Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the DisinheritedJesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was one of those books I knew I needed to get around to at some point, but I'm now upset that I didn't read it twenty years ago. I feel let down; that no one explained to me that this was one of the essential books. And not just essential theologically. Essential for anyone to read.

Essential for its sophisticated understanding of how marginalized people respond to their situations. Essential for the way it clearly influenced King and others. Essential for helping to understand America.

There are so many other books I've read which are clearly derivative of this one. I had been missing the essential, core text.

But no more. Now it will become an essential part of my personal canon, to be used often.

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The Influence of Donald Wester: Part Three

One of the virtues of a small liberal arts college is that there is a greater chance for direct, personal relationships with senior faculty even when you are an undergrad.  For example, the first semester of my freshman year I had been in the Wester home, which was an inspiration.  Don and Janie had built a home that with the best available technology of the 1980's was energy efficient and environmentally sustainable.  It was filled with Janie's art and Don's books.  Books everywhere, but well organized, in wooden shelves with glass doors.  

My sophomore year I began working with Don as one of his graders, a job I kept for three years.  As his student employee, I grew personally close to Don and benefited from the many conversations.

One day he mentioned reading a book that week, which to me was shocking, that he could read the entire book in one week. When I said as much, he said he did that all the time and assured me I would one day too.  He was correct, of course, as I now read 70-80 books a year.

Working for him, I also became the tutor for Intro to Philosophy, hosting a weekly session with students reviewing what they were doing in the class and answering their questions.  This was my first opportunity for teaching philosophy.

I remained living in Shawnee the five years I commuted to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to work on my Masters and Ph. D.  During those years I was an active member of the First Baptist Church of Shawnee where the Westers were members.  So through those years of grad school at OU, my friendship with Don deepened.

And we live in a small world, as my connections to the Wester family have grown.  Son Mike and I served as deacons at First Baptist Shawnee.  When I moved to Oklahoma City in 2005 to pastor at Cathedral of Hope, Tom Wester attended the church.  And then I was very surprised when I moved to Omaha in 2010 and son Donald Junior was a member of First Central.  Donald and I became good friends as well, initially bonding over stories of his dad.  I got to participate in Donald’s ordination, and he even served on the staff of First Central for a while, before moving to Arkansas to pastor.  Don, Sr. participated in the ordination service for his son, a fun moment for me.

This week so many messages have been shared by former students and colleagues about Don and his impact.  Today we will celebrate and honor a great legacy.

 


The Influence of Donald Wester: Part Two

On May 9th of this year I sent the following e-mail to Donald Wester, Junior about his dad:

Donald,

I'm grading final exams from Intro to Philosophy. One student wrote about how he's long struggled with proving the existence of God and that he was very disappointed with the day we spent on the traditional arguments. But then we read William James and he discovered that we don't need to prove God's existence.

Reading the essay made me think of your Dad, from whom I learned that. Now 27 years later I'm passing those lessons on.

Which also reminds me I brought up your Dad in worship planning yesterday when Stephen and I got off on a discussion of Nietzsche's criticisms of Christianity. I mentioned how your Dad taught me to interpret Nietzsche, that basically the criticisms have some validity and any thoughtful person of faith needs a response that survives the criticisms.

Anyway, thought you might appreciate these stories.

Peace,
Scott

Don Wester, Sr. for decades taught a class entitled "Fundamentals of Philosophy."  It was a sophomore level course required of all religion and ministry majors, the only other philosophy class they were required to take beyond Intro.  It was something of a rite of passage, which means many experienced it as a stumbling block.  The course was part of the genius of OBU's curriculum at the time--before all these young (mostly) men were turned loose on the church, they had to spend a semester with Don Wester.

Wester's textbook for that course was simply the Library of America volume of William James's philosophical writings--Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, Essays in Radical Empiricism, the Varieties of Religious Experience.  William James is not a conservative evangelical, so his works were a definite challenge for most of the students in the course.  Many struggled with it.  I know because I was also Wester's grader for three years, which didn't give me a lot of confidence in the future of pastoral ministry. :)

Which gets me to Don Wester's intellectual project.  

