Category Archives: Witnesses

Rachel Held Evans Reflections ( & on Warren Wiersbe, Bonhoeffer, and the Crisis of “Big Tent” Evangelicalism)

Veracity readers have observed that I have briefly commented on the illness and recent death of Rachel Held Evans. Many who have appreciated her writings, whether they agreed with her or not, have mourned her untimely death, yet not without controversy.

I have thought quite a bit about her over the previous few weeks. Rachel’s story is a lot like mine, yet at the same time, very different from mine. First, I will note the similarities. I knew her only through articles on her blog and podcast interviews, but I have shared some of the same experiences.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

After growing up in a conservative, evangelical Christian home, in Dayton, Tennessee, “ground zero” for the Scopes Monkey Trial, between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, in the 1920s, Rachel Held Evans went to a Christian college, where she learned of the story on television, of a woman in Afghanistan, named “Zarmina,” who was publicly executed, in the middle of a soccer stadium. She was rightly horrified of this news, but what threw her faith into a tailspin, was a series of followup conversations, with some of her Christian classmates. Rachel’s friends had insisted that Zarmina, despite the injustice done to her, nevertheless ended up going to hell, solely on the basis that she was a Muslim.

Rachel began to wrestle with deep questions about heaven, hell, predestination, religious pluralism… you name it. But as Rachel put it, in one of her blog posts, “It was not the so-called ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart.”

She could and did read some books on Christian apologetics, that sought to provide answers to her questions, that helped to make a decent amount of sense in her head (here is a YouTube link showing how apologist Frank Turek answers such questions). But what really bothered her was the callousness of her Christian friends. How could her Christian friends, without shedding a tear, matter-of-factly say that Zarmina would spend an eternity in eternal torment, due to her lack of a verbal Christian confession, after being cruelly shot in the back of the head, because Zarmina failed to satisfy the legalistic demands of the Taliban? Rachel wondered if the Gospel really offered anything to someone like Zarmina.

In her book, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions, formerly titled, Evolving in Monkey Town, and a myriad of other blog posts, Rachel explored how her doubts about God, with respect to Zarmina, opened up a floodgate of other questions, a Pandora’s Box of issues ranging from her belief, from early childhood, about Young Earth Creationism, to questions about genocide and violence in the Bible. Nevertheless, despite her doubts, she could never let go completely of her Christian faith, even though the shape of her faith was indeed changing.

But what really caught people’s attention, was with the release of her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master.” In this book, Rachel questioned how the evangelical Christian movement has at times treated women, based on certain readings of the Bible, that struck her as misogynistic. In response, a host of young, millennial Christians today have gravitated towards books like this, as a call, for example, for more women to enter full-time Christian ministry. Rachel affirmed that women do have a voice, among God’s people. Rachel asks, why do traditional views about women  selectively elevate certain texts in the Bible, while ignoring others?

Though I have been hesitant to follow the whole line of Rachel’s thought, what I have appreciated so much about Rachel Held Evans was her unflinching honesty when asking these questions. Sadly, not everyone who heard her story felt moved to give her room, to wrestle with her doubts. This antagonism, from otherwise well-meaning Christians, only served to add fuel to the fire of her doubts.

Rachel represented what some might call the more progressive wing of evangelical “egalitarianism;” that is, the view that women should be able to serve as pastors and elders, on an equal basis with men. Rachel’s “more progressive” wing has been highly emotionally motivated, appealing to a sense of justice, that women should be serving in Christian leadership, because of the abuse of power that are at times employed by men to “keep women down.”

An Example of Something That Drove Rachel Held Evans Crazy

Rachel’s critics have felt that she was attacking some core elements of Bible teaching, yet her critics have not all been united in their opposition to Rachel’s brand of egalitarianism. I digress for a moment to reflect on a recent public controversy, within weeks following Rachel’s death….. I can guarantee you that if Rachel were still alive, she would have been all over this….

Consider the controversy this past Mother’s Day (2019), among Southern Baptists about non-ordained women preaching a “sermon” from a pulpit on Mother’s Day. Some 25 years ago, the furor over the ordination of women in Baptist circles eventually led to a cleaning of house of Southern Baptist institutions, purging advocates of women’s ordination from the Southern Baptist leadership ranks. But when popular ladies Bible study teacher, Beth Moore, who is not ordained, and has no desire to become ordained, was invited to preach for a Mother’s Day sermon, and a Southern Baptist theologian, Owen Strachan, vigorously objected to such practice, it was like the whole Southern Baptist denomination was reliving the controversy from the 1990s, all over again.

