Category Archives: Films + TV

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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JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

What sticks with me most about the latest Star Trek movie isn’t a sense of adventure or excitement, but of infuriated distraction. Among the first females we see on screen are the two in Kirk’s bed. Two is a good number of women, apparently, because it’s also the number of female characters who have any weight in the plot. We don’t see them speak to each other; not even about men. When they do speak, it’s largely out of emotion, often with tears, occasionally petty and at entirely inappropriate times (like on a stealth mission to a hostile planet). The female uniforms are irrationally sexy for the kind of work being done, and at one point Carol changes in front of the camera for no explicable reason at all. Female nudity is so gratuitous now that apparently there’s no need to even attempt to work it into the narrative.

I do what any angry consumer does today: I angry-tweeted. A lot. I was just going to do one, but once I got going…I couldn’t stop. Since my tweets forward to facebook, soon I was in a gender argument with a defensive male acquaintance. He eventually apologized, I said thank you, and then he had to post one more comment: “It’s still a great movie.”

And that’s when I realized that we were having fundamentally different conversations. For him, this was simply a side-issue to an otherwise great film, so far to the side, in fact, that it had little influence on the overall viewing. For me, it was so blatant and distracting that it interfered with every moment, disturbed the entire experience.

This is what we mean when we say that men—even feminist men—don’t see sexism the way we do.

star trek

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Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby (2013)

The opening of a story sets the lens through which the rest of the story will be understood. When we read “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens is grooming us to look for parallels to compare and contrast with one another. When Austen announces that  ” It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” the reader is prepared that this is a work about social status–money and marriage.

So when Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby changed the opening lines, changed the wisdom Nick Carraway recounts from his father, they aren’t merely changing a line. They’re changing our lens to a new focus–a softer one.

The movie begins with Nick stating that his father told him to “look for the best in everyone.” As a result, the story becomes a narrative about compassion, empathy, kindness. The audience is asking themselves: What features make Gatsby great, despite his shortcomings? Can we see them despite his criminal behavior and emotional immaturity, as Nick so obviously does? Can we forgive Tom and Daisy for their carelessness and see the best in them?

The novel gives us a much stronger lens, both poignant and relevant, especially in the wake of the Occupy movement:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

And with holding that advice intact, the narrative becomes something entirely beyond empathy. It becomes a criticism of the American Dream, a portrayal of rugged individualism turned sour, a critique of the wealth that enables and encourages carelessness. We see Gatsby as a victim of a system that lied to him about wealth and equality–he could never make the jump from being new money to being old money, can never bridge the gap between West Egg and East Egg. We stop pitying George for his poverty and see it as the direct result of Tom’s manipulation. We see the way that Daisy, an eternal soul, becomes a display of wealth just as much as the cut and quality of a suit.

We see that hope and perseverance just aren’t enough in a system as broken as ours.

kind

What happens when the narrative lens is “seeing the best in everyone.”

...but they shouldn't, because Gatsby's narrative exposes everything that's broken with the system.

…but they shouldn’t, because Gatsby’s narrative exposes everything that’s broken with the system.

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discernment: behold the bookshelf

Growing up, I was taught that God lived in church and we spoke to him in prayers that only counted if our hands were folded and eyes closed. It’s taken me years to unlearn this, to realize that for those who are listening, God’s voice can be found anywhere and everywhere, and spoken to through all manner of actions. Meditators find Her in silence, musicians hear Her in rhythm, yogis touch Her in asanas.

I’m a reader through and through. Even before I could read, I loved the pictures in books, the worlds they contain. That love, combined with a mildly developing case of obsessive compulsion, led to an obvious career choice by the time I hit middle school: librarianship. My father suggested it, not as a matter of discernment or dreaming, but as a practicality: it fit our community’s standard of professionalism, and the skills required seemed to fit my natural abilities. So the plan was set: I would be a librarian. Specifically, I would be Dean of Libraries in an university, by the time I hit middle-age.

Occasionally I doubted my career path, but I would look at my crammed two-rows-deep bookshelf and be reassured. Certainly my towering collection of literature from all eras and for all ages pointed in this direction. Sure, there was that shelf holding works of Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, C.S. Lewis, and Donald Miller (alphabetical by last name, as compulsion demanded), but Christianity was only an aspect of my life, an interest. It had nothing to do with my search for a vocation.

My last semester of undergrad I began searching for a library science program. I drove around the midwest touring. I don’t entirely know what I was looking for on those campuses—I had compared programs and costs, pros and cons, all in an elaborate spreadsheet—but no school I toured felt right. Finally I made the thirteen-hour drive to UNC Chapel Hill, where my sister was about to start a graduate program. On paper it was the perfect option: top-ranked in the nation, my sister nearby to help me adjust, the only city in the world my parents were guaranteed to visit.

