July 30, 2015

Miguel Ruiz: New light on the oldest profession

Judah and Tamar, Gassel

Judah and Tamar, Gassel

Note from CM: After thinking about the way many Christians today devise their moral theology, our friend Miguel offers a “modest proposal” about reconsidering “the oldest profession.”

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The history of Christianity is a twisted tale of conflict over sexuality and the suppression of those who dissent the party line on bedroom ethics.  These days, it is commonly argued that there is only one correct approach, from sound exegesis of Scripture, to human sexuality and appropriate boundaries.  However, we still must concede that what is commonly accepted as “right” today is not exactly how we have always taught.  Throughout the centuries, various sexual practices have gone in and out of favor with the church catholic at various times and in various cultures, as external influences have doubtlessly impacted how the relevant Scripture passages were read and understood.  We’ve run the gamut from repressing to libertine, and everything in between.  It is nothing short of confounding how difficult it is to get the Bible to speak directly and consistently on these matters.  If we truly value and respect the Word of God, we would be wise to continue listening and respectfully consider alternate interpretations, especially those coming from fellow believers as a matter of conscience.  We’ve all made mistakes in Biblical interpretation before, probably not for the last time.  So I challenge you to listen with an open mind as I explain how we’ve been largely wrong about a particular issue for a number of years:  Prostitution.

Prostitution gets a bad rap in our culture today, and as a result, women in this profession are grossly mistreated.  When we think of sex workers, the stereotype that comes to mind is a scantily clad woman, working a corner, wearing too much makeup.  She renders her plunder to a psychologically manipulative and physically abusive pimp who doesn’t take very good care of her.  It has truly become a dangerous profession in our day, largely because a judgmental spirit against it fosters a suppression of its legitimacy, resulting in occupational trauma.  Unfortunately, this is often done in the name of Christianity.  It doesn’t have to be so.  The exegetical scholarship on this issue is no longer as conclusive as we once thought.  Let’s take a look at what the Bible really has to say about prostitution, from the beginning.

The first recorded prostitute is Tamar.  She slept with Judah after his three sons died without knocking her up.  Oddly enough, Judah did not realize it was his three-time daughter in law.  When it was discovered that she was pregnant and she gave proof that it was at his doing, his response was (and I quote the ESV), “She is more righteous than I.”

Consider the significance of this.  Judah is not just one of the patriarchs of Israel.  Neither is he the firstborn, from whom the Messiah was expected to come.  Rather, the first three sons were passed up in favor of Judah!  The very father of the tribe of Jesus, an essential link in the genealogy of salvation, has declared a prostitute to be more righteous than him!  What does that say about how he viewed them?  It reminds me of something Jesus used to say;  “The tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”  From the popular Christian sexual ethic of today, you would expect a much more sever evisceration of this demographic, but these words seem rather flattering.

Further down the history of salvation we see Rahab, who assisted the spies in Jericho at the beginning of the Israeli conquest.  The spies had no qualms heading to her place to hide, which may even have been construed as a “business transaction.”  They showed her respect and promised her both safety and a secured place among the people of God.  Did I mention she also became a part of the lineage which led to Christ?  The holy family is not too good for hookers.  (See Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25 for more praise of her.)

Jesus openly elevated the status of prostitutes.  He called many of them as followers, and nary a word is recorded of his chastisement of their livelihood.  Instead, we see “Wherever the Gospel is preached, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”  Jesus went out of his way to honor and uplift these downtrodden members of society.  And all we have for them judgement and condemnation?

Tamar, beautiful daughter of Judah, Chagall

Tamar, beautiful daughter of Judah, Chagall

“Oh, but isn’t prostitution adultery?”  Not according to Webster’s dictionary, which defines it as, “sex between a married person and someone who is not that person’s spouse.”  So prostitution can be adultery, but only if the John is married.

