Showing posts with label Christians and social justice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christians and social justice. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The First Paul – a review

 


Authors: Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

Reviewed by Geoffrey W. Sutton

Reference

Borg, M.J. & Crossan, J.D. (2009). The first Paul: Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the church’s conservative icon. HarperCollins e-books.

 

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan introduce us to the apostle Paul by providing historical contexts for his life and teachings. Early on they explain why only a small collection of documents were actually written by the apostle who wrote the first “books” in the New Testament.

Scholars affirm seven letters (aka books) were actually written by Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon.

Scholars believe the pastoral epistles were written later by other authors. These are 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Finally, scholars disagree about the authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians; however, according to Borg and Crossan, most believe these were not written by Paul.

The different teachings in the three groups of letters named above challenge readers because they offer different views on such matters as the equality of women and men as well as slavery.

In their brief biography of Paul, the authors remind us that like Jesus, Paul was a lifelong Jew. And we learn about the Roman Imperial religion that offers an important context for Paul’s writing about Jesus as Lord (instead of Caesar) and the special terms used to refer to Caesar and to Jesus. Terms like God, Son of God, and the one who brings peace to the world are applied to Roman Emperors and to Jesus.

The biography also reveals some differences between the Paul presented by the writer of Acts and by Paul in his own letters. Readers of the New Testament know Paul called himself an apostle. Borg and Crossan explore the meaning of apostle by considering who sent Paul and to whom Paul was sent.

Chapter two is particularly useful as it helps readers learn how to read one of Paul’s letters. The focus is on the short letter of Philemon and the topic is Paul’s view of slavery. After reviewing the text, the authors show how Paul’s view in Philemon differs from the views presented by the letters Paul did not write. Next, the authors provide a similar analysis on the subject of the head of the household and equality for women and men.

In chapter three, the authors look at the contents of Acts and Paul’s letters to discover areas of agreement or disagreement. In chapter four, we see how Paul contrasts Roman and early Christian theology. The focus is especially on Rome’s pursuit of peace through violence and Christ’s approach to peace through the nonviolent pursuit of justice.

Why was Christ crucified? That’s the message of chapter five. The authors see the crucifixion, a Roman method of execution, as part of Paul’s anti-imperial stance. Thus, Paul doesn’t just preach Jesus died but emphasizes Christ crucified. The authors also take on the theology of substitutionary atonement and the understanding of Jesus sacrificial death. They suggest understanding Jesus’ sacrifice as being for the sake of those he loved like a parent who might sacrifice their life so their child might live. In this view, “The death of Jesus as God’s Son is a parable of God’s love for us (p, 54).”

Chapter six deals with justification by grace through faith. The authors emphasize Paul’s focus on transformation in this life rather than a focus on the afterlife. And they do not pit faith against works. Instead, they contrast faith-without-works to works-without-faith. And they clarify that faith refers to commitment rather than an affirmation of belief statements as seems common in some branches of Christianity.

The final chapter is about Life Together “In Christ.” The authors note that the phrase “In Christ” appears more than a hundred times and it usually refers to living in community.

Reflections

I recommend The First Paul to readers interested in a scholarly examination of traditional teachings attributed to the apostle Paul. How Christians interpret Paul’s theology has had a significant impact on the lives of billions.

First, there are practical matters that have made a difference in how the church has historically viewed slavery, women, and people who experience same-sex attraction. Those Christian views largely come from the teachings of Paul or texts attributed to Paul. 

Second, there are theological matters. Many in the church have focused on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a different way than do these authors who challenge the doctrine of atonement.

Borg and Crossan do not hesitate to consider areas of disagreement in the relevant texts. This lack of hesitation is a contrast to the resistance found in evangelical circles where clergy often take a fundamentalist approach to the texts as if the letters were dictated by God rather than produced by first century Jewish men like Paul.

One matter the authors did not address is that even letters written by Paul may have a personal bias and be subject to the limitations of human memory. Given other works by these authors, I do not think they would overlook these cognitive factors but they did not explicitly identify them when dealing with historical events such as those in Acts.

I think some evangelical women have missed out on a sound biblical argument favoring the equality of women and men when they do not distinguish between the letters written by Paul and those he probably did not write. There's a difference in Paul's affirmation of equality in those were he wrote compared to those that sound more like a taming of Paul to fit the male hierarchy in the culture.

