Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: God and Sex

When a book is titled, or as in this case subtitled, what the bible really says that usually does not bode well. I say usually because Michael Coogan's book is a delightful exception to that rule. First off, he has chosen a fascinating topic. Second, Coogan is an excellent First Testament scholar. And thirdly, this is the perfect book to tie into my ongoing series on the theology of marriage.

Not only is sex a hot topic, it is the source of many a heated debate. Coogan does not skirt around any of this. His focus is clearly on what is in the text and he carefully steers us away from the culture wars so that we can give the texts a chance to speak. That is a good thing. But it is also a hard thing as the texts do not consistently present the values we cherish in our society. Over and over again Coogan points to the horrendous treatment of women in Scripture. This highlights his critique of the use of Scripture in the contemporary culture wars - that we all pick and choose what to highlight and what to ignore. If you are looking for a how to guide for Biblical sex, then you are probably not the kind of person who would be reading this book. But if you are looking for a careful study of what is actually in the texts themselves regarding human (and divine) sexuality, this is a great resource.

It is clear that Coogan's strengths are in First, sometimes called Old, Testament scholarship. (Funny note, at a few points I was reminded of the work of popular historian Thomas Cahill only to find Cahill mentioned in the Acknowledgments. It was a feeling I had based on Coogan's style. I found Coogan as easy to read as Cahill who is a very engaging writer.) He draws the reader into the scope of the text like an archeologist carefully unearths a site of antiquity. His forays into the New Testament are good, but somehow not nearly as engaging. Most of the chapters did leave me wanting more though, simply because everything is so interesting.

It is curious though that despite focusing heavily on the treatment of women, Coogan does not mention an important First Testament cultural challenge at the end of Job. In fact it is one of the few things that marks Job as being changed by his experience - the way he treats his new daughters. Here is where Coogan's insistance that we need to let the text speak as a whole becomes so important. But perhaps I find this important because it is foundational to my own strategy of working with Scriptural text. Coogan's proposed strategy is that the texts should be in dialogue with the people of faith and not simply taken as normative - otherwise we should treat women horribly and reinstate slavery. At least we should if we want to be faithful to all of Scripture.

In terms of my series Towards a Theology of Marriage. Coogan provides an excellent overview of Biblical views on marriage. And it is a mess. The following, according to the Bible, should be acceptable: women are merely property and are distributed in power broker type arrangements, a woman who is raped is not important it is an offense against her owner, married men as not prohibited from seeing prostitutes even though they may not let their daughters be prostitutes, polygamy is really the norm and if there were more women in the garden than Eve you can bet Adam would be depicted as procreating with them as well because as soon as this was an option (according to pre-historical texts) it was the norm. Of course none of this will support a high view of covenant such as I am proposing. But the good news is that we do not read Scripture this way. Even the hyper-literalists navigate their way through scripture using their preconceptions about what it 'should' say. This is why Coogan's proposal for Scripture in faith communities is so important.

If you are looking for an engaging read on a fascinating subject then look no further. If you want to read something that supports your already established notions of what the Bible says about sex - you might want to avoid this one. It will only make you mad. But for those of us who care about the text, this book is a great read.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

New Thoughtworks Blog

Some of you know that I am the regional Thoughtworks coordinator for the Vineyard. Thoughtworks is the national theological development group. We do a number of things for the Vineyard in Canada, including vetting and preparing training material for our denomination's churches, organizing and delivering workshops and seminars on a variety of theological and practical topics, and providing theological consultation to our churches and the national team. But more than just providing more services - we want to highlight what is already happening within our movement. To facilitate this a bit more I set up a blog for the Ontario region, a place where we can look at what happening, exploring what we can make happen and get first hand reports on what folks have done in terms of theological and leadership training within the Ontario Vineyard Churches. Right now the blog is a sort of experiment - I'll be pitching it hard as a resource and in the early new year I will start soliciting posts from folks in the region. I am hoping to have something up at least once a week, not too often but not too quiet that it gets forgotten.

