Monthly Archives: August 2013

review of “our mother st paul”

In Our Mother Saint Paul, Beverly Roberts Gaventa explores the metaphors of Paul’s oft-neglected maternal imagery and examines his letters within an apocalyptic context. In Part 1, maternal imagery is examined to show that Paul is “an authority who does not conform to standard norms of authority.” Part 2 explores the Pauline letters with questions of apocalyptic theology at the forefront.

Gaventa recognizes that maternal images are complex metaphorical movements that are too often dismissed. Paternal imagery is of one-time begetting and is not the same category as maternal imagery, which reflects an on-going nurturing relationship. As such, it describes the vocation of the apostolic office and is associated with apocalyptic contexts. As aids in explaining the maternal imagery, Gaventa utilizes the history of traditions; the sociocultural context in which the letters were written, especially gender construction within the Greco-Roman world; and ‘metaphor theory’, which Gaventa explains as the use of metaphor as “an invitation to intimacy” and to change our minds.

Specifically, Gaventa is interested in the cohesion of Paul’s use of familial and kinship metaphors, noting that “metaphors having to do with nurture are almost exclusively associated with mothers” and generative metaphors that “may structure large aspects of thought.” The imagery has implications for Paul’s understanding of both leadership and women’s roles.

The first four chapters address specific maternal images employed in Paul’s letters, beginning with that of apostles as infants and nurses (1 Thessalonians 2:7), a mixed metaphor Gaventa explains through the social context. With this image, Paul is struggling to identify two aspects of the apostolic role: childlike in that he does not seek benefit, and nurse-like in that he is responsible in tending his charges with care and affection. Such metaphors of family life establish believers as a family, which restructures society and reconceptualizes conventional roles. The apostolic task is not ordinary, and “one must employ categories that seem outrageous.”

Next, Gaventa addresses the image of Paul in labor with the Galatians in his womb and the object of labor being Christ (Galatians 4:19). The metaphor may seem confused, but Gaventa shows it to be intentional. Through examining the Greek, Gaventa understands the verse to be about the apostolic vocation’s association with the anguish of the coming apocalyptic era, and the goal of anguish is that Christ be formed within communities. Paul’s work as an apostle occurs within apocalyptic framework that looks toward the incorporation of the entire cosmos into Christ. This is not about the action of Paul to another individual, but the action of God toward humanity.

The third image examined is Paul as nurse supplying milk to ‘infant’ believers not ready for solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). The metaphor here reinforces familial language within the community of believers while also undermining culturally approved masculine roles. Whereas other commentators focus on paternal imagery later in the passage and even try to link this image with it, a nursing mother cannot be replaced with a father. She examines the Greco-Roman cultural understanding of sexuality—in which women were understood to be inverted males, femininity was a threat to masculinity, and strict norms for ‘real men’ were followed—to conclude that Paul “effectively concedes the culturally predisposed battle for his masculinity” and moves to the margins of acceptability. Gaventa compares Paul’s loss of status to his later images as a planter of someone else’s field, a servant of someone else’s builder, and also to “the crucified Jesus, who is no more a ‘real man’ by the world’s standards than is a nursing Paul.”

The final piece of maternal imagery addressed is of creation itself in labor (Romans 8:22). Gaventa argues that “all creation” includes humanity, even non-Jew and non-Christian. The labor of creation births nothing, but rather waits for God’s action. Meanwhile, creation continues to be sold into slavery, although the resurrection means that the powers, ultimately, will not prevail. What Paul affirms is the future redemption of creation despite the fact that “anti-God powers” of Sin and Death continue to separate humanity from God.

Chapter Five transitions from specific metaphors into the overall theology of Paul. Questions of permission and prohibition are not Paul’s priority of vocation. Gaventa focuses on Galatians in order to see what might be gleaned from a letter that is decidedly male in its issues, characters, and decision-making. When the question is no longer primarily about Paul’s understanding of women, the letter is liberated to speak to theological concerns that affect all humanity. The reader is free to hear the ways in which the gospel’s arrival obliterates law, systems that measure achievements, and identity constructions that separate rather than connect, such as culture, religion, socioeconomic status, and gender.

