Monday, September 20, 2010

Grand Theft Jesus - Part 2 - "All About Eve"

In my previous review of Grand Theft Jesus by Robert McElvaine, I mentioned that he did a spectacular mis-exegesis of the accounts of the creation and fall in Genesis 1-3.  I'd like to dig into this a little further, as McElvaine claims that mysogyny in religion is one of religion's (and for that matter, the world's) biggest problems.

Now I will stipulate at the outset that an awful lot of conservative Christians seem to me to be way too hung up on issues of sex and male superiority.  Please don't misunderstand me as thinking there are no problems here...though as I shall argue in the future, the problem isn't so much with male power over woman, but rather the notion that "power over" itself is a corruption that doesn't belong with followers of Jesus, regardless of their gender.  But having granted that there is a problem, the arguments that McElvaine lays out are spectacular in their overreach and just-plain idiocy.

We'll start with the "problem" of being "born again."  I was going to try and summarize, but this just has to be quoted in full:
The question becomes more complicated and intriguing when we remember that those who say it is necessary to be born again also say that the unborn are without sin: One of the worst things about abortion, they say, is that it is the taking of innocent life.  The unborn are innocent, without sin.  Yet the born have to be reborn in order to overcome their sin and be "saved."  Ostensibly this rebirth removes the stain of Original Sin.  But let's think about this assertion.  If the unborn are innocent, they must not have yet acquired Original Sin.  Both the unborn and the reborn are "saved;" it is the once-born who are damned.  Pre-born and reborn are good; it is the in-between state--born--that is evil.  So just when is it that Original Sin is taken on?  Given the foregoing beliefs, no other possibility seems to exist than that Original Sin is acquired at birth.  It seems we all get Original Sin from the same source that is said to have led Adam into sin: a woman!
And that, at the most basic level, is what is wrong with our first birth--it is from a woman.
McElvaine goes on to explain that being "born again" (that is born from Jesus, a man) sanctifies because it comes from a man instead of from a woman.  He then goes on to speculate that this whole dysfunction comes from men envying the female power of creation--that is childbirth.  (How any man who's ever witnessed pregnancy, or childbirth, or even the monthly misery that is menstruation, could possibly have "womb envy" is beyond me, but hey, maybe that's just because I'm so suppressed by the male-dominated culture!)  He goes on an intriguing excursion into the ways men have constructed "no-woman zones" of work, duty, ritual, power, etc., all to make up for the inadequacy we men feel due to our inability to create.  In fact, the whole notion that God is referred to as male in Genesis is, in McElvaine's analysis, a male-dominated insistence that creation isn't just a woman's thing!

And then it gets really weird...

To make a VERY long story short(er), in Paleolithic times where men were hunters and women were gatherers, both were valued in society.  As the agricultural revolution led to people settling down in groups, women's roles in agriculture and reproduction maintained or even grew in  value, while men's importance as providers of meat and defenders of the tribe declined precipitously.  Men, not wanting to get stuck with the "girlie stuff" like agriculture, instead built elaborate mythologies and power structures to assert their superiority.  "Because the switch to agriculture ultimately came to seem like such a bad deal for men, devaluing their traditional roles as hunters, leaving the with the 'woman's work' of farming, labor that was in fact much harder than hunting, they eventually blamed women for having lost what seemed in distant retrospect to have been a paradise in which people lived without work, picking abundant food from trees."  Here he then draws the analogy to Adam & Eve in the garden, with Eve's temptation being an allegorical representation of the woman taking man's power from him and forcing him into agriculture!

Here it becomes obvious McElvain is pumping his other book "Eve's Seed," in which I surmise he develops his special brand of misandry even more fully.  Here's his own footnote quoting that work (the entire section is from his footnoote; the quotes delineate that portion that he's quoting from his other book):
The Eve and Adam story wonderfully weaves together sex and agriculture.  "Eve's sharing of the fruit with Adam has often been interpreted as symbolic of introducing him to sexual relations."  In light of the Seed Metaphor, "a woman teaching a man how to have intercourse with her becomes a perfect symbol for women teaching men how to plant crops in the ground.  Both are seductions by woman, the temptress."
Of course, McElvaine's death-defying leap into the metanarrative of female subjugation overlooks a few obvious points about the actual Genesis myth, including
  • The fact that Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply--presumably requiring sex--before the fall (Gen 1:28), and 
  • The fact that Adam was placed in the garden to till and care for it, also before the fall (Gen 2:15).
For a long time I've seen one of the most-overlooked lessons of the story of the fall in Gen. 3 to be the failure of the man to defend his wife--when the serpent tempts Eve, she then gave some "to her husband who was with her" (Gen 3:6), but somehow he didn't think to interpose himself between her and a talking snake...hmm!!!  Anyway, I think it's safe to say the only way to come to McElvaine's wild interpretation of Genesis is to start with heavily-loaded preconceptions and little respect for even the mythologic structure of the text.