It felt wrong. The moment I set foot on campus. I still kept my appointment with admissions, of course; I politely took the brochure and application and scholarship forms, but I knew I wouldn’t be enrolling, or even applying. I told my family that I didn’t think I was “supposed to be” a librarian; they thought that I was irrational, made some comments about “that church” I had been attending.

Back in Michigan, I restlessly tried to settle myself enough to listen and discern. Despite my parents’ outspoken skepticism, I knew God would call me to something if I could stop planning long enough to hear.

I read a lot. I looked into my books for an answer.

It took a few weeks to realize that I was looking too closely, peering through a microscope when all I needed were glasses. I put the books down and took a step away from the bookcase. I started noticing a weird slant in my recent literature choices: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Saramago; Malamud’s God’s Grace; Lamb by Moore. As I looked again at the shelf of theology, so readily ignored in past moments of discernment, the obviousness of my call broke me.

It wasn’t just the bookshelf, it was that so many things converged in my life that I hadn’t noticed until that moment. In those same weeks that I had been uncomfortably waiting for some sort of direction, I had been asked to lead a small church group in which I was a member (which I fought every step of the way; “I’m a woman” was my first excuse), asked to be involved in other parts of the church, told by my pastor that my baptism statement “changed lives”, and was approached by enough people in the congregation to begin believing his statement; I had become a kind of figure in my church, much to my surprise and my parents concern. The bookshelf broke me because, although God had been whispering in other aspects of my life, it was here that She shouted.

Of course, that’s not the end of my discernment process. There were lots of conversations and tears and prayers before the choice to enter seminary. Even now, I accept the call to study and learn of God, but there are still many questions about what’s next. Some people call being in seminary without wanting to be a pastor “denial”, but for me it’s just life. One graduating student recommended that I find a niche in which to direct my assignments, an area of focus that will guide my work and maybe lead to vocation when it’s time. This time I knew where to look: my bookcase, sorted now into literature, theology, and general nonfiction (although still by author’s last name). So many of the books in all three categories are on themes of bodyliness, physicality, complications of sex and sexuality. Which is where I’m choosing to start, averting my gaze from the stack of writing about writing, books on producing books.

And yet, that little stack nags at me, interrogates me. What are you doing at this school? Is this a four-year Resistance, delaying the work you know needs to be done? The work you were meant to do? In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says,

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Is my education in a new field something that is saving me, or a masochistic continuation of refusing to bring forth what is within me?

Unfortunately, these questions can’t be answered by my bookshelf. My theology studies epiphany came into an area into which my community had spoken and experiences were directing me. Now, my little stack of books is asking questions that I must bring outward into a community for evaluation and consideration. I must learn to have ears to hear all over the place, beyond churches and libraries.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on discernment; I specifically was asked to not do any more research, but to write on my experience.

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blessed are the arrogant: a viewing of magnolia

In evaluating which character in Magnolia represents the “poor in spirit”, we must first find a satisfactory understanding of the phrase.

Humility is one interpretation. Chrysostom believed the blessing to be for those who were intentionally “humble and contrite in mind.” Robert Schuller writes we are to “humble our attitude … ask for help.” By this definition, I don’t think any characters in Magnolia can be viewed as poor in spirit.. The closest would be Phil, the nurse, humble enough to order Hustler and spend hours begging with strangers on the phone in order to help his dying patient make amends with his son. However, not much personal humility is required in order to ask on the behalf of another; it costs more to receive than to give.

Let’s try again. Brown proposes that the phrase means “those who are oppressed by the rich and powerful.” In which case, I turn to the Exodus allegory of Magnolia, set up most obviously by the falling frogs, the most prominent of the many references to Exodus 8:2, “I will smite thy borders with frogs.” Throughout the film it is thethe children, both young and grown (Claudia, Frank, Dixon, Donnie, and Stanley), who are enslaved and exploited for the benefit of their fathers, who represent the Egyptians. The children are “poor in spirit”, used and exploited for sexual gratification or financial gain, and ignored by those in a position to help. This is satisfying as a reenacting of the oppression in Exodus, and yet as I watch the film I cannot help but be empathetic toward the pain of the adults. Earl abandoned his son, yes, but I feel for him in his remorse. Jimmy might have molested his daughter, and yet he’s not an entirely unlikable character, no matter how much I want him to be. Why would PT Anderson construct these characters in such a way if they are meant to be hated?

There is yet another definition of what it means to be poor in spirit. In this understanding, “poor in spirit” is not a virtue to attain nor a socioeconomic circumstance. It is a negative term, depicting the losers, the outsiders, the people who don’t deserve to be blessed. Dallas Willard re-writes the verse, “Blessed are the spiritual zeros—the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of ‘religion’,” theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. When “poor in spirit” stops being one more requirement for entry, it is freed to truly be a blessing upon those have no reason to be blessed. This is an understanding to which every character in Magnolia can say: well, that’s good news.

