January 9, 2012

What is This Thing?

A second guest post from SPU professor, Dr. Brian Bantum, reflecting on his participation in a recent art installation ("Paradigm Shift") on campus based on the gospel of Mark. Check out photos of the installation HERE!

Hopefully, those who are a part of the Seattle Pacific University community have had an opportunity to see and walk through the installation in Martin Square. Many of you might have asked yourself a simple question, “What is this thing?!”

I might reply to you, “This is an installation that was part of a group’s reflection on the Gospel of Mark.” But this answer doesn’t necessarily give you any more information. Why? Because an answer to this question, “what is it?” is not simply a question about the installation, but also about art and about the Bible.

What is art? What are the Christian Scriptures? Do these questions have anything to do with one another? The relationship between art and Christian Scriptures depends somewhat on how you define Christian Scriptures. For many, Scripture is a veritable “answer book,” an encyclopedia of living that points us to the answers of our daily and lifelong questions. If understood this way, art that is done in conversation with Scripture is simply material that expresses some underlying idea. Put differently, art is a riddle to be “figured out,” deciphered so that we can get to the real meaning.

The group that designed and built this installation began with the book of Mark. We read through it several times over the summer, reflected upon specific parts, prayed diligently and gathered together in September to share the ideas, impressions and passages that we saw, felt, and read. What we discovered was not only a variety of similar themes, but also that these themes were understood in different ways. We grabbed onto hope in similar places, but for different reasons. It could be said that the “answers” we saw, put different questions to us that we then had to re-approach the text with.

In the process of talking and reflecting we came to find that the book of Mark was not a puzzle to be figured out, but a living thing that seemed difficult to pin down, that brought us into something, encountered us with someone. This idea of encountering is another way of thinking about what Scripture is. Scripture is, itself, something that arose out of a people’s attempts to understand and share the significance of an event, of a person. In many ways, we could say that the gospel of Mark arises out of an encounter. While written after Jesus’ death, the book attempts to make sense of his life, death and resurrection and re-encounter people with Jesus’ life.

This process of narrating Jesus’ life was not the singular task of one man, but a communal process of stitching together various stories, teachings, and accounts of this man’s life in order to faithfully tell who Jesus was and what he means for the world. What our group came to find was that this communal process of discerning our encounter with the gospel of Mark was not much different. The patching together of observations, connections, impressions, and themes all served to create a space where Jesus and his work could begin to be discerned and lived within.

If Christian Scriptures are about proclaiming this encounter of God and the world, about giving voice to a community’s discerning of what they saw in this particular man Christ, perhaps we can also begin to see the connections, in fact the necessity of art as we interpret the Word of God. In art, the visual (the aural too) work to encounter the viewer with beauty or pain, anguish or peace, or all of them together. Art confronts the viewer with something about the world and ultimately requires the viewer to ask something of themselves and their place in the world.

When we read Scripture we might come to find its truthfulness more profoundly when we stop seeking from it “answers” and become open to the encounter beckons us to. This truth of this installation (or Mark?) is not to be puzzled out or deciphered, but comes only when one sits with, looks upon, prays with, not once or twice, but returns again and again each time spotting new shadows, seeing new lines, listening for the shifts of sound. But even more its truthfulness comes when we are not satisfied with our perceptions or lines of vision, but offer them to one another and allow ourselves to be surprised in the process.

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January 3, 2012

Introduction to “Paradigm Shift”

Guest Post from SPU Professor, Brian Bantum, reflecting on his participation in a recent art installation on campus entitled, "Paradigm Shift."  Check out photos of the installation HERE!

The book of Mark opens not with Jesus, but with John the Baptist. John was one who heralded the coming of something new. John himself declared this not from the center of Judaic power, but from the wilderness. Beginning with the witness of John the Baptist, the gospel of Mark leads us into the frenetic and powerful ministry of Jesus, into the wondrous and unmistakable presence of a man who seemingly came out of nowhere, and could simply not be ignored.

From June to December, Professor of Art, Roger Feldman and I (Brian Bantum, Professor of Theology) with five students (Esther Cho, Kaelyn Handsel, Mandy Hough, Tracey Ige, and Lara Musser) ventured into this world of Mark with the aim of encountering the Christ of Mark as well as to express that encounter to the community of Seattle Pacific University. The culmination of this process, an art installation entitled, “Paradigm Shift“ now sits in the middle of Martin Square.