Where does all this lead?  McElvaine is not completely wrong when he paints a picture of religion in general, and hijacked Christianity in particular, of having been unjustly and cruelly down on women.  But his attempt to draw the theological lines goes stunningly wide of the mark, and can only be described as fantasy in itself.  And his conclusion is, I believe, deeply and basically wrong:  "ChristianityLite is Jesusless, but an even more fundamental problem shared by all monotheistic religions is that they are Goddessless.  The basic problem for millenia has been not that people are godless (Ann Coulter's accusations notwithstanding), but that people conceive of God as a male, rather than as a Being either undivided by sex or combining both sexes--either asexual or bisexual, as a Creative and Omnipotent Force logically must be."

Well, no.  A scriptural view of God is neither asexual nor bisexual, but better non-sexual.  That God represented himself in a male gender (though clearly not in a sexual sense) throughout scripture (in particular Jesus' references to the Father) may not fully make sense to us, but it cannot be dismissed  as simply out of style.  To go there is to finally say that nothing in the scriptural text really matters at all if we decide we have found a paradigm that "speaks to us" in a more attractive way today.  That's not the lordship of Jesus; it's merely hijacking Jesus for a different agenda.  That the hijacker comes from the left instead of the right is not progress.

McElvaine claims that "on one point after another, what Jesus is urging on us are behaviors more commonly associated with women than with men:  gentleness, compassion, and forgiveness."   He presents this as evidence we need to acknowledge the feminine side of God.  He doesn't seem to realize that when he makes a claim like this, he's actually reinforcing the same crap he combats:  those traits are only "feminine" if we acknowledge that the ascription of power traits to the man, and caring traits to the woman, is in fact valid!


It's not "feminine" when I hug and kiss my boys.  It's not "masculine" when my wife disciplines them.  It's not "masculine" if a woman like Jael in the old testament or Margaret Thatcher in England leads a war.  It's not "feminine" when a man gently tends to the bruises--physical or psychological--of a friend.  I'll say it again: if one argues for a "feminine" side of God due to the compassionate and caring traits we see in scripture, then one is giving (undeserved) support to the whole notion of  "masculine" and "feminine" traits that really HAS caused a great deal of heartache in our world.

The gender wars have left a lot of casualties.  Soon, I'm going to take on this issue as it relates to the church.  But if we're ever going to make headway in this, as in so many other issues, we've got to face the reality that the answers have been wrong, not least because the questions have themselves been wrong.  In this, McElvaine has done the dialog no good.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rightly Dividing the Word -- A Summary

I was under the illusion that I had completed my occasional series on Biblical Inspiration until several friends pushed back on my "ROCK" summary of my faith distinctives.  Reading back over my posts I see that I never really wrapped up my position, so this is a shot at doing so.  I shall not attempt to fully justify my position in this post; interested readers may want to go back to earlier posts in this series for more of the foundation behind what I'm claiming here.

In contrast to most Evangelical statements of faith, I reject the claim that the Bible--either the Protestant or Catholic canon--is the Word of God.  In fact, I believe that insistence on treating the Bible as God's Word is at the root of a great deal of error, as well as the foundation for many "endless controversies" that both create division and strife within the body of Christ, and drive many who otherwise might believe, from the faith.  The dogma of "Verbal and Plenary Inspiration" (VPI) and its variants (including the companion dogma of "inerrancy") tend to lead to what I call a "flat book" interpretation of the Biblical texts, whereby any phrase, anywhere in the text can become the foundation (dare I say, the pretext?) for doctrine, often without regard to either its textual or historical context.  But beyond the errors of "flat book" interpretation, I primarily object to calling the Bible the Word of God because to do so is, on the very face of it, UNbiblical.  At its worst, this error devolves to Bibliolatry--ascribing divine status to an object.  Listen carefully to the arguments on VPI from many Evangelicals and you'll find they're often not far from Bibliolatry.

The Bible does not call itself God's word--therefore, neither should we.  Specific places--particularly the prophets with their "Thus saith the LORD" declarations, highlight that at the particular point thereby designated, they are repeating God's word.  If we believe anything at all about Jesus' divinity (a topic for another time), then Jesus' own words certainly rise to the level of God's words...and of course Jesus himself is described as the Word of God become flesh.  The apostle Paul referred to "all scripture" as "theopneustos" ("God-breathed?"or "God's breath?"  Paul unfortunately coined a term or borrowed a rare one, and neglected to define it); however, careful thought makes it quite obvious that whatever Paul was referring to by "all scripture," he wasn't prospectively endorsing our current canon.

