Saturday, September 15, 2012

Women’s Bible Studies and Women’s Ordination: Are They Connected?

    It's no secret that I'm no fan of those sorts of women's Bible studies. You know the ones that I mean, they usually have something to do with chocolate, or clothes, or beauty tips, or shopping, or home decorating, and attempt to use these metaphors to convince us that Jesus died so we could be prettier, or just a better version of ourselves. They seem to bleed a theology of glory, have little use for the crosses in our lives (unless they're talking about motherhood or marriage or a bad hair day, because these are the only real crosses women bear). These Bible studies have basically become a cliché, and I'm a little tired of talking or writing about them, but, yet, here I sit. The truth is they just won't go away, and just when you've finished mocking the last one, a new one pops up on the horizon, condescendingly explaining to us that Jesus loves us and wants to give us a fabulous life! Suddenly I feel less like a Christian, and more like a guest on an episode of What Not to Wear, and hear some all-too-thin, painted, and bejeweled woman say to me "try the empire waist, it's very forgiving to women with actual curves!" Read: a well-dressed woman knows how to hide her flaws effortlessly, and this is what Jesus does for us—hides our flaws. Or something. Anyway, I'm rambling, and taking some cheap shots, I'll admit, but I did have a couple of newish thoughts I wanted to submit for consideration.

    First, I wonder if these sorts of Bible studies, at least in the LCMS, push women closer to accepting women's ordination. Quite simply, it would be very easy for someone struggling with the issue of women's ordination to conclude that these fluffy Bible studies have been published by the Synod's publishing arm because the Synod just doesn't take women seriously, and seems to see them as shallow, mindless divas, incapable of a complete theological thought which cannot be grasped without the aid of a beauty metaphor. Let me be clear, I am not saying this is how the synod views women, that I agree with this explanation, or anything of the sort, but it is a pretty straightforward conclusion to draw, which has the added benefit of killing two birds with one stone: The LCMS doesn't take women seriously, so the LCMS doesn't ordain them. Therefore, if you are a woman who wishes to be taken seriously, then you should either push for women's ordination in the LCMS, or leave for the brighter horizon of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or the United Methodist Church (since one thing you have gleaned from these endless Bible studies is that Lutherans and Methodists are basically the same).

    Secondly, I see these Bible studies as basically immodest. That is, if we can disrespect our bodies and our neighbors with our clothing choices, then how much more can we disrespect ourselves and our neighbors (never mind Jesus) by presenting Christianity as little more than a cosmetic life change? This approach fails to take the Scriptures and the baptismal life seriously, as they leave no place for thoughtful exegesis of God's Word, never mind the sacraments, the theology of the cross, or Lutheran doctrine. Instead, we have the theological equivalent of thong on the beach, because everyone knows that woman is always taken seriously and respected for her ideas.

    The LCMS is at a challenging juncture in regards to the role of women. Many of us are young enough to have been trained to think like feminist activists, and as a result tend to either succumb to this mindset, or eschew all things which bear this mark. This leads to confusion about the role of women in the church, as people respond more readily to the question out of fear of women's ordination than out of respect for women and the church's history; with this backdrop, it would be easy to see these sorts Bible studies as a convenient tool to put women in their place. I really wish we could move past the issue of women's ordination, declare it a dead issue in the LCMS, and move on to other things, but I worry that the prevalence of materials, which are embarrassing to thoughtful Lutheran women everywhere, will only fuel the voices of the feminists who continuously attempt to show us women how we are mistreated, disrespected, and marginalized by a patriarchal hierarchy. This may not be truth, it may only be perception, but perception matters.



