December 26, 2007

"What the Scripture Means to Me"

Speaking of cliches, this is yet another that I hope our prepared women's ministry leaders will choose to confront this year. I've heard this from women in bible studies as well as from seasoned leaders. As they discuss a portion of Scripture, it inevitably comes back to the individual, themselves. They begin the sentence with "what this verse means to me is..." and then they go on to explain how a particular experience helps them to understand the meaning of the verse. At best, they share how the verse speaks to their own circumstances, yet they do this prior to working out the actual meaning associated with the context of the passage. Either way, this approach not only encourages a mishandling of Scripture and a misapplication of the text, it also neglects to honor to the inspired meaning. I do hope we won't throw inspiration out the window.

The problem with "what the Scripture means to me" is that it is, by definition, creating an environment for subjective interpretation. We are in dangerous territory when we encourage this manner of handling the Bible as we are ultimately allowing for many understandings of a given passage. Who can argue with anyone's subjective experience? I'm reminded of yet another overly used cliche, "the Lord led me..." who can argue with that? Appealing to God in this manner, taking the self out of the decision making process, makes it virtually impossible to argue against. We must be so careful with the use of our evangelical vernacular. Interpretation of a passage may sometimes be difficult, but a proper understanding of the meaning is our ultimate goal.

We have been given the responsibility to teach from the Scriptures and to teach others how to understand them on their through their own studies. We need to discourage the type of subjectivity that encourages the reader to be self-centered instead of Christ-centered. Ours is a faith that includes our every facet, let's not neglect the role of the mind.

December 25, 2007

A Personal Relationship with Jesus: Goals for Women's Ministry Leaders

Has the call to have "a personal relationship with Jesus" become more of a cliche that feeds into our individualistic ideals, or does is point clearly to the need to know Jesus as both human and divine and his redemptive work on the cross? Does "a personal relationship with Jesus" bring to mind the core doctrines of the Christian faith, or does it propose a feminized Christianity that appeals to our therapeutic needs as something separate from our intellectual life.

As I have been thinking about the work of women's ministries in the local church in the upcoming year, I hope that this is the year that our womens ministry leaders will not only move away from the cliches and stereotypes, but actually refute them. And so I challenge each of you to consider this, "a personal relationship with God," and be prepared to talk to the women in your ministries about what this really means.

My friend, Keith Plummer, addressed this issue in a blogpost in 2005. I'm thankful for the archiving of blogs as this is one you should take a look at. In it, Keith reflects:
Talk of having a personal relationship with Jesus is so deeply entrenched in evangelical discourse that calling it into question may strike us as sacrosanct. But hopefully we're willing to ask, along with Noll, whether this emphasis is due more to an attempt to be biblically faithful or to the imbibing of American cultural values (e.g., individualism).

In one sense, the idea of needing to come to Christ in order to have a personal relationship with God is misleading. Every person stands in a relationship with God. Coming to Christ changes the nature of that relationship from one of condemned criminals before a just judge to that of pardoned and accepted sinners graciously adopted into a nurturing family. So, the critical question as far as the gospel is concerned, is not so much whether one has a personal relationship with God but rather what kind of relationship one has.

What is the nature of your relationship with Jesus? Is it grounded in an understanding of the Scriptures? Is it purely existential in that it that the relationship is reduced to merely the individual experience? Is the relationship measured qualitatively according to how you feel on a given day? Does your understand ing of who God is include a biblical anthropology?

It's not about whether or not you have a relationship with Jesus, it's about what that relationship looks like. We have the Scriptures to teach us about who God is and how he has acted in history. Because the testimony of Scripture points to a sovereign Lord who cares about even the smallest details of our lives, we can call him our personal savior. He works within human history, having his hand on the course of events without limitation. This is the God who can be trusted and depended upon. Does your relationship with Jesus acknowledge this truth?

Women's ministry leaders: make 2008 the year for reflecting on the sovereignty of God.

December 24, 2007

Is a Blastocyst an Embryo?

This is an interesting question as we ponder the birth of our Savior this Christmas Eve. I wasn't anticipating that this was even a question but as I began checking out some of the usages of the term blastocyst, I found myself intrigued.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a blastocyst is
a preimplantation embryo of about 150 cells produced by cell division following fertilization. The blastocyst is a sphere made up of an outer layer of cells (the trophoblast), a fluid-filled cavity (the blastocoel), and a cluster of cells on the interior (the inner cell mass).

