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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Runway or Runaway Religion? Thoughts on “Christian Fashion”

If Pastor Ed Young's 24-hour "Sexperiment" didn't do it for you, his "Pastor Fashion" gig may...

Some of you have heard about mega-church pastor Ed Young’s latest initiative to coach the church on what to wear and what not to wear.  I was made aware of it through a post by saint and sinner Lance Ford, and admit to being quick to write off Young and his efforts as yet another example of celebrity pastordom gone awry.  (And, they may still be this!)

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Young, who pastors Fellowship Church in Dallas, Texas and Miami, Florida also blogs regularly.  His website, “Pastor Fashion,” is actually a well of resources for fashion-sensitive men and women striving to be hip in a relaxed, trying-to-look-like-they’re-not-trying sort of way.  From what I gather, the site is very popular- and I must confess to having scanned the articles for some help on my own dilemma of the sexy, black dress, which to this day I have yet to find an excuse to wear: http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2011/12/the-minister-and-the-skimpy-dress.html.  (Stay tuned: I may write Ed an open letter to solicit his advice.)

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Then the other day friend and fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell sent on another helpful fashion resource- this time in the form of a female Episcopal priest-blogger who has turned the presentation of women’s clerical collars into more appealing, fashion accents than your average dunce cap.  (And I would argue that it really is about as fashionable to wear a dog collar these days as it once was to march through the streets with a dunce cap on one’s head.  Just think, for example, of the latest intrigue and controversy swirling around the Catholic church regarding a butler-turned-spy and the Pope’s missing papers.  The guilt by association can be unavoidable here for all you dog-collar wearers, and I extend my sympathies.) You can read Erin Jean Ward on clerical fashion and how to redeem the dog collar look in her own words here: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/?s=erin+jean+ward.

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So, where does all of this fashion talk leave us?  Is it all just silly, frivolous chatter? Or, is there something potentially life-giving here for the church and, more importantly, the world?  I would answer, “yes” to the first query, and “maybe” to the second.

To be sure, the question of whether to wear a bolo tie or a Hawaiian shirt to the party is a quintessentially first-world dilemma.  Maybe only in America do we have conversations about whether skinny jeans, testosterone and faith go together.  Elsewhere in the Majority world, where people are fortunate to have two or three outfits that they regularly recycle, and maybe one pair of shoes tops, such “hot-button” subjects on the radio and talk show circuits seem superficial at best.  They are usually a function of a church whose concerns are so totally removed from those of the rest of the world.  At worst, then, these conversations can become an almost diabolical distraction from the things that break God’s heart and should break ours, too.

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Still, I would like to believe that God can use even something as frivolous as fashion to further God’s mission, insofar as God’s mission is as contextual as it is universal.  Because let’s face it: fashion is an issue of concern to much of our wider, Western culture, even if it can also be frivolous.  If we’re not obsessing about how groovy we are, most of us would at least like to think that what we’re wearing matches, or isn’t a throwback to the Middle Ages, not to mention the seventies (although am I right in hearing that the seventies look is coming back?).

I’m still not sure to what extent Ed Young intends for us to take his fashion focus as more than merely tongue-and-cheek engagement with our culture.  (The below video that appeared yesterday on Young’s blog is absolutely hilarious, and I would submit, is a light-hearted way to engage the issue.)  Young seems to be saying, though, that if we Christians don’t look hip or cool, then God won’t, either, which begs the question: do we really want to promote a God who relies on the name brands we wear in order to be more attractive or enticing to people?  Is evangelism just about self-beautification, in the same way that we doll up our church services so that more people will come on Sunday mornings?  I would hope not.  Still, if the question of what to wear was relevant to the apostle Paul in his own time (take, for example, Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians) should it not be relevant for us, too, and if so, how?

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Where I would leave us, though, is with the question of how much this quintessentially first-world dilemma is ultimately, like the barrage of so many other things flung at us in our media-saturated, consumerist culture, just another distraction from God’s mission in Jesus.  The mission that Jesus inaugurates is one of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind and release to the oppressed (Luke 4:18).  And this message is not just for us as first-world Americans but for the whole world.

If the scope and content of this message remain unchanged, how we present it, in our various contexts, will look different.  Our task as the church, then, seems to be one of discernment.  We need to be constantly asking ourselves if how we’re presenting the message is actually furthering or obstructing the content of that message (namely, God’s mission of freeing us and our world from all the powers and principalities that would enslave us).

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Not long ago I was standing in a receiving line after serving as the morning’s guest preacher.  When I preach I am often asked to wear my clerical gown, which these days consists of a man’s hand-me-down robe with shoulder pads that make me feel like I’m playing linebacker for the Saints.  (I guess I’ll have to consult with Erin real soon.) So, on this particular day, in addition to donning the garb of the latest draft pick in football, I had also chosen to wear a pair of stylish, red flats.

An attractive, fashionably dressed older woman came up to shake my hand: “I liked your sermon,” she said, “and I love your shoes!  Where did you get them?”

If truth be told, I appreciated the compliment- although I can’t help but wonder if she spent more time that day thinking about my red shoes (yet another proud yard sale find) than about the sermon.  I seriously hope not, but then again, they were some pretty hip shoes.

