Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ephesus, Chaucer, and Kirk Cameron. Women and Leadership, Part 3

When I watch a slide show of pictures chronicling somebody else’s travels, the photos and stories bleed into each other. Having not visited these places myself, it can be challenging to remember which famous landmark was less impressive in person, and which cafĂ© made the best panini in all of Europe. Some people’s stories and impressions, however, have managed to stake a claim in my mental filing cabinet, an admirable feat considering the decreasing supply and increasing value of that real estate.

As a teenager in the late 1960s, my mother and her family moved to a Canadian Air Forces base in Germany, where my grandfather held a job teaching high school. During their school breaks, the family took every opportunity to travel throughout Europe. A few years ago, my parents took the opportunity to go on a cruise in the Mediterranean, and they visited several ports that my mom had visited as a teenager. Among many interesting cities, Ephesus and Pompeii were particularly fascinating. My parents were able to walk among the excavated ruins of the cities, and, through the interpretation of tour guides, learn what the city likely would have been like in ancient times. While my Dad is more the history buff of the two of them, the visit was particularly interesting to my mother because she remembered details of visiting these cities as a teenager. How remarkable it was for my Mom to see all that had been excavated between her teenage years and her retirement years. Whole sections of the city had been uncovered. Just imagine all the knowledge that has been gained about the ancient world in that time through excavation and study. Imagine what may still lay below the surface of the Earth and the oceans that may someday be uncovered by anthropologists. Some estimate that there are over three million shipwrecks laying below the surface of the world's oceans, over five thousand in the Great Lakes alone.

Terrace House in Ephesus
Photo credit
The Department of Sociology and Anthropology is one of the few disciplines that doesn’t appear on the transcript of my meandering journey through Simon Fraser University, though I always intended to squeeze it in. Dabbling was my specialty in university, probably owing to the fact that I attended a small high school with a limited course selection. I earned a Certificate in Liberal Arts during my degree program completely by accident owing to the fact that I took such a wide array of courses. It was probably the one benefit of not having a clue what I wanted to be when I “grew up”.  Sidenote: I still haven’t totally figured that out yet, and I have this sneaking suspicion that I am supposed to be grown up now. After watching a few seasons of the television series Bones, I realize that it is probably a good thing that I didn’t take anthropology. It turns out that I have a weak gag reflex, and I’m not particularly suited to heavy work. I imagine that uncovering the ruins in Ephesus and Pompeii is hard work. Hard, sweaty, painful work. They probably spend whole days bent over double, carefully uncovering pieces of pottery or mosaic portraits. But, imagine the thrill of discovering something that has been waiting there for hundreds, even thousands of years.

I suppose, however, that there is an archaeologist in all of us. Collectively and individually, we excavate truth. We try to dig truth out from our cultural blinders, uncover the dust from our personal histories and hurts,  and strain to lift it out from our preconceived notions. The truths in Scriptures have been gifted to us from our never-changing God, but it takes time for us to discover them and flesh out the implications of those truths in our lives, in our specific times, and our various cultures. Discovering truth is life-giving, but it is, nevertheless, hard work. And sometimes, we have gotten it wrong. Scripture has been used and misused to justify matters of small and great magnitude: from eschewing moviegoing and dancing, to defending the institution of slavery, and justifying child abuse. Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) writes:

“The more we come to know God and what He is like, the more we’ll understand the Bible and how to apply its principles to everyday life. This is why we need to read our Bibles with humility, asking God for revelation. He is waiting to open his Word to us. There are no new truths, but we can gain new understanding of truths that have always been there in Scripture.”

As we consider the scriptural basis for the full inclusion of women in church and family leadership, let us have the willingness to see things we haven’t seen before. Let us have the humility, myself included, to recognize that we are all discovering, expanding, and standing for our interpretations of scriptures. Like many contentious theological issues, the discussion of women in leadership often devolves into a hurtful, and fruitless debate as to who is defending scripture itself, and who is defending a (supposedly wrong) interpretation of scripture, a battle of who holds a higher view of scripture. Of those who argue in this manner, John Stackhouse writes:

"…they fail to realize they are defending their own interpretations, not the Bible itself. Indeed, so great is their confidence that they can simply read the Bible - a compilation of dozens of ancient books, composed originally in now-dead languages that no one can even confidently pronounce, from a variety of countries, authors, and contexts - that they are surprised and even offended when someone indicates that they merely possess their own interpretation of this complicated literature, not its full and final meaning." (Finally Feminist)

Some of the truths in scripture are more easily grasped than others upon first reading the text, and, sometimes, we need the right tools to uncover those truths. In discussing the issue of women in leadership with others, I’ve talked to people who say, usually with some measure of exasperation, “I just want to know what the Bible says, not what commentaries or scholars think it says.” I wish it was always that easy too. 

When I studied Chaucer and Shakespeare in university, I expected my professors to be learned in that subject matter. I can read Shakespeare myself, and I can read different, reliable translations of Chaucer myself, too. But, if I am paying to take a class, I want the professor to not only have read Shakespeare, but to be immersed in knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. I want my Chaucer professor to not only have read his works, but to understand his culture and to know the Middle English language. We have so much more at stake in our faith than paying for a university course that most of us won’t remember in five years. I have trouble remembering more than half of which courses I took in four years of university, never mind the actual subject matter. In studying the Bible, why wouldn’t I want to at least sift through and consider the insights of those who have spent exponentially more time than I studying the scriptures, some making it their life's work to study the Bible, the languages in which it was written, and the cultures of the various authors?

Geoffrey Chaucer.
I still remember sitting in the final exam for my
Chaucer class and regretting that I hadn't completed all the course reading.
Thankfully, this negligence hasn't altered my life too drastically.
In examining the egalitarian vs. complementarian debate, let us use every tool in and out of the box to understand scripture. I understand people's desire to arrive at an understanding of every truth simply by reading one's preferred version of the Bible, because I wish that was possible too. The more I learn about the Bible, the more I realize I need to know more.

Have you ever tried reading the Biblical book of Revelation without any kind of frame of reference? Up until the last few years, Revelation was a source of confusion and anxiety for me. What a shame to waste years being afraid of something that was actually intended to encourage and uplift its original audience. Even before studying the actual symbolism within the book, just knowing that it was written to fellow believers by the Apostle John when he was imprisoned changes the way we understand the book. It is likely that his letters had to be smuggled out of prison, or pass the scrutiny of jailers representing an empire that was trying to quash Christianity. It makes sense that it would be wise to write in such a way that the intended audience could understand the message, while using enough symbolism that the guy screening the prison mail would pass it off as the confused writings of an old eccentric. A literal interpretation of Revelation might not be the intention of its author. It sure makes for entertaining literature and films though...

What?! How did I not know there is a new Left Behind movie in the works until now?
And where the heck is Kirk Cameron?

Even if one's guide for understanding truth is Sola Scriptura, or "by scripture alone," let us not abandon that which would help us understand scripture. As Pastor Greg Boyd notes in this sermon, if one is to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind," let us not abandon exercising our minds to study contentious issues before coming to an understanding. Indeed, I think we can see it as an act of worship to spend time studying and learning about the Bible in addition to studying the Bible itself.

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