So to rightly understand the use of the term blastocyst, we need to think not about what it is, but when and where it is. To answer the question: yes, a blastocyst is by its very definition an embryo, an embryo that has not yet implanted into the uterine wall, which is the distinction associated with the term 'preimplantation'. But the lack of implantation does not change the genetic makeup of the embryo, it simply is a geographical difference, not a logical or biological difference.

Be careful not to be confused by those who support the pursuit of embryonic stem cell research. I see them deliberately moving between the use of terms like 'blastocyst' and 'embryo'in order to create confusion because if you believe an embryo is a human being, but don't believe a blastocyst is yet an embryo, why would you object to this area of research?

December 16, 2007

Ruby Slippers: An Interview with Jonalyn Grace Fincher

The following is an interview that I did with writer Jonalyn Grace Fincher on her new book Ruby Slippers. Jonalyn is a Christian apologist who, with her husband, has a ministry called Soulation. Both Jonalyn and I look forward to your questions and comments!
Sarah: Jonalyn, thank you so much for talking to us about your book Ruby Slippers. You say in your book that you "will not offer the final words on femininity." I find that your book is helpful to begin thinking about femininity of the soul, perhaps more of an abstract distinction from masculinity. Do you think that's a helpful way to begin to unmask the stereotypical perspectives on femininity in the evangelical community?

Jonalyn: Sarah, this is my favorite topic, women and God’s value for us. Thanks for asking me to join you!

In answer to your question, I think the evangelical community needs to get beyond our stereotypes if we’re going to get at helpful, practical, essential differences between men and women. You know it’s interesting when you go into Christian College libraries. There are mounds of books on femininity, how to be a godly woman, how to be a Biblical woman, how to excel in femininity and on and on. But as you read them (especially the older ones) you can’t help but smirk and find exceptions to the rule. If we’re claiming to know the final answers on femininity we need to make sure our answers are not culturally bound. We need more back-up examples than anecdotes or cultural norms of the day. That’s why I refused to offer final words. Femininity is not something clearly stated and defined in Scripture, for that reason we need to tread carefully, humbly, flexibly as we talk about what makes a woman female. But there are, I believe, some sure words to walk into about our womanhood. My book is about those sure words.

Sarah: No doubt the issue of femininity is front and center for many women. I had never thought about needing to define femininity prior to reading Ruby Slippers, I just knew that I was different from other women and it wasn't because I don't have an appreciation for make-up, lace, or tea parties. In fact, I love those things. Your book admits the problem of defining femininity and provides a philosophical framework to think about it that is called "family resemblance." Can you explain how this is helpful for women to begin thinking about understanding femininity?

Jonalyn: Family Resemblances is a way of defining something that is hard to nail down with a simple list. For instance, it’s easy to define a mammal (all mammals have vertebrae, four-chambered heart, sweat glands, nurse their young, are warm-blooded, etc), but when it comes to femininity or masculinity, it gets much harder. That doesn’t mean, as many have believed, that you cannot define femininity. It does mean we need another tool.

Femininity isn’t the only thing that’s tough to define. Art, religion, beauty and pornography, for example, are also difficult. When we run into trouble in these areas, many philosophers use Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances, which is a more flexible list of items.

It works like this. In my family, the Taylor family, there are certain similarities that make us belong, things like brown eyes, thin build, curly thick hair, olive skin, long-distance muscles, connected ear lobes, last name is “Taylor”, etc. But, in my family, one member, my Aunt, was adopted from Korea. Now, my Aunt only many of these family resemblances, she has Taylor for her last name, thick hair and brown eyes, but she doesn’t have all on the list. But we don’t say she doesn’t belong to the Taylor family. You don’t need all the resemblances to be a bona fide Taylor, you only need a few.

Family resemblances is a way to find the common characteristics in a grouping. The list is flexible because you don’t need all the items to fit and having more items on the list doesn’t make you any more a “Taylor” than having less.

This works well for something like femininity, there are many things that most women share, but only a few (I argue just one, our souls interwoven with a female body) that all women share. So we should focus on this one universal family resemblance, examine, research, talk and make a big deal of it. We should not make other women feel less feminine because they don’t have all family resemblances, just like I should not make my Aunt feel like she’s not a Taylor because she doesn’t have connected ear lobes.

Sarah: Do you think it's possible that femininity is simply a cultural construct and that might explain why femininity is as easy to nail down as jello?