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The apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica commends the Thessalonians for letting the real stuff of their lives be the living message of the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 1).  Fashion is fun.  It can even be a way to engage our first-world context with the aesthetics of a God who loves the world He made and paints it in many different forms and colors.  But if fashion as the how of our message becomes mistaken for the content of our message- if it replaces the actual stuff of God’s mission- then we will  ultimately be trading in Christ’s convicting message of grace and truth and a whole world restored for little more than a cheap pair of shoes.

So, what do you think?  Is all this talk about fashion just a cheap distraction from God’s mission? Are there ways it, too, might be conscripted for God’s mission?   If so, how?  Leave your thoughts here.  I’ll compile them and send them along to pastor turned fashion guru Ed.

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Watch Ed Young’s latest video introducing a line of clothes called “Averagé,” a.k.a. “America’s Most Popular Clothing Line,” below: YouTube Preview Image

 

 

 

 

 

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“What Is a Third Place?”

“Third place.”  If it’s not my position in a race to the ice cream running neck and neck with a five-year-old and a two-year-old, what is it? Fellow saint and sinner Lance Ford has posted an enlightening article (credit: Sentralized) on the nature of these “third places.”

And, having read the article, I’m struck by two things in particular: that on a list of our primary gathering places, “church” as it has traditionally been defined doesn’t even make the cut (home, or neighborhood, and places of work, are first and second places, respectively, with cafes, book shops, salons, farmer’s markets, pubs and other communal spaces vying for third); and, second, that according to a description of the eight characteristics of “third places” as defined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his 1999 book, The Great Good Place, “Fellowship of Saints and Sinners” qualifies (albeit as a virtual gathering place).

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All of this to say…I want Fellowship of Saints and Sinners to be that “third place” for us.  A place where we can find safe, neutral ground away from our churches and their tiresome, denominational feuds and political in-fighting.  A place where it doesn’t matter where we come from or what we look like or believe- because ultimately we’re all somewhere on a journey of conversion- and where conversation happens across all these divides.  A place where we can laugh and poke fun at ourselves.  A place where we can ask hard questions and disagree respectfully with one another.  A place where there really aren’t any expectations for showing up- and when we do, we keep it low-key, fun, engaging and conversational, like a home away from home.

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Here are the definition and characteristics of a “third place,” as excerpted from the Sentralized article:

But what exactly is a Third Place? According to Oldenburg the first place is our home and the people with whom we live. The second place is where we work and the place we spend the majority of our waking hours. A Third Place is a public setting that hosts regular, voluntary, and informal gatherings of people. It is a place to relax and have the opportunity to know and be known by others. It is a place people like to “hang out.”

Oldenburg identifies eight characteristics that Third Places share:

  • Neutral Ground. People are free to come and go as they please. There are no time requirements or invitations needed. Much of our lives in first places and second places are structured, but not so in Third Places.
  • Act as a Leveler. People from all walks of life gather in Third Places. There are no social or economic status barriers.
  • Conversation is the Main Activity. The talk is lively, stimulating, colorful, and engaging.
  • Assessable and Accommodating. They tend to be conveniently located, often within walking distance of one’s home.
  • There are Regulars. It is easy to recognize that many patrons are regulars at the establishment. But unlike other places, newcomers are welcomed into the group.
  • Low Profile. As a physical structure, they are typically plain and unimpressive in appearance.
  • Mood is Playful. With food, drink, games, and conversation present, the mood is light and playful. The mood encourages people to stay longer and to come back repeatedly.
  • A Home Away From Home. At their core they are places where people feel at home. They feel like they belong there, and typically have a sense of ownership.

Why is it so important for Christ followers to understand the concept of Third Places? Because the vast majority of people in the United States are living isolated, relationally impoverished lives. And Third Places offer an opportunity for missionally minded people to do life in proximity to others.

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So, my question for you is this: how might Fellowship of Saints and Sinners better live into its identity as a third place? What are some things that we can be doing that we’re not already? What features, ethos, content can we cultivate to make this online gathering place a safe and fun hang-out where folks can be themselves (as much as they “virtually” can be)?  Leave your input below, or, if you’d prefer more confidentiality, shoot me an e-mail: kristinarobbdover@gmail.com.

Tomorrow, thanks to a number of your suggestions: pastors as fashion gurus??? WTF?

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“The Way, The Truth, and The Life”: Jesus Epithets Continued

Michael tells Santa (a.k.a. Phyllis) what he wants for Christmas.

“I am the way and the truth and the life!  Nobody comes to the father except through me.” – John 14:6

It may be hard to believe, but we’re actually doing a series on all the names given to Jesus in Scripture.  Today, we look at a verse that has achieved a level of infamy: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

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I considered taking this verse apart and looking at “Way,” “Truth” and “Life” separately, but like the Trinity, “the Way, the Truth and the Life” is a three-in-one deal.  A “buy-one-get-two-free” sort of thing.  Because Jesus seems to be saying that if we’re on the Way we’re on to Truth and Life, too.

Do you remember “The Office” episode (season six) when Phyllis gets to be Santa to the outrage of Michael, who shows up as Santa only to have his Santa hopes crushed by the realization that a female has stolen the part?  Ah, the scandal of it.  (I guess we do this sort of thing in churches all the time, too, when women show up to preach.) The ensuing plot is wickedly (and irreverently) funny.  In an outlandish display of one-upmanship, Michael trades in his Santa outfit for the white garb of a bearded Jesus Christ, to the mortification of the human resources rep, Toby, and the great amusement of the rest of the office.  You can watch the blurb below, but the dialogue goes something like this:

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Michael: Behold Jesus Christ, and I bring to you glad Christmas tidings.  I want to remind everyone of the true meaning of Christmas. Those of you who wish to join me, that’s great. I’m excited by that, and those of you who don’t, I forgive you…but I never forget.

