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Archive for December, 2005

Jesus the Bastard?

Episcopal priest and mother of two, Chloe Breyer, speculates about the illegitimacy of Jesus in her Slate.com article, The Earthly Father – What if Mary wasn’t a virgin? [H/T: T-19]

The allegations as to Jesus’ illegitimate birth go way, way back, to the Jewish leaders of the first century, and the anti-Christian polemicist, Celsus. Such charges have been revived in our day via the “historical Jesus” quest and its postmodern manifestation in the Jesus Seminar. The claim is that Mary was pregnant with Jesus by another man than her betrothed, Joseph–in one accounting by Panthera, a Roman soldier. The Christians, then, to cover over this embarrassing detail for one who was supposed to be the Son of God, claimed a miraculous virgin birth.

But what’s at stake in all this? Why does the Creed insist on asserting the virginity of Mary? Is this just a bunch of dogmatic fundamentalism? Is it really necessary to Christian faith to believe in the virginity of Mary? Is this a core Gospel doctrine? What would it really matter if we allowed some good-hearted quibbling on Mary’s virginity?

After all, if Orthodoxy insists on a virginal conception so as to safeguard Jesus’ divinity by excluding human paternity, then, according to Rev. Breyer:

The illegitimacy tradition, by contrast, holds that the Holy Spirit supplemented, rather than replaced, Jesus’ human paternity.

And isn’t that sort of what the Holy Spirit does for us?

Therein lies the most important of two immediate problems for those who want to deny Mary’s virginal conception: Jesus then becomes just like us. Period. Full stop. Just: Like us. This is the problem that makes this some other Gospel than the one received from the Apostles: it means Christ is not by nature God. He is only God by adoption. And if he is not really God by nature, we are not really saved.

More on the implications in a moment.

First a little background on how a minister, claiming the Christian faith, can boldly argue for the legitimacy of this as an alternative form of Christian faith. Breyer gets the bulk of her ruminations here from Dr. Jane Schaberg’s 1987 book (excerpts of which can be found here).

In 1987, Schaberg, a biblical studies professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, published The Illegitimacy of Jesus. Her central argument was that Matthew and Luke’s Gospels originally told of an illegitimate conception rather than a miraculous virgin one.

Breyer then rehearses the “few short passages in two of the four Gospels” which provide the sources for the virginal conception of Mary.

In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph, who is perplexed about his fiancee’s pregnancy. Should he divorce Mary or have her stoned her to death, as the law of Deuteronomy requires? “Joseph, Son of David,” says the angel, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” The angel then goes on to quote the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” (In fact, “virgin” comes from Matthew’s use of a Greek mistranslation; the Hebrew in Isaiah reads “young girl.”) The version in Luke is similar.

One first of all notes the simple assertion that parthenos “mistranslates” the Hebrew. Of course Rev. Breyer fails to note that the texts of the Greek Septuagint, from which Matthew takes his citation of Isaiah, are generally a millennium older than our Hebrew manuscripts. She also fails to note that of all the instances of “almah” in the Hebrew, of which there are seven, none refer to a married woman or one who has had sexual relations. In fact, in Gen 24, both “almah” (young woman, v. 43) and “bethulah” (virgin, v. 16) are applied to Rebecca. And the Septuagint translates “almah” in Gen 24:43 with “parthenos” just as it does in Isaiah 7:14.

But this is the necessary method of operation for those who are offering interpretations alternative to and opposing the tradition: first instill skepticism and doubt. Call “parthenos” of Isaiah 7:14 a mistranslation–which also calls into question the inspired nature of the biblical text–and the wedge of doubt has been set.

Breyer continues:

So far, the Scripture sounds pretty clear. But the infancy narratives from Matthew and Luke must be squared with some startling silences, alternative Greek translations, and a couple of snide comments from Jesus’ hometown critics. Paul never mentions the virgin conception and in Galatians describes Christ as “born of a woman.” John’s Gospel says nothing on the subject of Jesus’ conception. And Mark describes the shocked response of the synagogue-goers of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth when Jesus as an adult returns to preach and teach as God’s chosen one. The Nazareth Jews presumably would have known better than anyone about the irregular timing of Jesus’ birth. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” his parents’ neighbors ask one another. Since Jewish men of the time were identified in relationship to their father, Schaberg and other scholars take this remark as an insinuation about Jesus’ parentage—one that was so offensive that the later Evangelists Luke, Matthew, and John changed it.

