I was getting drinks with a friend of mine recently, and she asked me a question I’d never thought about before. This friend had asked to get together specifically to talk about the topic of women in the Bible--one I care deeply about and have been steadily investing more thought in. She has her own questions about how God sees women, and about the differences in complementarianism and egalitarianism*, and she asked me: “Why aren’t there any couples in the Bible who are really good examples of male and female relationships?”
I was stunned by her question. Though I would argue there are a few instances of couples in the Bible who portray a healthy male/female dynamic (such as Ruth and Boaz) by and large she’s right--the vast majority of stories we’re given involve broken and sometimes truly horrific examples of men and women sinning against each other. Regardless of how one approaches the question of complementarianism/egalitarianism, her question is a very valid one. Why would God not provide an example to us of a blueprint for how men and women can thrive? Why would he not give us a model for how to treat one another, especially when it comes to things like marriage?
I have two answers--one that was immediate, and one that has come after mulling over the question for some weeks now. My first answer was this: there aren’t any examples of perfect male/female relationships in the Bible because it is not about us, it is about God.
I know how trite that sounds. Yet while it’s easy to say that the Bible is about God, it’s far from easy to believe it. This is why Sunday School teachers so often emphasize Biblical heroes like David and Abraham and Sampson instead of discussing their constant failures; we crave humans to aspire to be like. But the Bible is relentless in its emphasis on our own failures and its message of God’s faithfulness. We are not allowed to make an idol out of any of the humans in the Bible because it is God we must worship, and God alone.
The way relationships between men and women are depicted in scripture is no different; each story highlights the brokenness of humans and the faithfulness of God. Looking from the way Abraham cowardishly passed Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin, to how Rebecca deceived Isaac, to how David treated his many wives can be truly disheartening. These stories, and the many examples of women being abused within the pages of the Bible have caused both men and women to ask whether the Bible upholds and celebrates an ethic of abuse and the subjugation of women.
And yet the way we interpret these stories rests precisely in our understanding of my initial thought: the Bible only ever holds up God himself as the true example we must follow. Once we understand that we are not supposed to see the people in the Bible’s stories as examples to follow, but we are to see in their lives the brokenness of humans and the fact that God is displeased with them, it all makes sense. The Bible forces us to encounter the common failure of humanity and recognize the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way men and women interact, and we cannot solve it by ourselves. There is no example of a perfect man or a perfect woman to point to in scripture because there will never be a couple perfect enough to warrant our imitation.
As I’ve thought this over, it has brought me to the second answer to my friend’s question: the fact that there are no perfect examples of male/female interaction in the Bible is actually really good news for us. Though the weight of our constant failure as people may seem disheartening, the stories of those who messed up over and over in scripture is a lifeline for anyone who has truly reconciled with his or her own sinfulness. I know my own heart well enough to know that I will never have a perfect marriage. I know the marriages of those close to me well enough to know that though I can follow their example in some ways, they will always disappoint me as role models. Instead, I am encouraged when I look to scripture and see people exactly like me--cheaters, liars, selfish people--who were shown grace. Who were still used in God’s rich and beautiful story--whose names were recorded not because they did anything special, but because through them God chose to work and to fulfill his purposes.
As I thought through my friend’s question, and thought about men and women in scripture who treated each other as they were meant to, the best role models I could think of (other than Adam and Eve before the Fall) were Mary and Joseph. They certainly were not perfect, but I love the way God used and blessed them. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Mary models courage to us--saying yes to the terrifying prospect of having a child out of wedlock in a society that would stone a woman for such a thing. Guided by a dream sent from God, Joseph models the self-sacrificial love Paul talks about in Ephesians 5:25 and not only believes what Mary tells him, but changes his course of action based on that belief and joins her in the call God has given her. Their story punctuates just how much our relationships with the opposite sex--and particularly our marriages--need the work of the Spirit, and this is something to take seriously.
Together, Mary and Joseph give us a glimpse of what it means to be united to Christ--not that we will be made perfect in this life, for they certainly also had some spectacular failures. Instead their story highlights the great relief in the knowledge that we, like the rest of the men and women in the Bible, will never be the one people should point to. It is always God himself who deserves the glory and thanks for his lovingkindness to us. In a world of inequity and abuse, we can look to these stories and see that there is great hope in the redemption and reconciliation the Spirit brings to his people--both men and women.
*A very barebones summary of the two viewpoints: Complementarians believe that “God created two complementary sexes of humans, male and female, to bear His image together. This distinction in gender represents an essential characteristic of personhood and reflects an essential part of being created in God’s image.” Egalitarians believe “that not only are all people equal before God in their personhood, but there are no gender-based limitations of what functions or roles each can fulfill in the home, the church, and the society.” Follow the links to read more about each position.
Recently I’ve been thinking about disagreeing with people: the way I approach it, the way I talk about it, the way I talk with and about those who disagree with me--all topics I encounter every day. Mostly, I’ve been thinking through how to disagree with other Christians, and that’s what I want to spend most of my time discussing here. To begin that discussion, I need to start a little further back, and talk about the difference in how believers are called to treat those inside the church in comparison with those outside the church.
Until I moved to New York City in my mid twenties, I didn’t have an understanding of the distinction between how to treat those who profess the beliefs of the Bible, and those who don’t. I spent a lot of time as a teenager feeling angst about how I wasn’t calling my unbelieving friends out on the choices they made, and feeling a nagging guilt that I was somehow responsible for their morality. It was a hugely clarifying (and humbling) realization, therefore, to come to the place of distinguishing between my attitude toward believers and my attitude toward non-believers.
An enormous amount of the New Testament is devoted to counseling and discipling those within the church and instructing believers how to treat one another. It’s important to note that these instructions are given specifically to those within the body of believers. This doesn’t mean the church has nothing to say to an unbelieving world--far from it. As Christ instructed in Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” In matters of harm to others (such as stopping the wrongful taking of life, or passing laws to prohibit abuse and extortion) there are clear commands for believers to intervene in culture.
What I missed as a teenager is this: the starting place for believers is not telling someone who doesn’t hold the beliefs of the Bible that they’re violating the commands held within it, because those commands mean nothing to someone who doesn’t believe in the God who put them in place. The great commission is a call to “make disciples” by sharing the good news of the gospel, modeling a Christ-like love, and being orderly and charitable to other believers within the church. We can’t put the cart before the horse--as the church so often has--and call people to repent of their sins before the Spirit has revealed himself and convicted them of his presence and their own need for the words of scripture.
This was a revelation to me in my mid-twenties, and it’s completely reoriented my relationships with people outside the church. By removing myself from the seat of judgement, I am actually freed to live more fully as a believer and to joyfully proclaim the invitation of God’s grace, trusting that he will continue the work he is doing in the hearts of those around me. And yet the longer I am in leadership in the church, the more I see why the long letters in the New Testament to believers are necessary, for we in the church do not know how to disagree.