What will follow in the coming weeks is a series of reflections about the installation by those of us who participated in its creation, from reflecting on the book of Mark, to prayerfully sharing themes, conceiving shapes, and thinking about what it means to “stand” inside the gospel of Mark. In these posts it is not our intention to give “the meaning” of the installation. While the installation certainly represents certain ideas that we, as a group struggled with in our communal readings, we are also struck by a troubling and incredible reality. We are all continuing to learn from this installation as we walk through the space, look at it from different vantage points, and see it in varying light. In doing so, we begin to see both the gospel and the installation in new and surprising ways. Perhaps most disconcerting as well as miraculous, the installation is now speaking without us and to us as the people who built it.

It is our hope that the community might be drawn into this process of reflection, that we might learn from what you see and that we might all gain better insight into the God that Mark witnesses to in those blessed pages. Above all, we hope that the installation stands as an invitation. It is an invitation into an encounter, it is an invitation into the wonder that Mark attests to, that God became flesh.


Next week: “What is this thing?”

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December 12, 2011

Why Deborah Makes All the Difference in the Women in Ministry Debate

Another guest post from our current Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:

When it comes to the issue of whether woman can and should be in leadership (and/or teaching positions) in the church, there are two obvious views – either the Bible says they can and should, or it demands that they can’t and shouldn’t. For many people, the matter simply comes down to quoting verses from the Bible. The Bible clearly says… [Can I make a suggestion? Let’s stop beginning debates this way!]

For some, you simply need to turn to the apostle Paul.  Doesn’t he write “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12)?

What does this tell us? It seems to say that women have been given a general command to refrain from seeking positions of authority and instruction in the church. What is the rationale? Paul continues,

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim 2:13-14)

Now, if Paul were simply trying to communicate that he universally does not permit women to teach and have authority, and that he still values and supports women in general, it would be odd to use this kind of rationale. It seems like Paul is saying that because Eve was deceived (having something to do with being created second), she is unqualified to teach because her intelligence, wisdom, or shrewdness (call it whatever you will) does not reach the same height as Adam. [I am going to argue that this is rubbish, but I am trying to go along with a certain reading of this text for a reason.]

Does Paul intend to say that women should not teach because they lack a certain kind of intellectual capacity suitable for that task?

I think that, based on what seems to be going on in the context of the letter, there is a particular reason why Paul makes this command. The mentioning of Eve is not a way of making the teaching universalized based on gender, but to point out that Eve was hasty in responding to the snake, when Adam was clearly better informed of the situation (which has nothing to do with his gender, but everything to do with the fact that he probably received the commands and prohibitions about the trees before Eve was created and, thus, should have responded to the serpent, not Eve, because he had first-hand knowledge). So, given the false teaching Paul is concerned about in the Ephesian churches, he is discouraging women who want to usurp power from men, because they need to get their facts straight before acting on second-hand information. [My goal is not to get into the nettle of what 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is about, but to use it as an entry point into a discussion of women and their capacity to lead in the church. However, for a good approach to this matter from a conservative scholar who does not think it prohibits women from teaching in the church, see Ben Witherington’s Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, pp. 228ff.]

What can we say, then, about the intelligence and leadership capabilities of women according to Scripture? Some would have us put women in their rightful place so that creation-established balance can be maintained. Here is where I think Deborah makes all the difference.

In a time and place where women were not considered to be suitable for leadership (the Ancient Near East in the time of Israel’s settling into the land of Canaan), with Deborah we have a woman who was already serving as leader and judge over Israel (Judges 4:4). Could this have been a bad thing? Could it be that Deborah shouldn’t have been the national judge? Perhaps, but the “Song of Deborah” (Judges 5) seems to affirm the leadership of Deborah (see 5:7; also 5:12). She is hailed as “motherly protector in Israel” (5:7). Did Israel worry about a woman leading the nation in this way? If women were considered more gullible, why would God take this kind of risk?

What is more, she served as a competent adjudicator of civil matters as “the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided” (4:5). Who else before this time in Israel had such a role? We do not know for sure, but the language used of Deborah strongly resembles the imagery of Moses in Exodus 18:13.