Jonalyn: Though femininity does vary according to culture, I’d say it varies in the flexible manifestations (the family resemblances that are not essential). It’s easy to assume that variety means femininity is culturally formed or to assume there is no core femininity to all women, but I can’t agree. I’m an essentialist when it comes to femininity, I just think the essentials are few. Femininity like all aspects of humanity has been hurt by the Fall. That means, we will need other cultures to help inform our femininity, to glimpse new ways of being female that our own culture has silenced, but variety won’t dispense with the one universal family resemblance we all share.

You could compare the variety in femininity to the variety in application of morality. In some instances it is not good to lie, in others it is good to lie (Corrie Ten Boom in Nazi Germany, for instance), but we know there is a foundational moral code that says it is not good to deceive for the sake of harming your neighbor (as the Ten Commandments say). But just because you apply morality in different ways across cultures and across times, we don’t doubt that there is such a thing as unchanging morality.

In the same way, though we do see various ways femininity is applied in a culture, femininity at core (owning a female body) is an essential part of every woman, no matter how feminine she feels or acts. Femininity is wound into her soul. That’s what Ruby Slippers is about, walking into the freedom and community of womanhood.

Sarah: The Bible speaks of women not really from a perspective of femininity, but more in terms of how their character does or does not align with God's character. I think of the woman of Proverbs 31 in this manner. As well, we see in Mary of Bethany, in a sense, renegotiating womanhood--at Jesus feet. We see the sacrificial, Christ-like nature of Ruth choosing to remain with her mother-in-law instead of returning to Moab. There are countless examples. Do you believe our femininity is an element of our character?

Jonalyn: In Ruby Slippers I make a very big deal about the soul, that immaterial core of every human being that holds our mind, will, feelings, desires and for that matter, character, too. I don’t think you can dissect character from soul. In fact, a good way to define our character, is “the habits of our soul.” All aspects of character (integrity, faithfulness, self-sacrifice, etc) are aspects that are rooted in our souls.

So if our femininity changes our soul (meaning femininity orients our minds, feelings, will differently) then it goes without saying that femininity will affect our character as well. I don’t see how being a woman could not affect our character.

The way we see life is essentially different by the very body we have. And our female body interwoven with our soul affects what builds our character. We have different material to grow character out of, cycles every month, weight gain and loss relative to motherhood, different weight distribution that affects our ability to do manual labor, pregnancy, lactation, menopause and many more.

If a soldier built his long-suffering character out of manual labor in concentration camps, he will have different textures in his character than a woman who builds her long-suffering character out of the loss of two children in childbirth. Different situations build different character strengths. That’s part of why the body of Christ needs both men and women.

Sarah: In chapter 7, I was intrigued by the revealing of "our secrets." For those who have not read the book yet, it is a secret prejudice women in the church have against other women. These women tend to want approval more from males than females, they take more seriously male leaders as well as prefer their direction. (page 170). You go on to suggest that our prejudice is based on flawed perceptions of femininity, that we believe that femininity is inferior. Is it possible that there is something else going on here other than a prejudice that is based on flawed perceptions of femininity? I agree there is a prejudice, but based on the conversations I have with other women, I wonder if the prejudice is based more on having been alienated by women and the unwelcoming nature of the evangelical women's ministry culture. This is a culture that, in many ways, promotes a very narrow view of what it means to be a Christian woman. As a result, professional and intellectual women have a hard time fitting in to the extent that everyone including themselves thinks their is something wrong with them. So even though I agree that prejudices and loss of respect for each other are wrong, I understand how these prejudices have developed and need to be addressed as we are doing here. Do you think it's possible to view this prejudice as a symptom of a larger or different problem?

Jonalyn: I do think this prejudice of women against women is a symptom of a larger problem, but not a different problem. Since both sexes are riddled with weakness, both have played up to the world's expression of their gender; both sexes have reason to think their sex is inferior. Interestingly enough, as I've begun a quest into masculinity I've found men are as homeless and insecure in their masculinity as women are in their femininity. And you can even find men who prefer women's company to men. These aren't just gay men, either. There are "same-sex-bashers" among men and women. The prejudice against our own sex makes me realize that we are not comfortable with gender. This homelessness gives rise to all sorts of nastiness in the church’s body. And herein lies the root of the larger problem. This is a nastiness as old as the Judgment in Eden.