Love to have your feedback and participation. BTW the image and look is an attempt to mirror the Regional site.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Academic Work and the Web

I'm sure that more and more academics are struggling with the role of the web in academic research. And I'm also sure that many are like me, that is, having a director who wants to steer clear of the web. And the reasons for steering clear are good. First of all the web is largely an ungoverned wiki - absolutely anyone can post anything and really who are they to answer too? I find it very frustrating when Christians (because of my areas of study it is Christian sites I'm frequently directed to) try to remedy this by not allowing interaction on their blogs - seems like you have cut off the one check and bound available to you. However, comments on blogs are also highly suspect forms of intellectual engagement. The web has problems.

But the web also has huge potential. It is a huge site of debate and wrestling, especially amongst practitioners of religion. That work doesn't make it into the texts. It is there that I think the 'ivory tower' complex of academics can be addressed and hopefully dismantled. But, if you are like me, then you have probably been burned more than a few times interacting with people on the web. Regardless, it is important work and it is an important site of data for academic work.

I was delighted to see Scott Bailey's recent post on his SBL experience. He gives links to papers delivered by Bibliobloggers wrestling with this new reality. I've skimmed a few and they are worth me going back for a careful read. I think it is important that we develop resources for this new frontier in academic study. Like it or not the web is not going away. And like it or not there is real world reflection going on via the web. If academics are going to remain a relevant feature of society then we need to be there too.

Come on in, the water is - muddy.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why You Should Present at Conferences like Congress

I made a promise to my director not to present this year. Have to get my thesis done! But I've presented four times during my residency, and I think it is an excellent thing to do. Here is why:

1) It will give you more incentive to get to the conference where you can meet other scholars in your field. Networking is a critical part of academic work (I am not the best at it, but I try). And being in touch with what is new and breaking in your field is important - waiting for the articles to get published is a lot slower. The other side of this is that academics is lonely work - we need all the community we can get! Plus, if you go to the right conferences you get to hang out with me!
2) If you are working at a post-graduate level then you are hopefully making a contribution to your field. If you want to get your ideas out there fast then conferences are the way to go. It is not as hard as one might think getting accepted - I've written four proposals and presented four times. It also gets the word out as to what you are doing so that other scholars can connect their students to you to keep the conversation growing.
3) Presenting to your peers is the best way to get your research into the place where it can be challenged, encouraged and shaped. This year the CTS has reshaped their formats to improve the interaction between presenter and academics. This could be one of the best chances you have to find out how to shape your work so that it will not only be a unique contribution, but one that will benefit theology as a whole.
4) How can you ever get enough speaking practice? Especially in an environment where you aren't explaining basic concepts, but working on the area of your greatest passion.
5) If you present you get first dibs on financial assistance. Many societies have these perks. When you are a student, every little bit helps.
6) I'm sure there are more, but I'll finish with the all important resume. Yup, if you want to make that resume impressive then you better show that you are interested in contributing to the academic culture.

See my last post for details on proposing a presentation for the CTS. Hope to see you there in May.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Call for Papers - CTS

Call for Papers: CTS 2011 Annual Meeting
Canadian Theological Society / Société théologique canadienne

May 30-June 1, 2011

Fredericton, NB

“Coasts and Continents: Exploring Peoples and Places”

The theme, ‘Coasts and Continents: Exploring peoples and places’ takes advantage of St. Thomas University and University of New Brunswick’s maritime and coastal position in Atlantic Canada and stresses the geographical, historical, literary, artistic, socio-economic and political links across the globe. Place is important as it directly and indirectly shapes an individual’s and a people’s experience. Located strategically within a global context, Congress 2011 provides a bridge to, and a link between, places and peoples.

At the same time ‘Coasts and Continents’ challenges us to reach out to take advantage of our location to embrace the Atlantic world and beyond. This theme opens up further possibilities of interchange — not only between places and peoples but also of ideas. In addition, ‘Coasts and Continents’ suggests the far-reaching potential of the humanities and social sciences for understanding the complexities of our expanding world and for challenging arbitrary borders and boundaries through interdisciplinarity.

The Congress theme of ‘Coasts and Continents: Exploring Peoples and Places’ resonates with many recent emphases in theology, such as:

* ‘globalization’, shifting cultural and religious frontiers and borderlands, new opportunities for dialogue across historic gaps and barriers;
* the emergence of post-Eurocentric Christianity age as the demographic centre of gravity shifts from North to South;
* shifting scholarly landscapes as historically marginalized voices and traditions join global dialogues;
* challenges to familiar readings of the bible, church traditions, and authority;
* fears about ‘syncretism;’ but also creative processes of religious / cultural ‘deconstruction’ and ‘reconstruction, new experiences of ‘inculturation,’ ‘hybridity,’ mestizaje;
* and recognition of theological diversity in an emerging theological pluriverse, so powerfully echoing the ancient symbol of Pentecost for a new world.