The Kingdom of Heaven is for the divorcees, the uncared for children, the lonely, the child molesters, promiscuous seducers, adulterers, greedy exploiters, thieves, and coke addicts.

Who is poor in spirit in this film? I ask back: who isn’t?

This piece was written as an assignment for Reading Practices with Jo-Ann Badley, responding to the question “Who, if anyone, represents the poor in spirit in the film Magnolia?”

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the hunger games, gender, and god

Our society struggles with gender identity. Some people have concrete ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman while others question if there are any traits essential to gender. Everyone seems to be attempting to bend society to their preferences, whether for stricter gender conformity or for a move towards androgyny or multiplicity. For Christians, questions of gender are taking place not only horizontally in society, but also vertically: is God masculine or feminine? Is it acceptable to use both feminine and masculine pronouns when referring to God? Is it preferable to do so? In the first novel of her Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins presents an image of a post-gender society that helps us imagine the Kingdom of God as a reality, a society in which individuals live out of true identity without societal pressure to conform to a predetermined gendered concept of identity.

The main characters of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta, give a glimpse of gender within the Kingdom of God. They do not conform the gender norms of our current society, and thus question the existence of such societal norms. Peeta, an emotional and artistic baker, values connection over hierarchy and bonds through shared feelings at least as much as shared experiences. Because of his traditionally feminine qualities, many have been interested in Peeta’s portrayal of feminized masculinity, some even criticizing Collins for having unfavorably over-feminized a lead character. Katniss herself is a stoic and emotionally distant hunter. It is easy to view the relationship between Katniss and Peeta as a gender-role reversal even through the limited lens of their primary daily occupation: she a hunter, he a baker.

Fan art of Peeta

However, such statements assume that the culturally constructed norms of gender we hold today are in some way intrinsic to human males and females. Reviewers attempting to place our current understanding of gender onto Peeta and Katniss have a hard time of it. Kelsey Wallace concludes her character evaluation of Peeta by writing, “If Gale is the bad boy, Peeta is, well, something else. Not the good boy exactly, but maybe the nice boy.” In some way, Peeta resists categorization. Indeed, the entire society of Panem seems to resist categorization to the extent that it could be described as post-gender. In District Twelve, survival matters more than conformity so much so that no one seems surprised by a young girl who ventures outside the protection of the fence to hunt and gather. The other spectrum of society in the Capitol also defies our current gender norms. Both men and women are concerned with fashion and appearance; even the simplest style of Cinna, Katniss’s male stylist, calls for gold eyeliner.

Rather than imposing our society onto Panem and its inhabitants, we would be wise to allow the text to question our internalized understanding of gender roles. Why are we, the readers, surprised by a female archer, or a man in makeup? Why are some of us angered by Peeta’s vulnerability, or by Katniss’s inability to intuit Peeta’s emotions? We have been so indoctrinated by the gender norms of our culture that we can’t even see past them when another society, another way of being, is presented.

A new way of looking at gender is exactly what Collins offers her readers. While Katniss is preparing for the pre-Games interview, she is trying to figure out how best to present herself: “charming? Aloof? Fierce? … I’m too ‘vulnerable’ for ferocity. I’m not witty. Funny. Sexy. Or mysterious.” Unable to categorize herself in either (from today’s standpoint) feminine or masculine roles, she vents to her stylist: “I just can’t be one of those people [my coach] wants me to be.” Like many individuals in today’s world, Katniss just can’t force herself to fit into a culturally-dictated cookie-cutter role, regardless of its femininity or masculinity. Cinna offers a solution to both Katniss and the reader that is at once obvious and beautiful:

“Why don’t you just be yourself?”

Amidst the questions of Katniss’s combination of masculinity and femininity, and Peeta’s (over-)feminized depiction, critics have missed Cinna’s prophecy. Is Katniss a masculine woman? Is Peeta a feminine man? Within the world of the novel, the questions don’t apply: Katniss is Katniss; Peeta is Peeta.

Fan art of Katniss

The God of the Bible can be understood to include both feminine and masculine traits. In the beginning, God creates “male and female” in Her/His image. Throughout Scripture, God is described with masculine images such as father (e.g., Hosea 11:1) and king (e.g., Psalm 29:10), as well as feminine depictions such as mother (e.g., Isaiah 66:13). Surely, this is a God whose identity is carried and reflected by both men and women. With this understanding, in the Kingdom of God both masculine and feminine genders will be not only tolerated, but accepted and celebrated.