Note that this alternative interpretation has exploited the opportunity that “silence” affords to fill in the gaps. There is no evidence whatsoever in silence. It is just that: silence.

So, two Gospels mention it, as do the earliest accounts we have outside the Scriptures. But because two Gospels don’t mention, nor does St. Paul, then one apparently is justified in flatly contradicting the explicit evidence of the other Gospels, for the sake of a speculation.

And there’s more. When Mary responds to the angel’s good tidings in Luke, one translation of her speech is, “How can this be, I do not know a man?” But in the Greek, the word for man is anthropos, which also means “husband.” Schaberg suggests that if this is the meaning Luke intended, the text could imply that Jesus had a human father who was not Joseph. Finally, in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving to God, she says, “God has lifted up his humble maidservant.” The Greek word for “humble” is the same one that the Septuagint (the old Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) uses to describe the rape of Dinah in Genesis and other incidents of sexual violation. From this, Schaberg discerns the possibility that Mary’s “humility” could be “humiliation” from a sexual assault.

Here is the second tactic after one exploits the silences. Note secondary meanings, and assert them as primary ones. I haven’t done a linguistic check on the use of “humility” in the Septuagint, but I suspect it is used of more than just persons violated sexually. No matter: it’s a possible meaning. And since it is possible, it must be legitimately viable.

But this is tantamount to saying that, since the statement “Clifton claimed that God had made him rich with many blessings” could mean that God had made me financially wealthy, then it must be the fact that I’m financially wealthy. (Won’t Anna be surprised!) Or since “blue” can mean sad, one could suggest that saying “The sky is blue” means the heavens are sad. To claim, in the face of the evidence and the history, that it’s possible that Jesus was not conceived virginally, is to make possibility tantamount to lunacy.

But of course, it’s all just conjecture. No harm in a little speculating right?

Admittedly, Schaberg’s conjecture that the Gospel writers were obliquely conveying an illegitimacy tradition—one in which Mary was the victim of rape or seduction—is just that: conjecture. It lacks positive corroboration within the Gospels or other Christian writings. Schaberg acknowledges that she cannot prove that early Christians read the infancy narratives in the way she proposes. Still, if the Gospel writers did assume that their readers knew of an illegitimacy tradition, their words could support a figurative, rather than literal, reading of the angel’s annunciation. It seems rash to rule out that historical possibility when theologically it works so well.

Ah, but here’s the thing: Theologically it doesn’t work so well. In fact, it doesn’t work at all.

For the Gospel is about each of us being made one with God through Jesus Christ (John 17:20-26), to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4). God is utterly holy and other. Even if human beings were not sinful, God’s holiness would utterly set him apart from us. We would be and are always other than God, we are creatures and he is the Creator. But Jesus says we are to be one with God. And St. Peter claims we are to be partakers of the divine nature. The only way for this union to happen is for humanity and divinity to be fully united in the Person of Jesus Christ. If Jesus was not virginally conceived by the Holy Spirit, then he is not fully God. If he is fully but only a man who has been granted God’s likeness but not his essence, then not even he can unite us to God, for even Jesus remains always wholly other than God as a creature. If Jesus is fully man, then there is no one in whom we can be united to God.

Only the virgin conception allows for Jesus to be both essentially, by nature, God and essentially, by nature, man. Only the virgin conception allows for Jesus to bring union to the human and divine natures. And only in our union with Jesus, who is both God and man, can we have union with God.

Secondly, if Jesus is wholly humanly begotten, and is not therefore God in essence or nature, and if he was only adopted by God through the Holy Spirit, then humanity is not really fallen or sinful. We can, as we are, be adopted by God–though not united to him. Human nature does not need to change, since it can be adopted by God, as he did in Jesus Christ. But if human nature need not change, then we are ever condemned to our sinfulness and to our mortality and death.

Breyer then asks a series of questions:

Can a loyal Christian believe that Christ was not born of a biological virgin?

No. It removes any possibility of union with God in Christ.

Perhaps it’s worth posing a different question: Why is church authority so intent upon Mary’s virginity as a historical fact?

Because it is the only Gospel which saves us and does not leave us in sin and death.

Would Jesus be any less God’s son if he had an earthly father?

Yes, because he would lack the nature and essence of God the Father.