We invite papers on these and related themes, or on any topic of theology.

The specific reason for gathering as a Society is to promote discussion, debate, exchange, and collaboration among members. To this end, the CTS/STC Executive has reconfigured the format of the “Regular Paper.” The CTS/STC Executive also encourages all presenters to participate in as much of the program as possible. Please remember that the CTS/STC has an inclusive language policy.

We invite proposals in one of the following three types:

Regular Paper: Presentation of 20 minutes, plus 20 minutes for discussion. Typically the presentation will be an account of a larger research project. This format offers an opportunity to make a presentation—sketching an area of scholarly debate, key issue(s), and contribution(s) to advancing discussions—and to engage in extended dialogue with participants. Since CTS members work in a variety of fields and specializations, attention should be given to presenting advanced work in an accessible way.

Special Paper: a formal presentation of 40 minutes, plus a 15 minute prepared response and 30 minutes for discussion. The proposal must include the name and affiliation of the respondent.

Workshops, Panels, and Seminars: formal presentations and responses and general discussion, lasting 1½ hours. The person organizing such a session is responsible for setting the topic and enlisting participants (including moderator).

Please insure that the abstract does not include identifying information. Proposals will be reviewed anonymously, though exceptions may be made for some panels.

Proposals must have the following:

* presenter’s name, institutional affiliation, and contact information;
* title;
* type of session (regular paper, special paper, workshop, panel, or seminar);
* abstract of 200-250 words, including reference to theological dimensions and/or implications of the project;
* request for audio-visual equipment.

For all types of presentations, please submit proposal (in a Word or .rtf file by email attachment) by Friday, January 14, 2011 to:

Jeremy Bergen, CTS Program Chair
Conrad Grebel University College


Saturday, November 20, 2010

My Amazing Daughter

A little while ago I had posted about starting a role playing adventure with my daughter and some friends. It is a kid focused game set in a fantasy world with an emphasis on being the champions chosen by the faeries to protect the land. The kids are really looking forward to the sessions, I hear the reports from their parents. And I really enjoy the sessions too. I've tried to make sure each time they have one short combat and one interaction to role play. Last time they went into a spider cave, fought some spiders and then rescued some hobbits.

What really blew me away though is that my daughter went online and found a free cooperative diceless role playing came. Printed up everything she needed and took it to school. I only found out about it because I was checking her school agenda and found it. At her school on Friday's they have game time at one of the recesses - mostly board games and she told me they have twister too. So she asked her teach if it would be ok to play and ran a game with two boys (her friends). Pretty darn cool eh? She was telling me about it and it sounds like she did an amazing thing. After I found it I gave her a few GMing pointers - basically not to worry if the players choose to do something you didn't think of, just make it up and take lots of notes so you can remember it later.

It shouldn't surprise me though, when I first heard about D&D as a kid, before I had any books I made a little RPG type game and tried to convince my friends to play it. I still remember the Christmas I got the Basic set, it was the set with the dice and crayon to fill in the numbers. It's longs since disappeared, but not my love of tabletop RPGing. And I'm so glad that my daughter and I can share this hobby. I can't wait until I get to adventure in one of the worlds of her imagination.

Fowler's Reflection Quesitons

This is for my class on Adult Christian Spirituality.

1. What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, your best energy?
2. What causes, dreams, goals or institutions are you pouring out your life for?
3. As you live your life, what power or powers do you fear or dread? What power or powers do you rely on and trust?
4. To what or whom are you committed in life? In death?
5. With whom or what group do you share your most sacred and private hopes for your life and for the lives of those you love?
6. What are the most sacred hopes, those most compelling goals and purposes in your life? (Fowler, Stages of Faith, 3)


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review: Understanding Spiritual Gifts

I need to start by saying that I am not a big fan of this kind of "Bible study". It is not that I haven't used them in my years pastoring, but I find that they tend to be quite directive in their approach and assume that scripture readings will present self-evident and uniform truths. Despite my misgivings about the format, I thought it would be interesting to look at popular Evangelical Kay Arthur's offering on spiritual gifts called Understanding Spiritual Gifts.

