hermeneutics

Homosexuality Under the Reign of Christ

J.R. Daniel Kirk, author of Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? responds to the many questions he has received regarding the chapter of the book that addresses homosexuality:

There have been times in the history of the church when God decided that what was unequivocally required earlier was no longer needful. Indeed, Paul depicts as enemies of the gospel those who would require gentiles to comply with the eternal, covenantal sign of circumcision. Repeatedly in the New Testament the presence of the Spirit comes in to demonstrate to the church that the old stipulation has been overturned.

I suggested that we should be aware of the possibility that the Spirit might make such a demonstration today.

Evangelicals tend to be uncomfortable with this kind of thinking because we like to consider ourselves “people of the book”—meaning that the Bible is the ultimate authority for our faith—and we perceive appeals to the Holy Spirit or new revelation to the Church as thinly-veiled attempts to just ignore the Bible and believe whatever we want. But that isn’t actually very biblical.

♀ The State of the Weblog

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This is my last long post of the year. Next Thursday is January 3, 2013, so next time you hear from me (probably talking about Chapter 6 of The Feminine Mystique), we’ll be starting a new year.

I’ve been writing Jesus & Venus for over four months, which doesn’t seem like a very significant marker, but it’s the end of the year, so I feel like doing a wrap-up/state of the union post.

I’m burned out.

I know that sounds like a dumb thing to say after only four months of activity, but I read so much terrible news on a near-daily basis that it really gets me down sometimes. Even worse, such a staggering amount of blind drivel or outright misogyny comes through my RSS reader every day in the form of anti-feminist op-ed pieces, rape culture apologia, and even friendly fire, that I’ve found myself more and more frequently getting so angry that sitting down to process the news for all of you has taken every bit of determination and stamina I can muster. Good news or unadulterated awesomeness shows up far less regularly, and the victories are often small.

Anyway, as whiny as this may sound, here are by far the four greatest contributers to my burnout.

Ease of Burnout

I burn out quickly on nearly anything that isn’t going perfectly, and frequently even on the things that work out well. I’m a generalist; I have a wide array of interests, and this is only one of them. It’s all too easy for me to abandon things that don’t charge my batteries at the moment and move on to another project I’m more excited about. I also get easily bored with ongoing projects once I’ve gotten into a regular rhythm, particularly if they don’t have a foreseeable end date. 10 years post-college, I’ve come to terms with this character flaw, and I think it’s healthy to acknowledge it from time to time.

Abuse of the Bible

Many or most of my Christian friends are not feminists or egalitarians, and I read several Christian websites that are indifferent, or passively or actively hostile, toward the goals of feminism. I try to be open-minded, so I recognize that some parts of the Bible could, fairly legitimately, be interpreted in opposition to egalitarian views. 1 Timothy 2:9–15 comes to mind first, of course, and the dearth of women holding positions of spiritual or political authority—exceptions notwithstanding—could easily trouble me absent my views on progressive revelation.

But people rarely employ the strongest arguments when opposing feminism from a biblical platform, and when they do, they almost never seem interested in an actual dialogue on the subject. Instead, they tend to stick with the same three tactics: Interpreting The Curse as prescriptive for women (but not for men), universalizing and canonizing the mythologized version of the 1950s sold to them through film and television of the day, and selectively applying Old Testament law. When I (or others) disagree with these practices or try to engage them on a hermeneutical level, they nearly always respond by questioning our commitment to the authority of the Bible, conveniently ignoring the many components of the Christian feminist platform actually based on the Christian scriptures. When other theological disputes can be politely handled without these sorts of accusations, I begin to wonder just how scared of sexual equality these people must be to behave so reactively.[1]

Rape. Rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape.

I quite literally cannot read a single day’s worth of news without seeing a horrific account of a rape or a story about miscarriage of justice in a rape case or perpetuation of rape culture through legislation. Women everywhere are having their sexual autonomy taken away from them, and hardly anyone seems to actually care; the most common responses seem to be some form of victim-blaming or decrying human nature, or both. The occasional meting out of justice or positive institutional or political change brings hope for a future culture of consent, but our present reality bears little resemblance to the ideal.

Evangelicals—my people—are among the worst. We struggle to not conflate behavior we consider “sinful” with behavior that mitigates the injustice of rape; the former is and will probably always be up for debate, but the latter is a flying unicorn, and we need to stop believing in those. As much as we may not like it when young people get drunk and rub up against each other, a woman who does this is in no way at fault if she gets raped—the end, full stop.