The first step, of course, is agreeing that it’s okay to disagree. During my undergrad, I remember a fellow student telling me that he felt all believers should join the Roman Catholic Church even if they held severely different beliefs, because according to him the most important aspect of belonging to the church was unity. (For the record, he did not hold to many Catholic beliefs himself.) I understand this view, and I get where he was coming from, especially with the legacy of so many non-denominational churches in the US that are sort of lone-rangers, totally divorced from much of the historical church and creeds.
But his argument also sort of feels like the argument for complete cultural homogenization, which is essentially negating the experiences and cultures of minorities. The church is stronger when it allows for theological diversity among its many members, especially now that more women and more cultures outside the West are coming to the table (such as the burgeoning church in China or the vibrant Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal etc churches across South Africa, Nigeria, and many other nations.)
Opening the door to disagreement, however, is inarguably scary. We believe that the Bible holds life within its pages, and Christians are rightly concerned about taking its words and their own interpretation seriously. As a Presbyterian, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I believe theology truly matters--whether it’s in the way I understand my own personal life and problems, or the way the church at large operates. It matters a lot.
With this in mind, I believe there are three helpful ways of viewing conflict that have the ability to transform the way the church deals with disagreement: first, a correct understanding of first and second order issues, second, a true sense of personal humility and respect for other believers, and lastly, a real understanding of God’s sovereignty.
Understanding first and second order issues. When I lived in New York I attended an Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and though I’ve since gone back to the Prebsyterian Church in America, I gained a lot of respect for the EPC because I feel that they have a great understanding of how to agree on certain issues, and disagree on others. Their denomination is built on the concept of first and second order issues, which is this: there are some things that Christians must believe in order to be Christians (first order issues) and there are some things that it’s okay for believers to have a breadth of opinions on (second order issues).
By placing some things in the category of second (or third, or fourth) order, Christians are essentially saying that as long as those first order beliefs are aligned, they can work with and fellowship with other Christians as co-laborers in the service of Christ. First order beliefs are typically doctrines such as the inerrancy of the Bible, belief in the Trinity, belief in the physical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, etc. Second order beliefs can be anything from the gender of elders to the age of the earth to infant vs. adult baptism.
Second order issues can be very important, and yet we must be able to have disagreements in these areas and still have respect for those we don’t agree with. An often quoted example of this in the early church is found in 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul discusses whether it’s okay to eat food sacrificed to idols. He essentially says that some will make the choice to eat it, and some will not: “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” (v. 8)
Later in the same letter, Paul goes on to make the argument of first (and therefore second) order issues by writing: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) Believers will disagree about the interpretation and application of scripture; it’s a part of our limited comprehension and wisdom as humans. How we disagree, and how willing we are to work with those we disagree with, is the important thing.
This is all the more applicable with the recent celebration of Pentecost just this past Sunday. So much of language has the nuance of culture tied into it, and to quote my brother Daniel: “Language is more than information transfer, and the Holy Spirit speaks in all tongues. Theology of second issues is often challenging because the hermeneutics of our own interpretation is difficult to transfer culturally. In light of Pentecost, we are called to humility.”
Respect for those we disagree with. This brings me to perhaps the most challenging point, and one that has been personally humbling for me in recent months. One common failing of Christians in my tradition (which places a lot of emphasis on understanding) is hubris associated with believing that we have all the right doctrines. I don’t mean to say that there’s anything wrong with spending time studying and interpreting scripture, and I don’t mean to say that believers should not seek to know what scripture is saying. Still, I have been convicted recently of my own limits of knowledge and understanding.
In this respect I have been truly blessed by traditions that uphold and cherish the mystery of God, such as the Anglican church. I am thankful to be able to say that there are some things I may never have a satisfactory answer to, and the longer I am a Christian the more I understand that believing I can have a firm comprehension of every topic in the Bible is actually making God far too small. (Anyone who tells me they fully understand the doctrine of predestination, one way or another, either has a much too high opinion of themselves or hasn’t truly studied the words of scripture.)
I am eager and excited to continue reading and interpreting the Bible for the rest of my life, and I am sure that my understanding of it will develop as time goes on. I have opinions about what I think scripture says on many issues. But to have a robust sense of the church and a true sense of self, I must admit that I can be (and often am) wrong in my own interpretation. I believe what I believe is right--otherwise I wouldn’t believe it--but I am also willing to admit that I may get to the end of my life and find out that I had interpreted a whole host of second order issues incorrectly.
This doesn’t change my convictions now, but it certainly changes how I treat other believers. Each Christian looks to scripture and interprets it, and I am called to the humility of admitting that my interpretation may not be the correct one. Rather than locking down a set of beliefs and defending them until I die, I trust that the Spirit in me and my unshakable union with Christ will lead me through innumerable relationships with believers who disagree with me, and from whom I can learn and perhaps change.
A beautiful example of this in action is the relationship of George Whitfield and John Wesley, two theologians and pastors who had severe differences in their beliefs. At times their disagreements led them to open conflict and to actively work against the other. Yet toward the end of their lives one of Whitfield’s followers asked him: “We won’t see John Wesley in heaven, will we?” To which Whitfield replied “Yes, you’re right, we won’t see him in heaven. He will be so close to the throne of God and we will be so far away, that we won’t be able to see him.” Whitfield requested that Wesley, who outlived him, give the eulogy at his funeral, and Wesley is recorded as saying: “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature with regard to which even the most sincere children of God…are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’”
Assurance of the sovereignty of God. My final thought is one of great hope, because the Bible is not a story about us--it is a story about God and his glory. When I look around in fear--when I see the church today looking around in fear--I am called back to the many, many stories in the Bible in which God was faithful to his people and faithful to his own glory by upholding his church through the ages.
He stayed with Abraham in Ur, he led his people across the Red Sea and the Jordan River, he brought them back from exile, he spoke to them through the prophets, and he came himself in the flesh to be present with us and to die for us. He expanded his church through persecution, he was faithful to the missionaries who went into Europe, he stayed with his people through heresies that threatened them. The church has expanded over the world, it has done true harm and true good, and today it is rich with a diversity of cultures, peoples, and beliefs. Whatever we can envision for the church through our tiny edge of understanding, it is far less beautiful than what God himself--who uses the church for his glory and his glory alone--envisions for it. He will always sustain a remnant of people who teach the truth, and the truth will never pass away.
With this in mind, we have to approach our own disagreements with the humility they deserve. There is certainly a time to stand up for what we believe the Bible is saying, and a time to confront the church when she preaches heresy on first order issues. But God has not and will never stop being faithful to his people. If he can use me, he can certainly use the believers I disagree with. My prayer is that I will believe what I believe with conviction, trusting the Spirit who enables me to understand the word of God, while maintaining a posture of humility and grace toward my brothers and sisters who interpret the Bible differently.