Toby: Wow, Michael…you can’t push religion.

Michael: Ah, the Anti-Christ.

Toby: You can’t…you cannot push religion.

Michael: But I can push drugs in here…is that what you’re saying?

Toby: No!

Michael: Well, you have to pick one or the other. Your choice.  Pick your poison. Get back to me.

Sometimes I think we Christians present Jesus a bit like an insecure boss using scare tactics.  It is either Jesus’ way or no way, so “pick your poison” and “get back to me.”  “The way” becomes a suffocatingly small back door that we have to squeeze through in order to “arrive,” thanks to all sorts of ugly, religiously coercive tactics- the whole “war on Christmas” antic being one of them, as far as I see it.

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But it is also true that Jesus is making a very uncomfortable claim here, one that quickly offends our postmodern sensibilities.  Jesus really is saying that He is “the way.”  Not a way among many, but the way.  Not one choice among many on the menu but the only entree that will actually feed us- the meat and potatoes, so to speak.  So the question is, what is Jesus the way to that no one else can replicate?

Jesus in this passage is the way to “my father” (verse 6) and to “my father’s house” (verse 2).  N.T. Wright notes that the only other time that Jesus uses this expression, “my Father’s house,” is with reference to the Temple (John 2:16), and the Temple, within the life of the Jewish people, signified “that place where heaven and earth meet” (Wright, John for Everyone).

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In this context, then, “my father’s house”- the Temple- is a spacious dwelling place between heaven and earth with plenty of room for everyone (verse 2).  Jesus is hinting here that in Him a whole new world is opening up before our eyes.  A world in which heaven and earth find restoration because of God’s renewing work in Jesus.  This new world is opening up whether or not we’re aware of it.  Or care.  Or choose another way.  And it is a world in which Truth and Life reign.

“Truth” and “life” here are God-breathed Reality.  They are the trustworthiness of God Himself as the very definition of this Reality.  They are the reliability of life’s abundance beyond even the grave- and, beyond all of our small deaths leading up to the grave.

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Jesus’ claim, then, is both as breathtakingly inclusive as it is discomfittingly exclusivist.  If it is true that Jesus alone holds the key to His Father’s house, it is also true that His Father’s house is intended for all creation.  It is a spacious, roomy, and inviting place where heaven and earth touch one another and we, all of us, can live, move and have our being.

In my thirty six years of life in spite of myself, I have tried my own way on plenty of occasions.  It usually doesn’t tend to come with much life or truth.  In fact, I can’t remember a time when it really ever did.

Jesus says, “Try me instead.”

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“Your Story, Your Witness”

These remains of the Pool of Siloam (meaning "Sent"), where Jesus reportedly healed the blind man in John 9, were uncovered in Jerusalem in 2004.

If you could think of one example in your life of how God was real to you, what would it be?

Co-founder and co-pastor of Kairos Church Thomas Daniel begins last week’s sermon with this question.  What follows is an effective distillation of the nature of postmodern evangelism, taking the witness of the blind man in John 9 as an example of what sharing one’s story might look like.

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Daniel suggests that today’s world thirsts for an authentic, experientially- shaped witness to Jesus Christ.  No four spiritual law tracts here.  No high-level apologetics.  Just our stories, told in our own words, without needing to be packaged and tied up with a pretty bow.

I think Daniel is right: experiential faith is the lingua franca of our contemporary world.  And, if the call to witness to Jesus is non-negotiable in Scripture, as a command given by Jesus in all four Gospels, how we do this must be deeply contextual as an outgrowth of relating to others and sharing our lives.  When we resort to cookie-cutter approaches, we overlook the uncontainable messiness of witness as evidenced by Scripture itself in the story of the blind man.  Our job is not to beautify our stories- that is Jesus’- and we can trust God to do this for us.  Our job is simply to tell the truth, like the man who was once blind but now can see, about how we have witnessed God in Jesus at work and what that has meant for us.

Where in your life have God and faith been real for you?  Share your stories in 100 words or less below and I’ll publish them for the Fellowship next week!

You can hear Daniel’s sermon in full here: http://kairosatlanta.org/

 

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Vulnerability and Glory: What the Olympics Teach Me

Boxing great Muhammad Ali holds the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

I’ve been asked to contribute to Beliefnet’s forthcoming series on the Olympics.  I’ll keep you posted on when that series airs, but in the meantime, here are some reflections on what the Olympics teach me about the marriage of vulnerability and  glory:

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As a girl who spent so much time swimming laps in southern California pools that her hair turned green, I was enamored with the Olympics- not just the events themselves, but the moving, sometimes angst-ridden stories behind them.  Athletes who had given their all for this final moment of reckoning.  Coaches and families who had poured their resources into these aspiring men and women.  Longtime champions and come-from-behind underdogs whose faith and endurance had carried them to a first-place finish.