The central message of the Gospel is that God raised up and redeemed his servant from death by crucifixion—the Roman style of execution reserved for the lowest of the low. Why couldn’t God have sent the same message of divine solidarity with the world’s outcasts by making a Messiah out of a man whose conception was also taboo?

Because divine solidarity does not happen by fiat, but by participation. And only Jesus is the perfect union of God and man in which we can have that participation.

Good news to remember at this time of the year. I may be getting ahead of myself liturgically, but in light of the examination of the heresy examined above perhaps I may be forgiven:

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

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First there was this.

Sofie at about four months, Christmas 2003.

Now there’re these.

Delaina at about five months, Christmas 2005

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From an interview with James Stenson, The Role of Father as Family Protector, on men’s duties.

It’s important that we see the role of a father’s protection in a broad sense, not just as physical protection from harm.

When we look at the very important ways a man protects his family, we can better understand the dire effects in today’s families caused by the man’s absence — either physical or moral — in family life.

So, what are the different forms of this manly protection?

First of all, a family man devotes his manly powers to protect his wife from anyone who would threaten her. It seems to be a natural instinct among males, to protect the women in their lives — wife, mother, sisters, daughters — from outsiders’ aggression.

For instance, if a man were standing next to his wife in a crowd and some male stranger turned to speak loudly and angrily toward her, the husband would instantly rise in rage to her defense. Adrenaline would rush through his blood, his muscles would tighten and his first impulse would be to rearrange the aggressor’s face.

No self-respecting man would stand by and let anyone treat his wife with disrespect. He would take swift action to defend her.

Related to this physical protection is another aspect of a man’s protectiveness, one that fathers today often fail to understand. A man permits no one to threaten or upset his wife — and this includes their own children.

A hugely important part of a father’s job is to defend his wife against their children’s rudeness, insolent disobedience and impulsive aggression. This protection counts most to his wife when the children are small — under 7 years of age — and later when they enter adolescence. A man will permit no one to disrespect his wife, including — and even especially — at home.

A man also defends his family through what he earns in his work. That is, he doesn’t just provide for his family; he protects them from poverty. He shelters them, takes care of their needs for a roof, food and clothing. While Dad has a job, the family feels secure. Even in a two-income home, it seems, children sense that Dad is the main provider, and therefore the family’s main protector.

Moreover, he protects his children from forces that threaten them here and now: drugs, bullies, criminals, unjust aggressors of all types and potential disasters arising from their inexperience and impulsive mistakes — such as dashing out into traffic or playing with matches. . . .

For instance, if a father glanced out his living room window and spotted a male stranger chatting with his small daughter, coyly beckoning to her, he would swiftly lunge into defensive action. He’d race out the door, stride aggressively toward the stranger, then confront the man and demand to know what he wanted. With muscles taut, he would stand between his daughter and this potential aggressor, physically shielding her from harm.

Another example: When his teen-age daughter is being picked up for a date, a father goes out of his way to size up the young man she’s going out with. He wants to meet him — insists on meeting him — to look him in the eye and intuitively size up his intentions and his worth. A father senses a duty to assess any young male who approaches his daughter. An unspoken message seems to pass between them: “She’s my daughter. Treat her nicely, kid, or else …”

But most of all — and this is crucially important — a father protects his children by strengthening their judgment and will so they can later protect themselves. In the lives of his children, he asserts loving leadership toward responsible, competent adulthood.

It is a father’s mission — the challenge that brings out the best in him — to form in his children the powers and attitudes they will need to succeed in life, to strengthen them so they in turn can later protect themselves and their own loved ones.

So, in his children’s eyes a great father is a lifelong leader and teacher. His protective, empowering lessons about right and wrong live on in the inner lives of his children, long after they’ve left home for good, and indeed long after he has passed to his eternal reward. A great father never stops being a father, for he lives on as a great man in the hearts of his children. . . .

A father strengthens his children’s competence. He forms lifelong healthy attitudes to work, along with serious habits of work. Without a father’s leadership in this arena, his kids can have trouble grasping the connection between effort and results, between standards and achievement.

If he fails here, his children may never outgrow the dominant attitude of childhood — that life is play — and remain stuck in a permanent adolescence.

He teaches respect for rightful authority. He insists that his children respect and obey him and their mother. His wife sets most of the moral tone for the household — what’s right and wrong in family life — and he enforces it.

Being smart and far-seeing, he knows that when children fail to respect their parents, they can later clash with all other forms of rightful authority: teachers, employers, the law, God’s law and their own conscience.

