From the Psalms to the Cloud: Connecting to the Digital Age

Emilie M. Townes, ethics
In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness

Renita J. Weems, theology
Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible
Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt

Sharon Welch, religion and society
A Feminist Ethic of RISK

Delores Williams, theology
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

Sister Miriam Therese Winter, theology
Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe

Hildegard of Bingen
Scivias

Teresa of Avila
The Way of Perfection

Other writers

Hannah Arendt, political theory
On Revolution

Carol Gilligan, psychology
In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development

bell hooks, writer and activist
All About Love
Feminism Is for Everybody
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Susan Ludvigson, poet
Escaping the House of Certainty

Sue Monk Kidd, novelist
The Secret Life of Bees

Alice Notley, poet
Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005

Kay Ryan, poet
The Best of It: New and Selected Poems

Cheryl Strayed, writer
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Jean Valentine, poet
Door in the Mountain: New Collected Poems, 1965-2003

Alice Walker, author and activist
The Color Purple

The first 10…

Finally, here are the first 10 books I’m choosing to read from this list. I’ve tried to aim for a mix of authors representing different theological and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve chosen some books that naturally appeal to me, as well as some I might not have picked up on my own. And to honor those who responded to my earlier post, I tried to choose at least one from every list someone was kind enough to share with me. (It helped that there was a some overlap between lists.)

Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Learning to Walk in the Dark An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor
(Late substitution based on multiple recommendations)

A People’s History of Christianity, by Diana Butler-Bass

The Gospel of Ruth, by Carolyn Custis-James

Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, by Musa Dube

Reframing Hope, by Carol Howard-Merritt

The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine

Saving Paradise, by Rita Nakashima Brock

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

Sisters in the Wilderness, by Delores Williams

A prayer for our enemies

We-Refuse-to-be-Enemies

From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies:

Lead them and us from prejudice to truth;

deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge;

and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(HT Jim Vining, image via Kurt Willems)

Where are all the women? What my bookshelf says about the continuing effects of patriarchy

books

The other day, I did one of those “10 books that stayed with me” status updates on Facebook. It’s a thing that’s been going around for a while now. (After more than 130,000 such lists were tallied, Harry Potter came out on top, in case you were wondering.)

For my list, I chose to highlight 10 books that had a lasting theological impact. Later that day, one of my friends gently pointed out what, in hindsight, seems like a glaring omission:

There were no women on my list.

I have to be honest. I was a little embarrassed when I realized this. And alarmed. What bothered me even more than the fact that there were no women was the fact that I hadn’t even noticed my failure to include any.

I’m committed to gender equality. I’ve written about my theological journey from complementarianism to egalitarianism, and how it’s impacted my marriage on a practical level. I’ve shared how we’re trying to raise our daughter without all the baggage of patriarchy—writing about it here, here, here, and here, for example.

But a theoretical commitment to something can blind you to the ways in which your behavior is still shaped by its antithesis.

I can pen a rebuttal to Dave Ramsey’s caricature of the poor, for example. Yet I haven’t always honored my responsibility to be openhanded toward those in need.

I can write passionately about racial reconciliation in Ferguson. But I am not unscathed by generations of prejudice.

I can flaunt my egalitarian credentials on the interwebs—without even realizing how bad I’ve been at listening to the voices of women.

A theoretical opposition to patriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve stopped perpetuating it.

—//—

After reading my friend’s comment on Facebook, I scanned my collection of theology books. Then I started counting.

Only one was written by a woman.

Hoping for a better result, I expanded my search to include popular religious titles as well as academic ones. True, I’ve got books by Sarah Cunningham (Dear Church) and Carolyn Custis James (The Gospel of Ruth) on my shelf—and books by Rachel Held Evans (A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and Sarah Bessey (Jesus Feminist) on my Kindle. Rachel and Sarah in particular have shaped my thinking in meaningful and profound ways.

But the balance was still overwhelmingly tilted in one direction: 89% of the religious books on my shelf (or phone) were written by men.

Now, there are likely a number of reasons for the imbalance. My friend who first pointed it out suggested it had something to do with the church background I grew up in. True enough. When I decided to go to seminary, I was encouraged to avoid schools that accepted women into ordination-track degree programs—the assumption being that this was an indicator of “dangerous” liberal tendencies. But I have long since shifted my horizons.