In contrast to flat-book Bibliolatry, I hold to what I have come to describe as a "Word of God hermaneutic" which I have also described as "Rightly Dividing the Word."  In choosing this phrase, I freely admit that I've borrowed a phrase from the King James version of 2 Tim 2:15, even though the Elizabethan English phrase "rightly dividing" does not mean what I think it means (inconceivable!).  I find it a helpful way of encapsulating the notion that we are to approach scripture in an inquiring mode, searching within its texts for that subset which actually is God's word.  As a rule of thumb, I hold to a hierarchy of authority among the texts, where the words of Jesus as reported in the Gospels take supremacy, and shortly behind them, the words of the prophets where they explicitly highlight their message as the "Word of the LORD."  Explicative works like the epistles follow behind these, and historical reporting still further behind, with wisdom and poetry such as Proverbs and Psalms bringing up the utmost rear (well, along with apocalyptic literature which frankly nobody really understands any more).

This is not to state that the rest of the Bible is either false or untrustworthy.  In particular with the Gospels, I find a great deal that leads me to the belief that they are the honest accounts of faithful human witnesses to Jesus' words and actions.  The Old Testament historical writings I'm less sure about, in that they so patently include stuff that seems awfully similar to the jingoistic, prejudiced attitudes that many similarly-ethnocentric peoples have displayed throughout history.  But here I argue principally that unless interpreting a text has demonstrable bearing on the life of the disciple of Jesus, it's really not that important just how true it is, or isn't.  (please take note I said the "life," not the "thought," of the disciple)

Valuable teaching can still be gleaned from much that is not the Word of God...for that matter from much that isn't in the Bible at all.  But we must learn to reserve the stamp of the divine for that which merits it.  When we do, our priorities tend to skew somewhat differently than those which hold sway in contemporary (and much historic) Christian thought.  It really IS all about Jesus!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Book Review - Grand Theft Jesus (Part 1)

I just finished reading the book Grand Theft Jesus -- The Hijacking of Religion in America by Robert S. McElvaine.  I really expected to love the book:  after all, he starts out sympathizing with
"the Christian Messiah (as he) looks at the crew of megachurch preachers, televangelists, hypocrites, imposters, snake-oil salesmen, and just plain snakes who have hijacked the name of Christianity, perpetrated identity theft against Jesus, subverted his teachings, transformed his name into a representation of just the opposite of what he stands for, mocked and damned those who advocate what he actually said, and shouted 'Jesus! JESUS! Jeee-SUSS!' at the top of their lungs to distract attention from their crimes against the one they blaspheme."
Anyone who's read more than five minutes in this blog knows I resonate with that sentiment.  But despite the fact that the author --in my estimation-- correctly catalogs and decries the manifold abuses of the Religious Right (who he alternatively mocks as the "Irreligious Wrong" or the "Xian Lite"), I found the book an exhausting read.   The first three quarters of the book are an unrelenting tirade against the evils of the "Christian" Right and their outright distortions of the message of Jesus, and however well-deserved McElvaine's accusations may be, I started feeling like I was just reading a left-wing equivalent of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter.  That may be refreshing to some...and if I defined what is wrong with conservative Christianity primarily by its being associated with the "wrong" wing, maybe I'd like it.  But I'm getting to the point where I'm tired of nastiness and ad-hominem regardless of whether I like the target (or the attacker) or not.

Don't misunderstand me.  I remain firmly convinced that a great deal that passes for conservative Christianity in America today is misguided at best and idolatrous at worst.  I am deeply offended at the hatred and bloodshed and plain-old meanness that are frequently perpetrated by those who loudly shout the name of Jesus.  I've said before, and it's still true, that if all I knew of Jesus came from what I've seen of Christians, I wouldn't be one either.

But replacing right-wing vitriol with left-wing vitriol, to me, is not progress.  If you feel the same, I suspect you, like me, would find Grand Theft Jesus to be an unpleasant read.

There are other issues.  In the last two chapters of the book, McElvaine does some spectacularly sloppy exegesis of Genesis 1-3 and comes up with a truly mind-bending screed against the male domination of society in general and religion in particular.  I'll get into that in a separate post.

But for now, I'll just say that while I'd probably enjoy a lively discussion over multiple beers with McElvaine, I cannot recommend his book.  More's the pity too!