Hillary McBride Responds to John Piper on Eating Disorders

There is a place for theology.  Theology gives form and structure to our knowledge and experience of God.  But when theology, or more precisely, a certain brand of theology, sets itself up as the end-all, be-all of our experience of God, such that there is nothing whatsoever that we can say about God with any degree of legitimacy unless it can fit somewhere in the grid of this particular system of thought…that’s a problem.

John Piper has been on my shit list ever since “Farewell Rob Bell” a few years back, and he remains thus to this day.  What I offer you today is a perfect illustration of why.

About a year ago Piper responded to a question from a female reader struggling with an eating disorder and related feelings of bodily shame and self-hatred.  In a staggering display of just-don’t-get-it-ness, Piper suggested that there are instances in which bodily shame and self-hatred are perfectly appropriate–specifically when the body tempts you to sin.  Basically, Piper just blew right by all the human dimensions of the situation at hand–completely ignoring the sight of this woman struggling with an eating disorder and the related feelings of shame and self-hatred and crying out for help to a trusted pastoral figure in her world–and went straight for what could fit nicely and tidily into his theological framework, along with chapter and verse to back it up.

But enough from me.  I am a blogger, and as such it is part and parcel of my unique calling and vocation in life to offer my unsolicited opinion on subjects about which I know nothing.  But even I have my limits.  I defer to Hillary McBride, who has had her own struggles with an eating disorder and now counsels others who are in that place.  In an open letter written in response to this, she goes straight to the human dimensions of the situation which Piper seems so eager to dismiss, and lays out why Piper’s comments are inappropriate and even dangerous.

Michael Spencer on Evangelicals and the Culture War

Today I direct your attention to a post written by Michael Spencer back in 2006 in which he diagnosed the reasons for evangelicals’ attraction to involvement in the culture war.  Contrary to what the rhetoric would have us believe, it is not about a reinvigorated evangelicalism remaking its world because its people care deeply about the things Jesus cared about.  The truth is less flattering:  evangelicalism is empty on the inside and success in the culture war offers us the illusion of life, substance, and vitality.

Read:  The Tactics of Failure by Michael Spencer

This was written back in 2006.  The links below are current and should give you an idea of how bad things have gotten since then:

‘He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term

In God’s country: Evangelicals view Trump as their protector. Will they stand by him in 2020?

Why Some Christians ‘Love the Meanest Parts’ of Trump

Wayne Grudem on Biblical Inspiration

Frequently around these parts I have opined that the standard evangelical view of inspiration/inerrancy is much more at home in Islam or Mormonism than in anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.  Now I am a blogger and as such it is part and parcel of my unique calling to pull things out of thin air and make things up on the fly.  But I am not making this up.  I wish I was, but I am not.  Today I give you none other than American evangelicalism’s Dean of Systematic Theology (and lately turned political hack) himself:  Dr. Wayne Grudem.  Take a listen and judge for yourselves.

This is an expression of the standard evangelical view of biblical inspiration, par excellence.  Grudem’s take can best be described as a “binder theory“:  God gave us an open 3-ring binder.  As the writings which make up our Bible came down the pipe, we received them, accepted them unquestioningly, and dutifully placed them in the waiting binder.  When the last of these writings was received, the binder was closed, snapped shut, sealed, in perpetuity, for ever and ever, world without end, amen.

According to Grudem’s take, God gave Moses the binder up on Mount Sinai.  It contained the Decalogue (the 10 Commandments) and other writings that God directed Moses to produce.  Moses then later added other writings at God’s direction.  Joshua added some, then Samuel, then other Old Testament authors.  When the last of the historical writings (Esther) and the last of the prophetic writings (Haggai/Zechariah/Malachi) were received, the binder was temporarily closed.  Jesus reopened the binder and commissioned the apostles to add to it.  This they did, dutifully producing the Gospels, the Epistles, and other writings.  When the last of these was received, the binder was closed, snapped shut, sealed, in perpetuity, etc.  And such is the Bible we have today.

