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Archive for February, 2012

A while back I was reading Peter Lampe’s fantastic book From Paul to Valentinus, when I came across a rather curious claim about the Shepherd of Hermas. Before I say more, let me first reproduce the text of one of the passages in question. The following is Lake’s translation of the first two verses of Vision 1:

1:1 He who brought me up sold me to a certain Rhoda at Rome. After many years I made her acquaintance again, and began to love her as a sister.
2 After some time I saw her bathing in the river Tiber, and gave her my hand and helped her out of the river. When I saw her beauty I reflected in my heart and said: “I should be happy if I had a wife of such beauty and character.” This was my only thought, and no other, no, not one. (Herm. 1:1-2)

While the oddity of the introduction is plain to all (the visions literally open with Hermas ogling a naked woman while insisting he was not thinking untoward thoughts), the supposed source for the image is anything but obvious. Lampe proposes that this juicy bit of plotting is ripped straight from the pages of pagan erotica. According to Lampe (pages 218-219 for the curious), the protagonist’s chance encounter with the bathing damsel is a staple trope for the Attic equivalent of a lad mag. Imagine some cheesy 70s music and read verse 2 again. Seems plausible to me. Perhaps you are not convinced, but I have saved the best example for last.

5 But I took him by his wallet, and began to adjure him by the Lord to explain to me what he had shown me. He said to me: “I am busy for a little and then I will explain everything to you. Wait for me here till I come.”
6 I said to him: “Sir, what shall I do here alone?” “You are not alone,” he said, “for these maidens are here with you.” “Give me then,” said I, “into their charge.” The shepherd called them and said to them: “I entrust him to you till I come,” and he went away.
7 And I was alone with the maidens, and they were merry and gracious towards me, especially the four more glorious of them.

88:1 The maidens said to me: “To-day the shepherd is not coming here.” “What then,” said I, “shall I do?” ” Wait for him,” said they, “until the evening, and if he come he will speak with you; and if he come not you shall remain here with us until he come.”
2 I said to them: “I will wait for him till evening, but if he come not I will go away home and return in the morning.” But they answered and said to me: “You were given to our charge; you cannot go away from us.”
3 “Where shall I stay then?” said I. “You shall sleep with us,” said they, “as a brother and not as a husband, for you are our brother and for the future we are going to live with you, for we love you greatly.” But I was ashamed to stay with them.
4 And she who seemed to be the first of them began to kiss and embrace me, and the others seeing her embracing me began to kiss me themselves, and to lead me round the tower, and to play with me.
5 I, too, had, as it were, become young again, and began to play with them myself, for some were dancing, others were gavotting, others were singing, and I walked in silence with them round the tower, and was merry with them.
6 But when evening came I wished to go home but they did not let me go, but kept me, and I stayed the night with them and slept by the tower.
7 For the maidens spread their linen tunics on the ground, and they made me lie down in the midst of them, and they did nothing else but pray, and I also prayed withthem unceasingly and not less than they, and the maidens rejoiced when I was praying thus, and I stayed there until the morrow until the second hour with the maidens. (Herm. 87:4-88:7)

Again this is Lake’s translation. It should be noted that here maidens means virgins. So, Hermas spends the night with a bunch of virgin ladies who make out with him all night.  They all get naked and won’t let him leave, but it’s ok because they spend the whole night praying together. Apparently the gaggle of game virgins is another plot device borrowed from the sultry pages of pagan erotica. If Lampe is right, there are at least two examples of this shocking appropriation of literary smut. I very much doubt that we are viewing something like intentional literary dependence. It seems much more likely that Hermas fell victim in his composition to those floating bits of narrative that seem to imbue cultures. Perhaps, however, the most shocking thing about the Shepherd of Hermas is not its questionable source material, but rather that such an extraordinarily long text filled with bizarre images and containing such obviously adoptionist Christology was read and used by Christians for hundreds of years and almost made it into the canon.

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Having attended seminary, I am of the firm belief that the Bible is not magically able to be properly interpreted by everyone who reads it.  This is in contrast with many evangelicals, who generally expect the Bible’s message to be self-evident to the average attentive reader open to the Holy Spirit.  Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently wrote about this, as well as various other problems with how evangelicals approach Scripture, in his book The Bible Made Impossible.  For a while now, I have been with Smith in considering this an inappropriate approach to Scripture because it simply does not work in real life:  People who don’t know better very often read Scripture quite poorly, despite their best efforts and intentions.

Some might consider it elitist to believe only certain better-equipped people can properly interpret the Bible, but consider this: There was a time when most people were illiterate, making the entire Bible completely inaccessible without some sort of mediator.  Was it elitist for God to inspire Scripture to begin with?  Then neither is it elitist to acknowledge that the Bible was written in unfamiliar languages and cultures a long time ago and that it is therefore not always easily understood.  In fact, even with additional training there is a lack of consensus about certain passages, highlighting how complicated the Bible really is.  This situation need not create a separate class of Christians who keep the Bible to themselves, but rather demands we do a better job connecting academics, clergy, and laity to one another so that everyone might have as many tools as possible to understand as much of the Bible as possible.  And in the event that having been better equipped, there are still certain parts which are harder to understand, lay people should have access to people and books who can point them in the right direction.  This highlights the importance of educated leaders, as well as for academics who take a strong interest in helping the church as a whole connect to their life’s work.

Too often today pastors are uneducated or focused solely on ministerial training rather than biblical studies and theology, and too often even the best educated pastors with an interest in theology do not know how to make this information accessible to their congregants.  We need strong educational requirements and a culture which values learning among our pastors.  We also need to train them in how to teach others about that which often stays shut up in the ivory tower.  We should encourage basic theological literacy among lay people through the sorts of preaching, Sunday school curricula, adults’ and children’s books, etc. to which we expose people in our churches and other Christian settings.  In my view, it would be wise to come to a general consensus on what sorts of topics every Christian deserves some basic instruction in and to make certain our teaching ensures anyone growing up in church or later joining a church has the opportunity to learn such material—in other words, we need more and better catechesis.

Another thing we need, however, is to recognize that the way evangelicals conduct many of their ministries is simply theologically irresponsible.  In particular, I am talking about the very lax standards for ministry in parachurch contexts.  I do not doubt that many of these individuals are called by God to serve and that God uses them in meaningful ways.  But we need to do a better job distinguishing between those in deacon-type positions vs. those with significant teaching and mentoring responsibilities.  Those who focus on practical service (ministries of compassion, social justice, fostering community and fellowship, the arts, etc.) need not possess a theological education, though some might find it helpful to have a background in theology, not to mention other sorts of training (to play certain instruments, to understand social issues, etc.).  However, this is not the case for those who preach and otherwise guide others through Scripture as a regular basis as part of their ministerial profession.

A perfect example of this is campus ministry.  Campus ministry organizations (whether interdenominational or denominational) need educational standards for their staff.  Period.  A typical campus minister may refer to their lessons as “speaking” or “teaching,” but there is no practical difference between the nature of their “talks” and a sermon the student might hear on Sunday morning.  For those who consider it problematic for pastors to lack theological education, the same standard should apply to campus ministers.  They play a very significant role in determining how young people form their theology, not only through preaching but also through “discipling” relationships.  Without educational standards, there is an enormous variance of “quality” of teaching between campus ministry staff, which is rather unfortunate.

Campus ministries, as well as other parachurch organizations, often have enormous power to influence the direction of the church.  We must consider it “worth it” to require—and then, of course, help fund—the education of those in such influential positions if we want to avoid perpetuating poor biblical interpretations, not to mention broader ignorance of theology and church history and the very large problem of evangelical anti-intellectualism.

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