Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jesus and Other Dudes

Several years ago I was driving to work with Martha, cruising in the right-hand lane of the Hutchison River Parkway, listening contentedly to the opening salvos of NPR’s winter pledge week with the smug savoir faire of one who has already pledged.

Suddenly, as faster cars hissed past us, there was a concussive noise beneath the hood and the steering wheel stiffened and I had difficulty turning it. I exited onto Mamaroneck Avenue and parked beside the chained gate of a construction site. 

I did what any resourceful dude would do: I lithely whipped out my cell phone and tapped in the Triple-A road service number.

Most Triple-A operators sound like they’ve just completed a Clinical Pastoral Education cycle: they express sincere concern about your crisis, coo soothingly at you and ask for your membership number to make sure they should keep talking to you. After a few more reassuring phrases, this angel-at-the-keyboard said a tow-truck was on the way and would surely arrive before 90 minutes had passed.

That was good news and bad news. The good news was that help was on the way; the bad news was that I feared my bladder might not be in sync with a 90 minute confinement on a busy highway. After an hour, I began surveying stout trees in the construction site to gauge which ones might provide a suitable blind. Martha, always calm in a crisis, encouraged me. “Go!” she said. “No one notices white guys behind trees.”

I wasn’t so sure and decided to wait a few minutes longer. Happily, the tow truck soon pulled up in front of us.

The driver, a tall, well-built dude with a mellow baritone voice, asked what had happened.

“Well,” I said, lowering my voice to match his, “there was this popping sound and suddenly I had trouble steering.”

“Sounds like a broken belt,” the driver said after a momentary calculation.

I caught myself before I expressed surprise that cars have belts.

“Right,” I said, my voice low and shrewd. “That’s what I thought.”

Martha popped the hood and the guy reached in and pulled out two black, snaky belts, both of them broken.

“I knew it,” I said.

I am inspired to tell this story because it illustrates something about which dudes know and women are generally oblivious: namely, when dudes  encounter dudes in moments of crisis, there is a prescribed mode of behavior between them. 

Whenever it can be avoided, one dude will not allow another to get the upper hand or feel more powerful or more knowledgeable or – let’s put it out there – more macho than the other. Of course there are hierarchies that mitigate this, as when a guy has to relate to a guy in authority over him. But even then, the junior guy is expected – as Johnny Fontaine understood when Don Corleone rebuked his tears with a stinging slap in the face – to “be a man!”

Garrison Keillor’s Book of Guys (Penguin Books, 1993) reveals so many intimate male secrets that I hid it from my five daughters. Keillor doesn’t say anything dudes don’t already know, but he crosses a line of taciturnity that dudes maintain for self protection. 

Keillor’s description of the father-son relationship is revealing, not because we didn’t already know it but because we rarely speak it:

A father turns a stony face to his sons, berates them, shakes his antlers, paws the ground, snorts, runs them off into the underbrush, but when his daughter puts her arm over his shoulder and says, ‘Daddy, I need to ask you something,’ he is a pat of butter in a hot frying pan. 

Not only does Keillor describe the realities of guy relationships, he explains them.

Girls . . . were allowed to play in the house . . . and boys were sent outdoors . . . Boys ran around in the yard with toy guns going kksshh-kksshh, fighting wars for made-up reasons and arguing about who was dead, while girls stayed inside and played with dolls, creating complex family groups and learning how to solve problems through negotiation and role playing. Which gender is better equipped, on the whole, to live an adult life, would you guess? 

I like to reflect on all this when debates arise in ecumenical circles about the maleness of Jesus. Faith and Order types have generally agreed that God transcends gender and is neither male nor female. God is the creator, not the creature, and God is spirit not flesh. I remember an editorial by my mentor, Norman R. De Puy, the legendary editor of Missions and The American Baptist Magazine, entitled, “God’s Gonads”, the point being: don’t got ‘em, don’t need ‘em. 

But is it significant, theologians ask, that Jesus was male? Could God incarnate appear in female flesh without altering the divine plan of salvation?

Theologians are split on that issue. Some insist on messianic maleness, while others go so far as to rephrase the Doxology to remove gender references. A version endorsed by the United Church of Canada goes like this: 
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;Praise God, all creatures here below;Praise God for all that love has done;Creator, Christ, and Spirit, One.