As Don told the story, he was a rural pastor who decided to become a foreign missionary--the plan was to go to Indonesia.  He was smart enough to realize that much of the Christianity he knew was deeply Western, influenced by Greco-Roman thought forms.  He didn't think Indonesians should have to first accept the legacy of Greco-Roman thought before becoming Christians, so he realized he needed to figure out what Christianity was more basically, freed of Greco-Roman philosophy.  Or to put it more simply, Christianity without Plato.

This is a more challenging project than you might realize.

Wester never did end up on the mission field, but the intellectual project remained.  And it is one he passed on to his students.  The intensive study of William James was part of this.  I absorbed his love of James (in my Intro class we read Pragmatism).  I adopted his overall understanding of the history of philosophy and its relationship with Christianity.  I too wanted to understand the history of ideas so that I might know where certain ideas came from and what effects they had had.  The framework I learned from him still shapes how I think about new ideas and how I teach them to my students. 

One implication of this intellectual project is how we think about God.  Wester rejected the notions of omnipotence, omniscience, and impassibility, as they were inherited from the Greeks (Parmenides really) and not the Hebrews.  Being persuaded by Wester on these points opened me to Whitehead's Process Thought, for he too rejects these concepts and conceives of God differently.  

When I took Fundamentals of Philosophy, my final paper was entitled "William James's Concept of God."  Wester marked the title as being wrong and then explained why to me.  James doesn't think we have a concept of God, but a perception, an experience.  He let me rewrite the paper.

Sunday I preached a sermon which explored the myriad ways one could interpret the Letter of Jude.  The sermon was written before Don Wester died, but I dedicated the sermon to his memory, for he taught me to explore truth in this way.

How does one measure the gift of an intellectual worldview?  Especially when his teaching helped me to keep my faith by seeing things in a new light?  


Hey Jude

Note: I dedicated this sermon to the memory of Dr. Donald Wester, Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University.  He died the weekend it was delivered.  And it is a sermon that embodies what he taught me about truth.

 

Hey Jude

Jude

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

1 June 2019

 

 

Let me begin today with the opening lines of the Letter of Jude:

 

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, who are beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.

 

Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.  For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. 

 

            Jude may be the strangest book in the New Testament. 

For one thing, we know almost nothing about its context and details.  Duane Watson writes “Nothing definite can be said about the author, origin, or date of the Epistle of Jude.”  We aren’t much better when it comes to what it teaches.  William Countryman concludes, “It is not easy to discern what Jude’s own theological principles are.”  So there is no scholarly consensus about who wrote the book, to whom it was written, or even really what the book is all about.

There isn’t even much agreement about its language and style.  One commentary described the letter as “pure invective” and a “string of insults.”  Bart Ehrman simply calls it “nasty.”  While Duane Watson describes the “rich vocabulary,” and Willis Barnstone calls the letter “a Dantesque visionary work.”  Barnstone clearly admires the letter; he writes, “With a firm hand, Jude gathers image and word to produce an intellectual dream and spiritual wandering unique in religious literature.”

Just listen to verses 12 and 13.  In describing his opponents, the author writes, “They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.”  Wow!  That’s amazing writing.

As William Countryman writes, “Jude is relatively marginal to the canon.”  Other than the fact that 2 Peter quotes from it extensively, the letter has generally been ignored in the history of Christianity.  It never even entered the New Testament canon of the East Syrian Christians.  And Martin Luther “consigned it to the appendix of his German [New] Testament.”

So, given all of this confusion and disagreement and ignoring, what should a preacher make of Jude? 

On Tuesday I texted a church member, “Today I have fallen down a rabbit hole studying the Letter of Jude. Didn’t expect this to be so fun.”