This theory completely and totally omits the human element in the story of how we got our Bible.  In real life, there was a bewildering variety of gospels, epistles, etc. floating around out there.  Some were recognized as more authoritative than others, and there was a sifting process by which the cream rose to the top.  But this took centuries and it wasn’t until the fourth century AD that a definitive scriptural canon was settled upon.

When Paul wrote letters to the churches to which he wrote, he was not sitting down to write books of the New Testament.  He was writing letters to real people in real churches who were dealing with real issues.  From his perspective, he had no reason whatsoever to believe that any of these would make it out of first century Rome, let alone make it into anything that could be called the New Testament.

As to the Old Testament…well, you can believe what you want to believe about the Mosaic authorship of the first five Old Testament books.  I see no reason to doubt it, but I find it well nigh impossible to believe that Moses’ finished work product was anything even remotely close to what we have in our Bibles today.

But there is a larger issue in play here, and it is this:  We in evangelicalism basically conceive of the Christian faith as something akin to a house of cards.  We hold this view of the Bible as basically having been brought down to us from heaven on golden tablets like the Book of Mormon (it is a very short–and very direct–line from what Grudem advocates to that), and we desperately–desperately–need for that view to be true.  Start tugging just a little too hard on one of the assumptions that hold it up and the whole thing comes crashing down, taking all of Christianity with it, and suddenly Jesus is no longer raised from the dead and we are all still in our sins.

I’m so over that, people.

Think back to the earliest Christians.  Think back to Paul and the apostles, to the believers who made up the early churches in which they ministered.  These people either saw Jesus rise from the dead themselves, or they knew people who had.  They went on to start a movement that would reshape history.  Because that’s what you do when you see your leader violently executed in the most horrific way imaginable, and then have breakfast with him a few days later.

You can rest assured that these people were not thinking about the (potentially) eternally catastrophic consequences of believing something as divinely inspired and part of Scripture that wasn’t supposed to be there, or of missing out on something that was.  They were not worried about some perfect and inerrant book given to us by God as if brought down from heaven on golden tablets by angels and if any part of that isn’t true then Jesus Christ is suddenly not raised from the dead and we are all still in our sins.  They had seen too much and knew too much to be taken in by the issues and concerns of us moderns.  Would that we could take a similar view of things.

Scot McKnight on Reading Romans Backwards

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge for many readers.  Reading the first twelve chapters especially, one gets the feeling that one is prepping for a masters-level systematic theology exam.  No doubt many of you have wondered:  For a beleaguered Christian community in the heart of the Roman empire, in the height of Nero’s persecutions, where in the world did they find the time and energy to sit around studying and debating the latest theories of atonement, salvation history, soteriology, etc.?  If that is you, then Scot McKnight’s new book Reading Romans Backwards may be for you.

Some money quotes:

Reading Romans forwards, beginning at 1:1 and closing the letter at 16:27, is both the best way to read Romans and its biggest problem. Reading Romans forwards often enough leads to fatigue by the time one gets to 9:1, and even more so by the time one arrives at 12:1. The impact of the fatigue is that the specific elements of the faith community in Rome as detailed in chapters 12 through 16 are ignored for how one reads chapters 1 through 8 or chapters 1 through 11. I am not proposing, then, that the right way to read Romans begins with chapter 12, but I do propose that a correction is in order and that fresh light can be thrown on chapters 1 through 11 by first taking a deep look at chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8 (since they work together in a special way).

…For decades I have read and listened to scholars and heard preachers on Romans 1-8, and one would think, after listening or reading, that those meaty chapters were written for a theological lectureship rather than to a local church or set of house churches in Rome in the first century when Nero was emperor and Paul was planning his future mission to Spain. One would think the listeners were theological savants geared up for the latest theory of atonement or soteriology or salvation-history.

…Romans is about theology, but it isn’t mere theology — it isn’t abstract theology. Romans advocates for a via vitae, both for the individual and for the community of faith in Rome.