But this time, the battle was not only between egalitarians and complementarians, it was largely among complementarians themselves, such “complementarians” believing that women are not to serve as elders or pastors, in a local church. The more traditional crowd, represented by Strachan, puts a hard line down, that women should NEVER enter a Sunday pulpit and preach a “sermon”, even if such a speech were to be given in a more gentle context, that of being a Mother’s Day “exhortation,” as opposed to an authoritative “sermon.”

But the more moderate complementarians, came to Beth Moore’s defense, viewing Strachan’s hard line as being way over the top, even to the point of obliquely bringing charges of heresy against Strachan, for having a deficient view of the Triune nature of God (!!!), as with this article by Mortification of Spin podcaster, Aimee Byrd. Byrd recalls the controversial 2016 change to the English Standard Version Bible’s translation of Genesis 3:16 (see Sam Powell’s articles here and here), that forced the English Standard Version translation committee to reopen discussion on how Bible translation decisions are made for that particular translation, sparked by disagreement among Bible translators themselves. What are the consequences of the Fall, with respect to relations between male and female, and how does this compare with God’s intended good purposes from the beginning at Creation?

The point of this digression is this: Rachel’s more conservative critics have not all agreed with her, but hardly have they agreed among themselves. Digression over: Now, back to more specifically about Rachel Held Evans’ story….

Rachel Held Evans and the Slippery Slope?

Were Rachel Held Evans’ writings on women and the Bible, where she would stop in her journey of theological doubt? Or was she on some “slippery slope,” where A Year of Biblical Womanhood was simply one point on her theological trajectory? Rachel herself even admitted that she was going down that “slippery slope,” but she insisted that it was not a slope away from God.

Rachel’s calls for justice eventually moved beyond concerns about women in the home and in the church, to broader topics regarding gender, most controversially for her support of same-sex marriage. Any lingering suspicions that her evangelical readers had about her unorthodoxy, regarding her views on women, were confirmed by this latest foray into supporting same-sex marriage. The reaction from her suspicious evangelical observers was swift and largely unrelenting. She was a Jezebel, bringing false teaching into the church, and therefore compromising the faith.

But Rachel also has had a loyal base of fans who have supported her, that makes up what some call today “progressive Christianity.”  The pushback she received, or at least, what she perceived, from conservative evangelicals, eventually encouraged her to “leave evangelicalism,” to finally make her way into a Protestant mainline church, a story she told in her next book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  Her last published book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, chronicles her journey further, showing how she was able to shed her previous view of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, to a more liberal, mainline Protestant approach to faith, that seeks to view the Bible, not as divine source of knowledge, but rather as a spiritual conversation partner, a written voice to be brought alongside, on equal footing, with one’s own, personal experience with God.

Rachel continued to say that her sliding down the slippery slope was not away from God, but rather towards God. But when she was saying that, what did she mean by “God?” Where exactly, was her faith journey leading her?

Evangelicals and Where to Draw the Line on What is Essential vs. Non-Essential to Orthodoxy

The deeper problem that Rachel Held Evans has exposed to the church is that evangelical Christians have a difficulty in discerning where to draw that line between what is essential to faith, and what can be safely set aside as non-essential, the adiaphora of Romans 14:1. Some draw the line in one place while other Protestant evangelical Christians draw it in another.

In the age of Billy Graham, there were obviously challenges to evangelical identity, but in the age of the Internet and social media, the challenges as to what can rightly fit under the “big tent” of evangelicalism have multiplied. For some, Rachel Held Evans left the fold of evangelicalism when she questioned certain aspects of the doctrine of hell. For others, it was when she questioned Young Earth Creationism. Others could tolerate these things, to a certain extent, as these controversies have been around for awhile.

But when Rachel Held Evans began questioning women’s roles in the church, appealing to the modern sentiment of feminism, some felt she definitely crossed the line there. Others, have given her the benefit of the doubt, and gave her a pass on that. But when it came to her support for same-sex marriage, she crossed the line for everyone…. well, just about everyone.

“Big tent” evangelicalism suffers from not having an arbiter to help to define such boundaries. Evangelical Christians can “believe the Bible,” as their authority, but not necessarily agree on all matters of interpreting the Bible. Contemporary evangelical traditions, that have typically honored the Bible, and the Bible alone, as the standard of revealed truth, while dismissing the importance of confessional statements, such as creeds and other historical statements of faith, that seek to somehow descriptively summarize the character of God, find themselves exposed by the wit, charm, and challenging critique that came from Rachel Held Evans’ keyboard, through her blogs and books. She exposed just how difficult it is to discern what those boundaries of “right belief” are in the early 21st century.

