Thursday, October 31, 2019

Fertility & faith

Maybe it's just because my undergraduate major was in the social sciences, but I've long believed that sociology is more important than theology if one wants to understand functional ecclesiology. "Fertility, Faith, and a Secular America?" by Philip Jenkins is a treasure trove of information on the recent decline in fertility rates across the western world and, increasingly, in the rest of the world as well.

Jenkins makes an important demographic observation and offers a useful ecclesiological/theological point. The former is that religious participation rates across a nation tend to go down along with its fertility rates (the number of births per woman; the commonly accepted "replacement rate" to keep a population stable is 2.1). The secularization of western Europe accompanied a severe decline in population growth through reproduction (as opposed to immigration). His insight is that participation in religious communities is not the same thing as belief in religious tenets: an individual may hold to the basic Christian faith and at the same time not be a member of a local congregation.

These two come together because having children tends to drive men and women to participate in religious life; that family participation, in turn, enculturates their children into religious life and makes it more likely to continue when they are grown. In other words, "belief" and "belonging" are severable practices which Churches must strive to put back together. 

My inner sociologist was fascinated by the data Jenkins offers. For example, Iran's fertility rate has dropped below 1.7 and "[b]y some estimates, Iran’s rates of mosque attendance run at perhaps 1 percent or 2 percent of the population, and barely 3,000 of the country’s 57,000 mosques are fully operational." Demography may be the United States' best ally in containing the potential threat of the Islamic Republic.

Most interestingly, Jenkins is not concerned by these trends, but (as is only fitting for a Christian)
Finally, my argument isn’t that Euro-American religion is dying, but that it’s changing. Many millions believe without belonging, and that number will grow. The challenge for churches, then—for all churches—is to decide how to respond to this new world, so hostile to institutions and hierarchies, so resentful of intrusions into what’s so widely seen as private space and private morality. How do you speak to those who wish to believe, but dread belonging?

Thursday, October 24, 2019

A few observations whilst we frame our questions

Paul makes an interesting move after his blunt statement in 1 Corinthians 11:10, "That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels." He seems concerned to preclude a patriarchal overinterpretation of his this admonition and qualifies it by adding, "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God."

•If all things are from God, then both man and woman are from God. In other words, woman is not subsidiarily derived from the man and related to God only through the man (or, by extension, her husband). If she is as immediately derived from God as is the man, then she enjoys all the privileges of access to God that he does.
•While the creation order of woman from man (1 Corinthians 11:8-9; Genesis 2:21-22) necessarily means that the man is the head of the woman and therefore the husband is head/authority over his wife, the subsequent providential order must be given equal weight. After Adam and Eve's creations, every man thence was born of a woman. While we must say that woman is derivative of man, we must also say that man is derivative of woman. Accordingly, we ought not get too carried away by considering only the creation order and recognize the mutual derivation and interdependence of man and woman.
•The Apostle himself wants to guard against excessive emphasis and prescriptions in gender relationships.

From which we can conclude, at the very least: honor your mother.

Another thing I don't know

I've been reading David Bentley Hart's translation of The New Testament. He translates 1 Corinthians 11:10 as "Therefore a woman ought to keep ward upon her head on account of the angels."

To this he appends a lengthy footnote which he begins with "No one knows what this verse means."

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Thoughts (not answers) regarding the questions you should be asking

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is difficult to translate, not least because New Testament Greek does not employ distinct terms for "husband" and "wife" as we currently and most commonly use those terms  (i.e. as referents to the male and female partners in a marital relationship). However, given 1 Corinthians 11:3 ("But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God."), I believe it is wisest to assume that Paul's discussion of gender relationships in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is directly applicable to a husband and his wife, rather than to male/female relationships in general.

That being so, one immediate application of 1 Corinthians 11:14 is that married men should cut their hair short. This has been a major concession for me personally, since my wavy flowing locks were once the envy of many a man and/or woman. But these are the sacrifices one makes for rigid Biblicism and the decision to take a wife.