In Part Two, Gaventa places the maternal metaphors into the apocalyptic nature of Paul’s theology. Through examining, primarily, Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, she reveals Paul’s theology to emphasize (a) the presence of the ongoing apocalypse that invades all realms of life and (b) the gospel that God revealed victory in the ongoing struggle between good and evil through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Galatians 1 through 4, Paul focuses on the singularity of the gospel and on the relationship of believers to the gospel. He sees Galatians as seeking to please outsiders in the same way he had done previously, and instructs that they must not submit to the elements of the world. What rules the text is the conviction “there is only one gospel and that it puts an end to all prior commitments, conventions, and value systems. [Tradition, law, social barriers, and feast days] are alike insofar as they threaten to undermine the exclusive claim of the gospel.” Paul uses his own experience as an example of the gospel’s work and power, using his life to point to something beyond himself. Although the presenting problem of circumcision in Galatians 3 and 4 is a question concerning the law, Gaventa looks past the symptom to the central theological issue of the identity and accomplishments of Jesus Christ. “What the Galatians seek in the law is the certainty that they have a firm place in the church of God and that they know what God requires of them. It is precisely this certainty, and every other form of certainty, that Paul rejects with his claim about the exclusivity and singularity of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s Christology puts the crucifixion at the focus, through which humanity is freed not only from legal practices but from all identifications, whether within law or outside it. The new creation brought about by the crucifixion allows for no augmentation by the law nor any other power or loyalty.

The final chapters of Our Mother Saint Paul investigate Paul’s letter to the Romans to understand the cosmic battle between God and the anti-God powers as well as the community of believers. Gaventa examines the phrase “God handed them over” with the understanding that God surrendered humanity to the anti-God powers, specifically to uncleanness/impurity, dishonorable passions, and deformed mind. In Paul’s understanding, these are not human characteristics but powers; humans always live in the grasp of some power. Having already handed over humanity, the crucifixion is the point at which God hands over his own Son, which is not the victory of the powers but their unmasking and sure defeat.

Paul’s letter to the Romans emphasizes that the battle against evil is not simply a list of transgressions to condemn or avoid, it is God’s own enemy. Sin is not confined to behavior but is a power that entered the world, became an enslaving force, unleashed its partner Death, and corrupts even God’s law. As God once handed humanity over to Sin, he has handed over Jesus for its defeat. Baptism means the individual is dead to Sin, although capable of transgression (lowercase sin). On a cosmic level Sin is no longer the enslaving power; grace holds dominion. Ultimately, God will destroy evil on behalf of humanity.

Gaventa also considers Romans to see what it might suggest about community. She observes that Paul invokes a common memory of what has happened in the gospel with the hope that a shared interpretation will shape the future and unity of the community. The community’s behavior is characterized by an upbuilding of others within the community and reaching out to the outsider. Community boundaries are wide and yet distinguish a “line between those who are living and those who remain in the power of Death.” However, Paul does not stigmatize outsiders; he is caringly concerned for them.

Gaventa shows Romans to be a display of Paul’s theologizing. His theology is not a starting point but an end product that is fluid in light of changing events. God, for Paul, is ‘on the loose’ and uncontainable. The demands of such an all-encompassing God affect every area of human life and creation itself. Paul maintains that God is faithful, but faithfulness does not imply predictability. What may look like rejection to Israel is not unfaithfulness but is faithfulness to all creation, as God works to transform all. Paul’s fluid understanding allows room for a God who unexpectedly surpasses his promises.

Reviewers have much to praise in Gaventa’s work. McNeel writes that Gaventa shows maternal images to be “an essential part of Paul’s theologizing, both about apostolic ministry and about the cosmic battle going on between God and the anti-God forces of the universe.” The common critique is the fragmented argument of the work as a whole, especially between the two parts. Ascough relates that in early chapters the reader is left “wondering how the term ‘apocalyptic’ is being used.” The chapters on apocalyptic theology, McNeel notes, apparently “were not composed with maternal imagery in mind.”

While I agree that the book reads as two distinct works, her war-faring language is more problematic for me. Gaventa employs war imagery to describe conflict between powers. She states that “God wages war”, and that believers are God’s weapons. However, she also describes a God who “delivered up humanity”; the weapons (humanity) have been handed over. I protest: This God does not battle, he surrenders and dies on a cross. This God does not crush opponents, but becomes vulnerable to them. Feminists recognize the way language shapes cultural structures, and war-faring language is no exception. By employing primarily war imagery in theology and depicting a battle-ready God, Gaventa perpetuates philosophies of righteous war and systems of violence.

This review written for Feminist Hermeneutics with Jo-Ann Badley; all students were asked to write a review of this text.

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god/body map

SELF

I was raised to be a good soul trapped in an inconsequential body.