Now, someone might say that Deborah was not a real “judge” because she didn’t lead in battle, but Barak did. However, Deborah was the one that “summoned” Barak in the first place and she went with Barak. She formed a partnership and they worked together. Some scholars reason that this shouldn’t have happened either. My friend Daniel Kirk (who does affirm women in church leadership, but finds the character Deborah insignificant on this subject) makes this argument.

The fight into which she [Deborah] ends up leading the people is a fight that should have been waged by Barak. When he is too afraid to go out and fight, she says she will go with him. But in consequence of, literally, hiding behind the skirts of Deborah, Barak will not gain honor from his victory: “for YHWH will hand Sisera over to a woman” (Judges 4:9). See (http://www.jrdkirk.com/2011/09/26/does-deborah-help/)

While I admire Kirk’s attention to detail, I think that there is one key point he is missing: the “Song of Deborah” (again Judges 5) gives us a healthy interpretive lens through which to view the events of Judges 4 – and I don’t think we get any sense that Deborah was butting into Barak’s business. In fact, the fact that both Deborah and Barak sing this song implies (to me) that their partnership did the trick. Even if Barak had a lack of faith (by asking Deborah along), that doesn’t say anything about the appropriateness or quality of Deborah’s leadership.

Kirk makes another argument – the shrewdness and wisdom of women in Joshua and Judges is meant to shame the downfall of the Israelite men, not to make an argument in favor of gender equality. I think Kirk is right. In fact, I agree with Old Testament scholar Daniel Block who writes

The biblical author was obviously interested in women’s affairs and achievements, but in the final analysis Deborah and Jael are not heroic figures because of their revisionist challenges to prevailing social structures; they are heroines because of what they accomplish as agents of the divine agenda, which in this instance has less to do with overthrowing oppressive patriarchs than the role they play in Yahweh’s overthrowing oppressive Canaanites. (Judges, Ruth [NAC 6; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1999], 186)

I don’t think Judges promotes gender equality as a primary point. However, Deborah makes all the difference by implication. She is a reliable prophet (who speaks from the wisdom of God), and a trustworthy teacher – as the Song of Deborah proves. In a sense, she becomes one of the “authors” of Scripture (with her teaching inscribed into Judges 5), and by implication an authoritative evangelist through her testimony.

I have met women who have said that, when they got up to preach, men (and sometimes other women) got up and walked out, offended by a “woman leader” in the church. I wonder how the Israelites felt about Deborah. Did anyone walk out on her? Did anyone condemn her for speaking on behalf of God? Did anyone encourage her to take more interest in her domestic duties? We don’t know. What we do know is that it was the Lord’s will to use her as a leader of God’s people to deliver them (with Barak’s help as general). Judges does not offer a command to promote women, but it only takes one example like Deborah to show that women are just as capable in leadership as men. Leadership did not suppress Deborah’s femininity, but gave her an important setting to be “motherly protector” (5:7).

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December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 1)

Part One in a series of guest posts from our Autumn Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:


Do a Google search for the words “church” and “peace” and you will mostly find church names that are something like “Church of Peace” (Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin, France!). Clearly something connects the Christian faith to peace. Scripture refers to the “God of peace” (Heb 13:20); the “peace of Christ” (Col 3:15), peace for the whole community (Eph 6:23). Jesus promises to leave peace with his disciples (John 14:27). Even in the OT, the herald of Zion, the long awaited evangelist, announces the good news of world peace and salvation in a vision of a world where God rules ultimately (Isa 52:7).

The Bible is not a G-rated book, though, and I hate to break the news to you that, when it comes to violence, it seems that God is not just quietly putting out the fires, but seems to be fighting fire with fire. In 2007, LifeWay Christian Stores began putting on some Christian books in their stores “Read with Discernment” labels, because the theology and ethics of these books may be dangerous and overly provocative. Perhaps the Bible itself needs such a label!

I have three small children and I read them a Bible story from their Children’s Bible every evening. These “kid-friendly” versions censor most of the OT stories. The story of Noah saving the animals from the terrible storm is invariably told, but it is never mentioned that God sent the storm in the first place! [By default, I presume we are meant to think the storm was “naturally occurring” and God graciously predicted it for Noah.] When David knocks Goliath out with his Dennis-the-Menace slingshot, we rarely read in the kid’s version that David afterward cuts Goliath’s head off (why add injury to insult?)

Again, the Bible is not G-rated.