When Paul says "Judge for yourselves" and "Does not nature itself teach you…?" (1 Corinthians 11:13, 14), he seems to be appealing to our intuitions about these things. That attitude can be kind of crazy-making when we're not entirely sure whether long hair is the same thing as having one's head covered and, more especially, when we're having trouble following the thread of his argument. Nonetheless, I believe he's on to something, especially when it comes to long hair on men. Men with long hair (often, not always, please don't anger-tweet at me) appear beautiful. There's something unseemly about a man who's more attractive than his wife. 

Case in point: it's a little weird that Elvis was prettier than Ann-Margaret. Which is just a fact.

Thus, it makes sense to me that a man must subordinate his own glory in order to highlight his wife's physical glory. Accordingly, I think Paul is on to something when he writes, "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?" (1 Corinthians 11:14-15) Male vanity is disgraceful, and doubly so when a man is vain about his looks. Nature itself teaches us that a man should set aside preening when he gets married and instead focus on making his wife's glory prominent.

How should he do that? I only have questions, not answers.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The questions you should be asking

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.
(1 Corinthians 11:7-12, ESV)
So here's the 100% most important question for gender relations today: what does it mean that woman is the glory of man?

I don't know, but I wish I did. I also, quite humbly, suggest that (nearly) anyone who claims he does know is very likely driven by an agenda which has made him unable to ask, or answer, the question in any genuine sense. In what follows, I will attempt to establish what we know and what we do not know in order to point out the questions which we should be asking.

Exegetically, the answer to our question must be related to 1 Corinthians 11:3: "But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God." (ESV) The meaning of the term "kefale" ("head") in 1 Corinthians 11 has been much debated over the last several decades, but I believe Wayne Grudem has demonstrated conclusively (in Appendix 1 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) that it denotes a position of leadership and authority.

An observation: the "headships" of 1 Corinthians 11:3 are not presented as mutually exclusive, but overlapping; i.e. the man whose head is Christ is also under the headship of God (the Father).
[In Pauline usage, "God" is frequently shorthand for "God the Father, first Person of the Trinity," especially when used in conjunction with "Christ" or "Lord," terms which he uses to refer to the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth and anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the Christ. He uses these terms in these ways frequently, but not necessarily always.]
Otherwise, it would make little sense to say that man is the image of God, rather than the image of Christ. Woman is also the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), which means that Paul considers "glory" to be distinct from "image" (which sentence I carefully constructed to allow for the possibility that "glory" and "image" are related in a manner which I cannot currently grasp). Man is the glory of God and woman is the glory of man, and Christ is the glory of God. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14, NKJV)

The Father's glory is made known in his Son, Jesus Christ. It would follow, then, that the husband's glory is made known in his wife. How should the husband so organize his life and his family's life that his wife makes his glory known to the world?

What does "glory" even mean when applied to fallen human beings? What glory does a miserable and sinful man have, and how is that conveyed in and through his wife?

Over the years, I have come to realize that the theophanies (appearances of God) of the Old Testament are appearances of the Second Person of the Trinity and not the First. (I'm open to being proven wrong on this point, but I'm pretty confident that God the Father did not appear, in himself, but instead made himself known during the Old Covenant era through the Son and the Holy Spirit.) In both the Old and New Testaments, then, God the Father does not make himself known directly, but rather puts his Son front and center, making the Son the focus of his worshipers' attention and letting himself be manifested entirely in his Son.

If the analogy is
God the Father : Christ :: the husband : the wife,
then should not the husband make himself entirely known through his wife? How would that even work?

I'll be honest: I am entirely satisfied with the "traditional" understandings of Genesis 1-3, 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 Timothy 2-3, but I'm not satisfied with "traditional" understandings of male/female and husband/wife relationships. I believe that's because there's a set of questions which emerge from 1 Corinthians 11 which we have not yet answered.

