Archive for the ‘Ponderings’ Category

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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As many of you know, I attended a variety of schools growing up.  It was intellectual boredom that took me out of the public school I had attended for 2nd and 3rd grade to try homeschooling for a year, and it was my social isolation as a homeschooler that led my parents to their next attempt to educate their smart and extroverted daughter.  The compromise was a fundamentalist Baptist school—the only private school in our small town of 5000 in rural Ohio.  I spent 5th-8th grades at Ohio Valley Christian School, wearing skirts past my knees, memorizing the KJV, and enduring those miserably catty middle school years.  After OVCS, attending a secular private school in North Carolina was quite a change for me, and in fact, my hope that I could find a school that was academically challenging (like my 9th grade institution) and Christian led me to hop to a new school in 10th grade.  But I quickly hopped right back.

This is the story I recalled as soon as I saw the “historical Adam” article in Christianity Today this month: my accidental foray into fundamentalism, my fear over my secular education, and my reassessment of Christian education (as a whole) on the basis of the pervasive anti-intellectualism I found at my latest institution of choice.  Interestingly, the other day while browsing the grocery story and discussing these experiences with Jeremiah, it hit me for the first time that my persistent feelings of disinterest towards the creation/evolution debate were not, in fact, ever-present.  I did briefly care about this issue:  I specifically did mediocre on my 9th-grade Old World History test covering “pre-history,” since I thought, Well, I don’t really believe any of this anyway…  I had just spent four years hanging out with KJV-only-ists, after all, so I knew that this evolution crap was all hog-wash.  Why bother to memorize anything about “Lucy”?

But it was my supposedly enlightened Christian school experience in 10th grade that convinced me creationism was at least equally deserving of the b.s. label.  I remember the hope and enthusiasm I felt about taking biology, in particular, in a Christian context.  Oh how deeply I was disappointed!  Our “unit” on evolution ended up requiring no reading and having no lectures, but instead consisted solely of a research paper.  A paper that didn’t even require us to learn evolutionary theory, but instead forced us to gather up all the arguments we could use to refute it.  This was at the jeans-allowed, NIV-permitted Christian school, but its utter terror in the face of science was hardly different from the fundies’.  I remember dutifully assembling my paper, which I decided would just have to consist of other people’s arguments rather than my genuine opinion.  Some of the “evidence” I found actually had to do with the amount of dust on the moon.  Dust… on… the… moon…  I could not believe I was having to waste my life on this paper.

By the time I returned to the secular private school the next year, these questions just didn’t matter to me.  I had trusted evangelical creationists to have a decent hand of cards, but when I got a peek, I realized they were bluffing.  There was a good reason we didn’t actually cover evolution in class—they had no arguments against it.  No reasonable ones, anyway.  I decided it didn’t really matter how God created the world, anyway—God was still God—and went into college with my faith bolstered by my recently discovered moderate evangelicalism (many thanks to InterVarsity Press, Baker, Eerdmans, Christians for Biblical Equality, and Mark Noll).  I have felt decidedly agnostic towards evolution ever since.

To some extent that might be changing, however.  My first year of seminary gave me some new and better ways of reading Genesis, and our buddies at BioLogos have helped erase some of the lingering prejudices towards evolution that I may have held.  I am not a scientist, so I don’t believe I can make an intelligent case on this kind of an issue—I can merely trust what the (vast, vast) majority of scientists believe.  But I do think that over the last three or four years, I’ve continued to drift even further towards the theological middle, a journey which has made me question whether I should continue to treat evolution as such a not-big deal.

Perhaps, instead, I should be awed that I did search for alternative viewpoints as a high school student who realized much of the faith she had been handed could not stand up to questioning.  It is, in many ways, a miraculous journey, which makes little logical sense and for which I give God the credit.  Unfortunately, not everyone is that lucky.  I do not doubt God’s ability to hold onto others or to chase others down, of course, but I do feel that perhaps by not intentionally making theistic evolution a more accessible option, we moderate folk are not doing our Christian duty.   We are tragically failing to share truly good news with those already committed to science, and we are tragically failing to reassure many doubting Christians that this does not need to be an issue that causes them to lose their faith.