The soul was what mattered. It lived on forever, it was judged by a white guy up in the sky, it journeyed to some far-away paradise after death.

The body was merely an imprisonment. “This life is only to determine where you’ll spend eternity,” my father was fond of stating with certainty. After the decision was made, all that’s left is to wait for the body’s expiration date, and perhaps help move that date closer. Breakfast in my house was a giant class of diet Coke and a chocolate-iced doughnut.

“If it tastes good, it’s bad for you,” another favorite phrase from my parents. I remember the first time I bit into a fresh pear, handed to me by a friend’s mother. I was overwhelmed with the sweetness, surprised by the juice and the contrast of soft flesh within tough skin. A few years later, when I tried to lose weight, I ate toast, thinking the bland taste meant it was good for me. All the things my body and taste buds craved—crisp broccoli, fresh berries, raw almonds—had been deemed ‘bad for me’ by my parents’ rule.

It was difficult to reach down to tie my shoes.

In college, my violin instructor banned dairy from my diet and demanded protein (a foreign word I had to research) at each meal. Post-college I began a weekly yoga practiced and, for what felt like the first time, felt my body.

As my body taught me about my self,

As my body changed and my self along with it,

As I changed and the body reflected the difference,

I had to rethink the way I understood my self.

Obviously, everything was so much more interconnected than I had been taught. When I began eating food designed by the Creator rather than the corporation, my relationship with the environment around me changed. As I began to taste food in its particularity instead of as a means to fullness, I also found each person to hold a particularity that had previously gone unnoticed. As my soul moved into my body, I stopped barricading myself so strongly within my intellect. I allowed myself to feel, even when feeling hurt. I stopped being a soul and a body. I became one person.

Which is not to deny my complexity. I don’t think of myself as nothing more than an accumulation of cells. I am a body, but when I slice open my arm there is no confusion that it’s my intelligence seeping out. When I confer within myself, there’s no confusion at hearing multiple voices. I am in relationship with myself. Understanding myself as an integrated unity opened up more freedom within me to be in such a relationship. There are no clearly-defined borders of mind, body, soul; there is only relationships, on-going, ever-building in complexity, differentiating, integrating, including, transcending.

Don’t be misled by my frame. I am a big self.

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THE DIVINE. DIV(I)N(THRE)E.

I’m wary of using the word ‘God’. No one means the same thing by it. It’s often used (and capitalized) as though it’s a name, proper noun. It’s not. It’s a description, just as ‘Spirit,’ ‘Divine,’ or ‘Be-ing’, is. That said, I will use the word, but please, just as I do not want you to put your preconceived stereotypes about ‘white’, ‘women’, or ‘Michigander’ onto me, I do not want you to think you know the essence of this God Being.

Everything is included in God. Everything is transcended, surpassed, gone beyond by God. There is nothing that is not God. Just as your body includes organs such as your lungs, heart, and brain, you are more than the accumulation of your organs. You include all of them, but you also transcend all of them. God includes everything, but also transcends, and from that beyond-place, God calls creation to be more than it is, calls humanity to be more than we are. Why do we cringe to think of the way scripture was used to justify slavery but continue to use it to justify domestic violence, gender inequality, ethnocentrism and exceptionalism?

In some way, a first-century Jewish man embodied everything it was to be human while also embodying everything it is to be God. I do not pretend to understand this. What I do know is that this man prayed, and God responded. Which can be confusing. God responding to God’s own self?

Oh, whispers a warm internal voice, you know what that’s like.

That’s different, another I responds. We aren’t God. 

Well then what do you do with imago Dei? Chimes in that snobby theological intellectual that won’t go away, no matter how much the rest of us shun him.

On some level, I’m aware I might be making God into my own image, but I’m not without tradition in doing so, and the company isn’t terrible.

Or maybe it really is the other way around, and my inner relationality reflects something of God’s inner workings. Not that it helps; I still can’t claim any solid understanding of God nor of the way my inner self works.

So I put words to it as best I can with a giant shrug. We could be wrong, the voices agree.

——————————————————-

SELF AND DIVINITY

The best image I have to begin describing any of this is not an image at all. It was something that was barely understood to exist until just a few centuries ago: air.

We tell ourselves that air is all around us, it’s the thing in which we live. What we forget is that there are times the air believes humans to be the thing around it, that we are the thing in which it exists. Which is to say: we inhale.