Let's start asking the right questions. The answers may be very illuminating.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

So this happened today

We received a premium statement dated Sept. 26, 2019 which said we needed to make a payment of $1,118.21 by Oct. 25, 2019 in order to begin coverage on January 1, 2019. I called Kaiser to get an explanation and was told our coverage was terminated on March 31, 2019. When the Customer Service Representative put me on hold to investigate, the call hung up on me.

I went to the Colorado Peak website to see whether any clarification on our kids’ Health First eligibility had been made. I was taken to a webpage which told me our family’s eligibility results were unavailable: it gave me an error code and told me to call CH4CO. When I called CH4CO, I was told that I could not be helped as this is a Colorado Peak issue. When I called Colorado Peak, I was transferred to tech support, which told me that this is a CH4CO issue. I called CH4CO and was told that they could only see that Mrs. Curmudgeon and I are covered by Kaiser (which we are not) and nothing about our kids. I was told to call Colorado Peak to learn about our kids’ eligibility statuses. When I called Colorado Peak, I was told they don’t have that information and was transferred to an eligibility office. I called the eligibility office; after being on hold for about an hour, I was told I need e-mail verification of our self-employment with ledgers in order for the kids to qualify for Health First. Mrs. Curmudgeon and I are already eligible for Health First.

Today, I was on the phone (mostly on hold) for about an hour & 45 minutes.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Conversions require conversions

In "Turning Sauls into Pauls," Peter Leithart shows from Acts that welcoming converts into the Church requires a conversion of the hearts of Church members.
…Ananias isn’t merely a sacramental minister. His experience mimics Saul’s because Ananias undergoes his own conversion. Saul has to be changed, but Ananias has to be changed in order to welcome him.

Friday, September 27, 2019

An example of the wrong question

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:2-16, ESV)

In my travels through presbyterian and reformed Churches, the question almost everyone asks about this text is, "Should women wear head coverings in worship?" Of course, this is the entirely wrong question to ask about one of the Bible's most important texts for gender relationships. (I'm not kidding: I put it right up there with Genesis 1, 2 and 3.) Since you asked so nicely, I'll explain why it's the wrong question.

An opening note: it's not clear whether the "head covering" in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is the woman's hair, a piece of cloth, or some other type of headgear (such as a lovely Easter bonnet, about which I could write a sonnet). It's even less clear whether this injunction applies to all women or only those of the married variety. These issues get even murkier in the original Greek (which is the case more often than you may think). However, that's not really much of a problem in practice, as we shall see.

Paul tells us the woman is to cover her hair while praying and prophesying, which are both speech acts. This is peculiar because later in the same letter he tells us that women are to remain silent in the Churches (1 Corinthians 14:33-34). Here we have a conundrum: why would the Apostle tell women how they should dress when they are doing something he has barred them from doing? Not to put too fine a point on it, he might as well require men to wear neckties when visiting bordellos.

In the broader context of 1 Corinthians, Paul identifies prophecy as a speech act directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, without any mediation by the speaker him/herself: that is, the speaker opens her/his mouth and out come the Spirit's (not his/her) words (1 Corinthians 14:1-5). The Spirit may also give prayer in this manner (1 Corinthians 14:14-17). Thus, when he joins "praying and prophesying" (1 Corinthians 11:4-5), he has in mind these sorts of unmediated, Spirit-gifted speech acts.

These were different in nature from the teaching (learning's necessary companion) Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 14:33-34. Teaching is the result of study and preparation: while Christian teaching assumes the Spirit's illumination of the Bible, the teacher's words are chosen and formulated into speech by the teacher her/himself. Paul can forbid women to teach at the same time he expects the Spirit to speak through them because the two speech acts are very different in origin and performance.