This is not going to be a sermon that tells you “what the text means.”  Fortunately, last weekend I finished reading a book that said sermons shouldn’t do that anyway.  In Time and the Word Ephraim Radner wrote,

 

Our goal is not to give a definitive or certainly final meaning to the text—a simple “message” or application.  Rather, our figural goal is to lead and go with our people into a realm of meanings, and trace out its parameters and interiors.  It should be a realm in which, of course, we do not leave our listeners as disoriented wanderers, but as creatures taken by the scriptural forms themselves, so as to lead them further, or into a clearing, or back out again, in some posture of transformed wonder.

 

            So, what world do we enter when we read the Letter of Jude?  Will we experience “transformed wonder?”  Let’s see.

 

            “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.”  Jude is really Judas.  A common name in ancient Palestine.  This isn’t Judas Iscariot, who of course took his own life after betraying Jesus.  But in order to avoid confusion, the King James Version only called Judas Iscariot “Judas” and instead called this author “Jude.”  That decision stuck.

            This Jude is the brother of James.  Which James?  Well, the famous James in the early church was James the Bishop of Jerusalem, who was a brother of Jesus.  We know from the Gospels that Jesus also had a brother Judas.  So, is the author of this letter one of the brothers of Jesus?  That seems to be implied and is what even ancient historians understood.  This author uses his family connections as the source of his authority.

            But is it really Jude the brother of Jesus or some later author claiming to be such?  On that you’ll find no agreement.  Even among contemporary, critical scholars.  One of the most liberal commentaries I read placed the origin of the book in the lifetime of the historical Jude, while another of the most liberal commentaries I read concluded that there is no way Jesus’ brother could have written the letter, meaning that the author was intentionally deceiving people.

 

            What is the letter about then?  The author is concerned with false teachers who have infiltrated the church and are leading people astray with their immorality.  He encourages those reading the letter to stand firm in the faith.  That much is relatively clear and straightforward, but beyond that the meaning is murky.

            For one thing, this short letter is full of many allusions.  There are references to angels, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to arch-villains of the Old Testament—Cain, Balaam, and Korah.  And then the author quotes from two books that aren’t in the Bible—The Assumption of Moses and First Enoch.  Complete copies of these books have not survived into the twenty-first century.  The first one, The Assumption of Moses, tells a story of Satan fighting with the Archangel Michael over the body of Moses.  While First Enoch supposedly records the visions of Enoch, who was one of the descendants of Adam listed in the genealogies of Genesis.  The book is a wild apocalypse full of mystical visions and stories of the cosmic battle between good and evil.  It also influenced the writer of the Book of Revelation.

            This quoting from non-canonical sources as if they speak authoritative divine truth has always bothered some people.  Some commentators write it off as Jude simply quoting from popular books his audience would have read.  While the feminist scholar Sharon Ringe is encouraged by what she describes as “openness to witnesses from outside” which she thinks “offers a helpful model to those of us who work in a world marked by religious pluralism.”

            Many contemporary scholars believe that this letter was written in the second century by someone claiming to be Jude who wasn’t, and that his concern is defending orthodoxy against heretics.  These heretics seem to believe that they are now free from any law and therefore can do whatever they want, even engage in licentious behavior.  Jude’s worry is that Christians believe the correct things as a matter of doctrine, for believing the right things has an effect upon one’s ethical behavior.  His opponents then aren’t “real Christians.”  Bart Ehrman writes, “It is not too hard to imagine that they [the opponents] would say the same thing about him.”

            If this is what the Letter is about, then it should raise some serious concerns for us.  I found those concerns best articulated by Sharon Ringe in a series of questions that she suggests this letter should elicit in us:

 

Who decides what is an acceptable formulation of the faith or what values conform to the gospel when interpreting it for new times and places?  According to what criteria are those decisions reached?  Who benefits by those decisions, and who is harmed and rejected?

 

            These are the very questions currently dividing the United Methodist Church, as they grapple not just with very different views on the status of LGBTQ people, but more fundamental questions of interpretation, truth, and authority.

 

But not every scholar thinks the Letter of Jude is about defending orthodox belief.    