This book is intended for a small group with a facilitator (she calls this a leader). I'm not sure why she makes the assumption that there needs to be a single facilitator, but I'm not that familiar with the structural paradigm in which Arthur ministers. The lessons are pithy and focus heavily on working through various texts that Arthur feels will illuminate her topic. To her credit Arthur recognizes that spiritual gifts are not a major theme in scripture so she does not have a huge range of text to draw from. (p.37) And she does ask good contextual framing questions about the passages she highlights - following the five Ws sometimes called the journalism method. (p.4) Also her subject matter is one that I, as a neo-pentecostal minister and theologian, can appreciate: the role of spiritual gifts in the life of the believer.

The book falls into several traps that are common with this format. It shows a poor understanding of Scripture and Scripture studies. It fights against foes, such as cessationism, which it does not directly name. It has shallow theology, especially in this case her pneumatology. Let us look at each of these.

The history of Christianity, even just of modern Evangelicalism, shows that Scripture is always read contextually. Any adequate method of Biblical study must bring our attention to the biases that shape our readings and expectations on the text. What really is being done here is a devotional reading, not a Bible study, and as such it can be a valid tool for developing faith shaping insights. But such readings need to always be done with a critical eye - lest our particular personal insights are elevated to being the direct communication of God. On page 3 Arthur makes the claim that by reading Scripture, following her methodology, we are letting God "explain the gifts." This is highly uncritical and such methodology has been used to support horrendous heretical claims. A better approach is to hold these things lightly, allowing God to continue to lead us into truth but recognizing that our grasp on truth is always provisional because it is mediated through our expectations and desires. The idea of "straight-forward truths of the Bible" is a myth that Biblical study must always be wary of. (p.3)

Part of the context in which we read scripture are those assumptions to which we want to counter. Arthur begins the study with an odd attack on "seeker-friendly" churches. (p.1) She at least names this foe, but quickly shifts into her topic leaving the reader to wonder what the point of her jab was? Does she see these churches as abandoning spiritual gifts? I'm not sure such a generalization will hold up and it is really quite puzzling how her study seeks to address this initial attack? A foe more directly related to her task is cessationism, or the belief that the spiritual gifts are no longer functioning in the church or that if they do function it is not a normative feature of the modern church. She would be right to tackle this theology as it opposes her thesis. But, while she does address the fundamental complaint of cessationism, she does not really address it, instead she relies on the supposed straight-forward interpretation of the text to show the validity of spiritual gifts for the church today. (p.12) She might have been well served to at least point the readers to resources that do diligent and critical work on dismantling the arguments of cessationists. She also would have been better off leaving out the initial jab against the seeker-sensitive movement and started instead on a positive note and affirmation of the validity of spiritual gifts for the church today.

Theologically Arthur presents only one view of the passages on her subject. Her view is quite mechanistic and depicts a God who deposits specific gift mixings (she will further dichotamize these into serving and speaking packages) into individuals and that our role is to figure out what package we have and walk that out. The problem I have with this is that it conflates the gifts with the giver. Another view of the same readings she proposes is that the gift is the Spirit and that we should not expect that the Spirit will act uniformly through each of us, but, rather we would, by partnering with the Spirit, do amazing things to the glory of God. I am sure there are other readings as well, but why does Arthur favour her simple compartmentalized view? and what kind of Spirit is at work in her view of spiritual gifts? These are important questions. Arthur seems to have an operative structural expectation on the text even though the very passages she has chosen show that Paul saw different structural realities for different ministry contexts. There is no uniform view presented, they cannot be harmonized without doing violence to the texts. Arthur would have done well to recognize that 1 Cor 12:1 does not use the word Charisma but a word that might be better translated as matters of the Spirit. It is not the gifts we need to focus on - but the character and working of God, by God's Spirit, with and through the church.