A father teaches his children ethics and gives final form to their lifelong conscience. That is, he shows his sons and daughters how to comport themselves justly and honorably in the world outside the home.

In his children’s eyes, he is an expert on fair dealings and personal integrity in the workplace and community. He shows his kids how their mother’s moral teachings carry over later to life outside the home: telling the truth, keeping one’s word, putting duty first, deferring to others’ rights and feelings. . . .

A father builds healthy self-confidence in children. His presence around the home as a physically strong man leads his children — daughters especially — to feel safe, securely protected and therefore self-confident.

As a father, he corrects and encourages, and he helps his children to learn from their mistakes. In this way, he leads his children to form a realistic sense of their strengths and limitations.

Youngsters who receive this protective fatherly love, along with self-knowledge and experience with problem-solving at home, eventually form a lifelong self-confidence.

A father leads his children to adult-level sound judgment and shrewdness. He helps them to use their brains like responsible adults: to frame questions and answers logically, to think ahead and foresee consequences, to assess people’s character and values, and to know malarkey when they see it.

A father provides an attractive example of responsible masculinity. He acts as a model for his sons’ growth into manhood. And he conveys to his daughters — most often unconsciously — the traits they should look for in judging the character of men their age, especially suitors for marriage.

In countless subtle ways, Dad forms a pattern for manly character in each of his sons and, indirectly, for the kind of man each daughter will someday marry. . . .

Men who live as great husbands and fathers enjoy the lifelong love and deepest respect from their children. They have a unity of life — the welfare of their families — and therefore a peace of mind throughout their lives.

Their powers, their work accomplishments, their friendships with other men all come together to give their life meaning and a profound happiness.

One is tempted to cite the whole thing. Go and read the rest at the link above.

[H/T: Mere Comments]

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The Astonishing Christ

Let me commend to your listening attention (all links mp3 and will open in your mp3 player):

The Astonishing Christ (Session I)
The Astonishing Christ (Session II)
The Astonishing Christ (Session III)

[H/T Journeyman James and Huw]

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Wonderful Gifts

We met with Father Patrick last night at the end of which meeting Father gave me two items that he’d collected on his visit to Alaska earlier this year. He’d told me about the gifts earlier, shortly after he returned home, but I haven’t seen him outside of services (except for one meeting), and just kept forgetting to ask him about them. Last night I remembered.

Father Patrick was able to visit the grave of our American patron saint, Father Herman of Alaska. He took away from it a pine cone from right where the grave is located, and a stone from the beach where St. Herman would embark in his kayak out onto the open sea. I am grateful, and even more so that Father made a point to collect these things for me and our Father Deacon (who received his own relics). Of course, these items went immediately to our icon “corner” (our faux mantlepiece on the east wall of our apartment). They sit in front of my paper icon of St. Herman.

That’s what I love about Orthodoxy, the whole tangible reality of the faith. The sanctity of the spirit passes to the body and to those objects associated with the sanctified spirit. Oil in a vigil lamp burning at the grave site of the holy one itself becomes holy, itself partakes of the sanctification. A stone worn smooth by endless years of weather, against which it is just possible the kayak carrying St. Herman on his many adventures scraped is granted a foretaste of that for which it voiceless groans with all creation. The pine cone, nourished by the water drawn up from the earth which cradles the holy body of our Father Herman, drinks in that blessedness that only God gives.

And now these humble objects, otherwise overlooked and ignored, become “graced” and carry that grace to a small mantle in Chicago in a humble apartment of a small family.

Wonder. Full.

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The Contradictions Aren’t Addressed

Have you seen the New York magazine’s article, The New Underground Abortion Railroad: Destination NYC? It’s meant to be a fluffy, warm-the-cockles-of-yer-liberal-progressive-heart story, a sort of abortion advocate pat-self-on-back memo, about a group of abortion advocates who provide overnight housing for girls and women seeking late-term abortions. But the contradictions come through in glaring technicolor.

Consider this paragraph giving a brief description of the group’s origins. Don’t miss that last sentence and its concluding parenthetical note:

Five years ago, Catherine Megill, a then-23-year-old counselor at a Manhattan abortion clinic, heard about a patient who couldn’t afford a hotel and was going to be sleeping on the street unless someone offered her a couch. Megill offered, and later she began asking friends to do the same. By mid-2001, her project had a name, Haven, and a half-dozen volunteers. It now has about 100 members and is the only group of its kind in the country. “You’ve heard of ‘armchair liberalism,’ ” goes the recruiting pitch. “But have you given any thought to ‘futon liberalism’?” Some 2,000 women have late-term abortions in New York City every year. This year, Haven members have opened their homes to 125 of them (including a 10-year-old).