I had a pastor who once explained that the reason the tetragrammaton—the four-letter Hebrew name for God that we lamely translate as Lord—is unsayable is that it’s actually unpronounceable. “They’re breathing sounds,” he says. He talks about pneuma meaning both breath and spirit. Another friend, also a pastor, likes to say that the answer to the question “Where is God?” is only an inhale and exhale away.

Inside me, that affirming voice resonates warmly. Breath and spirit are connected. God is in all people, even when they aren’t aware of it. Each inhale, the spirit is being lent to us, and with each exhale we return it to the creation. With breath, God is in everyone. And the animals, they breathe. Plants, too, in their way. All the green plants, all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it—holds a piece of God.

At times, God feels far away; I try to get close. I recite from prayer books, I force myself out of bed to church, I taste the bread dipped in the cup. This is all a chasing after the wind, only to eventually discover the wind is held in my own lungs.

I must take care of the spirit that is lent to me with each inhale. To do otherwise, to waste this fragile life breath by breath, is to take the LORD’s name in vain 28,000 times a day.

I have questions about how breathing works. Is my diaphragm pulling air in, or does the air enter thus move my diaphragm? Put theologically, it’s a question of who is initiating: am I inviting God in, or is God entering into me? The answer, as it often seems to be in God matters, might be: Yes.

But I could be wrong.

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SELF AND EVERYTHING ELSE

If God is in others, I must be kind to them. I must see them in their particularity. They carry a piece of God, and I can only have eyes to see if I forget God and any other notions I have of what lies behind the face in front of me.

Animals are included in God, too. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I do have the sense that we are are to take care of them. Genesis agrees with me: ruling over the creatures is God’s first commandment to humanity. I also have the sense that raising them on food they weren’t meant to eat, in group sizes they don’t naturally live in, for the purpose of slaughter and consumption, all does not fall under the category of ‘taking care’.

The rest of the environment, as well. God includes and transcends all. Nothing is an accident; everything is beloved. I share air, breath, and therefore spirit with the tree that blocks my view of the harbor. The tree is inside me: I have no more health to despise it than I do to despise my own breath.

Which brings us back to where we started, as seems to happen when discussing relationships that inter-connect in the dizzying trail of a celtic knot. It’s hard to remember, but my lungs, too, contain breath, hold spirit. I have a hard time remembering this, but I must remember, I must remember: I carry images of the divine.

In ragged breaths,

In tearful sobs,

In shallow panting,

the name of God.

Intentional inhales,

lungs are broad,

Mindful exhales,

the name of God.

This was written for Theology I in Fall 2012. Students were asked to consider the way they understand themselves in relationship to God and others.

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feminists, christians, corinthians

In USAmerica today, everyone is talking about sex. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that throughout history everyone has been talking about sex, and USAmerica is in the midst of the present manifestation of an ancient issue. Today, sexual behavior for women is often presented as a choice between two extremes: purity or promiscuity; prude or liberated. However, neither stance is helpful for a fully human life: firm answers applied to everybody lacks compassion and imagination, as Paul can help Christians understand.

Sex-positive feminists believe sex to be natural and beneficial. Sex between consenting adults is encouraged as sexual desire is understood as a natural part of human experience that should not be denied or repressed. Indeed, desire cannot be repressed without negative consequences on the individual; sexual repression and anything that promotes repression are treated as the primary enemies. This view of sex is often criticized as being irreverent, but that is an oversimplification. Many sex-positive individuals have a high view of sex and use language of intimate connection.

The sex-positive way of life can be problematic for women. If sex becomes a high priority, then a woman’s value can become tied up in her sexual accomplishment or ability to find a partner. Also problematic is when attention shifts from equal abilities and equal rights into a desire to prove that women can behave as men in ways men have been criticized, such as deception with regards to the intention of the relationship beyond sex or libertine “Don Juan” behavior. One woman notes that “the feminist sex-positive cultural attitude boiled down to … ‘I’m more sex-positive than you.’” For women who adopt this competitive mentality and find it unfulfilling, “the failure of this approach in their own lives became, in their minds, the failure of postmodern feminist philosophy as a whole.” In a reactionary move against the lifestyle, such women sometimes jump to the opposite extreme: chastity and submission in the name of Christianity.