            Duane Watson believes the letter is not an attack on heresy overall, but is clearly written to one specific church, even if we don’t know which one, to advise them how to deal with some people who have infiltrated their community.  Watson claims that “Jude provides us with a model for dealing positively with demoralizing situations in the church.”  And the way to positively deal with the opponents is to ourselves live a more vital faith.  Watson writes that Jude doesn’t want his readers to simply denounce their opponents but to “fortify personal and community holiness and promote spiritual growth.”

            William Countryman, in his commentary that appears in the book The Queer Bible Commentary, thinks all of these other scholars have gotten Jude wrong.  He writes, “Jude’s goal is at least partly that of protecting the simplicity of the Christian faith” against a group of teachers who are trying to set up “a new religious elite.”  According to Countryman the opponents are a sort of early Gnostics who taught that beyond the grace of God there were other levels of salvation to be achieved through our own effort.  In this particular case that came about through “controlling a multiplicity of supernatural powers,” thus all the references to angels in this letter.  Jude, then, is a defender of the earliest, simplest, most egalitarian form of Christianity, one that taught that “there are no additional requirements [to stand in God’s presence].  We already stand there.”

Countryman acknowledges that Jude’s style of harsh insults and bullying gets in the way of our interpreting the letter properly.  But what Jude is doing is reminding churches that they must make judgments about these things.

Do we as an open, welcoming, inclusive church ever make judgments that certain ideas are forbidden here?  Let’s imagine one scenario, and it’s a real life one.  A few years ago I was talking with one of our rural pastors about a situation that arose in their congregation.  An avowed white supremacist moved to town and came to the UCC church since they publicly welcomed everyone.  He sought to join the church, and the church decided they had to discuss it.  Of course they were uncomfortable with the very idea of discussing it.  And they ultimately decided that the man wasn’t welcome as long as he continued to publicly espouse and advocate for white supremacy.  Making that decision was a real struggle for the congregation. 

But it is precisely a moment like this when the Letter to Jude might come in handy.

Maybe the best answer to what this Letter is about was the simple statement I read by Andrew S. Jacobs in a Jewish commentary on the New Testament—Jude has an “overall concern for authority, morality, and truth.”

 

See why I told you that I wasn’t going to be able to tell you definitively what this text means?  Instead all I can do is invite you into a “realm of meanings” to engage all of these questions, ideas, images, and possibilities.  And invite you to experience the wonder of this text.  What will you take away from it?

And with all of that then as a form of introduction, why don’t we finally actually listen to the letter? 

I also had to puzzle over which translation to use.  My favourite is Willis Barnstone’s.  He’s the critic who thinks this letter is great literature akin to Dante.  However, I’m going to make one set of changes to Barnstone’s translation.  He likes to leave all the Biblical names in their original Hebrew forms instead of the common ways we know them from most English translations.  I do like that, but it can be confusing for listeners who aren’t sure who the people are by their Hebrew names.

Are we ready then? 

Hear now, the Word of the Lord from the Letter of Jude:

 

Jude a slave of Jesus the Messiah
And brother of James, to those of you
Chosen ones who are loved in God the father
And kept safe in Jesus the Messiah.

May mercy, peace, and love abound in you.

 

My loves, I’m writing hastily to you

Concerning our salvation that we share.

I am in need of writing you to plead

With you to contend for the faith that was,

Once and for all, handed down to the saints.

Some men have secreted in among you,

Men who were long ago marked down in writings

For condemnation, who were judged the ungodly,

Who twist the grace of God into depravity,

And who deny the being of our one master

And lord who is Jesus the Messiah.

 

I want you to remember, though you know

All of these things, that once the lord rescued

His people out of Egypt.  Later he

Destroyed all those who lacked belief.  And angels

Failing to obey in their dominion, leaving

Their proper residence, he locked them in

Eternal chains under a deepest darkness

To wait for judgment on the giant day.

Just like Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities

Around them, like the fornicating angels

Who fell into unnatural sex, they all

Serve as examples as they undergo

The punishment of everlasting fire.