For some Christians, there is something powerfully attractive about the idea of a female messiah, and artists and filmmakers have provided startling but stirring images of female Christs on the cross.

But the fact is, Jesus was born male. We can only speculate why God chose to send his son rather than his daughter, but it may have had something to do with the practicality of dealing with a male-dominated, patriarchal society that, for the most part, endures today. A female Christ would have faced far more obstacles than a male rabbi, possibly insurmountable ones, even for God. 

There are many instances in the gospels where Jesus wears his maleness like a phylactery on his forehead. He certainly acts like a recently bar mitzvahed male when his mother asks him to do something at a wedding when they run out of wine: “Woman, what concern is that to you, and to me?” (John 2:4).  So, too, his rebuke of the Syrophoenician woman drips with male and perhaps xenophobic condescension when he seems to compare the woman’s suffering daughter to undeserving dogs. (Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:21-28)

But an even more intriguing example, because it portrays Jesus’ encounter with another alpha male, is told in Mark 8:31-33:

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Mark, writing sparely as always, leaves out some details we’d love to know. We see the Big Fisherman, grasping Jesus’ sleeve, dragging him away from the others and pointing his finger in Jesus’ face. 

We can almost hear Peter’s fierce whisper. “Look, man, are you nuts? These people love you. What’s all this crap about suffering and dying and rising again? You want them to think you’re a whack job? Ease up, Dude.”

No male is going to turn the other cheek when patronized like that. Jesus not only returns Peter’s rebuke, he calls him Satan, which is probably worse than calling him, in the manner of his response to the Syrophoenician woman, a son of a bitch. 

Maybe this is too strong a reaction to Peter’s obtuseness, and maybe if Jesus had been female he would have organized a discussion group with role playing to help Peter see where he erred. But this was a quintessentially dude encounter and it was handled in dude guy way:

“You’re wrong.”

 “No, you. Shut up.”

Looking more closely at the encounter, it’s evident why there is so much testosteronal leakage.

For one thing, Jesus is preaching what may be the most important sermon of his life: the one that explains all that must happen before his messianic mission will be complete. Still at the top of his popularity polls, Jesus warns his followers that he will be rejected by powerful religious authorities, tortured, and put to death. And then he will rise from the dead. Only when all of that has happened, Jesus explains, will his mission be fulfilled: sinful humanity will be reconciled to God and death will be forever vanquished.

We don’t know how many in the crowd that day understood what Jesus was saying, but we do know Peter couldn’t grasp it. The message of salvation was blurred by his Y-chromosome. And it was his chromosomal make-up, his dude-ness, that prompted Peter to defy Jesus and order him to stop talking nonsense.

Not surprisingly, Jesus stood his ground. History tells us that Peter eventually understood what Jesus was telling the crowd and Peter evolved into an eloquent evangelist of the message of salvation. But in this and other incidents reported in scripture, Peter’s dude behavior should have served as a warning that many of his successor popes ignored: don’t dismiss Jesus’ word when you have no idea what’s going on.

The rest of us can consider ourselves forewarned. The next time you listen to a careful exegesis of Jesus’ words, ask yourself: are we hearing the truth? Or does the preacher have a Y chromosome that may be skewing the message?

The story of Jesus’ earthly ministry and divine mission has been interpreted and re-interpreted in many different ways. At its heart is the message that God loves us unconditionally and God wants us to reflect that love in our relationships with our fellow humans.

Sometimes that message gets a little garbled. 
And if that is because of the occasional difficulty of testosterone-dripping dudes to understand it, we can be grateful a back-up system was put in place at the very beginning. The resurrected Jesus appeared first to a woman who was certain to understand what was going on, and only later did he entrust the message to dudes.

Thank God for the millions of women who are called to pastoral and preaching ministry. With their help, God’s truth will never be dimmed. Regardless of the gender of the person preaching or the person in the pew, the ecstatic message that rings throughout the ages will never fade.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Horrid Hermeneutics of Reformation

In 1569 in Holland, a Mennonite preacher named Dirk Willems was arrested by his Lutheran neighbors for practicing the heretical custom of adult baptism.

After 1500 years of quarrelsome Christian history, the Lutherans had a pretty good idea what God wanted them to do with heretics: burn them at the stake.