Evangelicalism is in crisis. Christianity Today senior editor, Mark Galli, wrote about this crisis in evangelicalism, just weeks after Rachel Held Evans’ death. I would say that it all comes down to be a crisis of authority, or as Galli himself put it, quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn,  “We have forgotten God.” The tricky part comes in trying to figure out, what do we mean by “God?”

The Calm, Trusted Figure of a Warren Wiersbe, vs. the Cacophony of the 21st Century

The death of Rachel Held Evans, and what it means for evangelicalism at large, is starkly contrasted by the death, two days earlier (on May 2, 2019), of venerable Bible teacher, Warren Wiersbe. Wiersbe lived to the ripe old age of 89, after serving in an impeccable preaching career in Baptist churches, following a conversion in high school at a Youth for Christ rally, led by then 26-year-old evangelist, Billy Graham. Wiersbe went on to teach at Moody Church in Chicago, and then at Back to the Bible ministries, with a radio ministry that continues to this day. Wiersbe lived a full life of Christian faithfulness. Warren Wiersbe’s grandson wrote this brief memorial for his grandfather, the “bridge builder.”

You would be hard pressed to find any controversy brandishing Wiersbe, in today’s online, social media world. His life’s work was focused on the exposition of the Scripture, a noble goal for any minister of the Gospel. For Wiersbe, the path to knowing God is clear enough, through a diligent, measured study of the whole of the Scriptures, following after Jesus. But the problem with Wiersbe is that if you did not travel in dispensationalist, non-charismatic circles, you might never have known who he was.

I never knew of Wiersbe until my wife started to listen to the Bible Broadcasting Network, some 15 years ago. So much of evangelicalism today is led, not by cohesive doctrinal statements, but rather by personalities, whom you can trust, and the media enterprises that promote them.

It was Gutenberg’s printing press that gave Martin Luther, the 16th century Reformer, a platform to share his thinking. Since that time, up until the modern age, ever more cheaper printing presses helped to galvanize other evangelical movements, though books, pamphlets, and newsletters. Yet it was the radio in the mid-20th century that helped to make Warren Wiersbe a trusted source of authority, for a whole generation and segment of evangelicals. Billy Graham experienced it with his televised Crusades and movies in the latter half of the 20th-century.

But the rules have changed in the age of the Internet, where FCC regulated FM radio is becoming outdated, and steadily replaced by Internet media vehicles, like Twitter, Facebook, and podcasts on iTunes, where the competition for gaining a hearing or attention is fierce. Anyone with a microphone, or GoPro camera, can upload to YouTube, and perhaps establish a following.

Who is able to step forward, and lead evangelical believers today? Do we gauge our leaders by the number of Twitter followers, or Facebook likes, someone has? Or some other criteria? If there is one thing that all can agree on about Rachel Held Evans, is that she was a master of the new Internet-based media of blogging, Twitter, and YouTube videos. Her loyal following has been just as dedicated as were those in an older generation, who clung next to their radios, to listen to Back to the Bible.

I surely do not have the definitive solution to the problem. But the common thread should be discernible.  Simply listening to old radio sermons, given by evangelical stalwarts, such as a Warren Wiersbe, can help to a certain extent, but it is not enough in the age of YouTube.

It would help the greater evangelical Protestant movement to look towards our fellow Christians in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, to help us to establish a better path forward, in an increasingly secularized world. I throw in my lot in with C.S. Lewis, who argued the case for a “Mere Christianity.” Like Rachel, we should take measures to let go some of the quirkier things in Protestant evangelicalism, or at least, hold them more loosely. But unlike Rachel, recalling the ancient faith, that has been passed down from generation to generation, as C.S. Lewis did, is really the way to go. From my vantage point, the route of “progressive Christianity” is just as much a dead end, as is the knee-jerk fundamentalism Rachel reacted against.

Frankly, if it was not for conservative evangelicalism, that formed that rather “love-hate” relationship Rachel Held Evans had with it, I would have probably gone the route of secular agnosticism or atheism. But not “progressive Christianity.”