The First Paul available on AMAZON












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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Ethics in the Age of the Spirit- A book review




ETHICS IN THE AGE OF THE SPIRIT: 
RACE, WOMEN, WAR, 
AND THE ASSEMBLIES OF GOD
     by Howard N. Kenyon. 
     Reviewed by 
        Geoffrey W. Sutton 

            

The topics of race, women, and war, in Kenyon’s subtitle, are certainly timely issues. In 2016, the son of a Black father and White mother neared the end of his two terms as the 44th U.S. president while a woman campaigned to replace him. Meanwhile, the U.S. was at war, as it has been for 222 years since 1776 (Charpentier, 2017). Drawing on archival data, Howard N. Kenyon examines Pentecostals’ ethical response to racism, sexism, and war in the context of their fundamentalist roots and the historic cultural changes that have occurred in the past one hundred years.

Howard N. Kenyon is a fourth-generation Pentecostal. He earned his Ph.D. in Ethics from Baylor University in 1988. Ethics in the Age of the Spirit is an updated version of his dissertation. He is currently Vice President of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. And he continues to express his concerns in presentations, essays, and blogs.


Kenyon’s inquiry begins with five context-setting chapters explaining the holiness roots and early revivals which led to the 1914 formation of the Pentecostal fellowship known as the Assemblies of God (AG). Although the roots of American Pentecostalism may be traced to the 1800s, most historians associate the beginning of the new religious movement with the exuberant prayer meetings of the early 1900s marked by reports of divine healing and glossolalia. In this review, I focus on Kenyon’s three ethical topics, consider how his data fit with moral foundations theory, and suggest psychosocial factors that behavioral science readers might find relevant.


RACE

Kenyon refers to the AG race relations policy as a reactionary ethic (chapters 6-11). Rather than offering ethical leadership, the AG was guided by the values of their dominant white evangelical kin. At the time of the spiritual revival in the early 1900s, Blacks and Whites worshipped together, but by the time of the organization of the AG in 1914, they were mostly white (see photo), and a contemporary denomination was mostly black (COGIC: Church of God in Christ). An example of early black-white thinking can be seen in a pithy 1933 photo caption: “Black faces–white hearts (p. 71)” One example of a reactionary ethic is the marked shift in credentialing of a black pastor, Robert Harrison (1928-2012). Initially, he was denied credentials upon graduating from an AG bible school; however, he received them in 1962 following his rise to international prominence within the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. It is noteworthy that the AG and COGIC met in powerful reconciliation meetings in the 1990s known as the Memphis Miracle (Underwood  AGCOGIC )

WOMEN

Like the story of African Americans, women were also active participants in the seminal Pentecostal revival meetings (chapters 12-16). Several women were prominent evangelists within Pentecostal enclaves, and a few (e.g., Florence Crawford, Aimee Semple McPherson) achieved wider recognition. Unlike blacks, and unlike women in many other denominations, Pentecostal women were credentialed and served as evangelists and missionaries. However, numerous discussions led to various rules limiting acceptable pastoral duties. In discussing an early debate over women serving as elders, Kenyon noted, “the issue of distinction was clearly one of authority (153).” Kenyon refers to the ethical stance toward women as a dogmatic ethic. By this, he means that scripture, or more properly an interpretation of scripture, held sway. Today, women are visible leaders in the AG. See the AG position paper on the role of women in ministry for their current position (2010).

WAR

Finally, Kenyon examines the significant reversal of Pentecostals’ stance on participation in war (chapters 17-21). In the early years, the position of the American AG was decidedly pacifist. Some cited Jesus’ ethic of loving one’s neighbors and enemies. And some referred to the sixth commandment forbidding killing. Others argued that the proper focus of ministry is on reaching the lost with the gospel—there was a sense of urgency because they viewed the outpouring of God’s Spirit on believers and the horrific World War I as signs of Jesus imminent return. The pacifist position changed when America entered the war. The Espionage and Sedition Act of 1917 significantly dampened public pronouncements against war and encouraged the new movement to assure the government that they were loyal citizens and not a group of rebels. World War II delivered the knockout blow (my opinion) to any pacifist inclinations as the AG demonstrated pride in their young servicemen and gave considerable effort to support their spiritual needs. See the AG position paper on peacemaking (2015).