According to The Martyr’s Mirror, Willems escaped from his captors one winter night and sprinted across the frozen hillocks. The Lutherans were losing sight of him and one pursuer took a shortcut across a frozen pond. But the ice broke beneath him and the Lutheran fell into the frigid water, writhing helplessly.

Willems turned to see the man’s distress and made a fateful decision. He ran back to the pond and pulled the man out of the water. The other pursuers caught up with him and carried Willems back to the jail, where he was promptly burned at the stake.

Today the unhappy tale of Dirk Willems is rarely told in Lutheran confirmation classes but it’s worth keeping in mind. Otherwise we might be tempted to celebrate the Reformation as a beatific highpoint of Christian progress.

Five hundred and one years ago this Halloween, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg.

But the truth is, if he had his way, he’d have nailed a few Anabaptists to the door, too. And Jews. And the Pope. The defacing of the Wittenberg door was the ominous prelude to decades of burnings, beheadings, torture, and other primitive forms of hermeneutical discussion.

Luther, who spent much of his life hiding from Catholic assassins, would have readily immolated the odd Mennonite or Jew whose theology he found abhorrent. Fortunately for persons in those groups, Luther usually dissipated his anger through vivid insults which even now could exalt your Twitter tweets. (Download the Luther insult generator and tweet away.) 

Luther was complicated. Among other things, he was a bona fide prophet. God spoke through him with blinding clarity.

But Luther also spoke for himself, and on those occasions he was often wrong. He was a typical sixteenth century European Christian who bristled with anti-Semitism and xenophobia and he bristled brisker than most. Had his glowering imperfections been less obvious, his followers might have elevated him to the demigod status of Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy.

Whether Luther actually defaced the Wittenberg door with nails is a matter of dispute, but historians are clear that he sent the theses to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, on October 31, 1517. They were not a demand for comprehensive church reform but a complaint about the sale of indulgences, a papal racket for selling tickets to heaven.

The Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences was the opening salvo of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Leo X, who depended on indulgences to continue living in the manner to which he was accustomed, was alarmed by Luther’s disputation and eventually excommunicated him. His Holiness also dispatched goon squads in search of Luther’s hoary head.

Ironically, the sale of indulgences has never gone away completely. There are still Ladies’ Sodality fundraisers that suggest a donation of $5 will assure the attentiveness of the Blessed Mother to prayers. And scores of television evangelists, most of whom scorn both Lutherans and Catholics, raise millions by promising that contributions to their ministries will bring “special blessings” that undoubtedly include heaven.

Luther’s point was that with God’s grace, salvation is achieved by faith alone. That was a revolutionary revelation that relieved a heavy burden from sinners who saw themselves struggling futilely to please a vengeful God.

Salvation by faith remains a wonderful idea, and it’s too bad Pope Leo couldn’t see it. It’s also too bad that the reformers themselves sometimes lost sight of it. Fifty years after Luther published his theses, some of his Lutheran descendants got the idea that faith and grace only worked for Lutherans, not Catholics, not Anglicans, and certainly not Anabaptists. Luther himself, a confirmed churl, despised Anabaptists because of their adherence to believer’s baptism. Dirk Willems was not the only one to pay the price of Lutheran arrogance. These were the horrid hermeneutics of the Reformation.

But times change and we Christians are no longer immolating each other. Today Pope Francis warmly embraces Lutherans and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York (who knew he was a Luther scholar?) acknowledges “the church needed reforming” in 1517. One can even see the day in the not-too-distant future when Lutherans and Catholics will share the same communion elements of bread and wine at a common table.

The ideal result of the Reformation will be when Lutherans and Catholics share a common priesthood, but that day seems far off. Most Lutheran communions ordain women as priests and bishops, and the otherwise progressive Pope Francis has declared that will not happen in his reign.

So for those who believe it is essential for the church to embrace the gifts of all who are called to ministry, regardless of gender, there is still reforming to be done.

As we look forward to the perfect unity of a reformed church, it may be good to keep in mind that Reformation has always been imperfect, often brutal, and slow to embrace the insight that Luther saw in his more gracious moments: that persons are redeemed by faith, not dogma, and by God’s grace, not priestly intercession.

True reformation may be a long ways off, but by God’s grace it will come. 

Like the long, slow moral arc of the universe, the arc of reformation bends inexorably toward unity.