But Evangelicals—and nearly everyone else—think that we can keep talking this way about women and still effect change. We can’t. We can’t perpetuate modesty culture without contributing to the perpetuation of rape culture. We can’t keep teaching our youth that sex is shameful and dirty without putting girls (and boys) at risk for un-reported sexual abuse. We can’t train women in rape-avoidance techniques without subtly communicating that rape, when it happens, is a little bit their fault.[2]

Believe me when I tell you that I struggle with empathy. I’m a cold-blooded, callous bastard when it come to anyone but my own kith and kin, but this issue still makes me—again, quite literally—scream out loud at my desk on some days.

Ideological Snobbery Among Feminists

This one is probably going to anger people, but I’m putting it in anyway. While many feminists I read and interact with online are lovely people, most are mean-spirited, flippant, or dismissive at best when encountering ideas that conflict with feminist dogma.[3] While I understand that nearly everyone tires of saying the same things over and over, as a relative newcomer I have repeatedly observed that feminists are largely preaching to the choir because the congregation is tired of being harangued.

Now, some websites or individual bloggers have no interest in reaching non-feminists. Some do not even intend to persuade. I think of Sarah Moon, who has made it quite clear that her blog is an emotional outlet, not a news source or platform for debate. I also continue to derive a semi-guilty pleasure from the steady stream of snark flowing out of the Jezebel writers, who fall loosely into the category of “pundit”. On the more journalistic end of the scale, Feministing and The Feminist Majority Foundation Blog, while newsy, seem to be aimed entirely at existing converts.

I’ll cite a specific event as an example: The Good Men Project’s recent series of posts on rape culture, which many (rightly, I believe) categorized as rape apologism. You’ll notice that the link above leads not the Good Men Project website but to an article for The Guardian by Jill Filipovic, and that is because Filipovic was the only feminist writer I heard of who responded to the event with a reasoned, balanced commentary befitting a journalist.

The near-universal reaction from the rest of the femisphere boiled down to: “Screw GMP. No one should ever read them again; they’re terrible people.” An entirely legitimate reaction for writers who just want to blog about personal experience or vent their emotions, this is not at all tenable for anyone who wants to consider themselves a journalist or news source. Ignoring the opposition, even when they write something so wrong that you have to spend half an hour cooling down before you can respond, is not an option for a journalist. If, as they say, most of the feminists I follow really no longer read The Good Men Project, they are abdicating any claim to the title.

And that is fine, but where are the feminist journalists? Where are the serious, well-reasoned op-ed pieces defending our positions? Seriously: where are they? I feel like they must exist; I just haven’t found them yet. Someone point me in the right direction. Drop me a line in the comments, using the contact page, or on Twitter. For now, though, the feminist corner of the internet seems very closed off to dialogue. This alienates people who are open to feminist ideas but put off by our unbending dogmatism.[4] I know, because I have conversations with these people. As a perpetual evangelist, this troubles me.

Why I’m Not Giving Up

Firstly, I don’t want to be a quitter. I’ve quit a lot of things in my life; I don’t want this website to be another one. In any case, it has more inherent value than most other things I’ve attempted.

Secondly, people. As much as I may occasionally (or frequently) disagree with some of them, I’ve met several wonderful people since I started collecting the feminist news. Despite never meeting any of them in person, I feel like some of my new friends could turn into lifelong friends. Their various individual brands of feminism—and Christianity—make me feel happy, and more importantly, they expand my thinking and push me to be a better feminist and a better Christian.

Finally, the goal. The Goal. Slightly expanded from the About page, The Goal of Jesus & Venus is, through a steady stream of news carefully peppered with opinion, to persuade Christians who aren’t quite sure they are feminists or egalitarians that they really are, or should be. No one else that I know about is doing what I’m trying to do, and I feel like I’m doing it well. I could do it even better, and if my readership continues to expand, I think I can achieve that goal.

I’m going to push through this period of burnout. Four months is a very short time, considered with proper perspective. 2013 is going to bring plenty of raw material, and I’ll be here to digest it into a form you can consume in just a few minutes a day. This may sound kind of hollow after all of the above complaining, but I’ll say it anyway: Thanks for reading.