As I read the CT article, I was struck by the utter nonsense of some of the lengths to which more conservative scholars are now going in order to preserve a historical first couple.  If this is what people are being taught, maybe it is time for me to go back and learn the science I never learned in high school.  Perhaps the time has come for me to put my apathy aside once and for all, to better educate myself, and to get passionate about this issue—on the theistic evolution side.

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I recently re-read A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, and at a certain point one of the characters mentions a legendary knight whose name seemed purposefully similar to a real historical figure.

“‘There was a knight once who couldn’t see, ‘ Bran said stubbornly, as Ser Rodrik went on below. ‘Old Nan told me about him.’…’Symeon Star-Eyes,’ Luwin said as he marked numbers in his book. ‘When he lost his eyes, he put sapphires in the empty sockets, or so the singers claim.” (pg. 730)

It might be a coincidence, but that reminded me of Simon bar Kokhba. I don’t think Martin is Jewish or anything, but the reference to placing sapphires in the eyes could be taken as being blinded by greed or ambition. Who knows, but I thought it was interesting.

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Biology = identity?

I’m taking a break from thesis writing to throw a question into the Interweb and see what answers fly back at me.

I have had a few interesting thought-provoking readings/writings/conversations recently regarding gender, identity, and biology:

(1) My thesis is about Marcia’s identity statuses and various religious variables, and Marcia’s work on identity is rooted in Erikson.  Erikson once wrote a book chapter about a woman’s “inner space,” essentially disagreeing that women defined themselves by lack of a penis (as Freud would have it) and positing, instead, that women’s identity stemmed from the presence of a uterus.  This has had feminist criticism, of course, but others have said what Erikson said in his time has been somewhat misunderstood in ours…  Regardless, it was said.

(2) Also for my thesis, the life domains relevant to identity development have sometimes seemed to be different for women vs. men, but that has also changed to some extent over time.  Additionally, the timing for identity development has sometimes seemed to differ, particularly for women who postpone a career to stay home with children.

(3) I recently had to write a reflection paper for my gender & sexuality class, in which I had to describe my relationship with gender in terms of biological sex, gender identity, and gender roles.  I was reminded of a time when a mentor once asked me what it meant to me to be a woman, and my answer that it meant I had experienced sexism did not seem to satisfy her.  Working on this paper was interesting and challenging.

(4) In light of all of these things, I asked my husband a bit about how he understands his own identity, and in many ways, I think that identifying as male for him is both more significant and positive for him than identifying as female is for me.

So in light of all of this… What do you think about your own gender identity?  Is biology a significant piece of that identity for you? What else is it based on?  Is thinking about gender and identity easy for you or a struggle?  Do you think your larger identity development (in realms like ideology, occupation, the interpersonal realm, etc.) has been affected by your gender?


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It has been a while since I’ve blogged, and for that I apologize.  I’ve been working on a thesis, trying to organize some things for our upcoming move, and generally being super-busy, but I hope to get back into a regular rhythm!  Here are some recent thoughts:

When I was a junior in high school, I discovered feminism.  Between a chauvinistic boyfriend, emotionally abusive father, and a small group leader who kept pushing the “your special role is so fulfilling!” bull, I had all the essential ingredients for extreme dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles, and I was overjoyed to discover an alternative proposed by egalitarian evangelicals.

It was a big deal for me to change my views on women in the church and family.  For one, it may have saved my faith, but besides that, it prepared me to investigate other injustices in college.  There my focus shifted to issues of race and poverty.  While the fight for women in the church is obviously not done, most of my thinking about gender was.  After all, I’d already found the “answer,” and now it was time to investigate other things.  Sure, I participated in a feminist book club, took a women’s studies class, and generally became more informed about gender and society.  But at some point my more personal journey stopped.

Make that paused.

Over the last two years, I’ve found myself reengaged in issues of gender like I never anticipated—and that’s not just because I was VP for Women in Gender on Fuller’s All-Seminary Council last year.  Wish as I might, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to escape such issues again.