However, such a view, as hopeful as it sounds, is too limited, too unimaginative. The God of scripture includes and transcends gender. From the anthropomorphic images of God as father, king, and mother, we could easily picture God as a male or female figure. However, to do so would be to misconstrue the characteristic being invoked. As Hebrew scholar David Stein notes, “Personification was employed as a vehicle to convey a statement about deity—and especially about one’s relationship with deity.” What is being invoked in the image of father or mother is an aspect of relationship, a situational similarity, rather than the full, embodied, engendered being. Such an understanding of the text gives a clearer understanding of what the scriptural author wants to invoke in the audience. It also clarifies seemingly paradoxical images, such as “suck at the breast of kings”, in which a female biological function of nursing is ascribed to male rulers. To understand the personifications of God too literally means to deny the grand all-ness of a Divinity that transcends all human boundaries and definition, including gender.

Genesis 1 not only sets the stage for the entire story, it introduces the character and event of God with a powerful first impression of a being who is beyond every human category. This God creates and orders the universe with a word; it is part of this deity’s identity to surpass all traits of humans, meaning that this being is almost nothing like a human. Such a God is so other that “the audience not only receives no warrant to ascribe social gender, but would be hard pressed to do so.” Just as Collins’s created society of Panem does not ask questions of Katniss’s nor Peeta’s gender, the audience receives no warrant to ascribe social gender either. Those who do have an equally hard time, as demonstrated above. Stein, emphasizing the importance of first impressions, summarizes the rule for understanding the transcendent inclusiveness of God with regards to gender: “What is inappropriate to the opening, do not do what’s joined to it—that is, the whole Torah. The rest is commentary—and translation.” How, then, should gender be understood in a Kingdom that lives under a God who is introduced to be beyond human understanding?

Christian theologians have been easily sidetracked by our own understandings of gender and identity in the debate over God’s masculine and feminine descriptions. Some attempt to equally disperse masculine and feminine pronouns, others try to discern which parts of the Trinity are which gender. As a solution, to paraphrase Cinna, why don’t we just let God be God? If Christians are to read Scripture to understand the character of God, as Stein claims the people of ancient Israel did, we must not allow vision to be clouded by the predominant culture’s misunderstandings and false truths. Doing so would be to superimpose our paradigm onto God, effectively killing the living God and creating an idol in humanity’s image. Just as readers of The Hunger Games can fully appreciate the narrative by allowing Katniss and Peeta to live out of their truest selves, so should even the most critical reader of scripture allow God to be the true God, without attempts to superimpose a gendered box onto Her/Him.

A Kingdom of God understanding of gender, then, must reflect a God who acts uniquely and creates humanity in Her/His image. Although a dystopia, Panem presents a society that appears to be largely beyond concerns of gender roles, whether such nonchalance is the result of desperate survival, as it is in District Twelve, or boredom and body decoration, as it is in the Capitol. In Panem, people are intrigued and impressed by the full identity of Katniss, not only that she’s a strong woman. Even more so, the audience of the Games is captivated by Peeta’s emotional vulnerability and intuitive ability to connect, and not only because he is a man doing so. Rather than praising individuals for breaking gender boundaries, Panem is a society that allows individuals to live out of their truest identity and understanding of self. May we anticipate a Kingdom in which we are accepted and celebrated for living out of our true self rather than a societal expectation, in which gender is secondary to identity.

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an old story read anew

Narrative Theology: An Old Story Read Anew in the Postmodern Age

In Gerard Loughlin’s book Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church, and Narrative Theology, he explains the principles that make up narrative theology as well as the reasons for their importance in a postmodern context. This essay will summarize Loughlin’s work and present some of the problems and assets of his narrative theology.

Loughlin describes the societal shifts in recent decades from religion to modernism to postmodernism. When religious narratives lost their credibility, modernism told a master story that society would be better under the narration of science and politics.  Now that the modernist ideals of human progress have also lost their credibility, postmodern society is left with two possible narratives: nihilstic textualism, or orthodox narrativism. In his review, William Placher concisely summarizes the differences: textualists “see just a rich plurality of texts and stories among which we can play, however, the narrativists believe that one text and the story it tells define the world and can shape our lives.”

In textualism, there is nothing beyond an endless system of signs and signifiers that make up language; Loughlin notes that for textualists “even God is wholly inside language.” This master story is inevitably a form of disorientation and death since there is no reference of self within the world, and the narrative is formless. The ultimate meaninglessness of the narrative is accompanied by the meaninglessness of the themes most prevalent in postmodern society: success, endless accumulation, and delusion, including the delusion that each individual is her own author.

In contrast, the belief that everything is a story which produces reality, desire, time, and self gives life a narrative trajectory. God is not simply another meaningless sign within language, but is outside of the system of language. Because God is outside language, scripture is forever interpreted and never fully understood. Narrative theology demonstrates relationship between the story and its teller as well as understanding the world in biblical terms. Within the story of God’s Christ, the world is freed from the need to write itself by allowing scripture to overcome reality. All other stories are inscribed into the biblical story; the world is ordered, experienced, and understandable through following it. We must resist the temptation of reversing this, of reading scripture in order to make it fit our world views. From this premise, Loughlin sets out to differentiate between story and narrative. There is only one story: that of life, death, and resurrection, as found in the story of Jesus Christ. Narrative, on the other hand, can tell this one story in an endless variety of ways through constructs such as time, mood, and voice.

