The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)

In my last post I made clear that my theological outline is not based in an ‘liberal’ understanding of theology or society. If you are still following at this point I am guessing you know I won’t draw on many traditionally conservative resources. This is true. This does not mean it is not worth clarifying the ways in which patriarchy continues to exert itself forcefully within the church and its theology.

Continue reading “The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)”

That was a fine trick they discovered!

“Search Scripture, for you seem to think, you presume to imagine, that you will gain your salvation there” (Jn 5:39). Words cannot tell how cruelly this defrauds the poor and needy folk. For all their words and deeds ensure that the poor man is too worried about getting his food to have time to learn to read; moreover they have the nerve to preach that the poor man should let himself be flayed and fleeced by the tyrants. How on earth is he to learn to read the Scripture? Yes, yes, my dear Thomas, but you are getting too fanatical! The biblical scholars should read their fine books and the peasant should listen to them, for faith comes by listening. O yes, that was a fine trick they discovered! It would replace the priests and monks with worse rascals than have been since the very beginning of the world. . . . Christ speaks to these pious people, the biblical scholars: ‘My word will not remain with you’ (Jn 5:38).

– Thomas Müntzer, ‘A Manifest Exposé of False Faith

Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.

I am just supposed to let this all overwhelm me? – Thomas Müntzer

I don’t typically enjoy reading Reformation authors (not that I have read many). Unless I really want to spend the time tracking their logic I find the content has not aged well and reads like bad worn out pietism. Thomas Müntzer’s writings have largely evaded that experience. I really did not know much about him other than he is more or less shunned in mainstream Mennonite thought and history because of his involvement in violent revolts. In this post I just want to note a couple observations as I am about half finished his collected works (minus much of the liturgical pieces unfortunately).

Continue reading “Suffering, violence, and the Word of God: First thoughts on Müntzer.”

Yahweh stabbing your brain

After Salem has brushed his teeth and we have read him bedtime stories he gets a little bit of quiet time in his room to play before bed. Salem is a very active and talkative child but during this time he is settled and plays quietly. He also appears to be reflective during this time as he will occasionally shout out a question or comment that he has been pondering.

Last night from out of his room he says,

You know when you do something bad and haven’t told anyone and you feel like you need to tell someone? I call that ‘Yahweh stabbing your brain.’

Salem was looking at the Brick Bible at the time. We had started reading him stories from it until we realized very quickly that the stories skewed heavily towards the more violent images of the Hebrew Bible. The hook then is to see the child-like and nostalgic materials of Lego being taken up in some of the most horrific scenes in the Bible.

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Concubine dismembered in Judges 19

And because Yahweh is an active agent in many biblical stories there is a depiction of Yahweh as an old bearded man in white. And when it says that Yahweh does something, well Yahweh does something.

yahweh_the_killer

Now of course on one level this is terrible and entirely inappropriate for Salem to be reading. But it gave me real pause to pay attention to tension I feel between this simply being blasphemous transgressing the prohibition of making an image of God on one hand and having to face and see the material imagery of stories that are intentionally sanitized and excluded from graphic representations of the Bible (i.e. children’s Bibles).

So when Salem tells me this experience is like Yahweh stabbing his brain I assume that he is somehow trying to articulate how our conscience (or super ego) can afflict us and perhaps in this way it actually becomes easier to talk about the limitations, changes, and need for revising how God has been understood over time and how that continues to affect us in the present. And in many ways the representation of Yahweh as an old white man is appropriate as it is many of these stories that have formed the patriarchal structure of our faith that need to be dismantled. Though the Brick Bible may actually contribute to a more textured and meaningful engagement with our faith tradition, for now I think I will slip into his room as the unseen all-knowing hand from above removing it from him.

The Bible and authority

In the first post of this series I claimed that the authority in the church is never a matter of a clear or simple line of expression and application. There are various crossing and conflicting lines that we must navigate in how we understand and express authority. A place where many of these lines cross is within and around the Bible. In the Confession we state, “We acknowledge the Scripture as the authoritative source and standard for preaching and teaching about faith and life, for distinguishing truth from error, for discerning between good and evil, and for guiding prayer and worship.” Here again, while the Confession does acknowledge the role of the church, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus in discerning the will of God there remains a commitment to, in some way, running these all through the Bible in order for them to validated. In a sense I agree with that. However, I am guessing my understanding of the Bible and its role as authority differs from many I encounter in the church.