I can’t avoid thinking about what gender, justice, womanhood, and feminism mean to me anymore because, quite frankly, I’m growing up.  I’m having new experiences, and I’m learning that the happy circles of smart, empowered women I ran in during college simply don’t exist in abundance in the “real world.”  Instead, I have individual friends, scattered across Los Angeles and the rest of the United States, all asking similar questions.  We lack role models.  We lack experience.  We sometimes lack both patience and hope.  But we also lack a satisfaction with the way things are for women.

While many injustices affect our lives, perhaps one of the most frustrating things for all of us—whether self-identified feminists or not—seems to be the scripts we are given as women.  One of my good friends is tired of the single-woman script handed to her by the church.  Another friend is irked by the engaged-woman script society has offered.  I remember similar wedding-related frustrations, but now I’m left wondering how I will ever escape the only scripts I know relating to pregnancy and motherhood.  The fact that I’m not currently pregnant is beside the point.  Every day it seems someone else I know on Facebook makes an announcement, and it’ll be my turn sooner or later.  And how will I make sense of that?

Obviously, the further exploration of such topics will call for additional posts.  But for now, suffice it to say, there are too few acceptable scripts for women today.  It is hard to fight expectations at every turn.  And moving into one’s mid-20s, 30s, and beyond seems to force everyone who does not accept them to constantly rework their identity in the face of new experiences.

In my mind, providing alternatives to these scripts and encouraging women in their journeys is an important task of the church.  For those of us who stand for gender equality, it’s time to not only support female pastors or egalitarian marriages with our words.  It’s time to figure out how we can actively shape families, churches, and society to truly free women from the forces—born of prejudice, ignorance, or even simple coincidence—that continue to constrain them.  Whether individual, systemic, or cultural in nature, these powers deserve a strong reprimand in the name of our victorious Savior.  (Because I’m pretty sick of going it alone.)

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A friend recently asked on Facebook whether it was heretical to believe in the idea of a Christian nation.  I answered that to make up for my being-in-your-face 95% of the time, I do try to be a bit more polite on occasion.  With that in mind, I’m not sure I’d yell, “You heretic!” at anyone who talked about Christian nations, though ultimately, I do see this as a false, un-Christian belief.  I ended up going on a while to explain why, after which, my “essay” of a Facebook comment was applauded with the suggestion that I post it here.

So without further ado, here are those thoughts:

1) It’s completely ridiculous to define a nation as Christian because even if for a moment everyone in the nation were Christian, not everyone born the next day would necessarily choose Christianity. To call a nation Christian is rude to those who are not Christian, as well as to people too young (or not yet born) to choose make the Christian faith their own. Being a credobaptist influences my views here—I don’t think anyone should be assumed to be a Christian or coerced into religion just because their parents or community practice it.

2) A nation is more than just a collection of individuals. It is filled with institutions and systems which can reflect more or less of the Lordship of Christ. If God’s reign does not seem apparent in such realms (which, let’s face it, it never will completely until God’s inaugurated kingdom is finally fulfilled some time from now when Jesus returns…), then it is rather foolish for anyone to want to associate Christianity with the nation. Even if everyone in a nation were Christian, if it imperfectly lived out the Christian faith in its political system or domestic or foreign policy or cultural mores or whatnot, it seems inappropriate to call it truly “Christian” without qualification.

3) Because the cross reconciles people across social boundaries (See Eph. and Col.!), it seems silly to emphasize our nationality in the way that calling ourselves a “Christian nation” does. We should be Christians much more than Americans/whatever-one-is and identify much more with the global church (including those from “non-Christian” nations) than with our “Christian” nation. Plus, since we should love our neighbor, we should be trying to identify with and love our non-Christian neighbors outside our national boundaries, as well. If one thinks they have moral superiority or economic privilege or are the right side in a war or anything along those lines because they are from a “Christian” nation, that’s just ignorance of the Bible’s interest in reconciliation across ethnic lines and emphasis on caring for the “foreigner.”