The Big Theological Concerns, That Evangelicals are Hard Pressed to Address

About 25 years ago, Eastern Orthodox bishop Thomas Hopko speculated that the coming crisis for the Christian movement over the next 50 years would be over the theology of gender, as to what it means to be male and female. I believe that Thomas Hopko was undoubtedly correct. Given Hopko’s prophetic insight, we are about halfway navigating through that process of ironing out what orthodox Christians believe, concerning gender. Just as the church wrestled with trying to articulate a theology of the divinity and humanity of Jesus, in the tumultuous 4th century, that gave us the Nicene Creed, so today we face a period of wrestling regarding a theological anthropology, of what it means to be male and female.

It should come as no surprise to understand that the role of women and the same-sex marriage were the real flash points for Rachel Held Evans. These are gender issues. I am hopefully optimistic that many of the justified concerns that Rachel had, during her lifetime, can be resolved within the remaining 25 years of Hopko’s prophetic vision, without overstepping the fundamental concerns, of a Christian orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, the eventual path that Rachel took reveals just how sharply different her journey has been from mine. Unlike Rachel, I did not grow up practicing “sword drills,” to see who could memorize the most number of Bible passages. I had grown up in a mainline church, much like the one that Rachel and her family finally ended up at.

I knew nothing about a “Rapture” of the church, whereby believers would be taken up into the air to meet with Jesus, and rise to heaven, as the definitive sign that the End Times had arrived. I was more into the eschatology of Star Trek and Star Wars, in my mainline Christian upbringings.

I never once contemplated the thought of how Noah was able to fit all of those animals on the wooden ark, or whether the Great Flood was local or global.

This was all foreign to me. Though I learned much about a number of aspects of the Christian faith, in its broader scope, in those years, I knew relatively little about the Bible, much less the interesting debates that have tended to divide conservative evangelical Christians.

The Bible was largely an unknown book in my childhood, aside from hearing a few Bible stories. It was not until I made my way into an evangelical Christian community, as a high school student, that I began to seriously read and study the Bible. I moved from a mainline to an evangelical community. Rachel moved in the opposite direction, from an evangelical to a mainline community.

Yes, I can relate to the “scandal of the evangelical heart,” that Rachel writes about. But my answer has been to try to learn how to read the Bible better. Instead of simply imbibing what I had been taught about the Bible, which was not much, I sought to learn about Scripture, by asking a lot of the questions that Rachel had, right up front.

I am still pretty much the same way. I do not find much appeal for the type of thinking that Rachel Held Evans grew up with, namely that of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Sure, I believe the Bible, but I believe the Bible because I find the Bible to be true, because the evidence supports it. It may not mean that I accept whatever tradition gets passed on, as though we should believe such-and-such, merely because that is what we have always been taught, without ever thinking about it.

In my mind, this is what leads to the type of “scandal of the evangelical heart,” that really troubled Rachel Held Evans: a failure to really think. The disconnect between head and heart in much of conservative evangelicalism is a real problem. It is a barrier to experiencing the joy of personal discipleship.

To matter-of-factly conclude that an humiliatingly executed Muslim woman in Afghanistan would wind up in hell, without a sense of grief or compassion, or a twinge of wonder, reveals a really distorted faith. Troubles in our heart should lead us to ask questions that put our minds to work. To fail to have such troubles is a mark of spiritual deadness. Rachel was right to point that out.

Let us face it. If we as evangelical Christians really believe that others around us are going to perish in hell eternally, then why are we not driven with compassion to do everything we can to help them follow a different path?

What I did not share with Rachel, in her drive to “clean house” in her evangelical world, was her tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Leaving evangelicalism” may provide a type of “solution” for those who are burned out by “the scandal of the evangelical heart,” but it is a solution that is really no solution at all, in the long run. When doubts plague us, the answer is not to go the route of the liberal leaning end of the Protestant mainline. I have been there and done that.

The problem with doubt, is not that it exists. That is a given. The problem with doubt is that it so easy to sit with it far too long with it, and allow it to paralyze our faith.

For Protestant evangelicals, we can take part of our cue from Rachel Held Evans, as Rachel herself suggested: To go back and really study the Bible. But it involves more than that. Celebrating the Great Tradition, that binds evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox together, despite ongoing substantial differences, has the most promising future.

Yes, we need the Scriptures as a conversation partner, but we need to learn how to hear the voice of God in the Scriptures, calling us to repentance, as our authority, so that our emotions and experiences can be brought in alignment with His Will and His Purposes, instead of trying to fit God into the grid of our own personal experience. This has been the historic teaching of the Christian movement, and we would do well to submit our own hearts, with their questions, to that.