Ten year old?! Late-term abortion?! Would this possibly involve a failure to report statutory rape? Perhaps someone did report the rape, and that’s why the little girl was there. The article doesn’t say anything more about it. But the article strongly gives the notion of a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy among Haven volunteers. It also gives the strong impression that most clients want anonymity and secrecy.

There are more contradictions.

Late-term abortion is serious, hard-core. At 24 weeks, a fetus is at the same stage of development as those gruesome images shown on pro-lifers’ protest placards. “The last woman I hosted showed me her sonogram,” says Jennifer, a 26-year-old host who lives in Carroll Gardens. “Then she pointed out that the fetus was a boy. God! I didn’t know what to say.”

Every once in a while, after hosting a guest, I have bad dreams about sick babies. I have to remind myself that my dreams are just dreams, and that they’re less important than my guests’ realities.

I can only guess that both these Haven volunteers’ reactions are nothing more than their consciences trying to force on their reason the reality of what is happening. The author of the article at least voluntarily stifles that stirring of conscience for rationalization.

She’s right about one thing, though. Late term abortion is serious business. As is all abortion. We would do well to explore and exploit these existential contradictions so that the light of truth can expose the evil act that abortion is.

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Seraphim, as usual, reminds me to play nice. And if anyone has the street cred to ask this (not that he should need it), it’s Seraphim.

I suppose my dilemma is twofold: [A] If we cannot be critical (and I’m not saying Seraphim is saying we can’t) of the em church, then there can be no open dialogue between those of us in Orthodoxy (or the Roman Catholic Church) and the em church. Furthermore, they are certainly critical, if not of us, at least of those things that are integral to our beliefs; such as the absolute and nonnegotiable belief in the full humanity and full deity of Jesus, the Sacraments, the perpetual virginity of our Most Holy Lady, and so on. But mostly, if all we can do is lob niceties each other’s way, then both of us are being fake and hypocritical. True relationship demands truth, and truth obligates us to be critical where that is warranted. But . . .

If one is critical, then one is perceived to be and often called judgmental, or thought to not be playing nice, or elevating truth over love, or what have you.

So, the first horn of the dilemma is that if one cannot be critical there’s no real anything going on: no relating, no truth, no love.

Other horn:

[B] But if one is going to be critical, one ought be accurate and truthful. So when we read or otherwise conversate with em churchers and we see instance after example of near-denial of the central tenets of the faith AND yet we are supposed to give acknowledgement that this is what the Holy Spirit is doing–and we are critical of that . . . then we are told that this is not characteristic of the entire em church movement, that the em church movement is much more diverse than that, and so on. It’s rather like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

So, in sum: We can’t be critical because that’s not nice. But we also can’t be critical because our criticisms don’t apply to the entire em church movement.

Nice gig if you can get it, I suppose.

I just find this sort of thing unworkable. For em churchers to (as it appears to me) hide behind a “that’s not true of the whole movement” disclaimer is, I think, disingenuous. For what we see of the movement is precisely the things we criticize. If the em church is truthfully not generally like that, then a vocal minority is stealing the press and creating false images, and there ought be some vocalizations out there to the extent, “This is only a minority of the em church phenomenon.” On the other hand, if the the things we criticize the em church for are, in fact, generally true, then our criticisms ought be acknowledged to hold true for the em church in general. It remains then for those who are the exceptions to say, “We’re not like that,” in which case one wonders whether they ought label themselves as “emergent.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the search, for pity’s sake. I know about the search. I’ve lived the search. By all means, genuinely, really, wholeheartedly strike out going you know not wither and search. But don’t institutionalize the search . . . for Christ’s sake. Get rid of the conferences, the books, the marketings, the media and tech budget, the labels, the jargon, the no-caps. Just search. Search the hell out of it. And if you’re reaching out to those who are searching, then don’t sell them into a slavery of labels, marketing and external identities, built on copycatting the secular pop culture. Let them leave postmodernism, progressivism, activism and all other isms that are standing in for the only true and worthy object of their search.

For Christ’s sake.

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