  1. I should clarify that many of my complementarian friends are wonderful people who do not engage in any of these tactics.  ↩

  2. At least, not using the type of language and logic we’ve been employing up until now.  ↩

  3. I use “dogma” here in the non-judgmental sense of “doctrine considered central to the movement”, not in the pejorative sense of “beliefs held irrationally in despite of evidence to the contrary”.  ↩

  4. This time, I am being pejorative.  ↩

It's About the Bible, not Fake ideas of Progress

N.T. Wright rejects the argument from “progress” in favor of female bishops:

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause.

I love that “liberals” is in scare quotes, and lest you think that Wright opposes female bishops:

The other lie to nail is that people who “believe in the Bible” or who “take it literally” will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish.

Exactly right. The scriptures themselves provide the strongest argument in favor of ordaining women, and to base our arguments on cultural norms is to cede the hermeneutical high ground to the patriarchy.

The Danger of Calling Behavior "Biblical"

For the rationale behind the experiment that resulted in Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, look no further than her piece today for CNN’s “Belief Blog” on the inconsistency with which every Christian interprets and applies the Bible:

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

Even the Dogs Eat the Crumbs

Another great post from Kristen of Wordgazer’s Words, this time about Jesus’ interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged him to heal her demon-possessed daughter:

For years I didn’t know what to think of this story. It looked like Jesus was first ignoring, and then insulting, a poor, desperate woman—for no other reason than that she was a Gentile. It looked like she obtained healing for her daughter only after submitting to humiliation by agreeing that she and her people were little more than “dogs.” If Jesus is really the compassionate Savior of all mankind, how could He be so racist and cruel?

After doing her homework, she proceeds to unwrap the story and give us all the gift of falling in love with Jesus and the Bible (again).

"Merely a Stricter Version of the Old Covenant"

Kristen of Wordgazer’s Words delves deep into Old and New Testament history and culture to analyze Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on divorce. Even if you disagree with her conclusions, the information is fascinating.

Via Tell Me Why the World Is Weird.

The Illusion of Clarity

Rachel Held Evans responds to a complementarian critique of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, firstly by clarifying her intention in writing the book:

I wanted to challenge the idea that the Bible contains a single message about something as complex, beautiful, and mysterious as womanhood. I wanted to unpack, piece by piece, what we mean when we talk about “biblical womanhood,” and I wanted to do it in a funny, disarming way that turned the laughter on myself as an imperfect interpreter rather than on the text itself. The goal was to hold up a mirror to our interpretive biases to show just how reductive and misleading the phrase “biblical womanhood” can be.

And secondly, but taking a more aggressive stance toward the supposed complementarian high ground of hermeneutical simplicity:

What frustrates me the most about complementarian conversations regarding “biblical womanhood” is not the fact that I disagree with a complementarian interpretation of the text but the fact that complementarians consistently insist that they are not, in fact, interpreting the text, but simply reading and applying its clear teachings, and that anyone who might disagree with their conclusions must simply hate the Bible and have no interest in faithfully living by it. But this idea of a simple, unbiased, and patently obvious hermeneutic is an illusion. It is appealed to, but never explained; cited, but never explored or unpacked.

♀ Rachel Held Evans v. Scholasticism

Image courtesy of the Biblical Womanhood Launch Team.

Image courtesy of the Biblical Womanhood Launch Team.

During my one year of seminary I had to do a group project on a theological system; my group ended up with Covenant Theology. The project required us to teach an entire class session on Covenant Theology at some point during the semester, so we had to know what we were talking about. When we split up the work, I took the history section, because I like history.

Covenant Theology, for those unfamiliar, explains God’s interactions with humanity by referring to three covenants he has made with his people: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. While too multi-faceted and nuanced to discuss here, the important thing to understand is that Covenant Theology is a framework for interpreting the Bible. One of the expressions of that framework, Calvinism, claims over 75 million adherents worldwide.

Most people boil down Calvinism to its Five Points, known among Calvinists as “the doctrines of grace”. While somewhat reductive, they are not inaccurate and do provide a simple shorthand for the ideology. The Five Points are:

  1. Total Depravity: All people are inherently sinful and unable on their own to choose God.
  2. Unconditional Election: God has, from eternity past, chosen those to whom he planned to give salvation (“the elect”).
  3. Limited Atonement: The atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death applies only to the elect.
  4. Irresistable Grace: God’s calls the elect to himself through the Holy Spirit regardless of their own resistance to his call.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints: The elect cannot thwart God’s calling by falling from grace.

If some of that sounds a little extreme, that’s partly because I left out all the nuance for lack of space. Unfortunately, it’s also because Calvinism is a little extreme, due mostly to the hermeneutic of its era of origin.