What keeps the Jesus story relevant in all ages age is that the Jesus story is true to human experience. The gospel is a “realistic narrative” in which character, circumstance and theme are nothing without each other and become most themselves through their interaction. Jesus is the unity of what he did, the way he did it, and what was done to him; such identity “cannot be explained, but only described.” As with all individuals, experience relies on the narration of the past and future. Characters throughout the Hebrew texts are similarly realistic: it is the carried past and expectations of the future that make both tragedy and transformation possible.

In orthodox narrativism, the role of the Church is crucial. The Church is the community in which individuals learn to embody the story of Christ, to envision the world as scripture does, and to destroy the stories of our own making. In telling the story, we are challenged to learn to identify with all the characters in the biblical stories. In a narrative understanding, the defining characteristic of the Church is its adherence to the scriptural story. Loughlin states that Christian ethics are precisely that: for the Christian community. The Church’s dedication to the story sets us apart, and we serve the world by living differently than the world does. It is no use to attempt to convince that our ethics are universal; they are for those who are in the storied community. And there is no pressure within the story to make ourselves sound reasonable to the world. God Herself is not understandable nor reasonable in the way everything else is; the same questions just don’t apply.

Just as the same questions applied to everything in the universe cannot be applied to God, the Bible cannot be read as any other book. To begin Part Two: Reading and Writing, Loughlin acknowledges “the Bible is like any other book in that it is the product of particular circumstances, written by particular people for specific communities, historically situated.” However, he continues, it is unlike any other book in that it has been used as “the textual matrix of a tradition,” as a word of both promise to us and judgment upon us. The Church not only helped shape the texts, but is also shaped by them. Similarly, God is both author and interpreter. Christ “performed the primary action and gave the primary interpretation,” providing the Church with their rule for reading scripture. The text itself is dead until performed by the Church in an interanimative communal reading. The way the text is read is vital to the well-being of the Church. Loughlin argues that the correct approach is not literal, but “letteral … literal-as-written.” Letteral readings acknowledge that metaphorical and figural language, in their context, is a disposition of the literal.

The image Loughlin repeatedly visits is John consuming the scroll in revelation. “Scripture,” states Loughlin, “is a text to consume,” to be inside us in order to render experience meaningful. It is “through story [that] we learn about possibilities of human action”; each one is a possible world and way of living. Loughlin effectively nullifies debates of historical accuracy, arguing that scriptures can be both history and poetic possibility, true in historical recognition as well as fictional possibility. Truth in theology is a matter of judging how good a story is, or how well it is told and performed.

In response to the desire to turn Christianity into a feel-good movement, Loughlin points out that tragedy in the Christian story is necessary: there is no resurrection without, first, death. However, Christ is not a tragic hero: his suffering is far from meaningless. Tragedy continues in the story of the Church as it struggles between that which is performed (the biblical story) and its performance (the life of the Church). The Church must retain its tragic character by remaining open to the possibility of judgment and damnation, lest we become the new Pharisees.

In Part Three: Linkages, Loughlin presents the idea of God as an event, rather than a being. In short, God is an incomprehensible event that “dislodges our stories.” The event of God is manifest in the narrative phrase of Jesus Christ, who links himself to other phrases through scripture. Jesus is both constituted by and constitutive of God’s story, both narrator and narratee.

The story of God is told in multiple ways, all of which are intertwined, and even interconstituted. The first way is the story of Israel, God and the Hebrews, which foretells the story of Christ, and through him, the Church. The second story is that of God and Christ, which presents and retells Israel’s story and foretells the story of the Church. The third way to tell God’s story is that of God and the Church, which retells the first two stories, and makes possible their telling by relating them. However, the telling comes with a burden, which is that the telling is not judged in terms of descriptive fidelity, but in “fidelity of performance,” which can only be done well through incorporation into the story. It is through incorporation that we find our way into the salvation the story narrates; resurrection and incorporation are part of one salvation. Loughlin points out that such a leap requires trust in the gospel story, for reason cannot believe the resurrection, only love can. “Whereas the crucifixion narratives focus on what Jesus did and was done to him but leave his identity ambiguous; the resurrection narratives focus on his identity but leave ambiguous God’s action in and for Jesus.” The gospel stories center around the resurrection event, and because such an event cannot be described nor reasoned, it is narrated. Loughlin is essentially arguing against historicism: it is not only unimportant to be able to describe exactly what happened, it is impossible. Whereas the historian desires to name the mystery, the storyteller knows it to be unnamable. The gospels “cannot be said, only believed in love,” and the Church gathers to tell and hear that story. Loughlin’s words against attempts to describe the event are strong: “if you know who Jesus is then you know that he is risen; if you don’t know that he is risen you don’t know who he is.” 