Whenever a culture (be it Christian or pagan) teaches that a woman’s soul is deficient in mind, will, emotions, spirit (and this usually doesn’t sound so blatant, it might sound like “a woman is not capable of leading as well as a man” or even a compliment “women are more naturally loving”), my alarm bell goes off. Not because I do not believe in differences, I do, but I do not believe in differences in soul capacity. I believe in difference in the way these capacities (mind, will, emotion, spirit) are manifested, but I do not see that an intelligent woman in leadership is any less feminine than an emotional man in childcare is less masculine. Both the emotional man and the intelligent woman are human. Thinking and feeling are human abilities not gendered ones. Before the judgment there was mutuality, the sexes cooperating in the task of taking dominion. Now, we find that each person is afraid. We live as if there is only one Validation Pie, with a limited number of slices. Only the truly valuable ones get a validation slice, the rest continue homeless and hungry. This idea that validation and love only comes in a limited supply is a fallen masculine idea, one that females have eagerly swallowed when they try to show they can do anything “as good as a man.” They forget that becoming like men does not validate us anymore than distancing ourselves from women validates us. The truth of Christ is that all of us get a slice of validation, male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek.

All the hyper-polarized lists of femininity and masculinity, popularized in evangelical culture, actually point back to the original battle between the sexes, begun in Gen 3:16, not the goal of Man and Woman pre-Judgment in Gen 1 and 2. Because of the judgment, “he shall rule over you”, we find woman and man pitted against one another, exaggerating their differences, pointing to insecurities, clambering for validation. And in this battle each person tries to come out with more, even if she must denigrate her sex to do so. In this thousand year battle it’s so much simpler to get validation by meeting the cultural norms of femininity, fighting over the slices of “biblical womanhood” trying to validate our existence. For a piece of the pie, women have silenced their gifts, their minds, their interests, their opinions, their souls. Men have, as well, but that’s another book altogether.

Today, in the wake of Christ’s work, the only reason I can see for assuming femininity is inferior is if we choose to live under the Judgment of Gen 3. And to be honest, that's where most Christian women have parked. In the words of the politician Patricia Schroeder, “Many women have more power than they recognize, and they’re very hesitant to use it, for they fear they won’t be loved.” We live as if Christ did not love us. We think we have to live under the curse of Gen 3. Even though we have chosen to take Christ's redemption for eternal life, lifting the curse of Gen 3:19, we bar Christ from helping us with the gender war and our own insecurities with being women. Our fear of never finding validation in our femininity prevents us from honoring others in own sex. It’s a huge problem. My next book is going to delve deeper into this tendency in women, unpacking the root issue to show in practical ways how we can walk out of prejudice and into friendship.

Sarah: Ruby Slippers is an excellent resource for helping women breakdown the stereotypes and think about who they are as an image bearer. Is there anything you'd like to share with our readers?

Jonalyn: Thank you, Sarah!

If there’s one thing I’d love to tell your readers it would be this:

I’d want them to know that every part of them (body and soul) is magnificent to God, that they are worthy of honoring God on earth, that they don’t need to do anything better to be God’s image bearer (see pg 187 in Ruby Slippers for a more polished take on this). I’d want to refresh their perspective on verse like, I Cor 11:7, “but the woman is the glory of man.”

I think this is a promotion not a demotion. We can see God’s love for women in this passage. Isn’t it lovely that God did not make another man for the glory of Adam? Nope, a man couldn’t do it. Only woman is the glory of man. That phrase needs a lot of unpacking, but I think theologian Thomas Hopko gets at it when he says, “Adam cannot be the image and glory of God without Eve.” It’s time to live as the image-bearers we are.

December 3, 2007

What Makes a Woman an Intellectual?

It's come up recently in conversation and in email, what exactly do I mean when I speak of intellectual women? What does intellectual mean? Is it highly exclusionary in that it references only academic women with a few advanced degrees? Does it imply an IQ way off the charts? Does intellectual refer to women with who only engage in the use of multi-syllablic words that even a spell-check doesn't know like supralapsarianism, self-referential incoherence, anthropomorphism, and hypostasis?

Let me put you at ease. I won't speak for the other 'Elle's, but I think Meriam-Webster's definition is helpful. In part, it suggests an intellectual is someone who is given to study, reflection, and speculation. A lot of women might say that they identify with this definition, and I definitely believe it's more inclusive than exclusive. A woman doesn't have to be in academics for this definition to apply, she just simply needs to be a thoughtful, reflective student. We should be life-long learners, always eager to grow in all ways. The definition introduces the term speculate which simply refers to pondering a subject, very similar to reflection.

So someone who is an intellectual is someone who cares to study. I would add that such a person seeks careful reflection, analysis, and application. Without the application, there is no real study because all that matters in life is worth study and all that is worth study matters to life.

So are you an intellectual? Probably so. And if you are, be sure to join the FaceBook group Out of the Box: Fellowship of Intellectual Christian Women