Somehow, all those tomato paste applications for green hair, the perpetual smell of chlorine on the skin, and red, stinging eyes and sore muscles seemed worth it when I could watch someone like distance freestyler Janet Evans, (who at 40 recently came out of retirement to announce that she will compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic trials), capture three gold medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

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When some years later I competed at the “Janet Evans Invitational” swim meet, in Fullerton, California, the mere fact that this Olympic great and I were swimming in the same event filled me with awe.  No matter that Janet was in the final heat (heat 26 or something) and I  in heat 5.  No matter that I never got to shake her hand.  The T-shirt, a navy blue, silver-emblemed testament to the fact that I swam with Janet, was enough.  (I still wear it to this day, thanks to some highly durable cotton.)

Similarly, when in the summer before my senior year of high school I set my alarm every morning for a 4am wake-up call in order to drive one hour to Fullerton, California to be at a three-hour swim practice- this followed by another two hours of swim practice later that same afternoon- just knowing that my coach had coached Olympic greats like Janet was enough to get me out of bed each morning.

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Crazy? Maybe, a bit.  Inspiration can do that to you.  It also drove me to see a sports hypnotist and to withstand a whole year of Division I college swimming, including often being mistaken for my look-a-like teammate, Suzanne Heiser.  (Suzanne happened to take first by several pool lengths in all her events while I would straggle in at about second to last, which meant that these moments of misplaced congratulation were, well, a bit awkward.)

Inspiration.  The Olympics inspired me.  And, I suppose that even now, when allegations of widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs cast a long shadow, the Olympics still inspire many of us.

Maybe that’s because if these athletes on the platforms, high bars and fields speak to our capacity to do anything to win (including, unfortunately, cheat), they also represent the very best in us.  Our potential.  Our courage.  Our commitment.  Our ability to overcome tribulation.  They hold out the very best in us and remind us that it is there when we have forgotten it.

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We can tend to talk a lot about these qualities that make an Olympian, character traits like courage and commitment, but in such conversations one quality often goes over-looked: vulnerability.  It must have taken a great deal of vulnerability to compete in the nude in the first Olympics in ancient Greece.  (Can you imagine?) Still, even today, no high-speed swim suit will do away with this requirement that an athlete, in competing, be subject to publicly beheld pain, hurt, failure, defeat, humiliation, or even triumph.  (Even winning can make you feel vulnerable afterall.)

The Greeks thought you were only competing if you were naked. How's that for vulnerable?

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And, I suspect that this vulnerability, if it is not a precondition, at least goes hand in hand with the glory.  The glory of winning, of finishing, of merely competing as one in a pantheon of great athletes, cannot exist apart from an openness to all the vagaries of competition.  That vulnerability, I suspect, is the thing that unites us most fundamentally in our humanity around these athletes.

Because we don’t have to be a top-flight athlete to appreciate the ways in which we, each of us, face hurt, failure or loss in the races that we may have thought at the outset were ours to win.  We don’t have to jump hurdles to know that we each of us face our own unique ones.  Yet somehow these places of deepest vulnerability can be the very sites where God’s glory shines brightest, transforming us, as Kristine Culp argues in Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account, more and more into the likeness of God’s image.  (See Sarah Morice Brubaker’s review of Kulp’s book in The Christian Century, August 9, 2011.)

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Vulnerability and glory: the suspense and inspiration of the Olympics, I suspect, reside most fundamentally in these two wedded motifs.  I see them in the shining face of boxing champ Muhammad Ali, who with trembling limbs due to Parkinsons’ holds high the Olympic torch in the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.  I see them in the pain and tears of British runner Derek Redmond collapsing on the track in the 400 meter semi-final of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, having torn his hamstring, and his father’s rush to Derek’s side so the two of them can finish the race together.  (The video, below, still makes me cry every time I watch it.)

And, I see them, too, every day, in maybe smaller, less dramatic but equally meaningful ways: a poignant pastiche of vulnerability and glory.  When one of my children gets up again after a skinned knee.  Or, a friend tells me she isn’t going to let a past failure tell her who she is.  Or, someone deeply wounded by the church keeps coming back to Jesus in spite of His people.  Or, a dear one grieving the loss of her husband tells me she’s learning to live again.  There they are, too.  Mini Olympic moments.  They make me want to cheer.  They make me want to believe that in the end faith, hope and love really do win.

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And there, in the midst of them, are the sweat, tears and humiliation of a God who glorifies Himself on a cross.

Got a favorite or most memorable Olympic moment to share?  Leave it below!

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The World of Biblical Literalism: Men With Short Hair and Women Without Jewelry or Leadership Skills

His long tresses won't last long in the world of biblical literalism.

He might get a pass to worship in the world of biblical literalism.

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Fellow saints and sinners have left some interesting comments during the last few days!  Someone with the online name of “Roodness” writes the following in response to my “Coffee with Jesus” lampoon of manliness pastor and cage fighter Mark Driscoll’s remarks on women in leadership (see http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2012/01/coffee-with-jesus-jesus-sits-down-with-mark-driscoll.html):

“…It really comes down to: do we take the Bible literally? How can women pastors in good conscience teach the Bible which itself teaches that leaders within the church (and the home) are to be men? This article creates controversy on this subject, but the issue has already been settled in Scripture: 1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:7-14, Ephesians 5:23, and others. The pro-women-in-leadership arguments are glaringly missing any scriptural support – it’s all secular reasoning. There are a lot more differences between men and women than having a penis and vagina – that’s adhering to the Marlo Thomas “Free to be you and me” philosophy. We need to respect the One who created men and women differently – equal in His sight but different, with different strengths and weakness – instead of ignoring His creative design.