…I have chosen to read Romans backwards in order to demonstrate that this letter is a pastoral theology…

Benjamin L. Corey on Being a Christian Outsider

Today I direct your attention to a piece by Benjamin L. Corey entitled “A Few Things I’ve Learned As A Christian Outsider“.  Corey blogs at Formerly Fundie.

Corey wrote this for those of us who, like him, and like me to a certain extent, “feel like outsiders– out of place everywhere, at home nowhere…exhausted, and on the margins of faith.”  He gives these lessons which he has learned along the way:

1. I’ve learned to get my identity from Jesus– not the tribe.
2. I’ve learned that the key to happiness is contentment.
3. I’ve learned who my friends are.
4. I’ve learned to forgive– not out of desire, but necessity.
5. I’ve learned that sometimes theology becomes more important than people, and that I don’t want to ever be on the wrong side of this equation again.

Corey concludes thusly:

Sometimes I think that those of us who feel like outsiders focus a little too heavily on the negative, so these are some positive things that I’m learning– things that are helping me feel like I’m slowly finding life again.

What things have you learned from life as a Christian outsider?

 

More on Carroll

Last time we looked at a column by James Carroll at The Atlantic in which he issues a poignant call for a complete overhaul of the Catholic clerical system in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals of the past two decades.  A former priest himself, Carroll is a newspaper columnist whose work was instrumental in exposing the clergy sex abuse scandals in the Northeast back in the early 00’s.

This time we are going to take a closer look at how all this lands in my world.

First, as I have already mentioned, many of the themes from Derek Webb’s “Fingers Crossed” album are present in Carroll’s story.  There is the idea of divorce from God, though in Carroll’s case it is merely a divorce from the overt practice of his Catholic faith.  There is the immense grief over his loss of ability to continue overtly practicing his Catholic faith with integrity.  There is the notion that the true markers of Catholic spirituality are works of mercy–feeding the hungry, caring the poor, visiting the sick, and striving for justice–things which you can take with you wherever you go and over which the official Church establishment has no control.  There is the notion of life on the margins, and possibly finding community and even worship in places that are looked upon with deep distrust and disdain by the established Church.

There is an episode in “The Airing of Grief” podcast in which a caller relates his experience of growing up in evangelicalism and working for several well-known evangelical ministries by “hiding in plain sight”.  In evangelicalism, there is the expectation that you will always be down front, with arms high and heart abandoned, as it were.  But if you’re the bass player in the worship band or the guy running the lights or the sound, you get a pass on that.  You are there–right there in plain sight–yet no one notices you.  You are just part of the furniture.  No one even thinks to check with you to see if you are questioning it all or if you’ve left the building spiritually.

Carroll calls for something similar, a “hiding in plain sight” in the world of Catholicism, but for people to practice this intentionally.  Leaving the Catholic Church would accomplish nothing–it would make it smaller and more rigidly orthodox, as the establishment defines it–which is exactly what the reactionary elements wanted all along.  So what he calls for is for people to remain, but make themselves invisible to the established clerical structures while recongregating outside those structures, carrying the works of mercy noted above that are the true marks of Catholic faith/practice with them.

We in evangelicalism are going through something similar.  Our version is called complementarianism.  We don’t have an ordained clergy, except perhaps in the loosest sense.  But we have a theological framework that is staunchly committed to denying women the opportunity to live out their God-given callings, if those callings in any way involve exercising authority over a man in a church setting.  We have pastors, seminaries, publishing houses, blog networks, and other such nodes of influence that are all built around supporting and maintaining this theological framework.  It is this framework that enabled Donald Trump to rise to the highest office in the land with the enthusiastic support of 81 percent of American evangelicals and the vociferous backing of many of our most prominent leaders, including Wayne Grudem, Jerry Falwell Jr, Robert Jeffress, and many others–despite (or perhaps because of?) his blatant misogyny, xenophobia, and other characteristics which show him to be clearly the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.

But there are cracks in the foundation.  Beth Moore, who has long existed, made her career/ministry, and wielded tremendous influence within the complementarian framework, is now pushing back.  This past Mother’s Day she tweeted the following (several tweets rolled into one):

“I am compelled to my bones by the Holy Spirit-I don’t want to be but I am-to draw attention to the sexism & misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC, cloaked by piety & bearing the stench of hypocrisy. There are countless godly conservative complementarians. So many..