Artwork: "The Chasm of Otherness," by Bruce Buescher
For a long time now I’ve believed that my life will have a beautiful trajectory. Not necessarily in the things I accomplish and certainly not in material possessions that I own. Rather I’ve always assumed that as the years progress and I grow older my spirit will age with grace, and as I continue to be sanctified (the process through which the Holy Spirit makes believers more and more like God) I will live with ever more wisdom and stop doing the things I loath.
I know plenty of beautiful, seasoned believers who certainly live in wisdom and grace. However, my surety of this peaceful future self has been challenged recently by two things: first, by the stories I’ve been studying in the Old Testament, and second, by the reality of how sanctification actually feels.
In general, studying the Old Testament more closely has challenged the way I (and many other Sunday school taught children) understand the Biblical characters. Whereas people like David, Abraham, and Esther are often taught as examples of faith we should aspire to be like, I’ve been hit strongly by the fact that the Bible itself does not treat them this way. While there are certainly a variety of lessons to take from their stories, the most important lesson is always that they failed, and that God was faithful. The famous “Hebrews Hall of Faith” is not, as I and so many others assumed, primarily pointing out great examples of the faith we should aspire to be like. It is pointing to one example who was faithful to all of the people listed--God himself--and showing how he used them in his story.
More than this, I’ve been struck by how poorly so many of these lives ended, and it’s this that has challenged my subconscious self-trajectory. The list is endless...Jacob, who ended his life dividing his sons with favoritism, Hezekiah who let pride and avarice color his final years, Solomon who gave into his lust and let it drag him away from worshipping God alone, Rebecca who turned to trickery and deceit. After spending time in 1 and 2 Samuel I’ve been particularly struggling with the story of David.
Of all the Biblical characters, David is probably the one people know best and understand least. We are taught about his defeat of Goliath, the way he danced in worship, the fact that he is called a “man after God’s own heart.” We are taught about how he exploited Bathsheba and how he repented. But we are seldom taught of his latter years, when his family fell apart because of his impotence as he stood by and watched his own son rape his own daughter.
I struggle hard with this. The way David takes no action on the behalf of his daughter but rather grieves for the death of the son who raped her, the way he ceases to be an effective ruler until his army captain Joab has to chastise him--these things don’t work with the idea that he is supposed to be a shining example to us of a faithful follower of God. My hope that I will progressively stop sinning and enter into a life of peaceful fellowship as I near my death is blown to bits by the story of David and his grievous final years. If this “man after God’s own heart” could end his life like this, what can I hope mine to look like?
Compounding this realization is the second thing I mentioned--the fact that sanctification feels different than I expected it to. I assumed that since coming to know God better is the best possible thing I can imagine, it would result in the best possible feelings I can imagine. Wrong. To come to know God better in this place of in-between, when I am not yet fully sanctified, means that I grow progressively more grieved with my sin, as God himself is grieved. In a previous post I shared the verse Galatians 2:20, which says: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The tension of the spirit of God dwelling within my still sinful self results in a daily grief that grows more intense as time goes on and as I understand just how deep and foul my sin is--as I see it with the eyes of Christ.
The answer to all this is a reshaping of my understanding of both sanctification and the stories we are given in the Bible, because the honest truth is that my hope for a progressively more holy self is nothing more than a desire for an easier life, and a prideful search for self-promotion. Most of the time I don’t care about truly knowing or becoming more like God--I just want to be seen as a mature and wise Christian, and I want to stop having to battle with myself because it’s hard. It’s tiring to constantly see my sin; it’s difficult to be grieved.
The stories in the Old Testament give us something better than human examples to look to and aspire to be like. These stories give us the one thing we can truly cling to: that our union with Christ is not dependent on our own trajectory or our own Christian life. I pray that God would draw near to me, that I will have a repentant heart and that at the end of my life I will be living so that all can see I am truly no longer alive and that Christ lives in me. But I know that even if I fail as spectacularly as David did, it cannot shake my union with Christ. If I’m 70 years old and still struggling to control my tongue or secretly planning my own self-promotion, I can look to scripture and rejoice that as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” wrote: “Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
The weight of sanctification is heavy, and the grief grows ever greater--but so does the joy. For all that I had hoped sanctification would feel like entering into a blessed numbness, I would not for the world now trade the sharp, sweet relief of my thankfulness. Perhaps when we are finally glorified and fully sanctified we will retain a memory of our former state, because without a true understanding of my sin, I could not experience the ocean of mercy God has lavished on me. Like David I marvel: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever,” and pray: “Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (Psalm 138)
I’m not really a “life verse” kind of person. Years ago, when I was going through a period of severe depression, I held pretty tightly to Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” It helped me immensely to have a bite size reminder that I could repeat in my mind, calling me to the fact that joy is an action, not a feeling. In the last few years I have found similar help from the last line of one of my favorite poems, one I’ve shared here at least once--another short snatch of a thought that I can cling to. Still, the idea that one could choose a single verse from scripture and have it speak to them throughout their entire life in a more meaningful way than any other verse seems improper to me.
And yet, I’ve been struck this week in a very particular way by Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
I used to sing this verse almost weekly, back when I attended Resurrection Williamsburg. The pastor of that church has a band called The Welcome Wagon, and for years we sang that short refrain during services on Sundays, only to have it be included on their most recent album (and it’s a really good album.) I enjoyed singing the song, but I don’t know that I ever truly thought through the full meaning of that verse.
This week I found myself in the right place to hear it fully for the first time. Prompted to dig deeper into the topic of Christology by an episode of the podcast Knowing Faith, I began reading On the Incarnation, the seminal work of Athanasius of Alexandria, who was an Egyptian bishop c. 350 AD. For an ancient text, it’s surprisingly readable (I have the excellent translation by Sister Penelope Lawson) and it’s been beyond groundbreaking for me. God reveals himself in different ways through different seasons of the Christian walk, but I can say with certainty that he is revealing himself to me through this short book.
For starters, Athanasius begins by discussing who God the Son is from the beginning. Before getting into the Son’s embodiment as the man Jesus, Athanasius spends time talking about the Trinity and the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I know for sure that this is a result of me not spending enough time contemplating it, because I have definitely heard this before, but my mind lit up when I read:
Now in dealing with these matters it is necessary first to recall what has already been
said. You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.
For the first time I found myself understanding that when Genesis 1 speaks of God speaking creation into existence, and John 1 speaks of Jesus as the Word, they are both referring to God the Son. The reason Jesus is called the Word of God is because it was through him that creation was made and it is through him that it is upheld. (Nerdy side note: I also learned recently of the doctrine of aseity, which basically says that God’s existence is what allows creation to continue, and we do not exist outside of God, and were he to stop upholding us for even a moment we would instantly vanish. Check it out. It’s mind bending.)