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Sorry we have been terrible about posting lately.  With finals, Christmas, and then illness, we have been rather busy during the past month and a half!  We hope to return to regular posts ASAP.

I’m thoroughly a dork, because when I realized our church had a library, I had to visit it.  It did take me a while to realize it existed, thanks to its apparent lack of popularity, as well as its being located far from anything else in the church I regularly access.  Regardless, it was exciting to visit and know that there was a library, despite the old age and mediocre quality of many of the books.  This just goes to show what a book nerd I am.

I did, however, find a book which I really enjoyed reading over my winter break called Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches by Ronald Nash.  The book was split into chapters describing the history of various denominations’ decline into less-than-orthodox theology and the renewal movements currently (well, when the book was written in the 80s) at work to bring doctrinal change and spiritual revitalization alike.  While I was irked here or there by some of the assumptions made about “evangelicals” (e.g. their not being fond of feminists—an assumption not true of me nor many of my friends), in general, I found the book to be various gracious and balanced.  I was also intrigued to hear the specific stories of various denominations and inspired by the commitment of leaders and laity alike to remain in these churches.

Two themes particularly stood out to me:

(1) It seemed denomination after denomination became increasingly liberal not because laity or even clergy became more liberal, but rather because the denominational leadership became liberal enough to change the direction of the entire ship.  This really commands my sympathy, since I also hate how power has been misused in the Southern Baptist Convention to oust moderates.  It doesn’t matter what side of things is doing the bullying, it’s unfortunate for those on top to marginalize those at the middle and bottom of the organizational pyramid.  It seems a feeling of disenfranchisement and exclusion is behind the droves of conservatives, and even moderates, who have left mainline denominations (individually or as an entire church), which is really sad.  I think wherever we are theologically, we have to consider that a tragic failure of the church to be the church.

(2) I really appreciated hearing what led people to stay, especially after feeling so marginalized in the denominations they ministered in (and often grew up in!).  It seemed clear that developing networks with other like-minded people was a great encouragement to these people, entirely aside from any political power such networks might develop within their denomination.

It was also striking to me just how many more evangelical/traditional/orthodox* Christians are still in such denominations.  I grew up split between worlds.  On the “good evangelical” side we attended Southern Baptist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Nazarene, Evangelical Free, and non-denominational congregations, and I went to fundamentalist Baptist and conservative Wesleyan schools for a while.  On the “less than evangelical” side, I also attended a Catholic school (probably including people all across the spectrum of liberal/conservative, as well as more/less devout), and for a long time we went to a PC(USA) church.  What is clear to me from these experiences, as well as this book, is that there are always people who love Jesus, even in the churches where some might least expect it.

And they do least expect it.  Evangelicals in more conservative denominations are just plain awful at forming meaningful relationships with churches from mainline denominations or with evangelical renewal groups within them.  It is quite unfortunate, I think, that there aren’t these sorts of trusting relationships built between Christians across denominational—and even theological—lines.  I have sometimes found that leaning-liberal people are sometimes so enriched by leaning-conservative conversation partners and vice versa, that everyone ends up moving a bit towards the middle.

Either way, you can have a positive, supporting friendship, right?  And especially when it comes to moderates/conservatives in mainline denominations, I think it is the duty of other evangelicals to love and support them, rather than to doubt their existence or judge them for staying.  Many of these individuals see themselves as “missionaries” of a sort to their own denomination.  Others with somewhat more conservative views may seem complacent with their denomination’s direction but in reality be untapped resources for the renewal effort, if only someone reached out to them and helped them see their potential as leaders.

I’m sure my little post won’t change the world today, but if I could have things my way, I would love to see less suspicion and more grace among Christians of different backgrounds.  I would also appreciate a greater willingness on the part of conservative evangelical churches to join mainline congregations in ecumenical associations, which are mostly about helping poor people or generally being friendly than they are signing off on each other’s doctrinal statements.

*An interesting acronym I recently discovered while doing some web research on the UCC’s evangelical-ish population is ECOT, standing for evangelical/conservative/traditional/orthodox, encompassing many of the differing labels such people/congregations may prefer.  For more info, read “What is ECOT?

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