The question before us right now, though, involves God’s own participation and plan in violence. We will deal with three sets of questions.

  1. What is violence? Is the God of the OT violent?
  2. Why is the God of the OT violent?
  3. Do Jesus and the cross change how we understand God’s use of or attitude towards violence? Do things change with Jesus when it comes to necessity of force?

The Issue of Violence and the Habits of God

Let’s start with the question of definition. This is important because it has been argued in the past by some that, when Israel participated in acts of violence, it was because of human sin and not because God is violent. Sometimes the buck of blame for violence is passed to Israel as if they misunderstood or misrepresented God in their warfare.

Think about Exodus 15 – a celebration of the drowning of Pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea. Moses sings a song of victory and a memorial to the Lord. He cries,

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.” (15:1-13).

The song goes on and on, but you get the picture. Lest we think Moses simply misunderstood God, we have a very clear account of God warning the Israelites before he sent the “destroyer” to kill the firstborn of Egypt (Exod 12). Israel had nothing to do with that except get out of the way. The Divine Warrior flew solo on that mission and no human dare “take the credit” (or blame).

Back to definition. What is violence? The always trusty Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “The exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property.” Does God injure or damage by physical force? It would be hard to read the OT in such a way that he does not (read 2 Sam 24). So, I would say that God is violent. However, if you notice, the OED definition does not place a value statement on the term, nor does it penetrate to the deeper (emotional?) motive. When we think of “violent” people, we think of out of control, crazy, hateful, angry people (like a disgruntled teenager taking a gun into a school with the intent to kill). Is there ever good violence? That may sound like a contradiction, but I think it is a legitimate question in light of the OED definition. Is there ever good reason to destroy or damage by force? Think of a fireman, having to hack his way through a door or wall to get into a house to save someone. Is that an act of violence? I think it counts (according to OED), but none of us would abhor such an act.

What about a doctor re-breaking a bone that did not heal correctly. Is not damage done? By force? To a person? But we would not treat this as violence.

So what bothers us about violence? It is that often enough it is done gratuitously, meaninglessly, or with evil intent. We naturally associate force with malice when we hear the word “violent.” I may be skewing the discussion, I suppose, by focusing exclusively on the definition from OED. Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim defines violence as “any action, verbal or nonverbal, oral or written, physical or psychical, active or passive, public or private, individual or institutional/societal, human or divine, in whatever degree of intensity, that abuses, violates, injures, or kills” (see “God and Violence in the OT,” W & W 24.1 (2004): 19).

While Fretheim is sensitive to the fact that violence can be emotional and often involves abuse, the God of the Old Testament clearly still fits this definition in its most basic sense: God sometimes chooses to injure and kill. Just think of when Jacob wrestles with God and his hip is put out of socket (Gen 32:25).

Our problem with conceptualizing God as a violent God is that we think about human violence. We cannot even comprehend human violence that is free from malice, because we naturally see so much hatred and revenge. That does not disqualify the possibility that God is violent with good reason. In Lewis’ enchanting The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there is a key scene when the Pevensie children are in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and learn that Aslan (the ruler of Narnia) is a lion and not a human. The Pevensies, new to the Narnian world, ask whether he is “safe.” Mrs. Beaver replies, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” Lucy Pevensie, still perplexed, responds, “Then he isn’t safe?” Mr. Beaver chimes in incredulously, “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So, it is hard to get around the idea that God is violent. However, maybe it is a purposeful violence. For what purpose? We will get to that next time.

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December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 2)

Part Two in a series of guest posts from our Autumn Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:

Part II: Justifying the Violent God?

Even as I write that we must admit the God of the Old Testament is violent, that hardly seems a comforting thought. Who wants to worship a violent God, especially in a post-Holocaust era? One conviction Christians must hold, though, is that we must be shaped by the world that Scripture creates and not the other way around. In the same way that people like Hitler distorted the Bible by militarizing it, so those who domesticate it of violence undermine its own revelatory power.

Still the question lingers on, even when we are humble enough to submit ourselves to Scripture’s message fully, could God have not avoided violence? This question leads into the first of three points I wish to make about the violent God of the Old Testament and understanding his purposes in taking forceful action.

