Thursday, August 28, 2008

Let's Pretend. Actually let's not any more

My experience with evangelicals is that there is a game of Let's Pretend afoot that the faith has been largely consistent from the time of Abraham down to the present.

Clearly there is some truth to this, but let's not kid ourselves. Our interpretation of Scripture, our concepts of morality and justice, and many of our doctrines have changed, sometimes drastically over the past two millennia. Not only do we like to believe that extrabiblical concepts like capitalism and democracy were important to ancient Jews and ancient Christians, but we also have changed our understanding the Bible itself.

Honest faith must also admit honest doubt, and honest doubts need to be acknowledged and explored. God is big enough to handle tough questions, and it's not as though he's surprised when we ask them. Refusing to voice them leaves us with unresolved questions and a lingering, festering suspicion that we've been sold a bill of goods.

Satan's one example. Popular Christian culture has a lot to say about the rebellion in heaven, the way the highest of all the angels led a rebellion that ended with a third of the angels cast into hell and becoming demons. This is a great story, and I love it as much as the nice guy, but it's not exactly in the Bible. It's older than John Milton and "Paradise Lost," but as far as I can tell, the story first gained traction a few centuries after the canon was complete.

The gospel presentation has changed too. These days we share the gospel by describing how all have sinned against God, putting us under sentence of death because God is holy and cannot abide the presence of sin or sinful people. The good news is that Christ stepped in and took that punishment in our place, satisfying God's need for justice, so that we can be spared the pains of hell as long as we accept Jesus as our personal savior.

That's quite a bit different from the older doctrine of Christus Victor. It also differs quite significantly from the first recorded creed "If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved. For it is with the heart that you believe and are justified, and with the mouth that you confess and are saved" (1 Corinthians 10:9-10).

Unlike our modern gospel presentation, which requires personal confession of sin, there's nothing in that creed about confessing sin. It's all about confessing Jesus' sovereignty and resurrection. See the difference?

There's also the matter of sexual mores and morality. For centuries, the Christian concept of marriage looked radically different from our Western norm of getting married in church before having sex. In older times, couples would cohabitate and have children before getting their union blessed by the a priest, sometimes years later. The church in some parts of Christian Europe even recognized trial marriages that aren't that different from today's practice of premarital cohabitation.

Nowadays it's heterosexual married families ├╗ber alles. The insistence on marriage-vows-first very well may be closer to what God desires, but I don't think we're kidding anyone but ourselves when we claim that the way we do things now in the West is how they've always been done or properly should be done always.

And so it is with hell. When Jesus talks about hell, he's describing the city dump outside Jerusalem. When we talk about hell with its picturesque and exquisitely grotesque torments for the dammed that go on day and night without stop, we're influenced by the Dante's hauntingly beautiful poetry in "The Divine Comedy."

We owe it to ourselves to do better than supporting a folk version of Christianity. It's essential to chase down the original meaning and intent of the Scriptures. Scrape away the barnacles and see what the hull of the ship is like underneath.

What does the Bible really say about hell, about heaven, about demons, about Jesus, and about even itself?

One quick example of how hell has been developed, away from the biblical teaching. Matthew 25 shows the exalted Son of Man judging the nations, and separating them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. To the goats, the wicked, he says, "Depart from me into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels."

The funny thing is, the audience to that particular speech was a group of people who clearly believed in him. They recognized the Lord when they saw him, and asked in bewilderment, "But did we not heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons in your name?" If the term Christian has any meaning in the context of that parable, this group was in like Flynn.

Or there's the servant -- not an enemy, but a servant -- whose talent of gold is taken away and given to another; the servant whose debt was forgiven and then was beaten and thrown into prison. I've never heard these understood as anything but metaphors for hell, and yet the people being thrown there are all servants of the king/master/lord, thereby marking them as people whom today we would identity as Christians. So who is hell for?

Quite often, the Bible does not say what we have been taught to think it does, and though the investigation often leaves me with more questions than answers, I find that I prefer the uncertainty of faith to the cold hard certainty of what I was once taught to settle for.

We've been playing this game of Let's Pretend for far too long. Isn't it time to rediscover for ourselves what the Bible really says, and let that shape our faith?

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mike and me

Several years ago, my friend Mike told me that he was transgendered.

At the time, I recall, it made little impression on me. He's a good friend of mine, and I knew he was a good person, and that was what mattered. I didn't know much about gender dysphoria, only the old cliche erroneously attached to homosexuals, about "being a woman in a man's body." We had some lengthy discussions pertaining about gender and identity, and life moved on. He was determined to remain a man for the sake of their three children, and that appeared to be that.

Of course, where identity is concerned, that is never that. When a person is required to be something other than what they are, the strain of the pretense builds over time and takes its toll in one area or another. Depression and withdrawal ensued, demanding their pound of flesh from his marriage and every other relationship he had.

And so, some months ago, Mike decided it was time to begin transitioning. He started taking antiandrogens, a prescription drug that suppresses male hormones, and something broke that had survived fifteen years of a sometimes tumultuous marriage. Earlier this year, Mike and his wife, Lynn, formally separated. He moved into an apartment of his own, started taking female hormones, and began going out increasingly as Shelly.

It's been rough. While she has found several transgendered friends in the city where she lives, Shelly has had to face the bigotry of people who see her as a predator or a pervert. Her own parents recently cut her out of the will without even having the courage or the decency to tell him in person that they were doing so. Her father had the indecency to heap abuse on her when she decloseted herself to them about four months ago, calling her a despicable parent who was abandoning her kids, when the truth is that she's probably more involved now -- still as a father -- than when she lived in the house with them. The sickening irony here is that her father has been emotionally distant, verbally abusive, adulterous and a drunk most of Shelly's life -- and yet he has the audacity to lecture Shelly on how she's a bad parent.

And, despicably, a minister told Shelly's mom that they were right to disown her, that it was what God would want them to do. I don't get that. I really don't. Where does Jesus advocate or model any such moralistic stance with anyone? The gospels present Jesus as someone who stands by people, no matter what. Prostitutes, adulterers, thieves and lepers with hideous open sores all felt comfortable and welcome in his presence.

And so, even as people ask me how I can do it, I'm standing by Shelly, because she's been my friend for years. I can't imagine not sticking by her. I've been genuinely upset by some of the stuff that other people have done in reaction to this decision to transition, but all the same ... I feel rather left adrift at sea by this whole thing.

It's odd in some ways that it's rattled me this much. I've had other friends, both men and women, tell me that they're gay, and it didn't even make me blink. In some cases, we've become better friends afterward. I've known Mike [Shelly] is transgendered for years, and yet this turn of events has left me unsteady, uncertain and, in a sense, staggering. I intend to stand by her, because we've known each other for so long and have always been close, but it's a challenge all the same. As much as I'm supportive of her, I just don't "get" it, probably because I've never felt that I was anything but a guy. It's a mystery to me how she can feel that she's actually a woman in a man's body and that these exterior changes are changing anything.

Yet there's no denying that she's happier, and more alive than I've seen her for years. I'm glad she's got friends, and I'm glad she's found a support network, and I'm glad that I can continue to be a friend for her. I'm glad she's willing to take the risk on me that I won't be a royal bastard and dump her too, to escape having to deal with my own confusion over her gender identity.

In the end, after all, my confusion is my problem and not hers, and given that she's paying such a heavy price for her own situation, it would be unfair and unreasonable to demand that she pay mine as well.

I just wish there were a chart for these waters I find myself sailing with her. I wish the sun were out, and that these uncertain clouds weren't darkening the sky. I wish I knew where we were going, and I hope the ship is seaworthy enough to get us there.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.