I have other concerns with the content and structure of this book, but this analysis is enough for my evaluation. While I do think that such books can be useful for small groups, they must not be equated with Biblical study. Rather, they can provide a springboard into wonderful discussions about our interpretations of Scripture. They can let us question that perhaps the apostles in Acts 6:2 were simply abusing their authority and creating the same problematic dichotomy of serving vs. speaking that Arthur seems to promote. (p.7) After all Stephen did turn out to be quite a gifted orator. If a group is willing to do the work, this kind of study can be beneficial. But not in the form we are given here. I'm not sure what Kay Arthur's credentials are, but it is evident she is doing a simplistic reading of scripture to advance her particular read of that same Scripture. I believe her topic is worth pursuing, but I do not buy her way of framing her findings. But, as I stated in the beginning, I am not a fan of this type of "Bible study" and this study did little to change my attitude.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Theological Space and Grace

I have been thinking a lot recently about notions of grace. I had browsed through a book on John Wesley's theology and the author, Collins, used the term cooperative grace. I'm going to have to spend some time and see if there are correlations for me and my thinking on grace. Grace, in my understanding, is about an invitation. It is God's invitation to participate in the redemptive activity of God throughout the world. But two things have malformed this aspect of grace in many evangelical theologies. First the Reformed penchant for defending the sovereignty of God. (I think this is at the heart of the critique of open theism, I'm not completely sold on open theism but I do think it is worth reflecting on.) I find this all the time in Reformed thought, it is often characterized by a very deterministic worldview. The epitome of such a notion would be predestination, but even where predestination (and its bastard child double predestination) is challenged there still remains this concern over presenting a supposedly diminished view of God as sovereign. For me this kind of thinking flies in the face of God's kenotic self-revelation - God does not seem so worried about God's reputation or sovereignty. In fact that isn't where the risk is; I believe kenosis is by necessity a risk. The risk is not that God would (as if this were possible) somehow cease to be God. The risk is that we might choose to not accept the invitation God presents. For me the kind of God who is willing to risk it all on love is so worthy of worshipping with my whole life, the God who needs our defense is not. Such a God is simply insecure, and ceases to be God.

The second aspect that deforms this is the way we Westerner evangelicals have personalized sin. We have focused on spirituality as the private domain of the individual. This privatization gives theology no room to meet the needs of a world being destroyed by sin. Further, this way of viewing spirituality shows that not only is God insecure (as if that were possible) but that we are insecure in God's love. Grace should overcome all these insecurities (perfect love should cast out fear if we are to believe the scriptures). Grace is a self-revelation of God that evokes faith. Grace doesn't lose its sovereign dimension - because it is God's gift demonstrated by God's self-emptying, self-sacrificing holy gamble on humanity - as only a sovereign and completely secure God could ever make such a demonstration of grace. A God this gracious could not but be faithful to accomplish all that has been promised, therefore, our security is sure. But that isn't really the point.

The point is that grace opens up the possibility for so much more that merely our confidence in salvation. This kind of grace, that I'm describing, says that God continues to want to take a risk on us. Risking that we would keep saying yes to participating in God's redemptive work throughout creation. That we would participate in all that God continues to do in our world to defeat the power of sin and undo its terrible effects. This kind of invitation goes well beyond any personalized notions of me and my best friend Jesus hanging out for some supposed escape from this world. Rather, it is God saying, "This is the extent to which I'm willing to go with my love - so too are you called to participate with Me as we take My love to the whole world." I can get on board with that kind of grace, I can give my life for that kind of God.

What kind of God do we want to worship? What kind of God would it take for us to take up our crosses and follow?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Waiting at the Bus Stop

I was waiting for my youngest to come home on the bus and opening my mail. Yet another book had arrived. As I tore into the wrapping, the young gal sitting a neighbour's kid asked me what book it was. She seemed all excited, guess she doesn't order as many books as I do. I got into it enough to tell her the title and said I need to figure out what the book was - I had ordered a lot of used books recently. Then I placed it, it was a book by Ralph Reed called Active Faith. I told her it was part of my research into how evangelical Christians understand their connection between faith and politics. She said she hoped it would be good. I told her that I was pretty sure it would not be very good - and that I'm quite certain I will have a very different view from Reed. This got a puzzled look and the conversation turned to the validity of Shakespeare for contemporary high school students??? But it struck me that part of being an academic is reading the books you don't necessarily want to read - but know you need to read if you are to understand the contours of your topic. I'm probably going to find something in there worthwhile - I noticed he does a critique of liberal theologies which might prove interesting. My interest is in how he structures his arguments - what does he draw on and how, who is he speaking to, and more specifically can I find his eschatological views anywhere in the text? Happy reading.