This is a hard, hard thing to do. But do it we must.

We need the Bible as our authority, not because our experiences and emotions are invalid. But rather, we need to see the Bible as our authority because ultimately, I can not trust my own experiences and emotions, nor my own understanding of what constitutes a standard of justice. I can only trust God, and what God has revealed through Christ as being truly just.

Rachel Held Evans’ untimely death at 37, is surely a cause for unbearable grief for her family, her husband, her children, and close family and friends. But it also raises some questions, as to what might have happened next in her spiritual journey, if she not have died so soon.

Lives Cut Too Short: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rachel Held Evans

This all may sound like rambling to you, but hang in with me for one more reflection….

Rachel Held Evans’ death reminds me, in some ways, of the untimely death of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a World War 2 prison camp, when he was executed, just days before the Allies liberated Flossenbürg.  Bonhoeffer had written several Christian classics, before being arrested, for his role in an assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer was only two years older than Rachel Held Evans, when he died.

But Bonhoeffer’s last book, a series of Letters and Papers from Prison, raised a number of questions, as to where Bonhoeffer was heading theologically. The radical “God is Dead” theologians of the 1960s heralded Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a signpost signaling a new era, whereby the modern world would embrace a “religionless Christianity.” In other words, Christianity, as articulated by Bonhoeffer, was the spiritual forerunner to what the liberal theologian Harvey Cox called a “Secular City.”

For awhile, this vision of a “Secular City” looked like it might come to pass, a vision that was birthed in the Protestant mainline church. It surely appears that this is what has happened in the Protestant mainline church, in the early 21st century, and it continues to do so. The remarkable growth of the “Nones,” those who show that they have “no religious preference,” come primarily from mainline church backgrounds, and not conservative evangelical church backgrounds (learn about Dr. Tricia Bruce’s research on the “Nones” here).

As a result, the type of biblical illiteracy I grew up with in the mainline church has only increased, as that population has become more secularized. Such people do not have Rachel Held Evans’ type of hang ups about the Bible, because they do not know anything about the Bible.

Welcome to the postmodern, post-Christian world.

True, Western culture in general has become increasingly secularized since the 1960s, but evangelical Christianity, as expressed in a number of Bonhoeffer’s earlier books, has not gone away. In fact, the memory of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been rehabilitated, as one who faithfully kept the faith. We have books like Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, that continues to inspire many evangelical Christians today, to hold fast to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy, despite the pressures of a culture, that seeks to either destroy, or merely ignore, historical, Christian faith.

So, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have lived longer, what really would he have become? Would he have become that advocate for “religionless Christianity,” a backing away from evangelical faith, where the “strange new world of the Bible,” that converted Swiss theologian Karl Barth, from an ultimately corrosive, theological liberalism, towards a more orthodox faith, recedes from view, a move that mainline liberal Christians from decades ago predicted? Or would he have seen his explorations of doubt, in his Tegel prison cell, as a temporary detour on his spiritual journey, that would eventually lead him back on the path, to a more firmly held confidence in the God of the Bible, affirming a faith that has been historically received, down through the centuries?

I wonder the same thing about Rachel Held Evans. Would she have continued on in her journey, following the trajectory that she was apparently following, that tended to follow nearly in lock step with the surrounding, secularizing culture? Or would she come to a full stop, and sense that she had gone too far away from the historic teachings of the Christian faith, and return more (though surely not completely) towards the faith of her youth?

We will never know this side of eternity. But I do wonder about it.

If you would like to support Rachel Held Evans’ family, here is where you can go to help.

 


Who Was Mary Magdalene?

9th in a series.

I am going down a bit of a rabbit hole in this post, so hang on, as it is going somewhere… When many Christians read the Gospels, they will often smash different elements of the stories together, creating a type of “super-narrative,” neglecting the subtle and not-so subtle nuances employed by the four, individual Gospel writers. The question of, “who was Mary Magdelene?,” is a case in point.

In 591, Pope Gregory the Great popularized the idea that Mary Magdalene was “the repentant prostitute.” You see this idea conveyed in a famous scene in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus intervenes to save the woman caught in adultery. Gibson has her dressed as a prostitute, none other than Mary Magdalene.

What Pope Gregory did, that inspired folks like Mel Gibson, was to take Mary of Bethany, a woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (John 11:1-2), another unnamed sinner, who poured alabaster oil on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), and this woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), and then combine all three women figures into yet still another, single composite character, Mary Magdalene, named in Luke 8:1-2.