How individuals are incorporated into the story is discussed through “narrative soteriology:” salvation is not only illustrated by the story of Jesus, but the story establishes the relation between Jesus and those who are saved. In entering the story through baptism, the person refigures their own story to that of Christ, for the first time living with a telos other than one of extinction. The Church becomes the narrative space in which Christians learn to sacrifice their selves to a community’s narrative texts and language, which they do through being interrogated by the scriptural texts. There is no arrival; the learning is always in process.

Loughlin concludes his work with an understanding of Eucharist through the lens of narrative theology. The event brings Christ and Church together in a performance of the scriptural story, recognizing both the historical event and the continuing acknowledgment of fictive possibility conjured by communion. At the table, creation, gift, and eucharist are all the same thing under different names, and unity is formed through relationship between giver, gift, and given; teller, story, and listener; host, meal, and guest.

Loughlin’s work is a thorough explanation of the principles of his narrative theology. He uses an understanding of story’s function in real life to balance a multitude of problems in approaching scripture literally while defending, as Sherri Chapin writes, “the inspiration, historicity, and truth of the biblical story.” The final chapter’s application of such principles to the practice of Eucharist shows what a satisfying truth can be reached through embodying the story while balancing history and fiction. Narrativism is an important addition to hermeneutics because it enables readers to approach Scripture with a natural storied lens in a new way, one that Cavanaugh notes to be an “alternative to liberal and deconstructionist or textualist theologies.”

The critiques that arise in reviews of Telling God’s Story are primarily questions of the principality of story. Cavanaugh notes that in Loughlin’s “zeal to emphasize the embodiment of the story of God in the church, the church’s story becomes the originary tale.” The story of the Church becomes primary, overshadowing creation. Also questioning what importance the world plays in narrative theology, Steven Shakespeare notes that if we are to accept narrative theology as our primary lens, the world ceases to be anything beyond “a blank screen on which to project one’s theological preconceptions.” Certainly, there must be some worth in creation itself that helps to shape our stories, something outside of text and narrative that is worth considering as part of reality.

Cavanaugh continues to note that the embodiment of the story “reads the Gospels not as the story of Jesus, but as the story of the church.” This is a similar concern to the one mentioned above: is the embodiment of God’s story above even Jesus? My suspicion is that Jesus would concede that it is. In such a Christ-centered Church, we forget that Jesus came as a sign to point the way to the Kingdom. In a common saying, we must look beyond the finger to see that it points at the moon. Cavanaugh states that putting primacy on embodiment above Jesus “leads back to Cupitt’s cave, where God is nothing other than the stories we tell.” He is correct only if we move backwards. The road could easily move away from the cave and beyond Christ-centered practices and more towards God and Spirit, to a place we approach Her full Trinity in relationship, rather than stopping when we get as far as the Son.

Bibliography

Cavanaugh, Wiliam T. Pro Ecclesia 8, no. 4 (Fall 1999): 496-498.

Chapin, Sherri Ayn. Lexington Theological Quarterly 32, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 189-90.

Loughlin, Gerard. Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Placher, William C. The Journal of Religion 78, no. 2 (1998): 285-287.

Shakespeare, Steven. Modern Believing 38, no. 1 (Jan 1997): 60-62.

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away we go

The Bible is a big book. Actually, it’s a big collection of books. There are so many verses, details, and themes to study on a small level that it can be hard to remember that this is one collection, bound together for a reason. It’s the story of God and His people. It’s one story. It’s good to study specific books, passages, or themes, but when we do it’s often easy to lose sight of the over-arching picture of the one story. Since it can easily take months to read the Bible cover-to-cover, it can be useful for us to find parallel stories that we can see and understand in a few hours. One such parallel story is found in the movie Away We Go (2009), which has an over-arching plot similar to that of the Bible.

Both Away We Go and Genesis begin with a couple and an ideal. In Genesis 2 God creates Adam and Eve, thus embarking on an epic relationship with humankind. Their relationship is intended to be so close that “they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2v24). The garden in which they live provides them with all they need. Similarly, in the opening scenes of Away We Go, we see the ideals of Bert and Verona, the protagonist couple. Although not married, they share respect, love, and devotion, and the baby growing in Verona is proof that they’re becoming one flesh. Their ideals are often voiced through Bert, who speaks of his high hopes and plans to become the kind of father he wants to be. He’s already preparing before the baby is born; as he gets ready for a family defense class he tells Verona : “I want to be that dad that knows how to make stuff out of wood, you know? I want our kid to wake up in the morning and walk out on the back porch and find me cobbling … I got this great book on knots … I still have to build that kiln. Man, we gotta be ready.”