 

Likewise those dreamers who defile the flesh

Deny authority and they blaspheme

The glorious beings, and yet the archangel

Michael, when he was matched against the devil,

Contending over the body of Moses,

He lacked the audacity to retort

With a slandering insult, but he said,

May the lord punish you!

These people slander what they do not know,

And like the unreasoning beasts they know

Things naturally and in them are corrupted.

A plague on them!  They go the way of Cain

And lose themselves in the error of Balaam,

Driven by gold, and die rebelling like Korah.

 

They are reefs and stains in your love feasts.

They come into your banquets shamelessly,

Caring only for themselves, rainless clouds

Driven by gales that uproot autumn trees

And leave them fruitless and twice dead; wild waves

Of the sea foaming their own shame, and stars

Wandering to blackest aeons saved for them.

 

Enoch, seventh from Adam, prophesied,

Saying, “Look, the lord comes amid his myriads

Of holy ones to pass judgement on all

And to convict each soul of the ungodly,

For each harsh thing ungodly sinners spoke

Against him.”  They are grumblers and complainers,

Walking around in search of flesh, their mouths

Talking loud, flattering to gain a victory.

 

My loves, remember the words of prophecy

Said earlier by messengers of our lord

Jesus the Messiah.  They told you,

“In final days there will be scoffers walking

Around, ungodly ones in search of flesh.”

They cause divisions, these sensual men,

And in them there is no spirit at all.

 

My loves, be strong.  Build on the holy faith

And pray in holy spirit.  Keep to love

Of God.  Keep looking forward to the mercy

Of our lord Jesus the Messiah, who leads

Us to eternal life.  Pity some who waver.

Save them by snatching them from the fire,

And pity others who are afraid, but hate

Even their garment which is stained by flesh.

 

To him who has the power of guarding you,

To keep you from a fall, to set you blameless,

Exulting in the presence of his glory,

To the only God our savior through Jesus

The Messiah, our lord, glory and majesty,

Dominion and authority before

All aeons, now and into all the aeons.

Amen.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 


The Influence of Donald Wester: Part One

I didn't understand what he was saying, but I was fascinated anyway.

Something like that was my first impression of Professor Donald Wester in 1992.  I was an eighteen-year-old kid from small town Oklahoma, a conservative Southern Baptist filled with all the eagerness, naivete, curiosity, and confidence of a college freshman.  I was a member of Oklahoma Baptist University's inaugural Honors Class and that semester they decided to offer Freshman English and Intro to Philosophy as one co-taught class with Joe Hall and Don Wester.  I don't think the combined class worked all that well as a matter of curriculum, for they never did it again, but the gods of academia could have made no better selection than to introduce us to a combined Drs. Hall and Wester.  I was never the same, and that could probably be said for everyone else in the room (for instance, that was when I first read Wendell Berry).

My prior acquaintance with philosophy was three-fold.  Most had come by way of high school debate, where you needed to be familiar with Mill's utilitarianism, Kant's categorical imperative, and the basics of Social Contract theory (e. g. one semester in high school John Locke's views on self-defense had been rather central to formulating our response to a question).  The second high school exposure was in my World Lit & Humanities class where we read about about Socrates.  And finally in Mr. Harvey's chemistry classes we had received an introduction to pre-Socratic cosmological theories.  So, I didn't come to Wester's class with no philosophical training, but it wasn't my chosen academic field, rather something I was curious about.

But as I said at the beginning, I didn't really understand what Don Wester was saying most of the time, but I was still fascinated.  And that largely remained the case.  I think that was also part of his magic as a teacher.  The students who fell in love with him worked their butts off with the hopes that they would finally be able to understand him.  By then you had been seduced into the discipline.

That fall semester of 1992 Don Wester turned me into a philosopher.  I had soon declared philosophy as my minor (I was a Religion major with an emphasis in Biblical Studies who ultimately did a double major).  