In 1517, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a French Bible scholar during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, wrote a treatise arguing that the three “Mary’s”; Mary of Bethany, the unnamed “Mary the sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet, and Mary Magadelene, were actually different people. Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was reviled by the church establishment for his views, challenging church tradition, and he had to flee France, to save his life.

Some beloved church traditions can be hard to break.

However, it is important to note that among the Eastern Orthodox, this tradition established by Pope Gregory never took root. In the Christian East, Mary Magdalene is instead often known as “an apostle to the Apostles.” She was the one who announced to the male disciples that Jesus was Risen from the dead (John 20:11-18).

This one little piece of information is significant in the debate over women in church leadership today. For example, some contend that women should not teach a man, unless a man in present. After all, when Priscilla sought to instruct Apollos in “the way of God more accurately,” her husband Aquila, was right there with her, and joining in the teaching effort (Acts 18:26 ESV).

But here, when Mary Magdalene goes off to inform the male disciples, as to what the Risen Lord Jesus had said to her, she was acting solo. But those who reject the practice of having women as teachers over men, without qualification, should note this important story of Mary Magdalene. While no men accompanied her when she presented her case for the resurrection to the male disciples, she was still acting under the spiritual authority of Jesus Himself, who as we should remind ourselves, was male.

So, was Mary Magdalene “teaching?” If so, in what way was she “teaching?”

Recovering the Historical Mary Magdalene

Though some Roman Catholic scholars have tried to re-piece together Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene, the majority of scholars today agree with Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples that such a composite association of Mary Magdalene is highly unlikely. For one thing, “Mary of Bethany,” came from the town of Bethany. “Mary Magdalene,” or “Mary the Magdalene,” is another way of saying “Mary of Magdala.” In other words, she was from Magdala, which is a different town, nowhere near Bethany. Magdala is near Galilee, in the north of Israel. Bethany, is in the south, near Jerusalem.

The unnamed “Mary the sinner” of Luke 7 shows up right before Mary Magdalene, in Luke 8, but there is no obvious link between the two women. Though it is possible to link the unnamed “Mary the sinner” with Mary of Bethany, because of their similar treatment of Jesus’ feet, nothing else in these two episodes links these two women together.

Furthermore, nowhere in the Gospels is the woman caught in adultery ever identified as being Mary Magdalene!

Modern scholarship confirms that the name “Mary” was a very popular name among Jewish women, in the first century, so the confusion is understandable, which partly explains why the Gospels specifically identify “Mary of Magdala” apart from “Mary of Bethany.”

Aside from the risk to d’Étaples’ life, you could say that little harm has been done here by this confusion of the Mary’s. No critical theological doctrine is at stake. Gregory probably meant well by trying to simplify the story of these Mary’s.

But the biggest problem with Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene approach, is that it has generated endless speculation into the notion of Mary Magdalene as “the repentant prostitute,” particularly among those who love the thought of scandal:

Was she really that repentant? The Gospels’ presentation of Mary Magdalene does identify her as being in Jesus’ immediate circle. Perhaps she and Jesus had some type of … you know…. (hush, hush, whisper, whisper)…  thing going on?

There is no end to this type of craziness. Novelist Dan Brown made a mint off of his blockbuster book, The DaVinci Code, that propagated the conspiracy theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and had children, the existence of whom the Vatican has been suppressing for centuries, somewhere in France. This is right up there with NASA faking the moon landing on a Hollywood-type set, off in a desert out in Arizona. But a biblically illiterate public today still somehow manages to eat this type of stuff up, just like the Albigensian heresy group did back in the 12th and 13th centuries!

Mary Magdalene continues to fascinate people, though the Gospels only give us a limited amount of information about her. Her biggest role in the Gospels remains that she is explicitly named in the New Testament, as among the women after the crucifixion, the first to be witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10).

Jesus clearly gives Mary certain instructions to pass onto the other male disciples (see also John 20:1-18). But does this necessarily make her the first woman pastor or elder?

Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena (1835) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov.

New Developments in Our Understanding of Mary Magdalene?

Controversially, some have recently tried to place her as a prominent leader in Jesus’ band, alongside the twelve male disciples, giving her a type of spiritual authority role, thus raising another round of discussion, regarding the roles of women in the leadership of the church today. But we should be very cautious with such speculation.