It’s difficult to describe what happened inside me when I finally made this connection about Christ being the Word. First of all, the level of intimacy I felt with God the Son skyrocketed (to quote Jen Wilkin: “The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.”) For Jesus Christ to be not only the man who physically helped up the woman caught in adultery, not only a mysterious part of the Godhead, but also to be the power and the means through which everything I see and touch was not only created but is currently sustained pierced me to the heart. For him to be sustaining creation means that he is in and through it all, and even now when I think about it, I feel like I am in possession of a magical secret.
This revelation also clarified a point about the gospel that has always been a little confusing to me. When Christ died on the cross, we are told that his death was transferred to all who put their hope in him--that his one death covered the sins of everyone. And while I’ve always believe this, and trusted in this, something mysterious and primal clicked in my mind when I grasped the concept of Christ upholding creation within himself. If he is upholding creation and is in all of creation, then his death would naturally flow through all things and reorient the foundations of the earth, freeing us from the clutches of sin. Even now I keep second-guessing myself, not because I think this might be untrue, but because it seems like knowledge that is too deep and rich for me to have access to. And at the same time it seems too easy--too perfectly holistic.
In another episode of Knowing Faith on the topic of our union with Christ, this point was driven home more completely to me by the speakers’ focus on the fact that our justification (the process by which God says that we are forgiven and justified in his sight) and our sanctification (the process by which God continually makes us more holy and more like himself) are not dependent on our own selves in any way, but rest solely in our union with Christ. Again, this is a truth I have known my whole life, but one that is easy to confuse or forget. If I am in Christ, whatever I feel about myself or my walk with God is not the basis on which I am judged. My salvation does not depend on whether I feel like I’m growing closer or further from God--if I have accepted what Christ did on the cross, I am united to him. End of story. Cue tears of relief.
And here is where Galatians 2:20 comes in. With this fresh understanding of my union with Christ and his status as the Word that created all things, the idea that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” is both sobering and probably the best thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I am literally no longer alive. Christ is alive in me, but I have died, and am no more.
I’ve been pondering my way through this for about 48 hours now, and I think it will be something I continue to ponder always. There’s a strange sense of loss, and a sharp flicker of joyous relief, but mostly the feeling that I’m standing in the shallows of the ocean, letting it wash around my ankles, with the knowledge that I’m going to keep walking into the water until it’s above my hips and shoulders and head; until I am submerged, whether in this life or (more likely) in the next. It’s truly terrifying, but I am filled with the unshakable knowledge that this is the safest place I could be. How can it be that all we must do to be given knowledge of God is to humbly ask?
In his fourth chapter, Athanasius gives a beautiful defense of why it was necessary for Christ to be killed, and to be killed on the cross. He writes:
Again, the death of the Lord is the ransom of all, and by it the “middle wall of partition” is
broken down and the call of the Gentiles comes about. How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death: “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto myself.”
Athanasius suggests that Christ died with arms outstretched as a symbol of how he drew his two peoples--the Jews and the Gentiles--together in his death, but I find the manner of his death a powerful symbol also of his union with each believer. This is the God we serve--a God who does not neglect the smallest detail, who created us to appreciate physical representations of unspeakably mysterious truths. Who unites himself to us, sustains us, and draws near to us, both physically and spiritually. All of this is overwhelming, and all of this is absurdly accessible to those who humbly seek the face of God.
Photo: "Homeless Jesus," by Timothy Schmalz.
My sister and I went to see the movie Isn’t It Romantic over the weekend, which I thoroughly enjoyed. (I’ll pretty much watch Rebel Wilson in anything.) In fact, I actually found the film to be somewhat thought provoking. Light spoiler: at the end of the movie Wilson’s character discovers that she doesn’t need a guy to love her, she needs to love herself. Once she comes to a place of loving and accepting herself as is, she can move forward in the rest of her life.
This message has a lot of good in it. As someone who has often used the love and affirmation of others to cover my own insecurity, I resonate deeply with the idea of needing to come to terms with myself before being able to truly love others. But I’ve been thinking through the idea of loving oneself, and how important it is in culture today, and how this message is far more complicated than it may at first seem.
I do love myself. I can unashamedly say that. Yet the way I arrived at that statement is somewhat counterintuitive, especially with respect to the way self-love is often expressed. In general, there are two kinds of people: those who believe that people are primarily good and can improve themselves (with the exception of the big ticket offenders like Adolf Hitler and Christopher Columbus) and those who believe that all people are bad. For me, the only reason I love myself is because I fall into the latter category.
I know that sounds absurd. How can I love myself while acknowledging that within me resides the ability to do terrible things? More than that, I agree with the Christian belief that people are not only capable of sinning, but inherently bent on sinning from birth. According to the words of Jesus, it’s not just actions that matter but also intentions. He said: "You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)
Nobody likes to talk about sin, and for those unfamiliar with the Judeo-Christian worldview, it seems shocking to say that people (including myself and everyone I love) are bad. But I am strongly convicted that it’s not just about outward actions (social rules) but also about heart and mind orientation relative to God’s intended design for the world, and I think this is something a lot of people inherently understand. Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of The Good Place, and the writers of that show have picked up on this same idea by (mild spoiler) placing some of the characters in the bad place despite the outward social “good” they accomplished in life. By revealing that their motives were actually greed, revenge, and selfishness they communicate that these characters’ hearts were corrupt.
How can this crushing weight of intentional and unintentional misery possibly lead anywhere near love? For me it began with the freedom and relief of honesty--honesty I don’t prescribe to anyone. If you believe humans are good, you are free to believe it. But the first step toward loving myself was being truthful about how shitty I am on a profound, core level. Not just the actions I’ve taken, but the murmurs of my heart and the constant self-focus that plagues me every single day. The first step for me was not ignoring my feelings of self-judgment and giving myself a platitude about how good my heart is, but actually recognizing my need for help.
This is the great divide. Once I was in the camp of please-God-let-there-be-someone-who-can-help-me, things fell quickly into place. Rather than continuing to try my hardest to be a better person, as I did through middle school, I was given the chance to look at myself and wait. I’ve been given this chance many times throughout the years, and there are seasons where the painfulness of this honesty is very sharp. Weeks or months when I watch myself doing or feeling something while knowing it’s destructiveness, no longer able to hide behind a false sense of being okay. And yet the truth that comes out of this pain is even more profound than the pain itself.
It’s very easy to say “It’s not about me.” I don’t think I’ll ever truly internalize it in this lifetime. Yet the first thing that happened after the lowness of my self-honesty was the realization that it must not be about me. It can’t be about me if I need someone to help me. Though I continually go back to trying to make it about me, I know at my core that it just isn’t. One of my favorite poems is called “Suspended,” by Denise Levertov:
I had grasped God's garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
Levertov eloquently reveals the profound truth that it is not I who am in charge of my journey, nor I who am upholding myself. Though I often don’t feel it, God is sustaining me nonetheless. My second glimpse of freedom was just this: that not only am I profoundly flawed, I am profoundly small. My lifespan in comparison to the universe is beyond miniscule. Even if I were to change the course of human history, I am but a blink. And yet, if the Bible is to be believed, I am also known intimately and treasured uniquely by the Creator of all things.