*****


Reading Ethics as a psychologist, I thought it was much like a case study illustrating the three binding dimensions (purity, authority, loyalty) of moral foundations theory explained by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind (2012), which is supported by recent research among Pentecostals and evangelicals (Sutton, Kelly, & Huver, 2019). Segregation, the aforementioned purity quote, prohibitions against interracial marriages, and antimiscegenation laws (overturned by SCOTUS in 1967) exemplify both racial (e.g., see Nacoste, 2018) and sexual purity concerns (e.g., see Sutton, 2016)


The language of the struggle for women’s right to be fully engaged in pastoral work was aptly presented as a struggle over authority and reveals the tension between women’s recognized gifts of preaching versus the authority issues attributed to select Pauline texts. Finally, Kenyon’s explanation of the loyalty issue faced by AG pacifists, reveals the tension experienced by those who felt torn by loyalty to God versus loyalty to the government.

Readers familiar with behavioral science may also want to consider the power of psychosocial factors influencing the ethical considerations of Christian organizations. For example, it seems quite ironic that despite early ethical wrangling over supporting war, the two wars served as catalysts for the rights of African Americans and women based on their substantial contributions to the war effort at home and on the battlefield. Women got the right to vote and a slow but traceable path approaching equality. 


Under threat of protest organized by A. Philip Randolph, Roosevelt banned racial discrimination related to war production in 1941 (Gates, n.d.). Also, at about the time Rev. Harrison was dealing with discrimination, the U.S. Supreme court ruled against school segregation (1954) and in 1957 president Eisenhower ordered the National Guard to protect nine black students entering a white high school in Arkansas (history.com)—four decades after the AG was formed in the same state. Finally, reminiscent of their study of Appalachian Pentecostals (Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005), the theory of intratextual fundamentalism may also be applied to understand the dynamic at work when AG leaders employed biblical texts to support authority and loyalty concerns related to women and war issues.


*****

Ethics in the Age of the Spirit deserves a place in the libraries of Christian colleges and seminaries. It will surely be a valuable resource in courses on Christian ethics, especially for those in Pentecostal and Evangelical institutions. I think it also highlights the value of archival analysis to examine shifts in patterns of moral foundations.


Personal note and disclosure

I became friends with Howard Kenyon via social media connections and for a brief time, his father was the pastor of the church I attended in my early teen years. I learned about this book from a mutual friend, Marty Mittelstadt, who wrote the foreword. It is possible that I have been favorably biased in writing this review.

I have written an academic review, which has been accepted and I hope will be published in 2020 but that process is slower than posting on a blog. 

I cannot guarantee that the links in this blog will always work. I hope you have enough information to search if the information is still available.


A related book: A House Divided on AMAZON














References


Gates, H.L., Jr. (n.d.). What was black America’s double war? pbs.org. retrieved December 16, 2019 from https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-was-black-americas-double-war/


Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.


Hood, R. W. Jr., Hill, P.C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism. New York: Guilford.


Sutton, G. W. (in press). [Review of the book Ethics in the age of the spirit: Race, women, war, and the Assemblies of God by H. N. Kenyon]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity. Accepted 20 December 2019.  ResearchGate         Academia

Sutton, G. W., Kelly, H. L., & Huver, M. E. (2019). Political Identities, Religious Identity, and the Pattern of Moral Foundations among Conservative Christians. Journal of Psychology and Theology (online first). https://doi.org/10.1177/0091647119878675 Prepublication version at ResearchGate   or Academia


Also relevant: Christian Morality on AMAZON and other sellers worldwide.
















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Monday, July 22, 2019

Reading the Bible Again-Metaphors to Live By - by Marcus Borg



A Review of Marcus Borg’s 


Taking the Bible Seriously but Not literally.

By

Geoffrey W. Sutton


 My earliest memory of a conflict between the Bible and the observable world happened sometime in late childhood when I learned that the moon was not a light as it plainly said in my King James Version of Genesis 1:16. It was downhill from there. Like many of my friends, we learned a near literal interpretation of the Bible from parents with a limited education and churches where teachers shared a blend of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Their application of select biblical laws, commandments, and rules to contemporary life seemed strangely arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive. I should like to think Marcus Borg’s, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, would have saved me considerable puzzlement—and likely some distress. I’ll say more later but first, a summary of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.

*****
Borg establishes the conflict in the preface. Christians are faced with two very different ways of reading the sacred text, that is, The Holy Bible. Many of us learned the “literal-factual” way. Borg offers us a “historical-metaphorical” way. The two different ways of reading the text divide Christians not just in churches but in the public arena of American politics.