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Luther on Original Sin

    When the sophists speak of original sin, they are speaking only of wretched and hideous lust or concupiscence. But original sin really means that human nature has completely fallen; that the intellect has become darkened, so that we no longer know God and His will and no longer perceive the works of God; furthermore, that the will is extraordinarily depraved, so that we do not trust the mercy of God and do not fear God but are unconcerned, disregard the Word and will of God and follow the desire and the impulses of the flesh; likewise, that our conscience is no longer quiet but, when it thinks of God's judgment, despairs and adopts illicit defenses and remedies. These sins have taken such deep root in our being that in this life they cannot be entirely eradicated, and yet the wretched sophists do not mention them even with a word. Thus, as it always is with correlatives, original sin shows what original righteousness is, and vice versa: original sin is the loss of original righteousness, or the deprivation of it, just as blindness is the deprivation of sight.

    This involves much more than the monks think when they restrict original righteousness almost exclusively to chastity. But the soul ought to be given consideration first; thereafter also the body, which has been made so hideous by lust. But in the case of the soul the outstanding fact is this: that the knowledge of God has been lost; that we do not everywhere and always give thanks to Him; that we do not delight in His works and deeds; that we do not trust Him; that when He inflicts deserved punishments we begin to hate God and to blaspheme Him; that when we must deal with our neighbor, we yield to our desires and are robbers, thieves, adulterers, murderers, cruel, inhuman, merciless, etc. The passion of lust is indeed some part of original sin. But greater are the defects of the soul: unbelief, ignorance of God, despair, hate, blasphemy. Of these spiritual disasters Adam, in the state of innocence, had no knowledge.

    --Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Luther's Works volume 1:114.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Screwtape: “One of our great allies at present is the church itself.”

The following is the text of Letter #3, of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, a book which contains little more than a series of letters from a demon (Screwtape) to another demon (Wormwood) about how to treat, handle, and misguide a gentleman in Wormwood's care. One must bear in mind that because the letter is written by a demon, the points of reference are opposite to what a Christian expects, yet Lewis uses this literary device to amplify several interesting insights. This is one of the letters which I think of often.

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy's camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favor.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the
body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of "Christians" in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armor and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real—though of course an unconscious—difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity
wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavor. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His "free" lovers and servants—"sons" is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to "do it on their own". And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they
become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question "If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?" You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won't come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favorable credit-balance in the Enemy's ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these "smug", commonplace neighbors at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

Your affectionate uncle,

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What’s Wrong with Women’s Bible Studies?

For better or for worse, much of contemporary American theology is market-driven. That is to say what is widely published, widely advertised, and widely read is all too often what is sufficiently tantalizing rather than what is sufficiently orthodox. Too many publishers of Bible study materials realize that women are ready consumers, especially when it comes to anything which may serve to support their perception of their spiritual journeys. Too often these materials rely upon stereotypes of women and what they desire from Bible study, play to these stereotypes, and coax women further down the road of crass self-centeredness, and general vapidity, all under the guise of growing closer to God. One would think that Lutheran women, those who walk the lonely way, to borrow Hermann Sasse's phrase, would be immune to the silliness which permeates the field of women's study materials, but this is hardly the case. One need only to look at the recommended reading for the Lutheran Women's Leadership Institute to see how far afield Bible study for Lutheran women has gone.

What's wrong with using materials from non-Lutheran sources? This is a question often posed to me, generally with the caveat that we may glean from these sources the "good" stuff, excising the problematic portions. This view is exactly the problem. It seems clear to me that anyone who would favor most of the people on this list is probably ill-equipped to decipher sound Biblical theology. It's a harsh statement, I know, but it's the truth. That is not to say that one couldn't, hypothetically, study Beth Moore or Rick Warren, with a mind toward spotting the difficulties in their respective theologies, my criticism is really leveled at those who think they are capable of sifting through the trash, when they are still electing to feed people trash. This is akin to turning down a fresh and perfectly cooked steak in favor of a Big Mac and claiming that really they're very similar because they both contain beef (maybe). Once you've claimed the Big Mac is really equivalent to the steak (you just need to remove the extra buns and unidentifiable sauce), you've already demonstrated you don't know what you're talking about, and I know not to approach you for culinary advice.