Samuel Enoch Stumpf's Philosophy History and Problems was the textbook, which I still have and maybe surprisingly still refer to in teaching my own intro to philosophy course.  We covered all the big names and major ideas in a rather comprehensive course that laid the groundwork for my future academic development.  In particular that semester, I was introduced to Alfred North Whitehead, whose ideas intrigued me.  Little did I know then that I would write a dissertation on Whitehead.

And so that one semester with Don Wester was a turning point that has helped to shape my subsequent life in myriad ways.

In the next post, I'll write about how I inherited Wester's intellectual project. 


Brave Woman

The Guardian today published a story on Julie Burkhart who has bravely worked to maintain access to abortion in Kansas after the assassination of Dr. George Tiller.  

I met Julie in 2011 at a reproductive justice conference at Oklahoma State University.  She was one of the main featured speakers and I was an invited panelist and participant.  All of us invited guests hung out socially after the academic events.  Julie was then still deeply grieving Dr. Tiller but bravely organizing a response.  


River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  


Buffy & the Academy

A fun article in the Atlantic on why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is beloved of academics.

Back in the mid-Aughts I was invited to write an essay for a volume on the philosophy of Buffy which was being edited by a friend of mine.  I was going to write an essay on the concept of God revealed in the show, more on that in a moment.  But I ended up backing out not feeling I had the time to devote to the essay by the deadline in order to prepare something of the quality I would want to publish. 

I do regret that decision, by the way.  Which made reading this article a little melancholy.

In the final season there was so much talk about the "First Evil," I kept wondering when I first watched it if there was going to be a "First Good."  Maybe even a literal deus ex machina to close the series.  At the time I figured the show would end one of two ways--if Joss Whedon was fundamentally a pessimist or nihilist, then Buffy would be killed and the First Evil would conquer the world, or if Whedon was fundamentally optimistic then Evil would be defeated maybe with this appearance of the First Good.  

Of course the finale was not as final as I had hoped, which initially disappointed me.  In retrospect, however, I came to realize that the finale had in fact revealed the God concept of the show when Buffy's power is shared among all the potential slayers.  It's idea of the First Good was a immanent power, particularly a female power.  

But I never did the good work of more fully developing this interpretation.


Berry Criticism

This review of Berry's essays in the New York Times seems woefully unfair to me.  The author is correct that Berry has often written on the same topics, which is a reason one doesn't really need every essay he's ever published.  But the author fails to highlight some of the key themes that are so important, such as affection or what it takes to really build community.

Yes, Berry can sound like a crank at times, but I have found his an essential voice.  I read both his essays and poetry, admiring the latter deeply while often feeling challenged by the former.

And, yes, he is "conservative" on many issues while being "progressive" on many others, meaning he doesn't fit well into our current political divides.  I think he likes it that way.  I believe this is part of his essential function, however.  He is the rare voice trusted by folks across the spectrum who can speak words of challenge to them on some of their sacred cows.


Now Behave!

Now Behave!

Titus 2:11-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 May 2019

 

 

            Continuing with our series based on some of the letters in the New Testament, today we come to Titus.  The Letter to Titus presents itself as having been written by Paul to one of his former companions who is now leading churches and missionary efforts on the island of Crete.  Hear now these words of instruction:

 

Titus 2:11-15

 

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

 

Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

            Two words, and one exclamation mark, to summarize the Letter to Titus: Now behave!

            This author comes across as a stern parent, though the core message is that in response to God’s grace, we should be zealous for good deeds, living self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.

            The book is about proper order for leaders, the church, and the home.  This letter provides instructions on appointing elders and bishops for the church and their qualifications.  Titus is warned about false teachers who are trying to deceive the people, and he’s told to rebuke the deceivers “sharply.”

            Titus is also supposed to teach his congregants how to live good lives.  There are specific instructions for old men, wives, young men, and slaves, with an emphasis on obedience and submission to authority.  Also enumerated are a number of good behaviors such as controlling passions, being gentle, and acting courteously.  The letter also adds that we should “avoid stupid controversies” and speculations.