The Bible emerged over time and the Bible we have today does not look the same or have all the same books depending on Christian denomination. The Bible owes its existence to experiences and decisions that occurred outside the Bible. So some form of torah was given and practiced by the Israelite people and then along came a prophet and said I hope you know that just following the commands is not really what God intended. This of course was only later intensified with the coming of Jesus and dramatic split it created among those who considered his life, death, and resurrection the revelation of God and those who did not. And then came the decision around which letters and texts should be read and kept among the churches. The Bible exists because people encountered something that did not fit the prescribed authorities of the time. Sometimes these expressions were accepted like supplements but other times they were accepted only after dispute and fracturing.

But you don’t need to study the history of the Bible’s formation to see how this at work within the Bible. There are the daughters of Zelophehad who stand up for the integrity of their cause and force the religious leaders to rethink their position (Numbers 27). There are the prophets who I already mentioned. There is Job who refused to accept the orthodoxy of his friends and would not rest until he was given a hearing with God. With Jesus there are instances where he uses scripture as a source of authority but when approached by John’s disciples about him being the messiah he says simply go and tell John what you see. When facing other religious leaders Jesus puts it more pointedly, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:48). In Acts Peter must decide if experience of the Holy Spirit’s movement is sufficient for him to move away from his biblical position on Gentiles. Paul asks the church to live with ‘the mind of Christ’ allowing him to theologically discern that the biblical precedent of circumcision is not decisive for faithfulness.[1]

In all this I began to see that to take the Bible seriously meant to understand how its formation and its content asks us again and again to be willing to put the Bible down and look into the world to see how the Spirit might be moving; to take responsibility and stand up for and alongside those expressions and individuals once rejected by church doctrine and practice. The Bible and our traditions of authority have never been settled they have always reflected a certain intensity of what was, what is, and what is to come. I hope to look at this image of authority as intensity in my next post.

[1] In fairness to the Being a Faithful Church documents (which I have often been critical of) these shifts occurring in the Bible are noted as part of the process of discernment. One of my concerns with the BFC has been the way later documents have limited or muted the implications of these observations for how we understand authority (hence this series).

Faith, confession, and authority: Introducing a work in progress

The feedback that emerged from the Being a Faithful Church[1] process indicates that as a national body Mennonite Church Canada does “not have an appetite to change the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” (BFC 7). I do have an appetite and I am guessing others may as well. Over time I hope to work article by article to bring our current Confession into conversation with some of my own thinking in this area. I want submit these reflections here so that further conversation could emerge from those who also have an appetite to re-visit this document.

I first wrestled with my relationship to our Confession in my ordination process with Mennonite Church Canada. Part of the process was to read and comment on aspects of our Confession. I was generally familiar with the Confession but a new question formed in my mind as I read over it again.  How does the Mennonite church articulate and express authority?  I did not find a clear answer to this question and I it is important to be clear about this ambiguity.  Already in the introduction to the Confession we find a puzzling statement,

[Mennonite confessions of faith] provide guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture.  At the same time, the confession itself is subject to the authority of the Bible.[2]

While I appreciate the openness of such a statement what is troublesome is that this irony, paradox, or conflict of interest is nowhere further clarified or engaged.  Instead of wrestling with that fundamental tension I found that the waters were only further muddied in the Articles themselves.  Within the Confession we now have authoritative statements on Scripture, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and the church that create additionally confusing lines of authority.  In the course of these posts I hope to further clarify these tensions but for now I will try and summarize what I see happening (but don’t take me as authoritative, go and read the Confession for yourself!).

  1. The confession teaches us how to read the Bible.
  2. The confession is in submission to the Bible.
  3. The Bible is the Word of God written and is authoritative for establishing truth and error.
  4. Jesus is the Word made flesh and so the Bible finds its fulfillment in him.
  5. Jesus is known in the words of the Bible.
  6. The Holy Spirit continues to speak.
  7. The Holy Spirit will not contradict the Bible’s witness of Jesus.
  8. The Bible is authoritative for the church.
  9. It is in the church that the Bible must be interpreted.

Without acknowledging the initial tension of the confession and its relationship with or as authority these statements unfold as a recipe for confusion, frustration, and abuses.  As I read our Confession as well as our Being a Faithful Church documents I see the commendable desire to engage the ongoing task of discernment but I remain concerned over the continued ambiguity of authority.  The lines of authority that are mapped out in these documents continue to end ultimately with the question of who holds the most persuasive or influential reading of the Bible.  Setting aside all of this ambiguity the BFC documents in particular continue to assert that the final authority rests in the Bible. What I want to suggest is that such statements are not only unhelpful but also unbiblical. In the next post I will offer a few biblical images that could hopefully shift many current notions of biblical authority in the church.