Presently, the Christian stance on sexuality emphasizes abstinence, chastity, or purity outside of marriage. The primary enemies here are promiscuity and premarital sex. Tim Stafford speaks for many when he asserts that “Christians can tell young people when it is right to have sex for the first time: on the day you marry.” Stafford characterizes sex outside marriage as “a compulsive need,” an abuse of self and others, and depersonalized “biological stimulation.” Without debating the truth of such statements, it is enough to say that such language does not match many individuals’ felt experience of sex. Many find an outsider labeling consensual sex enjoyed by both partners as ‘abuse’ to be offensive, as is the notion that sex is depersonalized based only on the evidence of not having a marriage certificate.

The emphasis on virginity is problematic for, as Julia Duin emphasizes, “we only give away our purity once.” What is told to widows, those who come to Christianity later in life, and—perhaps most distressingly—rape victims? The downside of the purity narrative is one of damaged goods, defeat, and despair. Also problematic are the solutions to denying desire recommended to celibate Christians, which carry tones of avoidance and repression that set up bad habits for marriage. Julia Duin suggests Christians “find something to care about more than sex,” exercise, and “figure out what stimulates wrong desires and avoid that.” The language of avoidance simultaneously makes sex more desirable—the ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ of morality—and creates problematic expectations for sex in marriage after a lifetime of denying desire to be felt. “Wrong desires” aren’t instantly renamed “right” when a marriage license is signed.

Helpful in mediating such extremes in the conversation are Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Whatever the problem the Corinthians brought to Paul, they justify it by saying they have the right to do anything. What’s notable is that Paul doesn’t disagree. As a community who lives post-resurrection, they know that sin has no ultimate power, and thus all things are lawful. It is on this point that much of Christian language around sex fails to convince, for by focusing on sin, the good news of the forgiveness of sins is denied. There is no question of lawfulness: because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Crucified, “all things are lawful.” It is on this same point that sex-positive feminists are correct: they have the right and the ability to do anything.

However, Paul adds some nuance to the argument by pointing out that not everything is beneficial and can become enslaving. He draws attention the large gap between what is permitted and what is best for living a life of wholeness. We are free to do anything, but that doesn’t mean we should; true freedom is the ability to go without whatever is craved. Again, many Christians have missed this nuance. The Driscolls dedicate an entire chapter of their recent book to addressing various sexual issues, answering if they are (a) lawful, (b) helpful, and (c) enslaving, as though the evaluation of three separate issues can lead to a clear answer of what is permissible.

But what Paul writes here is not a clear answer. He doesn’t respond to the Corinthians’ concern by explaining that it is unlawful, why it’s unhelpful, and how it’s enslaving. Instead, he opens up readers to a stance of evaluation and discernment. Creating a new law is not only unhelpful, it is detrimental to when it becomes a barrier to entering the church community. The difference between permissible and beneficial has been forgotten by many feminists as well, both sex-positive and anti-pornography. Paul reminds us all that what is beneficial for one person may be enslaving for another: a nightly glass of wine might mean heart health for one and an awakening of alcoholism for another. Paul’s response honors the fact that in the breadth of human experience, there are no tidy answers.

Paul’s openness to the complexity of human life highlights an underlying problem of both sides: they lead to either/or, black-or-white thinking. From the Christian side, a woman is either labeled pure or damaged; more crudely, virgin or whore. From the sexual liberation side, women are either free or oppressed, slut (used with a reclaimed positive sense) or prude. Neither lens allows for a wide variety of human experience. For example, where is there room for widows—are they ‘ruined’ for a second marriage? Or are they prude because they enjoyed sex only within the confines of marriage?

Another underlying problem with both sex-positive feminism and chastity-focused Christianity is that the focus on sex is unimaginative. Oftentimes, both sexual behavior and the debate around sex emerges as a symptom of much larger issues. For example, Duin states that “People are looking for something big enough to die for. Not finding that, they’ll settle for comfort and pleasure.” However, she herself becomes sidetracked into believing that the root problem is the sexual impulse when the real issue is boredom and safety. Rather than asking “How can we help Christians not have sex?” she would do better to be asking “How can we help others find and commit to something big enough to die for?”

Stafford is equally unimaginative. He emphasizes legal marriage even as he acknowledges that ancient Israel had no such customs because of the closeness of community. Rather than advocate involved community—a genuine problem for many in USAmerica today—he relies on the legal system to guarantee that a couple will fulfill obligations to one another post-sex, a solution that relies on a gentile system in order to discourage a gentile way of life. Why not advocate for improved, involved community, the real lack from which our culture is suffering?

There are no easy answers in the realm of human sexuality. Rather than becoming entrenched in arguments, may the conversation shift to an imaginative exploration of the root problems and discuss them compassionately with space made for one another’s experiences.

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