 Borg divides his highly readable volume into three parts. In Part One, he provides a foundation for reading the Bible in this new way. We learn a little history of the Bible, which of course was not read by ordinary folks until people learned to read and the text became widely available. A near literalism combined with church doctrines was taught for centuries with a focus on salvation from sin and living a moral life so, in the end, you had heaven to gain. Now Borg introduces readers to the alternative view that our sacred text reveals a variety of ways people understood God and their relationship to God., Borg closes Part One by explaining what he means by the “historical-metaphorical” way of reading the Bible. Readers need to understand the historical context to appreciate how ancient Hebrews expressed their faith, but we would be left with a rather dead text if we ignored the beauty of the metaphors in play from Genesis to Revelation. In Borg’s words: “Metaphor is linguistic art or verbal art” (Location 569).

 In Part Two we learn how the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for Christians) comes alive when we don’t have to worry about the days or sequences of creation, which of 613 laws ought to be kept, or how to make sense of the horrible ways ancient people destroyed each other in the name of God. Here, I cannot do justice to Borg’s text in a typical review because he gives numerous examples of how contemporary readers can learn that the problems of yesteryear continue to trouble us today. Then, as now, ordinary people suffered from economic exploitation by taxes and the possession of land, political oppression by kings and emperors, and religious legitimization—a nation’s leaders dictate what God ordains. Along the way, we gain insights into how to read poetry and the wisdom literature such as is found in the proverbs. We also learn how prophets challenged kings. And we glimpse how people celebrated their relationship with God.

 If you are familiar with the Bible, you won’t be surprised to learn that Part Three is about the New Testament. In three chapters, Borg summarizes how the Gospels, letters of Paul, and The Revelation can also be read in their historical context along with an appreciation of the rich metaphors that can transcend 20 centuries. He reminds us that Jesus, his followers, and all, or almost all, the writers were Jewish men thus, we learn of the importance of understanding the problem of first century Jews under the sandal of the Roman Empire and the necessity of appreciating the influence of Jewish traditions on the stories of Jesus and the metaphors of the writers. Borg is not rigid as he interprets the text. I suppose some might believe if they had enough faith, they could walk on water, but the story as metaphor suggests more than one meaning. We might learn that people with spiritual sight learn to calm their inner fears or cope with the struggles of life. I should say, these interpretations are my own thoughts as a psychologist reading Borg’s discussion of God vs. the traditional theme of angry seas, which in the gospel story were calmed by Jesus.

Paul is a problematic author for many a modern Christian—especially American women who don’t find much support in doctrines of submission, silence, and guidance on what to wear (or not wear). As others have said, we can take the edge off Paul a bit if we realize some of the texts limiting women’s roles were likely not written by Paul. And, Paul wrote most of his letters as a reply to specific questions that arose in the various Christian communities he founded or supported during his travels. We gain a bit more insight into Paul’s theology when we unpack his recurring themes of freedom and transformation developed from his Damascus Road experience. The way of becoming a new person, like the way lived out by Jesus, is a path of dying to an old way and rising to embrace a new way. In his day and now, people like Paul may be transformed following an encounter with Jesus.

Fittingly, the Revelation is at the end of the Bible, at the end of Borg’s book, and for many, a mysterious End Times story. Long ago I learned that wall charts describing the end of life as we know it lacked credibility. I suppose those complex flow charts are in someone’s attic gathering dust. But I digress. Borg offers nonscholars a brief history of the difficulty of life under the Roman Empire of the first century—a time when those under Roman domination were to worship Caesar as god. Borg provides an orderly and masterful summary of Revelation along with guidance to help readers appreciate how the vivid images relate to Hebrew history and life under Roman rule. Borg’s interpretation is in sharp contrast to futuristic interpretations that continue to scare some contemporary Christian youth while comforting the elderly with the confidence that they are on the winning side in the massive end-of-world bloody war over evil.

 In the Epilogue, Borg reiterates his point about the Bible containing different voices and encourages us to see the ancient conflicts between kings and prophets—between elite leaders who use their positions to oppress and exploit ordinary people and the voices of those who speak against injustice. He also encourages readers to think of Christianity as being about more than a list of beliefs and practices. Christianity is about relationships—relating to God and others with passion and compassion.

*****
I suppose Reading the Bible Again is for any Christian who finds that the clergy and teachers in their faith tradition seem disconnected from their life experience in the way they preach, teach, or blog about living in our complex world. For different reasons, many of us discovered that near literal interpretations of the Bible don’t make sense. Each generation of Christian youth since the 1960s has different reasons for challenging simplistic applications or applications that seem cruel and contradictory if we are to believe God is a loving and caring being.