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Let me end with this extremely important approach to questions:

“Trust in the Lord, with all your heart, and DO NOT LEAN ON YOUR OWN UNDERSTANDING, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5&6.”

Roodness, I’ve been doing some more thinking about your above comments- this after my original reply in which I thank you for reading and share that I couldn’t disagree with you more.  (These two things still hold true, by the way!  I do hope you keep coming back to the Fellowship and feel free to share your views, because I take them seriously- maybe even more so when I disagree.)

With that, here goes…While it may be enough to say that “Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so,” it is not enough to ground arguments against women in leadership in a “literal” rendering of Scripture.  My husband put it well the other evening: “a literal reading of Scripture is not a faithful reading of Scripture,” he said.

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A faithful reading of Scripture recognizes the deeply contextual nature of much of Scripture.  The pastoral letters, which Roodness references above, are a great example.  The apostle Paul makes his prescriptions around women in leadership for a church that looks very different from the church in the twenty-first century.  If we were to take these references “literally,” as Roodness suggests we should, then we would also need to take other prescriptions literally.  So, for instance, we would have to forbid women from wearing gold jewelry (1 Peter 3:3), and we would send all of our longer-haired gentlemen to the hair salon for a regular clip (1 Corinthians 11:14).

Can you picture it? A whole new diaconal training course for hair policing, maybe with instructions for how to do an emergency cut on Easter Sunday?  Ushers with baskets ready and able to confiscate the loud, gold necklace you wear only because it belonged to your grandmother?

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If such things belong to the world of biblical literalism, “contextuality,” or a sensitivity to biblical context, on the other hand, looks very different, as N.T. Wright explains in Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.  (Incidentally, I was going to do a series on how to read the Bible and the issue of biblical authority when I discovered Rachel Held-Evans’ series on the subject, “Learning To Love The Bible For What It Is, Not What We Want It To Be;” I commend it to you.)  Held-Evans outlines Wright’s five recommendations for reading the Bible- a list at the top of which is “a totally contextual reading of Scripture.”

Here is Wright, compliments of Held-Evans:  “Each word must be understood within its own verse, each verse within its on chapter, each chapter within its own book, and each book within its own historical, cultural, and indeed canonical setting…Such a contextual reading is in fact an incarnational reading of scripture, paying attention to the full humanity both of the text and its readers. This must be undertaken in the prayer that the ‘divinity’—the ‘inspiration’ of scripture, and the Spirit’s power at work within the Bible-reading church—will thereby be discovered afresh.”

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Where does this leave us with respect to the issue of women in church leadership?  It seems to me that discovering the Bible afresh in its context means being attentive to the work of the Spirit within our world even as we seek to uphold the general “rule” of Scripture, which invites us into a relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God He is birthing in this world.   It means reading the contextual letters of Paul next to other parts of Scripture where Jesus, for example, conscripts women as disciples (the woman at the well, for instance, as arguably the first evangelist).

The longer I’ve been around the church, and the older I get, I must admit to having increasingly less patience around arguments against women in leadership based on Scripture.  My husband, who is my biggest supporter in ministry, said to me the other day that he harbors a deep suspicion of any institution that in the twenty-first century rejects women in leadership. “I wouldn’t join a club that keeps women out,” he said. “Why would I join a church that does this?”

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This rationale was the basis for our leaving a church that we loved in every other way.  Theologically, I was in total agreement with the church’s preaching and teaching, but when we began to consider the meaning of membership in this church, the fact that my ordination would not be recognized simply because I am a woman was enough to send us looking for another church.  We knew we wanted to be in a church where my daughter would grow up being able to see women like myself in leadership next to their brothers.

So biblical literalism, as I see it, is little more than veiled misogyny, and it does a deep injustice to Scripture, the church and most of all our world- for which the church exists in the first place.  

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Contextuality is also critically important when it comes to the issue of boobs in church- more specifically breastfeeding.  A number of you have weighed in with comments in response to “Boobie Traps: Breastfeeding in Church” (see http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/2012/05/boobie-traps-are-you-church-enough.html).

Allison writes:  I am trying to figure out how to work this out in love in our church — changing churches is not an option! We do have a room set aside for nursing moms at the end of a hallway, but apparently since there has been a blooming of babies recently, there are many mothers in there and some choose to nurse elsewhere (in the narthex, etc.) and it is making some men uncomfortable (even with nursing covers!) We are from a Southern genteel culture that is more modest and conservative, I think. In fact, we were asked recently to put a screen in the room because the men who check the halls were uncomfortable! I wanted to speak to the persons who made the complaint, but since it was by way of someone else, I couldn’t. As a nursing mom myself, and on my third, I’m much more bold (I nursed my youngest during MANY church meetings with men present), but I know too that I need to be respectful of others and do things in love and not out of pride. Still, I will hide away sometimes in dark places so that my baby won’t be distracted, now that he is older, but not for any shameful notion or felt need to be modest on my part. There are so many layers to this, but most of all I try to be supportive of other nursing moms and take their side as much as I can. I remember being asked to leave a dept store once. I wish we could see this conversation continue…”

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Emily suggests the following approach: “…Perhaps the room that is available to make women ‘more comfortable’ when they are nursing should be made available to those who are uncomfortable with a woman nursing. Let them sit in there until you finish.”