In a scene shortly after, Verona is driving them to his parents’ house for dinner when she takes a bite of an apple. Perhaps this apple is a signpost to an apple with more mythical importance, an apple that grew during the beginning of human history and relationships. In Genesis 3, Eve is tempted to eat fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and shares it with Adam. For the story of humanity, this is the first negative turn. Before the apple, life was predictable. Afterwards, humanity lives in a broken world full of pain and suffering. For Bert and Verona, the apple has similar significance. Right after she bites into the apple, their world loses its stability.

In the next scene their world is shattered when Bert’s parents inform them that they will be moving to Belgium. The couple had moved to Maryland to establish this community for their unborn child, and now find themselves unmoored, much like Adam and Eve must have felt after being expelled from Eden. Thus, Bert and Verona begin a journey across the continent in search of a new community in which to raise their child.

During their quest, the pattern of brokenness is extended and elaborated upon through each family encountered. Each family has some awareness that we all live in a broken world and each handles it differently. They all wander like Moses and the Israelites in the desert, looking for the best way to find a sense of home. Lily, the mother in Tucson, declares that children are “kids are … genetically predetermined anyway, they’re screwed up out of the womb,” so she has given up on protecting her children from the knowledge of good and evil. LN and Roderick practice “continuum family” which says the world will give people “plenty of alienation and despair in good time, so while we can we should hold them close.” The extent to which they do so is played as a comical gaffe, but is similar logic to that of Tom and Munch, who keep their children from watching the second half of The Sound of Music in order to protect them. “We think they can live a few more happy years before Juicy Couture and Hitler,” Tom explains. Later we meet Bert’s brother, who can’t bear to tell his daughter that her mother has left. He wants to protect her from that disillusionment for a few more days. Every parent tries to keep their children living as close to Eden for as long as possible. We all know how hard the renewal process can be after our reality is shattered, how many pages of our stories we must wander through before reaching Revelation 21 and 22.

In both stories, there is a major positive turning point. In the Bible this is very clearly divided between the Old Testament and the New; humanity before Christ and after. Before Christ, we were wandering in the wilderness with little sense of where we were heading. Jesus lived, died, and lived again so that we can live with hope for our own personal futures and the collective future of our species. Through His words and actions, through His tender strength, we learn about redemption, renewal, love, grace and peace.

Similarly, in Away We Go we see the couple wandering from city to city in search of a community. With each prospect they find more brokenness and suffering. Each place they go, they sense that their search won’t end in this place. On a trampoline in Florida, Bert hits his breaking point, declaring about their friends’ relationships: “there’s nothing we can do about it … [it] can’t be fixed.” Yes, he’s talking about the individuals that he knows, but he’s also touching on the world’s uncomfortable reality: the whole world is broken. And he’s just a human. On his own, he has little power to fix anything.

The turning point comes in Verona’s steadiness. With the strength and tenderness with which I imagine Jesus must have spoken she states, “it can be fixed, and you know it.” Given that hope, they immediately begin to fix what they can. It’s not in their control to fix their friends’ flaws, to heal society and the environment and all the unfairness “that bad parents still get to be parents, and good parents die when their daughters are in college.” Instead, they must dedicate themselves to fixing what they do have control over: their relationship, their lives, their behavior towards each other and their unborn child. They immediately take personalized vows on the trampoline – a most beautiful marriage bed that fits their relationship. It’s untraditional, some might say it’s not very stable, but it’s springy and flexible and helps them, in the most literal sense, to jump with joy. It suits them perfectly.

In the Biblical story, where we go from here is largely up to us, but we do have the help of John’s vision as found in the book of Revelation to show us where we’re headed. Revelation is full of beautiful images of our future kingdom. Interestingly, many pieces in it are renewed versions of what we find in Genesis. Genesis describes a garden (Genesis 2v8); Revelation is set in a city (Revelation 21v2) – which can be viewed as the evolved garden, or many gardens near each other. In Genesis we see the river in Eden (Genesis 2v10), and again “the river of the water of life” in Revelation (Revelation 22v1). The Tree of Life grows in the beginning (Genesis 2v9) and again at the end of times (Revelation 22v2). Very concrete parallels exist between where humanity started and where humanity is headed. Revelation points us back to Genesis; in order to find out where we’re going, we must first learn about where we started.

This is exactly the process Verona goes through. The morning after the exchange of vows on their trampoline marriage bed, she does something she normally refuses to do: she talks about her childhood. She speaks about her past, her siblings and parents, and the joy she experienced where she was with her family at that time. And immediately afterward, she and Bert share a look that says “we know where to go.” The next scene shows them driving to her childhood home. Verona began her story in a happy home with loving parents, and she wants to end her story by providing the same joy and love for her future generations. Just as the tree is a link between Genesis and Revelation, Verona’s story of her childhood involved a tree, and it’s still there when she and Bert drive up. As she recounted to Bert, this tree is covered in plastic fruit, making it a comic version of the one in Revelation, which “bear[s] twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.” They’ve found a way to restore themselves to their Eden.