The first point I wish to underscore is that, while we may idealize a quiet and placid God and heaven, warring gods were par-for-the-course in the Ancient Near East. In fact, in comparison to surrounding nations’ religious texts, the Old Testament seems rather PG-rated. Let me offer an example.

The creation scene we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is one of a single God creating a good world. Imagine the potter in his home studio, classical music playing in the background, and there is a sense of serenity and peace as he shapes clay in rhythmic fashion. Compare that to the Babylonians’ Enuma Elish myth of creation which involves, from quite early on, warring and raging gods that trick, plot against, and take revenge on each other. In these stories, the gods model hostile forms of evil for humans.

In the story of Genesis 1-11, we find a different conception. In seminary, we read a book with the apt title: Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Cornelius Plantinga). Sin invaded God’s good creation and was not a part of the original plan. Violence is not the way its supposed to be. The story of Cain is really the first act of violence in the Bible. To call God “violent” is not to say that he is that by nature and was just waiting for an opportunity for his personality to surface (as in when God judges Korah and his conspirators by having the earth swallow them up; see Num 26:10). Perhaps he is violent because we (as humans) started a pattern of destructive force and he needed to intervene.

There is another option that some take to “get God off the hook,” as it were. You could take the deist’s position that all violence is only human violence and God sits in peace up in heaven. However, then we don’t have the Christian (or Jewish) God anymore, because our God is deeply invested in matters on earth. The incarnation of Jesus is surely a sign of God’s involvement in this world, but so is his active approach to judgment and justice.

Could God not just snap his finger or wave his magic wand and make our violence go away? Entertaining these kinds of thoughts could lead into infinite absurdity. If God wanted to solve problems this way, he didn’t need Israel at all, or Jesus as a human on earth, or the cross, or the church, and on and on. He chose a redemptive plan that actively involved working together with humans (like Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David, etc.). I think of the decision in the Lord of the Rings of leaving the world’s fate in the hands of hobbits. It is a risk. They are small and weak. For all its benefits, it has its challenges as well.

This leads to a second point I want to offer. John Goldingay, another Old Testament scholar, puts forward the theory that God (in the OT) is willing to accommodate to the methods and manner of the times and culture, to work towards the progress of his redemptive plan. Goldingay puts it this way,

[Becoming a divine warrior] is a price Yhwh pays for being involved with Israel as an ordinary people in the world. Eventually Yhwh will give up being involved with Israel in that way…In that period [with Israel], how else can you live when Amalek attacks? What else is Israel supposed to do? Is it supposed to lie down and die, unless God intervenes miraculously? (Old Testament Theology: Israel's Gospel, 345)

That does not mean that God simply strikes out willy-nilly, in the kind of petty, self-seeking ways that humans so often do. Rather, even if we call it accommodation, it is never violence without cause. It is a violence that has purpose in the world after “The Fall.” Old Testament scholars tend to refer to this as counter-violence. Walter Brueggemann writes this:

[T]he violence undertaken by Yahweh as warrior is not characteristically blind or unbridled violence. It is rather an act of force that aims to defend and give life to the powerless against demonic power that aims to give life to none (Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, 79).

This is the third point. The kind of counter-violence indicative of God’s activity never stands independently, but always in relationship to a world out of control. When God acts in violence it is, in Brueggemann's words, “to undermine and destabilize other violence.” (OT Theology, 244)

What Brueggemann and others are getting at is that God’s purposes involve bringing a chaotic world to order. Some might use the word “judgment” here, but we could also refer to this as “justice.” God wants to set things right — to be “just,” and he desires for his world to be “just” (read Jeremiah 7:1–7). We may wince when we read in Deuteronomy 32:35 that God says “Vengeance is mine,” but the apostle Paul takes this to mean that we should leave the “righting of wrongs through force” to God alone and not retaliate against our enemies. Paul was not trying to “trump” the OT with pacifistic love. I am sure that he would have seen this as to heart of the Mosaic covenant of Israel “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will help you” (Prov 20:22).

If we can admit that the God of the OT is violent (without malice), and that his heart is only for justice and for fulfilling his wider plan of redemption to restore the kind of peace indicative of pre-fall creation, what about the New Testament? After all, doesn’t Jesus say “turn the other cheek”? How might the cross re-imagine the problem of violence in the world and God’s own violent approach to justice? Could it be that the cross is the end of God’s forceful mode of justice? Does the cross eliminate counter-violence? How?

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