 

            So, if you were here last week when I preached on the Letter to Philemon, you might be confused.  The Letter to Philemon promotes a new social order based on radical equality.  Instead of telling people what to do, it encourages them to freely choose the right thing.  Instead of telling slaves to submit to masters and wives to husbands, the Letter to Philemon treats all people as partners together in God’s mission, of equal worth and dignity, thus subverting hierarchy and patriarchy.

            You might then be wondering, can these two letters be written by the same person?  After all, both claim to be written by Paul the apostle.  Yet, the social relations described in Titus sound less Paul and more like the ideals of family life promoted by the Roman empire, as influenced by Stoic philosophy.  What’s going on here?

 

            Well, you wouldn’t be the first to ask such questions.  In the ancient church, some wondered if Paul really authored the Letter to Titus.  At the beginning of the 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher was the first modern scholar to speculate that some of the letters attributed to Paul might not have been written by him.  That conclusion that has now received widespread agreement among biblical scholars. 

Strong consensus exists that Titus, along with First and Second Timothy, were probably written by some second century church elder making a claim for Paul’s authority in order to give his own advice to churches.

So, that would explain why this letter contains such a different social vision than what we read last week.  At best, this author is trying to give churches advice on how to avoid persecution given their social environment.  But at worst, this author comes across as supporting the status quo of social life in the empire, with its patriarchy, slavery, and economic exploitation.  Which puts this letter at odds not only with Paul but the overwhelming tradition of the New Testament.

In the early centuries of Christianity there were many debates around questions of equality, leadership, and church order.  Bart Ehrman writes:

 

Paul’s churches split in lots of ways. . . .  Some Pauline Christians thought women should be treated as equals and given equal status and authority with men, since Paul did say that ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female.’  Other Pauline Christians thought that women were equal with men only “in Christ,” by which they meant “in theory,” not in social reality.  These Christians were keen to tone down Paul’s own emphasis on women, and one of them decided to write a set of letters

 

In the long run a view very much like that of the author of Titus gained power, with the more radical interpreters of Jesus and Paul sidelined for much of Christianity’s history.  Robert E. Goss calls Titus “a tremendous power play within the history of the Church” and one with long lasting, negative consequences. 

 

           

            What, then, are we to do with Titus?

            Do we think this letter contains any word for us?

            As I pondered these questions leading up to writing the sermon this week, I thought of our Puritan ancestors.  Look again at the description of upright living and social and family order described in Titus, and it sounds very like the Puritans.

            The Puritans believed that we are called by God to live virtuously and that our personal virtue has implications for the family and wider society.  A virtuous life is one of “simplicity, modesty, and charity” to quote the historian Amy Kittelstrom.

            But there exist a set of interesting historical outcomes to the Puritan way of life.  Their emphasis on virtuous living gave birth to democracy, to liberalism, to universal human rights, to our current denomination, the United Church of Christ, and its vision of Christian ethics rooted in equality, freedom, and inclusivity. 

            How did this come about?  Well, that’s a more complicated historical story than I have time for in today’s worship.  There are many historians who have treated the matter.  I recommend Amy Kittelstrom’s The Religion of Democracy as one good recent book on this evolution.

            Without getting into all the details, let me sketch a little bit of what happened.  One feature is that the Puritans and early Congregationalists understood themselves to be finite Christians who sin.  Their finitude and sinfulness affected their ability to know. Therefore, they understood that they only possessed some truth and could not claim full, infallible knowledge.  These theological understandings gave rise to intellectual humility, curiosity to learn from others, and critical examination of ideas. 

            The emphasis on moral virtue also focused attention on improving the self.  To cultivate the self meant to grow spiritually, morally, and intellectually.  So a live of virtue included valuing education.  The Puritans were highly literate, teaching both sons and daughters to read.  They read the Bible constantly, while they also read the great classics and the best intellects and authors of their own age.  They founded schools wherever they went.  Remember that Omaha Public Schools began in the basement of the First Congregational Church.

