A Corinthian Conversation

I am part of an interfaith peer group through Andover Newton and Hebrew College’s CIRCLE program (Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education). The group is called “Engaging Sacred Sources of Violence” and we examine scripture, rituals, and stories from the Jewish and Christian traditions that are violent or otherwise not life-affirming for women. Julie, an ANTS student, and Salem, a rabbinical student at HC, are the two intelligent and thoughtful CIRCLE Fellows and co-leaders for this peer group. When we met in February, I was asked to lead the discussion and chose to examine 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, part of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, as recorded in the New Testament. Last month our conversation around this text was so engaging that we could not get to all of the material in just 45 minutes, so we continued our discussion today. The text is as follows:

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husbanda is the head of his wife,b and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflectionc of God; but woman is the reflectiond of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol ofe authority on her head,f because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

a The same Greek work means man or husband
b Or head of the woman
c Or glory
d Or glory
e Greek lacks a symbol of
f Or have freedom of choice regarding her head

Obviously this is a difficult text, especially for women. I mean, verse 7 alone: “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man”… ouch. I wish I had the space (and your attention span!) to recount everything that I researched and, more importantly, everything that we discussed about this passage over two different sessions. If I was going to share everything…

…We could go in depth about the historical, geographical, and religious context of the Corinthian church to whom this letter was written: what head coverings and hairstyles meant and symbolized for the rituals of Greek and Roman religions, and how physical gender differentiation was important for many writers of that time, not just Paul.

…Furthermore, we might examine the rhetorical devices and language that Paul uses in this text: how he balances and frames his argument (when men pray with their heads uncovered, they pray properly, but when women pray with their heads uncovered, they are not praying properly), how certain Greek words can have various English translations and what those translations imply about the meaning of the passage (biblical scholars have found verse 10 to be an especially tricky verse to translate).

…We could also note how Paul appears to change his mind halfway through this text. He does argue in in verses 8 and 9 that “man was not made from woman but woman from man” and “neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” These words are troubling to hear, no doubt. But just a few sentences later… “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman but all things come from God.” This is a striking reversal of the statement he just made in verses 8 and 9, implying mutuality or even equality between men and women. So what does Paul really think about relationships between men and women in this passage, let alone his thoughts on head coverings? If you really look, it is challenging to come up with one argument to sum it all up, without any sort of nuance or qualifiers.

Now, I know that an in-depth text study might not be the thing that you are most excited to read about (what can I say… seminarians and rabbinical students tend to like this sort of thing). But what made our discussions around this passage so engaging, and what I hope you’ll find interesting as well, was not so much the text per se, but the individuals and perspectives in the conversation itself. We discussed varying values and authority of scripture, how Jews and Christians look at and understand their sacred texts in different ways, and how we use scripture in worship and in our personal and daily lives.

For example, Salem shared that, in some Jewish communities, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is read in worship all the way through in a year. This means that (theoretically) all Jews read and hear each part of the Torah at least once a year, including the texts that are encouraging and affirming, and also the texts that are troubling, confusing, or violent. In one way, this can be empowering because even if each specific passage is not preached on, you still hear each passage, and, as Salem put it, “the onus is on all the people,” to hear and acknowledge each part of the Torah. Yet as Salem reminded us, the fact that each year the community is “forced” to listen to certain stories and passages without much choice could also be considered a kind of violence.

In turn, Julie and I thought about the practice of reading scripture in Christian worship, and the variations of doing so. Some churches follow the lectionary, where the texts and scripture lessons are already planned, and any Christian community anywhere in the world who is following that lectionary is hearing and preaching on the same text that day. This has many similarities to the reading of the Torah that Salem described. Other churches (like the Church of the Brethren) do not follow a lectionary, and thus pastors and worship leaders choose which passage and lesson will be the focus of worship each week. Some of the questions we raised were: What does it mean when a faith community can pick and choose which passages to read? Is there freedom or is there censorship in those choices? Life-affirming or not, who gets to decide which texts are preached on and which texts are ignored or never taught?