A big “thank you” to all of you for sharing your feedback!  Come back and visit again sometime soon!

 

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The Brain on Faith: Part 4 in a Four-Part Series

Am I the only one who had to take care of one of these my eighth grade year?

Some of my regular readers may be amused to learn that I actually got the eighth grade science award.  (I guess I took extra good care of my egg baby or something.)  Somewhere in high school, I, like many other adolescent girls, fell away from pursuing the sciences.  Fortunately, others went on in their pursuits, and the past few days we’ve been speaking with one of them: today we’re wrapping up our interview series featuring Stanford neuroscientist Saskia de Vries on the subject of neuroscience and theology.

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How has studying the brain changed your understanding of yourself?  How has it changed your understanding of human beings and what makes them “made in God’ image” and about who God is and what God is like?

I think one major thing that I’ve learned about humans is that we aren’t particularly rational. I mention this earlier, that we have a misguided notion that if we just took the time, and were careful, and smart, and logical, that we could take all of the inputs we get – all the information we have ever received in any form throughout our whole lives – and have the perfect appropriate responses to all things. That we can be purely rational and our behavior would be flawless. This just isn’t so. We aren’t purely rational – and frankly that’s a good thing, because we wouldn’t survive very long if we were. The size that our brains would need to be, and the amount of energy they would need to consume, in order for us to function that way would be enormous. Not to mention that if we were slowly processing large quantities of information with such top-heavy brains – an irrational predator would come and eat us before we could respond. Our brains have evolved to use information processing short cuts to reduce energy demands and streamline processing. And this has been very beneficial evolutionarily. But it also means that when it comes to things like money and politics and life in our modern society, we don’t make logically optimal and rational decisions – despite our illusion that we do.

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I never know how much we should look to humans to inform our image of God. While I think we are “made in God’s image,” I don’t think we are replicas of God, and I worry that we tend to make idols of God in our own image.

Now and in previous centuries the church has often rubbed up against science (think Galileo, Darwin, etc) much like a Brillo pad on grease- with a stubborn, even hostile determination to rid itself of the questions science has posed for theology. Are there ways in which, to borrow the apostle Paul’s sentiment that God is “reconciling all things to God’s Self”- you see any rapprochement taking place here?

Yes and no. There remains much hostility between the church and science, although in many ways this appears often to be more politically based than religious, per se. But there is indeed a growing sense that one can affirm both science and faith. Many Christians accept the big bang and evolutionary theories. Almost all Christians embrace medical and technological advances, all rooted in science. And some are eager to find common ground between science and religion. But I’m a bit wary of much of the way this is going about.

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One approach is Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA). That’s the idea that science and religion are concerned with separate realms of our lives. To paraphrase Gould, one deals with the ages of rocks, the other with the rock of ages. And I think many people, whether they realize it or not, buy into this mindset. But I think this idea is wrong. The first problem, is that it reduces God to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others, referred to as “God of the gaps.” Anything we can explain is science, and what we can’t explain is God. This idea that God must exist outside of science, outside of the natural world, is sad – and poor theology.

Another problem is that I don’t think it’s clear where we draw the boundaries between science and religion. As our scientific knowledge continues to grow, those gaps get smaller, and we’re quickly pushing God further and further out of our lives. Many people, including Gould, say that the one realm where science has no place is questions of morality. And here I’d disagree as well. Science has plenty to say about morality. There’s been great work done in psychology, evolutionary biology, economics and neuroscience that contribute to our discussions of morality.

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Another approach for affirming both science and religion is to say that there must be a dialogue between the two. This is a bit better – but it has a bit of a problem. The main flaw is when this is expected to be a two way street – that beliefs and facts are to be given equal footing, such that scientific results are considered a matter of opinion. And, at the risk of sounding condescending, I just don’t see how that can be. Don’t get me wrong, science doesn’t have all the answers, scientists don’t know everything, but when empirical evidence and religious beliefs go head to head, I don’t see how one can hold the two in balance.

Ultimately science is a method, a way of asking and testing questions. Religion is – well, it’s trickier to define. At worst it’s a set of beliefs; at best, a relationship with God, a cultural practice, a community, a spiritual practice, an ultimate concern. However we define it, I don’t see how it can inform how we ask and test questions. But, I do see how what science has learned can inform our beliefs, how we function as a community, how we nurture our selves and one another, and how best to act on our ultimate concerns.

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At the same time, I do think scientists, when in dialogue with people of faith need to hear and understand where the questions and misgivings of some believers stem from. For instance, many people who don’t accept evolution don’t do so because they are so deeply committed to the facts of the six-day creation myth, but because evolution pushes God’s involvement further away in space and time. If God didn’t shape humans out of mud and breathe life us a few thousand years ago, but maybe God did trigger the big bang – that sounds so cold and uncaring. And so I do think scientists involved in these conversations need to be able to listen to and to speak to those concerns. But I don’t think religion can tell scientists how to ask questions or what results to accept.

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How does creationism converse with science? A bit like this....

But yes, I do see a growing interest among Christians to understand how faith and science can co-exist. And I think we need to move beyond trying to jam these two puzzle pieces together, but learn how science can inform our faith, how our theology and our practice can grow from what we are learning.

Maybe a similar question would be: what is the promise and peril of neuroscience for Christian theology and the church?