It’s a strange thing to come to terms with--the twin ideas that I both don’t matter and yet matter so much. This is where I arrive at loving myself. Though I don’t always want to love myself--and what it means to love myself is very different than what Rebel Wilson’s character felt in Isn’t It Romantic--I do love myself because I am convinced that God loves me. I have value because he has breathed life into me and chosen to make me exactly who I am.
This doesn’t mean some kind of shameful acceptance of myself--it doesn’t mean cringing and crawling in deference to a merciful God who plucked me out of the fires of hell despite my ugliness. There is a beautiful dignity in the way God allows us to stand on our feet and acknowledge our utter helplessness and his great mercy, while still seeing the value he gives to us. It allows me to begin to get to know myself and others--personality, likes and dislikes, skills and passions--in a way that marvels not at our inherent awesomeness, but at the unique craftsmanship and mystery of personhood God placed in each of us. It allows me to genuinely like who I am, and acknowledge that we as humans are beautiful creatures.
The largeness of the story is what affects me most: that the God who spans time created each of us with loving care, and placed us in time for his purpose. And though, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s not about me, it’s the love of him and his purpose that allows me to love myself, to marvel at the way he loves me when I don’t feel lovable. Rather than gritting my teeth and forcing myself to ignore or endlessly try to improve the things I know are ugly, I am free to honestly confess my sin and rest securely and joyfully in the knowledge that it will not be with me forever, because of the work of Jesus Christ, who loves me. He loves me more than I am able to love myself--a profound thought, indeed.
(Artwork by Bruce Buescher)
I have often wondered what the words of the Eucharist sound like to people who didn’t grow up in the church. It must be odd to come into a Christian worship service--something so sanitary in so many ways--and hear the pastor speaking the communion liturgy. “This is my body--take and eat,” Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 26. “This is my blood--take and drink.” Those words have become non-calamitous to me, having heard them my whole life, but how strange those cannibalistic words must sound to any who don’t adhere to Christian doctrines. And what is more, how strange they must have sounded to the disciples themselves, who did not know yet that Jesus was going to die, and had no idea how the church would be formed and what this sacrament would mean in the years and centuries to come.
My own relationship to communion has changed over the years. I grew up in a church that took communion once a month, and the first time I experienced it weekly was at my church in New York, when I was 24. It seemed odd to me, at first, to be joining each week in the meal, but I learned, slowly, from that church and from my subsequent two churches here in Boston, to cherish receiving it each week. It seems impossible for me, now, to consider being part of a church that does not include it as a weekly element of worship. As the preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote:
I have often remarked on Lord’s-day evening, whatever the subject may have been, whether Sinai has thundered over our heads, or the plaintive notes of Calvary have pierced our hearts, it always seems equally appropriate to come to the breaking of bread. Shame on the Christian church that she should put it off to once a month, and mar the first day of the week by depriving it of its glory in the meeting together for fellowship and breaking of bread, and showing forth of the death of Christ till he come. They who once know the sweetness of each Lord’s-day celebrating his Supper, will not be content, I am sure, to put it off to less frequent seasons.
I’m not sure I would put it quite as strongly as Spurgeon does, but I deeply resonate with his closing sentence--having known the sweetness of celebrating it every week, I would mourn to lose this element of gathering with other believers and worshiping together.
Yet what makes the Lord’s Supper so important--so sweet? Besides the fact that it was given and commanded to be a part of the Christian life, there are so many answers to this question. In middle school I wrote a paper about Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli’s disagreement over the “real presence of Christ in the Eucharist” (can you say homeschooled Presbyterian?), and there have been debates and disagreements over the correct administration of the Lord’s Supper, the purpose of it, what actually goes on during it (are the elements a symbol? The actual body and blood of Christ? The essence of the body and blood?) and so on.
For me, the true beauty of the Eucharist is the way it unites the spiritual with the physical, and the way it connects individuals to the body of Christ. Christianity has consistently pushed back against the claim that the body and the reality of our physical self is bad; the Old and New Testaments are littered with evidence of the fact that we are body and soul, inextricable, beloved and intentionally so. From Christ taking on a human body to the way God gave explicit details in the Torah about how women on their periods should be cared for, it’s clear that the body is not an afterthought--it is who we are. Some of the earliest Christian writers and thinkers uphold this; as Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons wrote in AD 183:
The blessed Paul declares in his letter to the Ephesians that "we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" [Eph. 5:30]. He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit does not have bones or flesh, but of that dispensation of an actual man, consisting of flesh, nerves, and bones—that same flesh which is nourished by the cup which is his blood and receives increase from the bread which is his body.
C.S. Lewis echoes this idea of being nourished by the bread and wine in his writings on the Eucharist:
Yet I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation. Here [during the Eucharist] a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body. Here the prig, the don, the modern, in me have no privilege over the savage or the child. Here is big medicine and strong magic…the command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.
What these writers are getting at is what I feel instinctively in my bones when it comes time for communion: here is life, here is the body, both in an individual sense and a corporate one. When I stand and wait in line to receive the bread and wine, I stand in a line with believers before me and behind me, stretching symbolically through time and connecting me with the millions of others who have whispered “Amen,” and “Thanks be to God,” as I do when the server says to me, “This is Christ’s body, broken for you,” and “This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.” The reaction of my physical body to the good taste of the bread and the sharp tang of the wine grounds me again and again, each week, in the reality of my faith, and the fact that, as Lewis says above, there is no one who is greater or lesser in the body of Christ--we are all brought to the same table and instructed to eat and drink, for we cannot feed ourselves.
At my previous church, the bread used for communion always left a fine layer of flour on my fingers. At the time I was teaching 50 hours a week, living in the midst of the most challenging moment of my life to date. Each week I would come eagerly and thankfully to the table and rip off a big piece of bread. I would sit and eat it, crying in my seat while believers around me joined in singing and eating and drinking. I would rub my fingers and look at the flour stains, asking that God would let the substance sink straight down into my bloodstream and sustain me through the week ahead, until I could come again to the table.
The way the Lord’s Supper sustains is a profound thing. The bread and wine are symbols of the way we feed on and are given life by the Lord, but they are not just symbols, for God meets his children in a special way through the table. The Westminster Confession states that communion is a way in which God “[seals] all benefits thereof unto true believers,” and is “a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body” (Chapter 29, article I.)