A case in point is the 2018 film released in the United Kingdom, Mary Magdalene, giving British audiences a new look at who Mary Magdalene might have been. Mary Magdalene wins support from scholars for steering away from the image of Mary Magdalene as a “the repentant prostitute.” But in other respects, the reports are very mixed, and not altogether exciting. Some critics say that Mary Magdalene leans too heavily on the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. Gnosticism is a heresy that has been condemned by the church in every age. The likelihood of the film’s release in the United States remains in doubt.

The esteemed New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado has seen the movie. Though he was not overly impressed by the film, in his informed review, Hurtado carefully summarizes the early speculative traditions about Mary Magdalene, for the serious Bible geek. Even a prominent Australian egalitarian blogger, Marg Mowczko, panned the film. The trailer for the movie that might never make it to the United States is below.

If you want a good, in-depth scholarly explanation for who Mary Magdalene really was, dispelling conspiracy theories, take about 17 minutes for Dr. Michael Heiser’s FringePop321 video (Dr. Heiser is a Bible scholar with Logos Bible Software, and author of The Unseen Realm). The renewed interest in “Mary of Magdala,” through books and movies that speculate a lot, may actually spur thoughtful study of the more reliable, biblical framework behind this most mysterious and attractive of Jesus’ early followers.

In the next few blog posts in this series, we will discuss 1 Timothy 2:12, and the nearby verses, one of the most hotly debated passages in all of the New Testament, that divides complementarians and egalitarians. Stay tuned, and learn what the fuss is all about…..

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Augustine on Learning How to “Agree to Disagree” Well

Over the coming weeks, I hope to tackle two major issues that threaten the unity of God’s people. I will offer one blog post/ book review on the subject of “Can ‘Charismatic’ and ‘Liturgical’ Christians Worship Together?” The second, and more visceral issue, I will dedicate a multi-part blog series on: “Should Women Serve as Elders, Deacons,or Pastors?”

Is it even possible to “agree to disagree” on issues like these? Some think not. Some say that by giving allowance for such diversity of perspectives in a church is an invitation for false teaching to come in and distort the Scriptures.

Sandro Botticelli, Sant’ Agostino nello studio (Saint Augustine in the studio), Fresco, Chiesa di San Salvatore in Ognissanti, Florence.

The African bishop of centuries ago, Saint Augustine, wrote about this dilemma in his classic, On Christian Doctrine (Chapter 36), arguing that the objective of good Scriptural interpretation is to encourage love of God and love of neighbor:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived….

Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.

In other words, some people, even teachers in a local church, can make erroneous judgments when reading the Bible, from time to time. But Augustine’s advice is not to immediately throw such people under the bus, treat them as “agents of Satan,” and objectify them as enemies. Instead, Augustine contends that a concerted effort be made to gently, respectfully, patiently, and lovingly seek to correct such error in others, and bring such people along the right path. Sometimes, people do fall off of the high road, but it is possible for them to find their way back, through the fields, to the same place where the road leads. It can be difficult work, but caring brothers and sisters in the Lord will often help those folks along, to find the right road again.

As Proverbs 15:1 puts it, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Christians should be a people ready with a gentle answer, as opposed to a harsh word.

It bears noting that Augustine was no wimpy Christian, when it came to the threat of heresy. Have you ever heard of the Donatists? If not, then there is a good reason for that. It was Augustine’s pen that was largely responsible for wiping out the Donatist heresy that threatened to pull the church completely apart, during the 5th century A.D. But Augustine nevertheless sought to facilitate dialogue in order to seek to persuade  those who had a wrong view of Scripture. His words serve as a useful model for how to work through controversy among Christians today.


Announcement: Immaculee Ilibagiza at William and Mary, February 22

Immaculée Ilibagiza was from Rwanda, a devout Roman Catholic, studying engineering in college. In 1994, she was home from college when the “killing fields” began. For 91 days, she hid with a group of other women, in a bathroom, while nearly a million of her fellow Tutsi tribes people were murdered with machetes.

Immaculée Ilibagiza will be a guest speaker, sponsored by the Catholic Campus Ministry at the College of William and Mary, on Friday, February 22, 2019, from 1:00pm to 2:00pm, at the Sadler Center, to tell the story how she came to forgive the man who killed her mother and brother. Here is a related Veracity story about Ilibagiza.

 


A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War: a Reflection

Machine gunners in the Battle of the Somme. A young British soldier, J.R.R. Tolkien, served in this most grueling battle of the “Great War.”