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I mostly see the promise – I believe that the continuing developments in neuroscience can help us to better understand the world, ourselves, and our relationship with God. I see this as good – as great really. This is peril, however, if our goal is to clamp firmly to the past. If Christian theology wants to uphold the doctrine and theology of the past, then neuroscience (and all science) is a great peril to theology and the church. If our faith requires that, then we’ve got big problems. The advances in neuroscience will change our doctrines and our understanding of God, ourselves, and the world. We have been warned not to create idols, and I think that when we cling to our old worldviews we create such idols – idols of our concept of God, idols of the world and of ourselves. My experience is that by destroying idols we breathe anew. I think theology that embraces science, that embraces neuroscience, will breathe new life into our faith, new life into our church.

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Got comments for Saskia? Leave them below.  Thank you, Saskia, for your contributions here, and for your thoughtfulness both as a scientist and a person of faith.  If part of what it means to follow Jesus is to exhibit a curiosity about and wonder with the world around us, you’ve modeled this for me.  I hope for all of our sakes you keep asking the questions!

Tomorrow, I respond to one reader’s suggestion that I can’t be a woman minister because “the Bible says so”….

 

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The Brain on Faith: Part 3 of a Four-Part Interview

We’re back with Stanford neuroscientist Saskia de Vries in a conversation about neuroscience and faith…

I’m curious about how you read Scripture these days, and want to spend some time here.  How do you read the creation story, for instance? 

In a soundbite, I take Scripture seriously, but not literally. That always sounds a bit trite to me, but I think it’s pretty accurate. I love Scripture, and I love to study it, but I don’t believe all of it is literally true. Some of it I think is myth – such as the creation stories in Genesis. I do not think the world was created in six days – with the sun being created after plants (how did they photosynthesize with no sun?). I don’t think Eve was made from Adam’s rib. But, I don’t think that myths are bad. While I don’t believe them to be literally true, I do think that they contain truth. I do believe that the world is good. I love the care and the validation of each part of creation. Light and dark. Dry land and water. I love the image of God breathing life into Adams lungs. If it had been written after microscopes were invented, there would be bacteria and microbes in the mix as well. Myth isn’t bad, myth is useful. And I find inspiration in these myths.

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Adam and Eve utilize their prefrontal cortex to do some higher-level reasoning.

But I think we run into problems when we base doctrines on a literal reading of them. For instance, our understanding of sin, original sin, seems predicated on the Fall of human beings, Adam and Eve eating fruit in the garden. I know that many Christians (though not all) are comfortable with evolution, but what does that mean for the Fall? What does that mean for our understanding of the human condition? What does that mean for our understanding of redemption and atonement? If these doctrines are contingent on the Fall, what are we to make of them?

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I like to speculate that the Fall was an evolutionary development that was unique to humans. Perhaps the development of the prefrontal cortex, or the emergence of language or tool use is what demarcates our fallen state. None of these are unique to humans, though, simply much more developed in humans than other animals. And I don’t think I’d say any of these are bad developments. Of course, perhaps the idea of Original Sin isn’t accurate. Who’s to say Augustine got that right?

What do you make of supernatural occurrences in Scripture, such as Jesus’ miracles?

Other parts I read differently…I don’t know if [the miracles] all actually happened; I don’t know that they didn’t. I’m generally skeptical, but I think we get distracted when we get hung up on whether they actually happened or not. It becomes a litmus test – in order for Jesus to have actually been divine he had to be able to do these things. And if there is any natural explanation for what happened, or if there were ever evidence that the miracles did not happen as recorded in the Gospels, then Jesus couldn’t have been God. Well, why? Why must God act outside of the natural world? Where did this rule come from?

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I don’t think that’s the point of these stories. To me the mechanism isn’t important, it’s the acts. Jesus feeding five thousand people. Did he really make 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough food for all the people, or did he inspire people to share their food with strangers? To me the how is less important than the feeding, the fellowship among strangers. All those healing stories – did Jesus really heal them? I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus touched and included the outcasts – the bleeding women, the leperous Samaritans, the lame and the blind. All of these people, who had been excluded from community, from worship, from physical touch, he embraced and included – no small feats. These are some of my favorite stories, and I believe they are pivotal to the gospel. If we were to go through the Bible, a là Thomas Jefferson, and cut these out because we don’t believe they happened literally, I think we’d lose much more than stories of magic. The miraculous acts, to me, are highlighters indicating that there is something really critical about these encounters. But I don’t think it’s the mechanism of the interactions that’s critical – I think it’s the end result.

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Then there is the apostle Paul’s own wrestling with the reality that he does the very things he does not want to do….

Romans 7. I find that this passage wonderfully describes decision making. This is a very interesting area in neuroscience, currently, that relates neural processes to psychology and economics, among other fields. We have a notion that we have the capacity to be completely rational. If we could control our passions, or our sinful nature, then we could always choose the optimal behavior, the correct response to the array of information we receive. And Paul could have always done what he wanted to do. But the evidence is that this is a misrepresentation of reality. The reason that we sometimes do what we don’t want to do is not because we are weak, it’s because that is how we are wired. Our behavior, our decisions, are rarely made rationally. The evidence is that most of our behavioral choices are made instinctively and subconsciously, and that the rationalization of those choices – when we think we are actively making them – happens after they are made. Much like Hume’s thought that reason is the slave of the passions.