 In the 1960s, those raised in American holiness traditions discovered the arbitrariness of rules against dancing, mixed swimming, long hair on men, tattoos, make-up, movies, jewelry, women wearing pants instead of dresses, and many other quotable prohibitions from some part of God’s Word. Not surprisingly, some left Christianity behind. Others moved on to churches that were more concerned with doing good than trying to live according to rules made for ancient Israelite tribes or for the Jews and gentiles in early Christian communities.

I close this review with a reminder to consider the common metaphor when reading the Bible.

 A metaphor is a figure of speech in which the writer uses a word or phrase to state that a primary object of focus (e.g., person, idea, event, or activity) is something different in order to reveal an important characteristic or feature of the primary object.

Biblical examples: Jesus is a lamb, vine, bread. Peter is a rock.


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            Somewhere along the way to the 21st century, educated youth learned to appreciate the scientific explanations for the origin of amazing landscapes and the diversity of life on the planet. We learned so much about birth and death and we benefit from advances in medicine. Slowly, scientists offered more and more explanations relevant to daily life. And many of those scientists happened to be women. Perhaps making matters worse for those insisting on near literal interpretations of the Bible were advances in the behavioural sciences, which upended thinking about mental health, sexuality, and people who experienced hallucinations and delusions. Christians turned away from clergy to find answers to life problems in the offices of physicians, psychologists, and a host of other professionals who offered evidence-based treatments for infertility, contagious diseases, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and more.

            Moreover, in recent decades, a cacophony of evangelical voices seem at odds with one another over biblical perspectives on the role of women in the church and society, birth control, sex education, the nature of marriage, parenting, abortion, same-sex relationships, and the allocation of church and social resources to help the poor of one’s own nation as well as the world. Of recent concern has been the strident rhetoric used by politically active American Christians to condemn those who do not share their political views.

            I think there may be another value of this book to all those who work with Christians who find themselves distressed because of some application of the Bible to their life. They may feel guilty, angry with God, or conflicted over biblical teaching regarding some past or planned act. On the one hand, such people may find helpful guidance from their local clergy. On the other hand, they may consult a mental health professional hoping to find a different opinion. Caution is in order here because a person’s faith can be a significant part of personal identity. However, clinicians of any faith or no faith will likely find Borg’s work instructive for understanding Christians.

            Reading the Bible Again is for all those who wish there was another way to embrace the sacred text of their childhood without compromising the facts about the natural world, their intelligence, and respect for all people regardless of their natal sex. Borg doesn’t have all the answers, but he does offer an alternative way of respecting the Bible again and, more importantly, reconnecting with the God who has inspired people for thousands of years to champion the causes of the downtrodden, sick, poor, and social outcasts.

*****
            Borg stated there are only two ways to read the texts. And I think he’s right. The near literalist view continues to dominate conservative evangelical churches and the postings of their adherents on social media sites. Those educated evangelicals who try to mix some literalism with some metaphors end up with an unsatisfactory concoction, which can only lead to intelligent young people throwing up their metaphorical hands and walking away.

            The time has come to follow Jesus’ lead. Like his rule about the Sabbath Day, old rules were meant for an ancient society, the Sabbath was made for man. If you try to put new wine into old wine skins, they will burst. Being free in Christ means finding out what it means to love God by loving others in one’s sphere of life. Christians live out Paul’s theme of dying to oneself and rising again when engaged in life-enhancing pursuits for the wellbeing of those around us.

            As Borg’s subtitle reads, Christians can “take the Bible seriously but not literally.”
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Book Reference


Reading the Bible Again is available on Google and Amazon

DOWNLOAD A PDF VERSION OF THIS REVIEW: Academia  

Cite this Review (APA style)

Sutton, G. W. (2019). Reading the Bible Again-Metaphors to live by. Sutton Reviews. Retrieved from https://suttonreviews.suttong.com/2019/07/metaphors-to-live-by-reading-bible-again.html


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Marcus J Borg Bio

Marcus J. Borg (1942-2015) was an American theologian from Fergus Falls, Minnesota whose research focused on the historical Jesus. He was educated at the University of Oxford, Concordia College, Union Theological Seminary, and Mansfield College. He was associated with the Anglican communion and was a professor at Oregon State University until his retirement in 2007.

Author Bio

Geoffrey W. Sutton is a psychologist and Emeritus Professor of Psychology whose research focused on various topics in the psychology of religion. He earned his PhD in psychology from the University of Missouri. See below to find books and other publications.


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