Sure, the Levitical code condemned prostitution, along with the eating of shrimp and the wearing of clothing with mixed fabric.  Unless you hold to those other restrictions, there is no reason to assert some of them as mandatory for today.  What would be the basis for that such a selective reading?  Prejudice.

What about New Testament condemnations of fornication?  The word commonly translated as “fornication” (pornea), actually refers to sexual immorality generally, not fornication specifically.  Many modern translations have reversed this err, effectively removing the word  from the New Testament!  You could, potentially, make the case that fornication is defrauding, in the sense that it is often achieved dishonestly:  promising commitment, feigning infatuation, blindly following temporary feelings of romance.  With a professional, however, the exchange is consensual and contractual.  Everything is mutually agreed upon, transparent, and up front.  Would that all our relations proceeded thusly!  If society were freed from this stigmatization, far fewer would resort to deception to meet this need.

1 Corinthians 6:9 is the ultimate “clobber verse” that is whipped out to shame professional sex workers and prove that God hates them:  “…prostitutes shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  And yet, several of them clearly have:  Rahab, Mary Magdalene, etc.…  Perhaps this verse doesn’t mean what is might seem.  Could it refer to temple prostitutes in the fertility cults of the time, whose pagan worship was mutually exclusive with the worship of the one true God?  It fits the textual evidence so much better than writing off an entire discriminated demographic whose line of work has left them in oppression for millennia.  It also fits with examples from the Old Testament:  When righteous kings of Israel led a revival and return to faithfulness, they always drove out the shrine prostitutes.

Verse 15 mentions prostitution in a seemingly derogatory light, but the passage is about sexual immorality generally.  It lists no specifics besides prostitution.  Surely adultery, rape, etc… are also forms of sexual immorality.  So the intent of the passage clearly isn’t to spell out a definitive list of what is or is not sexually immoral.  Rather, sexual immorality is, analogously, a prostitution of ourselves to the God of pleasure, rather than the one true God.  From this passage alone, prostitution itself may or may not be considered “sexual immorality.”

It is time for Christianity to move beyond this mistreatment of hard working young women, if we want anybody to take our faith seriously in contemporary society.  Let us consider, as an example of the Gospel’s transformational effect on society, the arrangement in parts of Nevada, where prostitution is legalized and regulated.  The girls receive medical benefits, vacation time, and can freely advertise their services with business cards and websites.  What does this do for the industry?  For one, their services are much more fairly compensated.  We should not take lightly the benefit that their labors provide society.  Those running back-alley operations to hide from the law are far more likely to get dirt for pay.  This results in a higher client load in order to make ends meet, which takes a much more severe toll on their health.  And when society is done with them, we toss them aside like yesterday’s garbage, while the rest of us enjoy our retirement plan.  Is this justice?  Does this model the compassion Christ taught?  We’re so busy patting ourselves on the back for having obtained more “respectable” vocations that we don’t even notice how our systems have trampled them.  Surely these “least of these” would receive a much stronger hand up from Christ Himself; they did when He was walking the earth.  Why not work to transition as many of them as possible from victims of thuggery and abuse to respectable entrepreneurs who run their own escort service?  After all, a women’s body ought to be her own business, not somebody else’s.

Enough with occupational discrimination.  In the past, the church has also shunned bartenders, casino operators, lingerie manufacturers, and goat herders.  These are honorable professions that are widely accepted and valued by Christians today.  The church has changed its mind on other issues, such as polygamy, once permitted and later overturned.  It is time to overturn this ancient prejudice as well.  Sure, prostitutes are sinners, like everybody else, and need forgiveness from Jesus.  But according to the Scriptures, their job isn’t the problem.  The story of God and the Christian prostitute isn’t done being written yet.

Who knows?  Maybe Jesus and Paul really meant to condemn prostitution, but didn’t choose their words carefully enough.  It’s always possible that they were simply wrong on this issue.