"But really we're talking about the same Jesus, and yes I know that Baptists don't believe in the sacraments, but that's secondary." Yet another statement I often hear (are we spotting the problem yet?). Okay, ladies, the sacraments aren't some nice little add-on Jesus gave us to make our day a little better, brighter, or happier. They're our lifeblood, quite literally. Can someone be saved without the sacraments? Yeah, I suppose, but why are you even asking the question? That is like discussing whether or not you could, hypothetically, hike Everest in a cute pair of Cole Haan sling-backs. You could, I guess, but you'll probably lose a couple toes to frostbite. Our pastors don't harp on the sacraments in their preaching and teaching, and actually pour them into our mouths and on to our heads because they couldn't think of anything more creative to do this Sunday. They do it because it's what Jesus gave them to do! They are tasked with pouring Jesus into our ears and into our mouths, so we may have certainty in His work applied to each of us individually. You really want to hear about how you can be a better person rather than being given Christ, in His body and blood, for you and the forgiveness of your sins? Believe it or not self-esteem is not a more pressing need than salvation. And, believe it or not, the two really aren't connected. How you feel about yourself has little to do with whether or not Jesus died for you. Sacramental theology is not just about these two (three?) rituals in which the church engages on a fairly regular basis, they are about the promises of God given to us, the promise of Christ Himself for us. Rather than trying to feel Christ in your heart (the bedrock of all asacramental theology) how about you receive Him in your mouth—given and shed for you. Really to reject Christ in the sacrament is to be of a different spirit, as the God who is not flesh for us is of no avail to us.

Next, "but women don't want to study heavy theology, they want something lighter and happier." Sigh. Again and again I find this actually isn't the case. Women think this is what they want because it's what they've been told, but I also know a lot of women who won't attend a women's Bible study because they're tired of talking about Jesus' gift of a good manicure, or why God is like chocolate (yes, two studies I actually sat in on). Believe it or not ladies, you are intelligent, you do have a brain, and you can apply your brain to the study of God's Word. It won't hurt, promise. Next, if you don't want to study heavy theology, and theology isn't really interesting to you, then perhaps you should, I don't know, step out of the way and let your PASTOR lead the study, after all, it seems he has received the call to do so.

Why do women's Bible study materials exist in the first place? Honestly, I haven't a clue. I really think it's just market-driven theology which I referenced in the first paragraph. Women will buy things because they are especially for women, are marketed for them, and so create a profit for publishing houses. I think the claim that we need general studies for women (as opposed to studies for issues which are specific to women) is entirely bogus. The difference between a Bible study for men and one for women is that if the leader really likes you she might bring chocolate. Yeah, there I go with the stereotype that all women like chocolate, but my point is that the material isn't different simply because it's for a different gender. There isn't a feminine view of the message of Scripture which is distinct from the masculine view. I'm sorry ladies, but Jesus didn't give you some special message which can only be decoded if you have a uterus. The truth is all Scripture is about Christ and His work for us. There isn't a women's gospel and a men's gospel. Does this mean that it's inappropriate to have a time of Bible study where only the women gather together? No. Women do tend to be more open, more honest, and fellowship a little easier when it is only women. Just as men like to have "man time" (read: hunting trips) women like to have time where it's just us girls. This is fine, but PASTORS, for the love of the women in your church, pay attention to what they're studying. If you are not going to lead the study, then ensure that the woman who is knows her stuff, and always be aware of what they are studying.

This problem is not just a women's problem. It's not simply that I'm whining because I don't fit in at any women's Bible study because I will ALWAYS choose Chemnitz over Warren, but rather is expressed as concern for the church as a whole. My concern is for the women who absorb this stuff, and as a result have no grasp of the faith which has been once and for all delivered to the saints, and who then catechize their children with Evangelical assumptions in mind. The truth is that we can talk about male headship until we're blue in the face, but the fact is that a lot of fathers are absent, either from the household, or from church, or both, and women have stepped into their roles taking defacto headship. Now we have children, both boys and girls, raised to believe that feelings trump truth every day of the week. Lord, have mercy.