Veterans Day, in 2018, marks a special day in world history, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. This war is often overshadowed, for Americans, by WWII, despite the fact that the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, in the closing weeks of the “Great War,” killed more Americans than either the Battle of the Bulge or the D-Day Normandy Invasion.

In July, 1914, European powers acted upon long-held treaty agreements, to create military alignments, following an assassin’s bullet that killed the Archduke Ferdinand. The nations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russian, Britain, and France, among others, were fully mobilized for war. Yet as Barbara Tuchman tells it, in her gripping The Guns of August, this was an age of optimistic progressivism. Despite the growing conflict in 1914, people thought that the war would be decided quickly. Everyone would be home by Christmas.

Recent technological advancements, like the inventions of the electric light bulb, radio, and the airplane, gave people the impression that humans have unlimited potential to solve real world problems. The benefits of science could be employed to make life better.  But the war demonstrated that the same technological power to improve things also gave us the horrors of the machine gun, trench warfare, and mustard gas. By the time the war ended in November, 1918, millions lay dead. Most soldiers survived the war, but even afterwards, many succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic.

As I have listened  to episodes of the Imperial War Museums, First World War Centenary podcasts, (a great website, if you like history), chronicling the progress of the war over those four years, it is apparent that life for millions during the Great War proved the progressive optimism of a swift, positive solution to the war to be misguidedly wrong. This is where Joseph Loconte’s book, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918, comes in.

C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were young soldiers in the British army, serving on the Western front in France. Both men endured the stench and horror of this most terrible slaughter. Lewis was injured by an artillery blast, that eventually took him out of the war. Tolkien suffered from trench fever, spread by lice, which finally rendered him unfit to continue in frontline duty. Tolkien himself recollected that by the end of the war, nearly all of his army friends were dead.

Armistice Day arrived November 11, 1918, what Americans remember now as Veterans Day. Many celebrated the end of the war, but for weary soldiers like Tolkien and Lewis, it was probably more a sense of relief, and an opportunity to mourn the loss of good friends.

Tolkien and Lewis finally met several years later, as professors at Oxford. They had both taken up the scholarly calling to study English literature and the great stories of the medieval period. Both men were extremely gifted with their imaginations, and used their talents to provide the world some of the best fantasy literature of the 20th century.

These men formed a remarkable friendship. Tolkien was instrumental in persuading Lewis to give up his atheism and embrace the Christian faith. Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to continue in completing his magnificent The Lord of the Rings trilogy, when the author became weary of the endeavor over the years.

For both men, the experience of the Great War proved to be the crucible that fired up their imagination to produce their separate works, which uniquely gave complementary visions of the world, grounded in a Christian theological framework. The aftermath of the Great War inspired others to embrace, either a reactionary, nihilistic response to humanity’s plight, rejecting Christianity in the process, or a liberal  wishful dream, that the “War to End All Wars” would usher in a new age of peace, making the truth claims of orthodox Christianity unnecessary.

Joseph Loconte makes the case that Lewis and Tolkien took a different path, striving to revive a vision of classic Christian thought, as an alternative to the more popular outlooks, that sought to embrace together both the valor and dignity of humanity, with a sober appreciation of the depths of human depravity and evil. This thoroughly Christian perspective, combining the biblical themes of creation and fall, that so saturated the medieval Christian mindset, were given a fresh, new imaginative expression through the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth. Many have appreciated the literary contributions of Lewis and Tolkien, while missing the profound theological and spiritual realities, which both writers point towards.

The Great War technically ended on that Armistice Day, in 1918. But one hundred years later, the same intellectual and imaginative challenges that Lewis and Tolkien experienced in their era, continue to plague the postmodern world of the 21st century. Loconte makes a compelling case that Lewis’ and Tolkien’s work remain just as relevant and necessary as ever.

The Great War finally did come to an end. Life continued on.

But for what purpose?

Lewis and Tolkien did much of the hard work in their generation, to rethink such a profound question. Today, we need a new generation of Lewis’ and Tolkien’s to carry on the task of reimagining the world, within the context of a robust Christian perspective.

Loconte is currently working on a documentary film project, that explores the themes of his book, that fans of Lewis and Tolkien should consider supporting. A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War has encouraged me to revisit the great work of both Lewis and Tolkien, as companions to rethink the cultural challenges of our day and age. The trailer for the film in progress is below:

BONUS: Peter Jackson, the film director behind the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, has restored and colorized hours of Imperial War Museums archive film to produce a new documentary on the Great War:

 


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