Another Look: That for which every heart yearns

corn-field

This is the time of year a Midwestern boy like me looks forward to with all his heart.

It is, without a doubt, the very best time of year.

For this is the season when the three most wonderful words in the English language fill the air.

Three simple, sublime words.

They are everywhere. These three magnificent words come to mind whenever you drive down the road, almost any road around here. When you are out and about, when you go to the store, when you come home and walk in the back door, you think about these words and they make you smile.

They are the most splendid, the most appealing, the most astounding words ever spoken.

They represent what I believe may be the greatest gift in all of God’s creation.

These words bring the promise of satisfaction, delight, and wonder. They capture our hopes and dreams, the yearning we all have deep within us.

As far as I am concerned, there is no greater three-word phrase in all the world.  [Continue reading…]

Ryan McLaughlin: A Luminous Darkness

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A Luminous Darkness
By Ryan McLaughlin

At long last, I had found my way out of the wilderness!

Or so I thought, at least. My wife and I became Roman Catholic on a beautiful spring evening in the heart of Boston. As Holy Saturday became Easter Sunday, the bells rang out and the lights came on in the century-old parish and I, too, felt like I was leaving a spiritual grave. We’d found a new beginning! Our little apartment smelled like the chrism oil we’d been doused with for days afterwards, and my sense of rapture lasted for many weeks more.

I had been wandering in the “post-evangelical wilderness” for several years at that point. I had been burned to my core by my experiences in Sovereign Grace Ministries (as many readers will know, a “non-denominational denomination” with Calvinist leanings that’s been plagued by scandals for years now), and had been searching for a new home. At some point along the way, I’d become fascinated by Church history, and began reading the Fathers. A little while later, I became enamored by modern Catholic luminaries such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). After that, I fell under the spell of the Catholic pens of the likes of G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor.

Under a deluge of Roman books, I began to feel like Catholicism had the answer to all of the questions I’d left Evangelicalism with a few years earlier. Eventually, we signed up for RCIA classes, and that bright night in Boston came just 4 months later.

We were excited to begin life as practicing Catholics. What we weren’t ready for was the agony and frustration of it all.

We weren’t ready for the huge disparity between what we read and what we were about to experience. Being a practicing Roman Catholic in the United States has nothing to do with reading a good Ratzinger or Chesterton book. For us, American Catholicism was a wilderness that made the post-evangelical one pale in comparison.

To begin with the smaller things: nobody prepared us for the fact that the beautiful liturgy that inspired Catholics of old is almost entirely gone, and has largely been replaced by a silly caricature of contemporary Evangelical worship. Or that modern Catholic priests often just don’t take preaching seriously, and many a homily is just ten minutes of your time that’s wasted. Or that becoming a member of a Catholic parish means that you will be constantly hounded for money—I mean, they pass the collection plate TWICE almost every Sunday of the year. And that’s just the parish, wait until the diocese comes after you for the annual “pastoral appeal.”

Nobody warned us that Catholics don’t talk to each other on Sundays, and that making friends and finding fellowship was going to be brutally difficult, and that you can attend a parish for over a year and still feel like a complete stranger there. We didn’t get a heads up that when we did finally manage to make Catholic friends, the liberal ones were going to think it odd that we went to Eucharistic Adoration, and the conservative ones were going to raise their eyebrows at the fact that we vaccinate our children or that we’re not planning on homeschooling them.

We weren’t ready for the new bishop we’d have after we moved to Florida, who is widely known to have sexually harassed a male employee of the diocese and yet still serves in office. We weren’t ready for the priest at a prominent local parish that was arrested for masturbating in public, but who is still in ministry. We’d figured all of that had been taken care of a decade earlier after the clergy sex abuse scandal had broken. Wasn’t there zero tolerance for that sort of thing now?