This means that the head covering regulations Paul sets out in 1 Corinthians 11 apply only in worship contexts in which one expects the Holy Spirit to start speaking through male and female Christians without warning or preparation. Since we live in a time during which the Spirit does not act in this way, we (and by "we," I really mean "Christian women") don't need to ask, "Should women wear head coverings in worship?" The point is moot.

[The above argument assumes the cessationist view of confessional presbyterianism. For brevity's sake, I will not attempt to defend that position here. I realize this may limit my audience to presbyterians, but I can live with that.]

It seems to me there's a hermeneutical problem which has led many to miss the obvious point that 1 Corinthians 11's discussion of head coverings is irrelevant to the contemporary Church: we often go to the Bible to find rules. For the serious Christian, it's awfully difficult to find a rule in the New Testament and not attempt to implement it. In this case, that rules-oriented hermeneutic (philosophy of interpretation) has led many to miss Paul's much more interesting teaching on gender relations and the questions it raises.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019


John Waters, being a scholar of 20th century popular music the likes of which I will never equal, has produced the thoughtful reflection on the movie Yesterday which I wish I could have written. He's kinder to John Lennon than I am, and he might well have a point. Still, as Waters notes, "Lennon’s post-Beatles music reveals itself in retrospect as weak and prone to sloganeering." I agree, and I believe the reason is that Paul McCartney grounded and strengthened him. McCartney made him a far better songwriter than Lennon could be on his own.

I disagree with Waters's example at the same time I affirm his broader point when he writes, "For example, I don’t think “Yesterday” (the song) has won the battle with time, but the movie assumes that everyone will start to scream and faint upon hearing it." When I read Elvis Costello say that "Yesterday" would cement Paul McCartney's legacy for the ages, I suddenly heard it again with fresh ears and realized that Mr. Costello is correct. At the same time, I do think the great weakness of Yesterday (the movie) is its assumption that all the Beatles's songs are equally great and each must necessarily produce the same rapturous response as the others. Some are great, some are pretty good, some are middling, and some are throw-aways (for example, "One after 909"). Were the entire Beatles catalogue to suddenly emerge for the very first time (as occurs in the movie), I seriously doubt whether "She Was Just Seventeen" would hit with the same weight as "The Long and Winding Road."

But that's not a fair standard by which to judge Yesterday. It's a feel-good summer movie, and it certainly made Mrs. Curmudgeon and me feel good. In that most important of regards, it's a great success.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

You're probably asking the wrong questions

While I was quietly minding my own business, controversy about Christian gender roles and relationships began heating up and, if the social medias are any indication, has reached a rapid boil. I am old enough to remember when the term "complementarian" was created in order to put a warm and gentle face on what was widely considered an outdated and sexist (even if Biblical) understanding of the husband-wife relationship. Now it appears "complementarian" has become a synonym for "male chauvinist pig-dog" and is indistinguishable from the irredeemable "patriarch."

(By the way, this is why I never label myself with terms created by evangelicalism or the broader culture. Their meanings tend to drift without warning while the phrase "Westminster Standards" remains entirely stable, and "presbyterian" mostly so.)

As I've tried to get up to speed on why so many pairs of undies are bunching up, I've been surprised to see that discussions are centered around the same old Biblical texts such as Genesis 3:16, 1 Timothy 2 -3 and Ephesians 5. Some might think me cocky, but I honestly believe there's not much more to be discovered in these texts: they say what they say and have been pretty well exegeted; while some misogynist wingnuts may apply them improperly, the spiritually and mentally stable know how to answer those misapplications.

To be clear, I'm surprised not because a goodly number of Christian folk are generally dissatisfied with common understandings and applications of Biblical principles of gender and role relationships. With them, I feel very strongly that something is missing. What surprises me is that so many are asking the same old questions and expecting different answers.

To be even more clear, I don't have answers. But I do have questions, questions which I am shocked to find that very few are asking but which are manifestly apparent from even the most cursory reading of 1 Corinthians 11.