But really, you’re asking…what does all this have to do with this passage from 1 Corinthians? Well, for one, we were wondering what we might do with a passage like this on a Sunday morning, a passage that clearly gives some mixed messages about gender relations, but also has significant theological implications that have been pervasive throughout church history. Some of the theology of this text (God > Christ > Man > Woman, in verse 3) has been used to justify gendered hierarchy within the church, patriarchy in Christendom and beyond, and oppression and violence toward women because they are not “in the image and reflection of God” as men are, according to verse 7 of this passage. But as Christians we cannot deny that such a troubling passage is still part of our sacred scriptures. Do we say that this theology and this specific passage is sacred? From the pulpit? (What about in a bible study, or during a one-on-one with a women who has experienced domestic violence?) Or do we choose to reject this passage and passages like it as being from a different time and culture than ours and therefore irrelevant and untrue in the 21st century world? Or do we intentionally choose to engage with this text, examine the complexities and nuance in the words and translation, acknowledge and lament the ways in which this text has been used to subjugate and harm women, and work as a community to figure out if or how 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 can be part of our holy and sacred scriptures?

If you couldn’t tell, I am just brushing up against the surface of what is really an iceberg of a discussion. There is so much more that could be said, and I’m choosing a small part to share with you here. Also, I am not claiming in any way to have this figured out, for myself or others. But I’m curious: what do you think? If you are a Christian, has this text (or texts like it) ever been preached on or discussed in your church or bible study? Have you yourself preached on this text? How might this passage be handled in a faith community that also considers other, life-affirming words of Paul (such as Galatians 3:28) to be inspired teaching? If you are committed to a different faith or worldview than Christianity, how does your community approach challenging texts or sacred sources that justify or at least imply subjugation, oppression, or violence?

Thanks for learning with me, and supporting my ongoing lessons about God, faith, and community.


Spring! …Semester, That Is

Spring has sprung! At least for the academic year, anyway. (The current temperature begs to differ.) I’m gearing up for what looks to be an exciting semester, and before things become too hectic around here, I thought I’d share a little about what I have to look forward to and what’s been on my mind.

I’m taking 4 courses again, and continuing to work as a cashier in the campus dining hall. In addition to classes and work, I am also becoming more involved in an interfaith peer group through a program of Andover Newton and Hebrew College called CIRCLE (Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education). This semester I am very happy that I am able to participate in the community choir that sings at our weekly worship services. Oh, and did I mention that throughout the semester I will be researching, interviewing, and eventually confirming a ministry site where I’ll complete next year’s required field education? There are many exciting possibilities that this spring will bring!

My classes this semester include: Introduction to Christian Social Ethics (which involves reading important people like Reinhold Niebuhr and Chimamanda Adichie); A Hundred Years of Preaching: 20th Century U.S. Sermons (paying special attention to progressive mainline preaching, Pentecostal preaching, and African-American preaching); Jesus, Paul, and Judaism (a New Testament course examining how Judaism influenced Jesus and Paul in the shaping of early Christianity); and Understanding Interfaith (an online course that unpacks “interfaith” personally, historically, theologically, and practically). Sounds like a fun course load to me!

Just a FEW of my books for the semester

Just a FEW of my books for the semester

I mentioned that I am part of an interfaith peer group through the CIRCLE program. The topic for my group is Engaging Sacred Sources of Violence, and it is co-led by an MA student from Andover Newton and a rabbinical student from Hebrew College. The goal is to explore and interrogate sources from our Christian and Jewish traditions that are not and have not been interpreted as life affirming for women, and this includes not just scripture but also traditions and practices. On Monday I am taking a turn leading our discussion, and in preparation I’ve been researching 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, where Paul writes about women covering their heads while they pray. (If you aren’t sure what this passage has to do with violence, go ahead and read it… Or better yet, perhaps I will blog about it in the future!) This group has been a great way to form significant relationships and to immerse myself in a different type of learning outside of the classroom setting. I would love to lead a CIRCLE peer group of my own in the future.