Calvinism (and Covenant Theology) developed during the Reformation, beginning as an argument over double predestination, the belief that God has pre-determined the eternal destiny not only of the elect but also of the non-elect. In other words, God has already decided (quite some time ago) whom he is going to save and whom he is going to condemn to hell. This belief derived from parts of the Bible such as Romans 9:14–18:

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

On the other hand, the Bible also contains repeated calls for people to repent and accept God’s offer of salvation:

Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. (Acts 3:19)

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” (Acts 16:31)

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (Revelation 22:17)

If we are so fatally flawed that we are incapable of choosing God, why does God ask us to choose him? And if God has already determined who he will save and damn, why does he urge us to repent and be saved?

John Calvin responded to this dilemma with a theology that his followers eventually distilled into the above Five Points. (Calvin’s actual theological writings are much longer, more thorough, and more nuanced.) That theology ushered in modern Covenant Theology.

At this point you might be asking why all of this overly-analytical academic discussion was even necessary, since the important thing is that God does call people to himself, and they do come. The answer: scholasticism, the then-prevalent approach to interpreting the Bible, which focused on resolving apparent paradoxes in order to construct a watertight system of theology.

The idea that God might say two contradictory things could not be allowed to persist in under scholasticism, which therefore developed the habit of approaching the Bible itself as a systematic theology whose components needed to be analyzed and rationalized in order to attain cohesion. Unfortunately for all of us, this kind of hermeneutic has persisted into the present, eroded slightly along with our general capability for academic rigor of any kind.[1]




I just finished A Year of Biblical Womanhood, a new book by Rachel Held Evans chronicling the 12 months she spent studying the Bible’s statements to and about women, interpreting them all as literally applicable to our time, and attempting to follow them all according to this understanding. Along the way she interviews a sister wife in a polygamist family, attends a Quaker service, corresponds with an Orthodox Israeli Jewish woman, spends the first three days of her period living in a tent, prepares and hosts a Passover meal, calls her husband “Master” and praises him at the entrance to their town, and cultivates a gentle and quiet spirit by refraining from yelling at the TV during football games. I highly recommend the book, which is both instructive and entertaining.

While Evans was primarily searching for a biblical description of what it means to be a woman, this quest involved significant Bible study, and the question of competing hermeneutics is resultingly a strong secondary theme of the book. Not content with simply reading the Bible, Evans consulted every resource she could find to inform her interpretation:

I took my research way too seriously, combing through feminist, conservative, and liberal commentaries, and seeking out Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant perspectives on each issue. I spoke with modern-day women practicing ancient biblical mandates in their own lives—a polygamist, a pastor, a Quiverfull daughter, an Orthodox Jew, an Amish grandmother. I scoured the Bible, cover to cover, isolating and examining every verse I could find about mothers, daughters, widows, wives, concubines, queens, prophetesses, and prostitutes.

This research proved the most fascinating part of the book to me, information-driven Christian that I am. I discovered early in my adulthood that acquiring new facts about the Bible significantly alters my perception of its message and meaning and, correspondingly, the expression of my faith.

For example, early in Biblical Womanhood, Evans learns from an Orthodox Jewish woman named Ahava that the Hebrew expression in Genesis 2 translated in the King James Version as “help meet” is Ezer k’gnedo. Modern Jews translate these words as “the help that opposes”. Evans further discovers that Ezer (the “help” part of the phrase) most frequently occurs in the Old Testament with reference to “God as the helper of Israel”, more than suggesting that the complementarian concept of the woman’s role as subordinate helper to her husband must look outside Genesis 2 for its foundation.

Later, Evans tells the story of Huldah, the prophetess who validated the discovery of the Book of the Law during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. I’ve always been bad at keeping biblical timelines straight in my head, so I had never realized before that Huldah lived concurrently with the prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk—all men. Far from being a last resort, Huldah was approached instead of four other male prophets so important they each authored books of the Bible. Yet I’ve never seen or heard her name mentioned by a pastor, professor, or writer except when reading aloud from 2 Kings 22. Although Evans does not say it explicitly, it’s hard not to feel that conservative Christians have unofficially erased Huldah from the Bible, along with the other nine female prophets it mentions.