Contrary to what I thought as a child, coming to the communion table has nothing to do with how I feel about myself, whether good or bad. It is for the church in all seasons of life, but especially in those that drain us to our last drop. There is nothing that compares to the sweetness of simply coming with nothing and receiving, as we all do, week by week, and eating the bread of life that humbles and upholds us. This simple and profound act that uses and dignifies our physical selves is one to be mystified at and thankful for until we finally come face to face with the one who instituted it--who served the first loaf and poured the first cup with his own gracious hands.
I don’t generally spend a lot of time thinking about what comes after this life. Despite my Rich Mullins addiction, and his ever-present theme of the “somewhere” that will follow the world as it is now, I tend to feel more connected to the present, to struggle with the concept of time outside of how we currently understand it, and to view life as a finite thing that will give me approximately 80 years (if I’m lucky) to accomplish all I want to do.
Yet as I get closer to turning 30 and become more reflective about what I’m doing with my life and my career, I find myself thinking about the Christian promise of the new heavens and the new earth much more than before, and I have been considering it through the very personal lens of my own art.
I had the chance to listen to not one, but two sermons over the past two weeks, one in Pittsburgh and one in Boston, that focused on the idea of the restoration and renewal that God promises his creation at the end of time as we know it. I think it’s useful to Christians to spend the bulk of their time focused on the tasks we’ve been given in the here and now, but in listening to these beautiful, impassioned sermons--one with an emphasis on how we should be active caretakers of our current, injured earth, and one with an emphasis on the hope we hold onto--I realized that I need to spend more time considering what comes after the end of what we know. The way I live my life now, down to the choices I make and the way I see myself and others, is actually impacted far more by my understanding of the end than I thought.
The first verses of Revelation 21 are familiar:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
There are many other passages in the Bible that speak of God’s care for creation, and his restoration of the earth when he comes again. Theologians throughout time have expounded on it. C.S. Lewis wrote about it in many of his writings, famously comparing the new earth in his Chronicles of Narnia series to the same earth we have experienced, but better and more real than we could have imagined. “The dream is ended: this is the morning,” he wrote.
As I’ve begun to really consider this idea, it’s taken on a new tone. Because it’s so hard to conceptualize something I don’t understand, or because culture says ridiculous things (like that we’ll be floating on clouds) it’s hard to truly get excited about what’s to come. But scripture does give us some solid truths to hold onto. We know that there will be no more sickness or death, and that we will have new bodies that do not grow weary (2 Corinthians 5). We know that we will be without sin (Romans 8:29-30), and will be with God himself (1 Corinthians 13:12).
As I dwell on these promises, the ramifications of them overwhelm me. All of the perfection in this earth that we have crushed under our corporate human heel will be restored. The earth (and the heavens...which is beyond my comprehension) will be exactly as God intended them--every part in harmony. The limits of my ability to explore and engage with creation will be gone. My body will be able to do the things I long to do, without the boundaries of time as we know them. We will live in agelessness.
And more than this, the restoration of relationship will be overwhelming. I think of those I love most, who move through life burdened and heavy with their own and other’s sins. One day I will be with my husband, my mother, my friends, and each will be the best of themselves, no longer touched by suffering, physical or otherwise. All the things I admire most about them will be prominent, and all the ways they fail will be gone. Each will be as they were meant to be: strong, joyful, and free. I will be with those who lived and died long ago, not just the famous Christians that I know of, but the faithful of a thousand generations. And I myself will be unhampered by shame--I will finally be able to rest, and to give freely of myself without fearing the darkness of my soul.
All of these things are just side effects, though, of the true reality--that we will be face to face with God, welcomed into his presence. Privileged to worship him without ceasing. And this is where his plan strikes me as so very beautiful--because he has created us so that worshipping him means not just adoration with our lips and bodies, but also with our own created selves. He has made each of us uniquely, with skills and desires, and the new heavens and new earth will be filled with people who are doing exactly what God created them to do, and doing it right and well.
This is what has been so pivotal for me right now, in this time before the fulfillment of these promises. The understanding that I do not have--as it’s so tempting to think--a single life here on earth to quickly do everything I want to accomplish, but rather that life extends into the next world. I am not limited to the amount of places I can visit in 80 years, or the achievements I can crank out before I die.
As an artist, this is especially poignant. It’s so easy to feel frustration when I can sense inside myself the wealth of stories that are as of yet untold, the seemingly endless number of ideas and projects I long to have the time and resources to do. But as I consider the new heavens and the new earth, it strikes me that the stories will not end. They will only expand and continue to become richer and better, because God has put them into me, and it brings him pleasure when I create. I will carry them into the restoration of all things.
I don’t know what each individual role will look like when the skies open up, but I know that the imagery of a city is God’s intentional way of indicating community and the continuation of work. In a world where there is complete restoration, I look forward to the chance to explore my art and my stories to their fullest, and to present them as worship. For now, dwelling on this has given me a sense of deep peace about the finite amount of time I have here on earth--and, oddly, a greater thirst for adventure.
With these beautiful things to look forward to, I don’t need to waste time worrying if I’ve reached my potential or achieved everything I wanted, but I also don’t want to waste time trying to achieve whatever the status quo is. What could be better than caring for and enjoying the earth we have now, while letting anxiety about the passing of time slip through my fingers? We have the life we are given now, but if we are in Christ, we also have the endless bounds of the life to come, where we will be strong and free--where the stories will not end, and where even our worship will be made whole.
In my last post, I talked about how I have been working my way through the Old Testament, and how doing so has been reorienting not just my understanding of what the Old Testament holds, but also my perception of myself and my knowledge of God. It’s not that I never studied the Old Testament before, but for whatever reason, it’s been completely different this time. I find myself wanting to know everything about all the stories in it. I think I’m finally understanding a little bit of what David wrote in Psalm 1:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither--
whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3. Emphasis added.)
I want to be like that tree, constantly watered. I want to meditate on these things day and night.
The thing is, the more time I spend in these books, the more I have been convinced that the way I view myself is radically flawed. Which, having grown up in the church, is something I have intellectually known my entire life. I know it’s not about me--I know I am a creature and God is God. But I don’t live like I know these things, so clearly I haven’t truly internalized them.
Over the summer I listened to a couple podcasts that gave me the opportunity to think about the way culture, and I myself, view God, and I’ve come away with the conclusion that to me and to many others, God is often treated as if he’s very small. I know I’m not the first to say this, but as I continue to study the Old Testament, the main thing that I keep coming back to, over and over, is my perception of how big God is.
A few years ago I read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton for the first time, and it was life-changing. I felt like I was being given permission to feel the way about God I’d always wanted to feel about him, with a deep sense of his mystery. I’ve always felt in my soul that if God is who he says he is--a God infinite and all-knowing--I shouldn’t be able to understand everything about him. Rather than lacking faith because I have unanswered questions, my doubts have tended to come because of things like unbearable monotony or cheap plastic light switches; how could these things be found in a world made by a majestic God?