There are countless conservative Complementarians I very much respect & deeply love even though I many not fully understand their interpretations of certain Scriptures as the end of the matter. I love the Scriptures. I love Jesus. I do not ignore 1 Tim or 1 Cor.

What I plead for is to grapple with the entire text from Mt 1 thru Rev 22 on every matter concerning women. To grapple with Paul’s words in 1 Tim/1 Cor 14 as being authoritative, God-breathed!–alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired & make sense of the many women he served alongside.

Above all else, we must search the attitudes & practices of Christ Jesus himself toward women. HE is our Lord. He had women followers! Evangelists! The point of all sanctification & obedience is toward being conformed to HIS image. I do not see 1 glimpse of Christ in this sexism.

I had the eye opening experience of my life in 2016. A fog cleared for me that was the most disturbing, terrifying thing I’d ever seen. All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture….

Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses and misses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.

Here is what you don’t understand. I have loved the SBC & served it with everything I have had since I was 12 years old helping with vacation Bible School. Alongside ANY other denomination, I will serve it to my death if it will have me. And this is how I am serving it now.”

This is huge.  Beth Moore has measured the complementarian gender roles and hierarchies that are so deeply embedded into our evangelical expression of the Christian faith against the image of Jesus Christ, and found them lacking.

I will have more to say on this going forward.  But for now, just stop and let that sink in.

James Carroll: Abolish the Priesthood

Today I direct your attention to a column by James Carroll at The Atlantic, in which he issues a poignant call for a complete overhaul of the Catholic hierarchy.

Carroll is a former priest who served for about a decade during the Vatican II era.  He went on to become a columnist with the Boston Globe, and his work was instrumental in exposing the clergy sexual abuse scandals in that region back in the early 00’s.  Now Carroll is on a spiritual journey very similar to that of Derek Webb, with respect to his Catholic faith.

This piece is a lengthy read, but one that is well worth it.  I shall quote liberally from it today, then come back later with some thoughts on how all this lands in my world.

Carroll begins with a retrospective of the clergy sex abuse scandals, not just here in America but all over the world, including his ancestral home of Ireland.  The scandal and the cover-ups, he says, “will produce an avalanche of scandal for years to come”.  Yet Carroll remained fully committed to his faith through all that, placing a “desperate hope” in Pope Francis and the possibilities for real reform that seemed to arise with his ascension to the papacy.

Then he reached a breaking point.  At this point his journey begins to look and feel a lot like what Derek Webb has related on the “Fingers Crossed” album.

For the first time in my life, and without making a conscious decision, I simply stopped going to Mass. I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of “fast and abstinence”—in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else—Who cares? It’s about time!—but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart.

Carroll then goes on to express appreciation for the virtues of Catholic faith and the selfless love and service of so many who put that faith into action via care for the sick and the poor, especially in developing regions of the world.  Like many Vatican II-era Catholics, he had high hopes for the possibilities of change at that time.  This is what prompted him to join the priesthood.  He joined the Paulists, one of the most progressive religious orders in all of Catholicism.  There he was intensely passionate for Pope John XXIII’s vision, codified in Vatican II, of the church as “the People of God”, with liturgical reforms intended to make the liturgy more accessible to the people and an emphasis on the ordained hierarchy as servants of the people rather than rulers over them.

But Vatican II was limited in how far it could go, and this led to Carroll’s eventual departure from the priesthood.

What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.

In arguing against clericalism Carroll argues from history, that it was with the rise of Constantine that the Church began to shift from the egalitarian structures that existed since the time of Christ and take on the hierarchical form we see nowadays, which was patterned after the Roman Empire:

But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.

At about the same time, Augustine came onto the scene.  His views of human sexuality swept everything away as they rose to prominence, with adverse consequences that persist to this day.

