Hauerwas, Rolling Stone, and Mars Hill

It is probably because I’m reading Resident Aliens again, but I keep hearing Stanley Hauerwas when I’m reading other things.

For instance, this Christianity Today piece on this Rolling Stone article about the sex lives and norms of Millennials strikes me as something straight out of Hauerwas. (BTW, read the Rolling Stone piece and tell me again how polyamory is not something the church needs to be able to talk about.)

The gist of the CT piece is the author’s shock at the sexual norms of Millennials followed by the realization that advocating for conventional biblical sexual norms will either be drowned out or will drive people away from the church. Instead, the author comes to realize, all that talk about what to do with our private parts is intended not for the pagan culture outside the church but for those inside the church trying to live a new people.

From the records we have, we can deduce that Paul talked about sex with people who were already within a church community. He didn’t stand up on Mars Hill in Athens and preach about immorality. He told the story of Jesus, the one who rose from the dead. He didn’t argue about “lifestyle issues” with pagans. If he argued about anything, it was about grace and truth and love. And then he told the story of Jesus again. (See Acts 13, and Acts 17 for two examples.)

Of course Paul writes plenty about sex, but again, he does so to people in Christian communities and he almost always does so in the context of whole-life change. Sex is one moral issue amidst a host of others. Paul assumes that for these Christians to change—whether in what they eat or who they sleep with or how they talk or anything else—Paul assumes change will be radical, positive, and ongoing. He assumes it will only happen with the help of the Spirit, in the context of Christian community, and only as they grow up in the knowledge and love of Christ.

Christian speech is only intelligible inside the community called church. This sounds a lot like Hauerwas to me.

The writer concludes that she should not speak of biblical morality at all outside the church community. I’m not convinced that is the right approach.

I’m certainly not advocating getting on a soap box and screaming “fornicators!” at people on the street. But there is something to be said, I think, for the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord and he offers something that all the sexual exploits in the world cannot. When Paul stood up in Athens, he did not shy away from saying he knew something about God that all their searching and striving had missed.

We should never be smug. To be a Christian is to be humble and meek. But I don’t think we want to hide the holiness of Jesus Christ under a basket.

I could be argued out of this thought. What do you think?

Why I cannot applaud Bishop Talbert

My problem with retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert is not about breaking vows.

Don’t misunderstand. Vow breaking is sin. Sometimes it might be unavoidable sin, but it is still sin to promise one thing to God and to do another. I do not condone vow breaking. I just have come to realize that I was missing the real point in the past when I made that my primary concern.

My fundamental problem with Talbert and those who share his cause is not that some of them are breaking their vows of ordination. Frankly, I’ve learned that clergy bend and break such vows all the time for various reasons without much of a peep or qualm. Bishops and clergy turn a blind eye to the preaching and teaching and practicing of doctrines contrary to our Book of Discipline often enough that it should not be considered exceptional that it happens.

No, my problem with Talbert’s argument and actions runs deeper than that. My problem has to do with what people do with the bodies God has given them. My problem is that there are certain combinations of human sex organs and other body parts that Talbert deems blessed and I cannot. I’ve tried to get where Talbert wants me to go. Because I cannot get there, he calls me a perpetrator of injustice and evil. These are things I do not wish to be. I’d like to be able to cry “peace, peace.” But I have no peace. I cannot arrive at any conviction other than the one that says sodomy is a sin.

My problem is not that he is breaking vows. It is that he is encouraging sin. He is applauding as men and women leap into the pit.

Of course, he disagrees with me on this point — perhaps on many levels. But his disapproval and the disapproval of many other men and women I respect cannot change the conviction I have when I try to work through this matter. My conscience is captive to what I understand the Word of God to teach.

I may be wrong. I may one day be deemed unfit for ministry in the United Methodist Church because of this. I know I will disqualify myself from serving in many of our pulpits by writing this. And I know I strain my relationships with people I like and respect.

But I cannot applaud when a member of the clergy encourages sin. And my conscience will not let me name these forms of sex as anything else.

I do not share any of this with glee or relish writing about it, but it appears to me that events will require that we examine our own consciences.  I’d like to find a soft, middle ground where I can stand without offending or upsetting anyone. But more and more, it seems such a place does not exist. And so, this is where I stand. God help me.

Does the UMC hate Jerry Maguire?

I was reading through the United Methodist Social Principles. Yes, I do that from time to time. This time, I came across this sentence that I had not noticed before in the paragraph about women and men:

We especially reject the idea that God made individuals as incomplete fragments, made whole only in union with another.

This is arguing with Plato, right? He had the idea that people are divided wholes that only achieve full humanity when matched up with their other half. (Is that where the phrase “my better half” comes from?)

Maybe the church was not targeting Plato here. I could see this being aimed at the notion that single people are somehow missing something essential from their lives. We write about not bad mouthing singleness in other places in the Social Principles. Or is there a notion somewhere that women are incomplete without a man? I don’t know.

Maybe we just don’t like the movie Jerry Maguire.

As you can tell, I’m not sure what this sentence is doing or what evil it is trying to fend off. Whatever it is, we are “especially” opposed to it. Who can help me out? How about a biblical reference while we are at it?

The Bible, sex, and United Methodism

Let’s talk about sex for a moment.

No, not the kind we always write about in the Christian blogosphere. Let’s talk about the 90% or more of the people who engage in sex with those who have different plumbing.

Question: Does God care about sex?

As good United Methodists, we turn first to Scripture as we seek to find answers to this question. You can do the detailed exegesis. I’ll just note here that the overwhelming answer to the question appears to be yes. From the beginning to the end of the Bible we have Yahweh, the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles speaking about sex. I will note that it is overwhelmingly in terms of prohibition and limitations. Sex is polluting, dangerous, and a gateway to idolatry and all manner of sins. Yes, there are some exceptions that get a lot of mileage — kind of reverse clobber passages. But the Scriptural references to sex appear to be mostly about limitations and boundaries rather than celebration.

My sense is that most of our conversation about sex these days has little to do with theology and a great deal to do with biology, sociology, and economics. Without saying it explicitly, we presume that the biblical view of sex was really just a god-talk cover for concerns about patriarchy, disease, and unwanted pregnancy. In our day, where these concerns are more under our control, we can ignore the biblical witness. That seems prudent only if we believe the biblical witness is just a culturally conditioned artifact that has no bearing on our world.

The traditional Christian teaching has long been that sex should be contained within certain bounds, often articulated as heterosexual marriage. I’m not claiming to be an expert on this, but I struggle to see any argument that honors the place of Scripture in our theology that does not start with a deep-seated suspicion about sex and caution about its power as a dark force in our life.

I know this puts me at odds with American popular culture. What I can’t figure out is how to avoid that conflict without undermining Scripture’s role in our theology.