Doctrine felt like a bait-and-switch: somehow, in all of the deep and inspiring books I’d read, I missed the fact that the Catholic Church still teaches that missing Mass on just one Sunday without a good reason puts you out of the state of grace, and into immediate danger of hellfire. Not once in our RCIA class did we hear that using contraception isn’t just against the Church’s teachings, but that it can actually send an otherwise faithful Catholic married couple into an eternity in hell if left unconfessed. When we learned all of this after we’d already gone through with becoming Catholic, we did the best we could to be faithful to the Church we’d committed ourselves to. Still, deep in the recesses of my heart, it was hard to square those beliefs with faith in a loving and merciful God… I learned that while the depths of Catholic academic theology are profound and beautiful, the doctrines that affect a Christian’s day-to-day life—the ones I’d failed to read about before becoming Catholic–seem to come from a different universe.

I wasn’t ready to feel angry and confused all the time, or to feel like God was slipping further and further away from me the more I tried to get close to Him. Most of all, I wasn’t ready to think about the Catholic Church in America, and then look at my three young children, and think “how on earth am I supposed to raise my kids to love Jesus in an environment like this? If I stick with this, they’re going to want nothing to do with religion of any kind long before they turn 18.”

If this was leaving the wilderness, man, maybe the wilderness wasn’t that bad.

I don’t want you to get the impression that I’d expected a perfect, sinless church when we became Catholic. But I had made a decision to convert that was entirely intellectual, and not based in reality. The church to which I thought I was converting didn’t seem to exist anywhere in the real world. And the doubts I was having about various points of doctrine were really gnawing at me…

Last year I finally broke down. I just couldn’t see myself staying Catholic anymore. It was painful to admit it to myself, but I’d been wrong. I was embarrassed: I was very vocal and public about becoming Catholic, and was now making a retraction. But I was too far down the rabbit hole of Church history to go back to being an Evangelical. You see, I was still convinced by many of the things I’d learned about the Eucharist, Mary, the Saints… These were firm convictions that I’d formed through years of study. Meanwhile, I’d had some friends that converted to Eastern Orthodoxy…

3572677_origWe visited an Eastern Orthodox parish. Then we visited another one. And we kept going back to that second one… The people there actually talked to each other, and to us, and the priest was really kind. The liturgy was serious and beautiful. At some point, my wife told me that it was the first time in years that she was looking forward to going to church on Sunday mornings.

Meanwhile, I’d gone back to my reading, looking to reevaluate what I’d been so sure of a few years earlier… My doubts began to grow, and I decided to take down the triumphalist little Catholic convert blog I’d been writing. Honestly, I’d gone from being angry all the time to just feeling hollow and spent. I felt broken, humbled, and in need of peace. I found enormous comfort in going to vespers at the Orthodox parish by myself on Saturday nights, lighting a few candles and just letting the words of the prayers and the Scripture readings carry me along.

Eventually, we knew we were supposed to be Orthodox. I wish I could tell you that we had a “seeing the light” kind of moment. But it was more like climbing into what St. Gregory of Nyssa calls a “luminous darkness.” It wasn’t finding the answer to all of our questions, it was more like finally figuring out that God wasn’t in the earthquake or the storm or the raging fire, but in the gentle whisper of the wind. And while I did my fair share of reading great books, and I truly fell in love with Eastern Orthodox theology, that’s not what finally convinced me that I needed to become Orthodox: it was the offer of healing. It was the slow realization that I wasn’t going to able to read my way out of the spiritual wilderness I’d thought I’d left, I was going to need to learn how to really pray and fast. It was looking around at the dear people of St. Andrew’s OCA, and hearing Fr. Patrick preach, and thinking to myself: “yeah, I could see myself raising my kids to love Jesus here.”

We were chrismated into Orthodoxy in February. This time we weren’t received into our new Church during the Easter Vigil. It was, appropriately enough, the last Sunday before Lent. And so we began again, not triumphantly, not feeling like we’d figured everything out, not thinking that the healing process was done… but we began again in peace.

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