While I probably could have figured out Huldah’s chronology with a short perusal of an Old Testament timeline on the internet, learning the background of 1 Timothy 2, in which Paul informs Timothy that he does not let women teach or have authority over men, requires more scholarship than most Christians have time for:

Of particular concern to Paul was a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for dressing promiscuously, sleeping around, gossiping, spreading unorthodox ideas, interrupting church services with questions, mooching off the church’s widow fund, and generally making common floozies of themselves (1 Timothy 5). Scholars believe these women may have been influenced by the popular Roman fertility cults of Artemis that encouraged women to flaunt their sexuality and freedom to a degree that scandalized even the Roman establishment, hardly known for its prudish morals.

Knowing this bit of historical information helps us understand Paul’s instruction that women should remain silent: concern for maintaining the Church’s reputation to outsiders and preventing paganism from contaminating the true Gospel:

“We are thus led to the conclusion that when Paul asks women to be silent… he is not talking about ordinary Christian women; rather, he has a specific group of women in mind,” wrote theologian Scot McKnight. “His concern is with some untrained, morally loose, young widows, who, because they are theologically unformed, are teaching unorthodox ideas.”

Oddly enough, as Evans points out, no one ever preaches on another verse in 1 Timothy 2: verse 8, in which Paul says, “In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.” In addition to ignoring the exhortation to avoid anger and controversy among believers who worship together—probably the real point of this verse—nearly every Christian man disregards the instruction to lift up his hands when praying. Literal interpretation apparently does not extend quite that far.

Nor do you ever hear, at least in most evangelical or mainline churches, a biblical apology for polygamy, requiring women to cover their heads during church services (or possibly all the time), forcing virgins to marry their rapists, or fathers selling their daughters into slavery to escape poverty. As Evans says in her introduction:

Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.

Taking everything in the Bible at face value, as Western conservative Christians—still living in the shadow of scholasticism—claim to do, would result in the kind of bizarre lifestyle that Rachel Held Evans imposed upon herself for a year. No one actually interprets every part of the Bible as literally applicable to our culture and time, though; we tend to find in it the things we expect or want to find, conveniently validating the habits and values we already have.

But even to be totally consistent about interpreting the Bible “literally” would only camouflage the true flaw in our whole hermeneutic: that scholasticism, with its systematic, analytical, paradox-allergic approach to interpretation, has no business anywhere near the Bible. Our scriptures are a big, messy collection of many authors writing to varying audiences in diverse cultures at disparate points in history and in multiple genres. They are not a book of facts or list of rules written down in an orderly fashion by God so we would know exactly what he wanted us to do in every situation at every time. Jesus came (and will eventually return) for the very opposite purpose—to free us from the sort of relationship with God that survives through rigid structures and fear-based commandments. God is not interested in telling us what to do; he is interested in us, and by extension, what kind of people we are.

And fortunately, the Bible is much better at telling us what kind of people to be than it is at telling us what to do, being a story of stories about God and his interactions with us and those who preceded us. By telling us about himself, God is indirectly describing who he wants us to become. Sometimes he does this by sharing poetry; other times he tells us fantastical or shocking tales.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God often described to our spiritual ancestors exactly what he wanted them to do in their specific situations. When we interpret these parts of the Bible, slavish adherence to the exact instructions issued may well lead us in the wrong direction. Instead we ought to recognize that some, possibly many, parts of our scriptures contain more fundamental but less specific truths, and we must identify for ourselves how to best express those truths in our own lives.

I’ll finish with Evans’ quotation of philosopher Peter Rollins:

“By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.”




  1. In thus reducing the history of both scholasticism and Covenant Theology, I have most certainly done something of a disservice, if not to those ideologies, at the very least to history. I encourage anyone curious about Church history to investigate further for themselves. Further, since my scholarship is a little rusty, I invite correction about any facts I may have mixed up.  ↩

Who Owns the Bible?

Libby Anne, everyone’s favorite former-fundamentalist feminist atheist, comes to the defense of Christians who don’t claim to interpret the Bible “literally”:

Evangelicals and fundamentalists claim over and over and over again that all they are doing is taking the Bible “at face value.” According to evangelicals and fundamentalists, they are the ones who are actually following the Bible and liberal Christians are not. Liberal Christians, they say, have rejected the Bible and simply do and believe whatever they think best. Because evangelicals and fundamentalists trumpet this message so loudly, it can be easy to end up taking them at their word.

I disagree with much Libby Anne has to say in her post, particularly her classification of people like me as “liberal” Christians, excluding us from the category of evangelicals, with whom I still identify. She totally nails the mentality of some biblical literalists, though—the false sense of holding the hermeneutical high ground because they rationalize away different parts of the Bible than “liberal” Christians do.