But that’s a whole other post. My tendency, along with Chesterton, is to have my faith strengthened by knowing that there are some things I just cannot understand about God because of who he is. He would not be God if I could justify everything he did or explain his comprehensive plan. In my study of the Old Testament, I am feeling that again, along with a renewed sense of gratefulness that he has given his people as much of an understanding as he has. He did not have to meet us personally, or give us his word. But he did.
In addition, I am seeing a new rest come into my heart from this shifted perspective. When God is big, and I am a creature, there is abounding peace. It’s not on me to try to explain the reason behind everything, or to justify the wicked or the good. I can find my place in doing the work before me, and allow the Lord to give me rest. I can be sheltered under his wings, as Psalm 91 so eloquently reminds me.
All that is the rosy side of these discoveries, and it’s not lost on me that there are some things that go against the grain along with them. It’s these things that many of the people I listened to this summer are reacting against--things that, to us, in our culture and time, seem problematic or inconceivable. “I’m not the only one who feels that the story of Abraham obeying God’s call to kill his son Isaac is problematic,” one podcaster said.* (The story is found in Genesis 22. Spoiler: he doesn’t actually have to kill him.)
I am the last person to say that we should a) not think deeply about the commands of the Bible and examine our beliefs or b) not spend our time working to uncover injustice and build the kingdom through our hands and our words. But I think there is a fundamental shift between the person who says “God must be good on my terms, and if he is not, I cannot believe in him,” and the person who says “There is a God who revealed himself to the world, and I want to learn what he has revealed, whether I like it or not.”
To me, this seems clear. The starting place is deciding whether you believe the Bible is the word of God, and if the answer is yes, things have to fall in line not behind what we want to be true about God, but what he has actually revealed. The work of the Christian is not spilling ink over reconciling how God and the Bible can fit in with our cultural narrative, but in studying who God is and how he has designed us to live and function. In talking about this recently with my brother Joshua, he said: “Culture will always affect our interpretation of scripture and the lens we bring to thinking about God, but it shouldn’t dictate the starting place. God defines truth, and we figure out how to understand and live into it, not vice versa.” Sometimes, this will go against both what the world says is good, and what we ourselves want.
A friend recently asked why God lays out so many strict ways of doing things, particularly in the Old Testament. It can sometimes seem that God has set up these standards just so we can fail in trying to live by them. But the answer that came to my mind after living alongside the Old Testament men and women for a season is not simply that Christ makes a way for us to live according to the standards inherent in God’s character by taking on our punishment himself, but that God’s way is the best way to live. That is what I truly believe. Hannah wrote a beautiful little post recently about a book she and her daughter read together that highlights the way God designed each of the animals to exist in perfect harmony with how he made them. It’s the same for humans; he created us with a specific purpose in mind, and the laws in the Bible are all designed to reorient us to this original purpose.
I can speak for me, and no one else, but the only time I have found true peace on this earth was not by pursuing what’s right by my own or by the world’s ever-changing standards, but by coming to the knowledge of my place as a creature--something that so many of the people whose stories are recorded in the Old Testament also had to learn. With this knowledge I can laugh at the days to come, like the woman in Proverbs 31, I can rightfully weep at the destruction and evil of the world as the author of Lamentations did, and I can be like that tree David wrote of, planted by streams of water. More than anything, I want to be like that tree: still, strong, fulfilling my purpose, and continually renewed by the goodness of my maker.
*I’m keeping the names of these podcasts/podcasters private for this post, because I’m not here to condemn or stir up controversy, but if you’d like to know who they are you can send me a message.
Like most people, this summer completely overwhelmed me. It felt (and honestly still feels) like the world was tipping sideways, sliding toward a precipice of anger and confusion waiting to swallow us. The news is always bad; people are grieved and shocked and dying and selfish.
In June, my friend RachelAnn told me about a podcast by a woman named Jen Wilkin, which is a recording of a study she led on the biblical books of Joshua and Judges. At the time, I was sold because RachelAnn mentioned that Wilkin spoke on the character of Rahab in a way that was different than any teaching she’d heard before. I, like a lot of women in the church, tend to think of the Old Testament as a bit of a barren wasteland for women--a place where the true heroes are the men, and the stories about women are mostly just those illustrating abuse or suffering.
I couldn’t anticipate, at the time, how deeply this study would affect me. I didn’t know how it would not only completely upend my perspective on the amount of time and attention given to women in the Old Testament, but also transform my anxiety about the world. The one thing--the only thing, I think--that could reach me in a place of true grief over the state of the world and the state of my own heart was a careful study of wickedness, and the God who moved the authors of Joshua and Judges to record it.
I began with Joshua, and true to RachelAnn’s words, I was struck by the story of Rahab and her courage and faith. It’s been years since I read this book, and I felt as if I was reading it with new eyes. This post is partly an encouragement to listen to Jen Wilkin’s study, because it’s extremely thorough in scholarship and timely in its nature, but it’s also just a reminder that all of scripture is precious. I admit that I spend the bulk of my time in the epistles and the gospels, but after living in Joshua for eleven episodes, I am hungry now for the words of the Old Testament. The care God took with the Israelites as he brought them into the promised land, the way the stories are recorded, and the steadfastness of God’s promises are life in a time when we are all feeling uncertain and, to be honest, a little abandoned. Patience is probably my least present virtue, and to read about the many times God had his people wait, and wait, and wait was both crushing and freeing to me.
But really, the book of Joshua felt like a warm up to the book of Judges. It was important in content and context, but when I began the episodes on Judges I felt the true surgery begin. This book is both beautiful and horrible. It tells of a people who are constantly doing “what is right in their own eyes,” with no true leadership and no desire for the good of others. For large chunks of the book God is silent, allowing events to unfold. I felt my heart resonate with the squandered land, the injustices, the exploitation. It all seemed so familiar.
In her lectures, Wilkin kept saying, “If you want to know how the Israelites are doing, look at the women. How are the vulnerable being treated?” She guided us through the beginning of the book, where women have the status to negotiate for what they want (the story of Aksah), places of leadership (Deborah, who also presents qualities of God in such a way that she points to the character of Christ) and the ability to fight for those less capable (Jael). But by the end of the story we are seeing a people who have begun to abuse the vulnerable (as in the truly horrible story of the Levite’s concubine) and care so little about the value or interests of women that they give their blessing to the abduction and rape of hundreds (the wives of Benjamin.)
I knew these stories; I had read them before. But they always seemed disjointed. Now, with the background from the study of Joshua, and Wilkin’s careful contextual analysis, they were transformative. I went to see Rachael Denhollander (the first accuser of convicted sexual offender Larry Nassar) speak last Spring, and her talk was all about how important it was when she came to truly believe that justice and forgiveness are inextricable, and that it was through her study of the Old Testament that she found healing in the fact that God is a God of justice. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think I can understand a piece of that now, even though I have not gone through what she has gone through. There is a simmering anger I feel, and I think a lot of us feel, at the continual abuse of women, and of people of color, and of the marginalized, and the only way I know to find peace from the anger is by seeing that God cares even more about it than I do.