All of these priorities and commitments (class, work, CIRCLE, choir, planning for next year…etc. etc. etc.) can add up to very full days and not much room for self-care. And admittedly, at times I can be pretty lax about taking care of ME, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That’s where community and discipline come in to play. In the middle of finals week last December, a few friends of mine decided to be intentional about self-care in community with others. We started a small prayer group where we can come together to care for and hold each other in sacred time and space. Without our trying, it even turned out to be an interfaith group, with two women from the United Church of Christ, two who are Unitarian Universalist, and one who is Church of the Brethren (you get one guess as to who that one is…) But while it might seem like a small thing, what an enormous amount of support and love a group like this can generate. I am so grateful! Additionally I have started practicing yoga most mornings, with the guidance and suggestions of a friend who is trained in yoga therapy. When we met for the first time, she asked me, “Does practicing yoga conflict with any of your Christian beliefs?” In my opinion, for too long the Church has frowned on our earthly bodies, or the “flesh,” as separate and sinful compared to our “spirit.” But to what end? Our bodies are real, our hands serve and our arms hold others in love, our feet walk and run to do the work that brings the restoration of God’s kingdom. By using yoga as a spiritual practice, I do my part to redeem the flesh and body that is mine, to be thankful for my body and my soul that was created in the image of God.

So there are many things to look forward to this semester, and I am grateful to be back in a routine with my classmates and friends. But… can I be honest? I am still worried and can become quite stressed about things that, in all honesty, are out of my control right now. Where will I be and what will I be doing this summer? How can I pay the extra rent to keep my same apartment next year? How much am I in debt, and how much more debt am I accumulating right now? When these questions and concerns arise, I do well to remember that God is faithful. Be still, I read in Psalm 46, and know that I am God. And yet I ask, will you pray with me? Pray that I find Christ’s peace in this time and place, that I feel the Spirit’s assuring presence, and that I rest in God’s faithfulness and promise in this call. Amen and amen. Your prayers are felt and welcomed. Thank you.

One Body, Many Parts

While finding my way in this Andover Newton community, I have had the privilege and joy to listen to stories from many of my new friends and classmates. These stories have been shared both in informal conversations and by listening to each other’s sermons or class discussions. I love hearing the various and unique stories of others. What a special experience, to be invited into each other’s holy histories and lives and, through the act of listening, to become part of those stories.

Most recently, I listened to a friend preach about her theology regarding sacrificial atonement. She told us that sacrificial atonement (the idea that only through Jesus’s blood and sacrificial death on the cross can one find salvation) was never part of her understanding of the Christian story, and explained what that means for her relationship with Christ and with her faith community. I heard pieces from another friend’s journey to this place and how she first unexpectedly heard her call to ministry in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I listened as another friend shared parts of her story and her past that are challenging, and I was inspired to hear her clearly articulate what she continues to learn about herself and the Divine as a result. What all of these stories have in common is that they represent the diversity of experiences and theologies that exist both on our campus and in the wider world.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

These verses have been on my mind lately. Living and studying in a new community as diverse as the one here at ANTS, the image of one body with many parts is appropriate and beautiful. At this seminary, we represent a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs that each contributes a piece to the mosaic of life in community. Some us of grew up in New England; others hail from West Virginia, or Oklahoma, or Texas, or Pennsylvania. Some come from Congregational churches; others are Roman Catholic, or Pentecostal, or Anabaptists. Some of us aren’t Christian, and represent Judaism or Unitarian Universalism. Some are pacifists; others serve in the military or as military chaplains. Some identify as male or female; others identify as neither. Some come from churches or communities that affirm our call to ministry regardless of our sexual orientation; others arrived here answering a call despite facing resistance and discrimination based on who they love. Some resonate with the Christian Trinity: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit as Holy Presence; others aren’t so sure, or don’t use that language, or don’t resonate with that understanding of the Divine at all. Some of us worship through partaking in Eucharist; others find the Holy Presence through music and song.

But despite these differences, do you know what we have in common? As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, we have the same love for each other. If one member of our community rejoices, we rejoice with them. If one member is struggling, we struggle together. The body was not made to be just one part, and we were not made to have the same experiences, theologies, opinions, and callings. Each person, on this campus but also in your congregation, at your workplace, and in your neighborhood, is a different member of the body, and each member is important and valuable as we work for the oneness of the body and the world. Unity and diversity are not opposites. Affirming our commonalities and celebrating our differences: this is one way of how, together, we create the beloved community and work for the kingdom of God.