[1] The Being a Faithful Church documents reflect a multi-year process of developing tools for congregational discernment and the application and development of these tools for specific issues. These documents develop a commitment to ongoing discernment and the openness to reaffirm, modify, or change previous positions. The full package of documents can be found at http://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/43/13465.

[2] Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995. Waterloo: Herald Press.

Finding a way

Thy word is lamp unto my feet and a light unto my way.

This refrain from Psalm 119 encourages the believer to trust what can be seen in the light of God’s word. Typically the church has equated this light with the Bible. Through generations the church learned to hold this lamp at a particular level and angle to best illuminate the path so as to avoid turning an ankle on a stone or getting tripped up in a ditch or pit. We travel together and when one of our own loses their way this lamp can be used to seek them out and find them before harm does.

We are usually a talkative group always singing the praises of the lamp, describing its many features and past uses; we crowd around it to enjoy the comfort of its glow. Occasionally, if we can be quiet enough, we might hear muffled sounds coming from the darkness; sometimes weeping, sometimes the grinding of teeth. We may lament the loss of these poor souls and wonder why they do not come to the light.

The truth though, is that some of these voices are only muffled to our ears because of the ease and speed that we are able to move past them in those dark places. But for those who pause or are forced off the path they may find that these sounds are indeed articulate; perhaps forming prophetic voices in the wilderness.

Womanist theologian Delores Williams is one such voice. Williams calls the church to remember that the Bible is not the Word of God, that the Word of God is living, that Jesus is living. We must remain attentive to how or where we will encounter the living word (Of course Jesus himself is recorded saying as much in John 5:39-40). Williams says that “Jesus is whoever Jesus has to be to function in a supportive way in the struggle.”[1]

The struggle for Williams is one of survival, survival for all those neglected and excluded from the bright lights of the world (including those shining in churches). Williams reminds us that even the Bible tends to privilege some voices and some lives at the cost of others. So we must bring the light of this struggle to the biblical text itself and ask who might be missing (or even murdered). While the Bible values the lives of Abram, Sarai, and Isaac the Bible consigns Hagar (the African slave woman) and Ishmael to the margins with God offering the most basic assistance for survival. Williams embraces this theme of survival and calls us off the well-lit path to attend to those who have not been valued by our tradition and even by our Bible.

Williams asks us to consider the possibility that we have mistaken the Bible for the lamp. The Word of God for Williams is the presence of one who comes alongside, even in the darkness, to gather with or as those struggling to find a way together even when it seems there is no way. This is no triumphant call of liberation, this is no smooth and well-lit path, but the daily and often grinding work of survival.

This call rings in my ears here in Winnipeg. This summer we witnessed a broad and intense spotlight cast across the city in the hopes of finding mother and grandmother Thelma Krull alive. The search has so far involved multiple layers of media awareness and direct actions including support from indigenous women who work at helping to find missing women in their own community. These indigenous women have added their light, meagre as it is, compared to the vast resources around them.

The indigenous women of Canada have experienced what Williams calls our attention to. We may affirm our desire for equal treatment of all people (#alllivesmatter) but the truth is that indigenous women with tragically high frequency are dragged out into the darkness with few willing to follow after them. And now as they lend their support to finding Krull I can only imagine the mix of emotions they are experiencing. I can only imagine the shared pain they feel in empathy with the family who has lost a loved one. But I also wonder at the questions that might arise, why Thelma and not my daughter, my mother, my auntie? This is of course no criticism of all the work going into finding Krull only a sober reminder that tragedy is often doubled in the way that something bad exposes or accentuates what has been bad all along.

We need to take care that our uncritical (and unfaithful) holding up of the Bible as the Word of God does not keep us from hearing the voices still crying in the wilderness, does not keep us seeking only our own, only staring down at our own feet on the path. We are not the light of the world nor do we hold the Word of God in our hands. Rather, the light, the word, and the way is found for those who gather and grope in the darkness and seek a way even when there seems to be no way; to express a faith which believes that Jesus will be present; that he will be who he needs to be to support the struggle, to find a way. May Jesus be such a lamp and light to Thelma Krull and all those still missing.

[1] Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, 180.