            Over the course of a couple of centuries as the Spirit moved these once very conservative Christians, they developed ideas of tolerance, charity, and freedom of thought. They embraced historical-critical scholarship of the Bible, which taught them to consider questions like “Who wrote the letter to Titus?”  They began to ponder whether the ethical commands of a book like Titus are best understood not as absolute moral laws to govern people in all times in places, but as descriptions of a historical context.  Ultimately they decided that the Letter to Titus was wrong about slavery, about women, about church organization. 

 

            I think we can learn from our forebears how to handle this letter.  Much of its particulars about family and society we disagree with, because they do not reflect the best human wisdom and are even contrary to the social vision of the rest of the New Testament.

            Instead, I want to suggest two things we can take away from reading the Letter to Titus.  First is that we should live virtuous lives as expressions of gratitude for God’s grace.  For us those virtuous lives will be more equitable and just, while still being expressions of love, gentleness, and courtesy. 

And the second takeaway is that virtuous lives were once before the fertile ground in which freedom and inclusion came to fruition.  May our leaders, our churches, and our homes be gardens for the Holy Spirit to bring forth a new and better world in the time to come.


This Blessed Earth

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family FarmThis Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I moved to Nebraska in 2010 all new UCC and DOC ministers gathered at Camp Kaleo in the center of the state in the Sandhills near Burwell for an orientation to ministry in Nebraska. One of our speakers was a western Nebraska rancher. He talked about rural-urban divides and how urban folk don't understand ag issues. I pointed out that many urban people were deeply concerned about agriculture as evidenced by the growing interest in eating locally and organically; I almost mentioned my long fondness for Wendell Berry. The rancher was very dismissive of what I said. Later, I was talking to my Conference Minister and asked him about it. His answer, "For a family to have survived farming in Nebraska, they have bought up the land of their neighbors and they now run such big industrial farms that the ideas of organic farming challenge how they've been living for a couple of generations." It was a good learning moment for me.

Genoways book is a story of one year in the life of one Nebraska farm family, a liberal family at that, but ones who still farm with contemporary industrial practices. The book helps you to understand why and the history of getting there. I deeply appreciated it for conveying how difficult and complex farming is today and the breadth of skills and knowledge required to be successful--from mechanical and IT know-how to grasping global trade, chemistry, bio-engineering, energy policies, climate science, and more. SO different from the life my grandparents led and their farm I have such nostalgia for. The book left me dizzy and wondering why anyone does it anymore.

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Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures

Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian ScripturesTime and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures by Ephraim Radner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am interested in approaches to scriptural interpretation that resist the hegemony of historical-critical method, so I was interested in this defense of figural reading. Except even I, who did a PhD in metaphysics, did not anticipate the overly dense metaphysical sections. Plus, there was much in these sections I did not concur with. I ultimately skimmed through huge portions of the book, and appreciated much more the final chapters with more practical application for the preacher.

Radner argues that the task of preaching is to lead the listeners into the text rather than establishing THE meaning. He writes, "Our figural goal is to lead and go with our people into a realm of meanings and trace out its parameters and interiors. It should be a realm in which, of course, we do not leave our listeners as disoriented wanderers, but as creatures taken by the scriptural forms themselves, so as to lead them further, or into a clearing, or back out again, in some posture of transformed wonder." I particularly like that "transformed wonder" idea.

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Descartes: A Biography

Descartes: A BiographyDescartes: A Biography by Desmond M. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very thorough biography that did help me better understand Descartes, which will hopefully bear fruit in my teaching. The downside of this book is that it spends a great deal of time in minute details of Descartes' movements and correspondence where a less detailed but more thematic (and shorter) overview would have been sufficient for my needs. But some thorough bio like this does need to exist.

The most surprising discovery for me was the speculation on Descartes' sexual orientation. The gay community can grasp onto the slightest rumors to consider whether some prominent historical person was gay or bi, but I had never heard Descartes mentioned. But Clarke's speculation, always very sober, was persuasively of at least the possibility.

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