There were a million personal applications along the way that made the Joshua and Judges study especially helpful for me, but the overarching message is this: God is not overwhelmed by evil, even though we are. And through the many stories about women that are found in Judges (and now I recognize, are found in the entire Old Testament) he is showing us that he sees. When I cry out in my spirit about the endlessness of pain and the triumph of evil, the book of Judges is saying, “He sees.” He does not always help in this world, which is hard for me to understand, but he always sees, and it always matters. And he will always have the last word.
Wilkin ended her study by referencing the book of Ruth, which ironically, although Ruth is my namesake, has always sort of mystified me. It seemed like such an odd little book to be placed right between the chaos of Judges and 1 Samuel. But when I read it with fresh eyes full of context, I just cried. It’s so clear to me now why it’s there--right there, immediately following some of the worst evil found in the scriptures. Because in it, as Wilkin reminds her listeners, we see a picture of sacrificial love from both Ruth and Boaz, a story of courage and tenderness and selflessness, that is so deeply in contrast to the stories we just read. Ruth, like Boaz, points to the character of Christ, and through their descendents God brought about the birth of the savior that is the true triumph over the chaos we still feel.
Most remarkably, Wilkin points out that the story of Ruth runs concurrent to the rest of the book of Judges--not after it, but at the same time. While all this chaos is happening, while women and the vulnerable are being abused, while people are taking what they can and rejoicing in the suffering of their enemies, God is faithfully, quietly at work. That is a true hope to cling to, and one that has radically altered my feelings about the world I live in right now. We do not control the hearts of our fellow people, and most of the time we can’t even do much to fix the horrible things that have been done. But we have the courage to continue to live and to work because God has never abandoned his people, and he never will.
I was recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts, “Three On the Aisle,” a show in which three NYC theater critics discuss a range of topics. While I always find them extremely well informed and very interesting, I was especially excited about the topic of this particular podcast: “Problematic Shows and Those Who Love/Hate Them.”
The critics presented more questions than solutions, and as is to be expected, their opinions were colored by their own personal preferences. When discussing whether Carousel (problematic because of the ways it seems to justify, and in some ways glorify, a wife-beater) should still be performed, one of the critics, Elisabeth Vincentelli, claimed that it was simply too beautiful to cease performing it. They had similar opinions on My Fair Lady, though they did not shy away from discussing the problems they saw in both shows.
As I listened, the question rattled around in my own brain, and it has continued to do so. Should shows that are considered “problematic” be performed? As the next logical step in that train of thought, I asked myself, “Who is deciding what is problematic?” And then, of course, the inevitable question which is always where I seem to end up these days: “What is the real purpose of theater?”
The only way I could begin to answer that question was to start with what I know theater is not: it is certainly not for an elite few who have the jurisdiction of saying what is problematic and what is not. I have recently been brushing up on my theater history, and one of the things that has struck me most profoundly is how many times theater was recognized for the revolutionary force that it is, and an attempt made to either stamp it out or control it. In each attempt, it eventually came back with more to say and a farther reach.
I have not been shy with my opinion that mainstream American theater has reached a breaking point, and is at a crossroads. It can no longer continue along the trajectory it’s been following and be relevant to the population, and like the melodramas of the early nineteenth century, traditional realism and big-production stage theater will eventually become a relic. Of that I have no doubt. But considering what the next trend will be is much more interesting, and I think it starts with the very questions Three on the Aisle was addressing.
A few months ago I read a fascinating article by American Theatre about the dearth of conservative theater. It highlighted a number of problems, including the fact that some artists claim they have been ostracized because of even the most tangential associations with conservative politics in their shows, and in the case of one woman, a festival she ran in an attempt to provide an outlet to playwrights who couldn’t get their work done anywhere else (even though she herself was very politically liberal.) I’m not going to harp on this topic, though I do feel this is something theater artists need to take a long, hard look at amongst their own ranks. I’m much more interested in the larger point of the article, which was that most conservatives feel no compulsion to go to the theater because they know they won’t see themselves or their opinions reflected onstage.
I believe being approached with new ideas and opinions is one of the essential and sacred tasks of the theater. But I also believe that the core human need and desire with any type of theater, through any age of history, is and has been to find connection. To not see oneself, or a reflection of some part of oneself in a performance is to be completely unmoved by it. Think of the shows that mean the most to you; I know my own most beloved shows are those in which I have found a deep and profound connection to the characters and the journeys they travel.
I am not trying to make a political statement, but I know for a fact that if there is a large percentage of the population that does not feel they can attend the theater because their stories are not being told, we as theater artists are failing. To be honest, I’m not even sure how we got here, because I know plenty of people who identify in other ways (as people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ+, women) who also feel that their stories are not being told. So whose stories are we telling?
Back to the topic of this piece. Should theaters tell the stories of people they do not agree with? Should plays that seem problematic to some, or to many, be performed? For many (most?) theater artists, the answer is probably no. It seems unethical to ask artists to be part of narratives they do not support.
I often feel that I walk a very fine line between worlds, and for a long time now I have been fascinated by the fact that I have friends and colleagues on all sides who sincerely feel that they have been marginalized and squeezed out of the conversation. Friends who are extremely liberal who feel silenced and judged by the society at large. Friends who are very conservative who feel that they couldn’t even consider a career in the arts. (And to be honest, they probably couldn’t.)
I am not sure what the solution is, but with all my study of theater history, I am beginning to wonder if the problem is not necessarily what is being presented, but how it is being presented. Maybe if, as in Shakespeare’s and Moliere’s times, audiences were allowed to express an opinion, more people would be compelled to participate in performances. Maybe if, as with Commedia dell’Arte and medieval mystery plays, people were a part of the action, they would feel more agency in the dialogue. Maybe if we just lowered the effing ticket prices.
I am a bit of a theater revolutionary--not necessarily in content, but in style. I’m ready to chuck the whole thing out, and start again with workshops and devised plays and shabby theaters and day jobs. But I know what that means for a lot of people, and I wouldn’t wish disaster on anyone. I just wish people in American could see their own bodies as vessels of story, their own narratives as worthy of communal performance and a little bit of reflection. I hold desperately to the idea that if we can just stop doing such shiny theater, maybe they will.
I would never ask an artist to work on something they do not agree with. But I do know that feeling ignored is a large part of why so many of the political trends we’re seeing today are happening, and any kind of true change only comes about by extending a loving opportunity to everyone--even those we don’t understand or particularly like. Theater’s primary purpose is not to give voice to the right ideals, but simply to give voice. Scary as that may be.
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