This character was reinforced at about the same time by Augustine’s theology of sex, derived from his reading of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine painted the original act of disobedience as a sexual sin, which led to blaming a woman for the fatal seduction—and thus for all human suffering down through the generations. This amounted to a major revision of the egalitarian assumptions and practices of the early Christian movement. It also put sexuality, and anything related to it, under a cloud, and ultimately under a tight regime. The repression of desire drove normal erotic urges into a social and psychological netherworld.

Celibacy had, up to that time, been an ascetic discipline reserved for only a few as a pathway toward deeper intimacy with God.  But in this Augustinian milieu, with its devaluation of anything having to do with human sexuality, celibacy acquired a cult-like status.  In time it became a mandatory discipline for all priests.  Carroll notes that there were practical and economic considerations in play as well:

In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.

Consequently…

The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order.

Today, Carroll observes, those most fiercely opposed to Pope Francis are those who are most firmly committed to the present clerical order.  This is so tied together with sexuality that any attempt to revise or loosen traditional Catholic teaching/practice in this regard–such as admitting the divorced and/or remarried to communion–draws fierce opposition.  Simply put, the current power structure of the Church is dependent for its continued existence upon a very rigid code concerning sexuality, of which an all-male priesthood and priestly celibacy are two pillars.  This code is enforced by the hierarchy, who historically have had little to no accountability to anyone save themselves.  This creates the perfect setup for the sex abuse scandals and their consequent cover-ups.

Carroll is not saying that all priests are pedophiles or sexual abusers.  Only a small percentage are.  But a much greater number have looked the other way.  Why?  Carroll suggests that many priests have found themselves unable to keep their vows of celibacy.  Their unfaithfulness to this vow causes them to feel compromised and therefore powerless to speak out against the evil of sexual abuse by their fellow priests.  But on a deeper level, priests are called to live up to an impossible standard, of which they fall short:

At a deeper level, Catholic clerics may be reluctant to judge their predatory fellows, because a priest, even if he is a person of full integrity, is always vulnerable to a feeling of having fallen short of an impossible ideal: to be “another Christ.” Where in such a system is there room for being human? I remember retreat masters citing scripture to exhort us priests during our seminary days “to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Moral perfection, we were told, was a vocational mandate. That such hubristic claptrap came from blatantly imperfect men did nothing to lighten the load of the admonition. I know from my own experience how priests are primed to feel secretly unworthy. 
Whatever its cause, a guilt-ridden clerical subculture of moral deficiency has made all priests party to a quiet dissembling about the deep disorder of their own condition. That subculture has licensed, protected, and enabled those malevolent men of the cloth who are prepared to exploit the young.

Simply put, this does not lend itself to a healthy view of self or others, and it eviscerates the very possibility of accountability.  The laity are not off the hook either, in Carroll’s view.  The same theological culture described above has caused an overwhelming majority of Catholic laypeople to ignore official Church teaching on divorce, remarriage, and other matters of human sexuality–acting as if it simply does not exist.  In Carroll’s words, “Catholics in general have perfected the art of looking the other way.”

But Carroll refuses to give up and walk away.  Such an act would ultimately give free rein to Catholicism’s worst impulses while leaving its best impulses unsupported.  It would ultimately give the most reactionary elements exactly what they want–a smaller and more rigidly orthodox Church.  Instead, what he proposes as the way forward is nothing short of a second Protestant Reformation, one marked by taking seriously the Vatican II conception of the Church as “the People of God”:

What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from—and renounce—the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that that power structure is not the Church? The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a predator priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me.

The Reformation, which erupted 500 years ago, boiled down to a conflict over the power of the priest. To translate scripture into the vernacular, as Martin Luther and others did, was to remove the clergy’s monopoly on the sacred heart of the faith. Likewise, to introduce democratic structures into religious governance, elevating the role of the laity, was to overturn the hierarchy according to which every ordained person occupied a place of superiority.

…I propose a kind of internal exile. One imagines the inmates of internal exile as figures in the back of a church, where, in fact, some dissenting priests and many free-spirited nuns can be found as well. Think of us as the Church’s conscientious objectors. We are not deserters.

Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”