Some of it surely has to do with this unsettling stat: only a quarter of all PhDs in theology go to women (HT Richard Beck, Kieran Healy). Which means at least 75% of those who are in a position to write academic theological books are male. I find it hard to believe this is because women just aren’t into theology, when there is a far more likely explanation: women have been told in various ways—some implicit, some more direct—that theology is a man’s pursuit.

Even in churches that are committed to gender equality, the vast majority of lay and ordained leaders are male—including two thirds of the employed priests in my own denomination. All of which is why, while writing for Elizabeth Esther’s blog last year, Stephanie Drury concluded:

Straight [white] men in Christian culture simply don’t… examine the ways in which they are sexist, and this is the most difficult factor in the move towards wholeness.

Besides, none of this changes the fact that the ratio of women to men on my bookshelf is worse than the ratio at academic institutions. I have no excuse.

As Maggi Dawn, a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, writes:

There are so many women with interesting things to say, some writing about feminism but many more simply writing about areas of theology that used to be thought of as a male preserve—or, the earlier you go, writing theology against the culture that denied them access to what was assumed to be a male preserve.

She even came up with a reading list—without having to put too much thought into it—of female voices in theology. Voices that many of us just aren’t listening to.

This has to change. My bookshelf has to change.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to be working from Maggi Dawn’s list to expand my horizons. Reading books by female theologians will not automatically make me a better specimen of gender equality. But it might help me to listen better to female voices. And doing so will enrich my theological perspective.

Maggi Dawn’s list of female theological voices can be found here (HT Laura Everett). What books or authors would you add to the list?

UPDATE  
I received dozens of suggestions in response to this post, which I’ve compiled here, along with a list of the next 10 books I’m going to read:

MY NEW READING LIST

A former Mars Hill pastor’s resignation letter

1149101_10153127626065788_715178740_o

Via William Throckmorton:

Dustin Kensrue, the worship pastor at Mars Hill’s Bellevue campus, has resigned. That makes four out of nine Mars Hill pastors and elders who signed a letter calling for Mark Driscoll’s removal who have either resigned or been forced out.

If you want a picture of what’s going on at Mars Hill, read the letter he shared on Twitter this week.

kensrue_tweet.001

Some excerpts…

While the nine signers of the letter that was leaked last week have been met with gratefulness and an outpouring of prayer from the people of Mars Hill, internally we have been dismissed and defamed as “immature” among other epithets…

One pastor was already removed from eldership for his part in signing the letter…

As for the 5 the signers who were at Bellevue, it was made clear we weren’t going to be fired at this point (I am assuming for PR reasons) but it was also made equally clear to us where the door was, and that it would be just fine if we chose to walk through it.

What executive elder Dave Bruskas revealed about governance at Mars Hill in a meeting with Kensrue last week:

He went so far as to say that if 61 of 63 elders across Mars Hill all shared the same conviction that something needed to change, it simply wouldn’t matter.

On the consolidation of power in the hands of Mark Driscoll and a handful of his closest allies, which casts serious doubt on the ability of the church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability to investigate with any integrity:

In the last 2 major revisions of the Mars Hill bylaws, the ability for the FCE [Full Council of Elders] to do anything has been all but completely taken away. The two things that the FCE can still do is to approve a change to the MH statement of faith, and to approve the slate of nominees for the board of BOAA [Board of Advisors and Accountability]. The problem with approving the slate is that it provides only the illusion of accountability since the FCE cannot nominate people for the slate, and if they did choose to vote a slate down, the current BOAA remains in power until the FCE approve a slate that the BOAA provides. At this point, continuing to even call the FCE a council is essentially a ruse and a farce.

Power is consolidated in such a way that the government of MH can only be described as an oligarchy which does not reflect the mutually submissive view of elder governance in provided in the Bible. And this theological shift points to the likelihood that this consolidation of authority through the revision of the bylaws is not, as it has been presented, an oversight or an unintentional byproduct of solving some other set of problems, but rather a deliberate and deft grab for power.

On the powerlessness of pastors and elders to lead Mars Hill out of this morass:

So, what’s the answer to the question “what can your elders do?” Simply put, sadly not much. This is why we’ve looked pained when you’ve have asked us what we are going to do about all of this…

Your pastors, who are on the ground with you, who know you, who care for you, who pray with you, and in whom you trust—these men have essentially no voice and no vote in what happens with your church as a whole, and the leadership is actively trying to limit the voice that they do have.

Read the rest here.

Image via Facebook