In his teaching “The Importance of Beginning in the Beginning” (8/16/2009), Rob Bell states “where and how you begin the story, and where and how you end the story, shape and determine what the story even is.” There are clear parallels in Genesis and Revelation that give us the over-arching story of paradise, brokenness, and redemption. Bert and Verona’s story shows how the big-picture multi-generational story presented in the Bible looks when lived out small-scale for this one couple. We can also see the same story lived out in the life of Jesus, who lived a perfect life, died, and lives again. The story is seen in every baptism: we’re born innocent, are broken through the trials of life, and mysteriously through  physical act of being immersed in water, are redeemed, renewed, restored.

This is where I see my role in other people’s lives. Not to make things holy or to convince people to behave in a certain way in order to avoid eternal damnation. My role is to tenderly and with certainty point out to people who they were created to be, and to help them look into themselves to find out how to better become the person they were made to be, the person who deep down they already are. I am completely powerless to make anything holy or to add anything new. My job is simply to point out what’s already there and share the good news that everything God created he called good (Genesis 1), and that new life is possible.

Just as humanity’s beginning as described in Genesis 1 and 2 gives us clues as to where we’re headed in Revelation 21 and 22, Verona’s personal beginning showed her where she needed to end up. In both the Bible and Away We Go we see a comfortable world that is broken, the wanderings of characters struggling to find a  home, and finally a redemption that connects back to the past that had been left behind. This is Bert and Verona’s story. This is the Bible’s story. This was Jesus’ story. Humanity’s story. Your story. My story. The miracle is not only that Jesus lived, died, and lived again. The miracle is that each one of us is born, broken, and resurrected to new life. The miracle is that humanity was created, has fallen, and will rise again. The movie ends in the place humanity is now: still broken, unsure of what will happen, but doing our best with the lives we have and hoping for a more perfect tomorrow. Just as Verona says  in the very last line, we don’t know if the kingdom of God will become reality, but we “really fucking hope so.”

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magnolia

A few nights ago, we watched Magnoliaand are still talking about it. One of the questions Keller posed was how the three coincidences – “the account of the hanging of 3 men . . . and a scuba diver . . . and a suicide” – in the opening and closing have relevance to the rest of the film?

I was doing some research about what other commentators have said. I found one really helpful and insightful piece on the film that helped explain much of the Exodus allegory. On the topic of the coincidences, the author writes that they mean “perhaps nothing.” Just a trick to distract the watchdog of our mind. “We are encouraged to accept the fact that these things happen all the time, and that we shouldn’t over-think any of it.”

I take an entirely different view: the narrator is seeking to demonstrate that what we name ‘coincidence’, what we think of as highly unlikely or unusual situations, are in fact around us every time — if you cast a wider net. It’s easy enough to see and share the vignette of the hanging of 3 men named Green, Berry, and Hill who murdered a resident of Greenberry Hill. But to show the interconnectedness of everything and everyone – well, we normally don’t take the time and effort.

Which is where the rest of the film comes in. The lives of these characters interweave in such ways that the actions of one ripples throughout the others. Between stories, parallel themes abound. At no time does the audience think “What are the chances of that?!” – the “coincidence” is entirely believable in a way situations that we name as coincidental simply are not. And yet … the previous champion of What Do Kids Know? is stopped by an officer who is dating the cocaine-addicted daughter of the host of the show, on which a new contestant is experiencing the same exploitation of the previous champion. A young boy who offers clues to that same officer finds a woman passed out in a car who happens to be married to the dying producer of the show, whose nurse is attempting to contact his son. All of the children are exploited by their fathers. Two of the fathers are dying of cancer. The rain of frogs effects all of them as a judgment and a mercy.

The interweaving is not concise enough to make us immediately name it a coincidence, but the viewer cannot remain blind. As the narrator pulls back the stories of the three coincidences, the question of scope is raised. If we had enough time and eyes to see, would we see such interconnectedness everywhere? And if such interconnectedness is everywhere, is it truly coincidence? Rather than feeling encouraged to not over-think it, I feel the desire to over-think everything, to have eyes to see.

That helpful article I mentioned earlier? I really enjoyed it, which is unusual for me in reading about films. In the middle of reading it, I looked for who the author could be. Scroll to the top, no name listed. Scroll to the bottom:

“Shane Hipps is student at Fuller Theological Seminary where he is earning a Masters in Divinity.”

Shane Hipps is also the teaching pastor at my home church, Mars Hill. He has encouraged me to work on my Masters of Divinity, which I do at a school that used to be called Mars Hill.

What a coincidence.

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