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"My brain made me do it, Mom."

I think this is really important, on many levels. For starters, this false notion that we could potentially act perfectly rationally is very unhealthy, and the more we learn to trust our instincts and emotions, how to use them and not fight them, the healthier we will be. I also think this has important implications for education and moral development. We learn moral behaviors not by learning the right answers, but rather by learning the right actions. We need to train our behavior much like we learn to play musical instruments or how we learn to perform athletic feats, or even how to speak languages. It’s not by studying the theory and learning the right answers – it’s by practicing the actions. Learning the motions, learning how to make decisions, when to slow down, when to swing. To the extent that we limit our education to teaching our children, and ourselves, to think the right thoughts and give the right answers to moral questions, we are crippling ourselves.

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The Brain on Faith: Part 2 of a Four-Part Interview

Every mad scientist needs a brain on their shelf, next to the do-it-yourself EEG kit and the amputation saws. A lab coat is good, too. See "Top 12 Things You Need To Be A Mad Scientist" at http://listverse.com/2008/03/06/top-12-things-you-need-to-be-a-mad-scientist/.

If you’re just tuning in, we’re continuing our conversation with Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Saskia de Vries, as part of a four-part exploration of the intersection between neuroscience and theology. 

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Are human beings hard-wired to believe in something, God, etc?

This is a great question. Daniel Dennett, among others, has argued for this idea. He wouldn’t say “hard-wired” – per se. That has much stronger meaning in science than I think you mean. But do we have an innate tendency to believe in something, such as God? I’d say, yes. A big part of what our brains do is to create coherent sense out of all the information we receive. For example, take visual perception – our brain creates a whole, stable and consistent percept from the snippets of visual information we take in each moment. As we live in the world, our brain is constantly making sense of our experiences and the information we receive, creating essentially a narrative of the world. And this is extremely valuable and important, and allows us to function in the world.

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One theory of religion is that it results from this tendency. Essentially, in creating this narrative, in making sense of what we perceive, our brains is looking for causes, for agency. Bustling in the leaves behind you is because a person or animal is there, etc. So the idea is that when we can’t find a proximate cause we devise spirits or gods that cause the unexplained things. The theory is that over time this developed into religion as we know it today, with dogma and doctrine and rituals. And so long as religion is a list of just-so stories about the world, and a god (or gods) that look a lot like super heroes, then yeah, I think this could be a fair assessment of religion. But I don’t think that’s what faith is, what religion is – and that’s why I think we need to be willing and able to let go of just-so stories and the idols we create for God.

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So yes, I think we have a innate tendency to believe things. We need this in order to function in the world – to navigate, to communicate, to glean any information from the world around us. And some aspects of religion rely on this innate function, but it’s not the whole story.

Some people would say faith is just a neurological circuit in the brain firing. How would you respond to that?

Why “just”? There’s a notion that if something is the result of brain activity then it isn’t real. If I explain to you how we perceive sunsets, and how the neural wiring of the visual system establishes complementary colors, does that make the sunset less beautiful? The activity of our brain is what lets us think, lets us see beautiful things, taste food, listen to music, laugh at jokes, and fall in love with people. It doesn’t make these things less real or pleasing – in fact, I find that understanding more about these things makes me enjoy them more. For example, there are neural circuits in our brains that underlie language, our ability to speak, our ability to learn language, etc. But nobody would suggest that language is just an illusion, just the activity of neural circuits. Rather, evidence of such neural circuits validates these functions. Similarly, the idea that faith is the result of neural activity should not diminish or invalidate faith. The fact that faith amounts to brain activity doesn’t make it less real or significant. All of our behavior and all of our thoughts and all of our feelings result from neural activity – why would faith be any different?

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Do the brains of religious and non-religious people differ? To take this further, does someone with the “fruit of the Spirit” have a different looking brain?

This is a really interesting question. Frankly, I don’t think this has been examined in a way that directly answers those questions, per se. Do the brains of religious and non-religious people differ? I’d say no. I’m assuming you are asking about brain activity, rather than brain structure. (There is some interesting work showing structural differences between psychopaths and non-psychopaths, but usually we look at functional differences).

Marie Callender's chicken pot pie or Velveeta mac n' cheese? Thank God I don't have to think like this when I'm saying the creeds.

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So of course then we’d have to ask are there differences when people do what? That is, I don’t expect there to be differences in brain activity when somebody is reading a grocery list, for instance, but could there be difference when somebody is doing something religious, or thinking about God, or something like that? Sam Harris, of course, showed that the brain activity of Christians when they affirm statements of faith (ie. Jesus is the son of God) is the same as the brain activity of non-religious people when they affirm statements of fact (ie. the sky is blue). He uses this to argue that beliefs aren’t special – they aren’t different from other ideas or thoughts.

There have been some studies looking at brain activity when people pray, or even trying to capture brain activity during “practices related to compassion” – and mostly they find relatively subtle effects, often not statistically significant, and only when they are comparing, for example, mediation novices with monks who have meditated for over 10,000 hours. That’s roughly one hour per day for 30 years. I find those kinds of studies unconvincing. 10,000 hours of any action will probably show some changes in brain activity for that action. And if that’s the amount of prayer or meditation it takes to effect a small difference, I’m not sure we could honestly say that your run of the mill religious person (say the typical church goer) has different brain activity than non-religious people.

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So, bottom line, to date I think there is very little evidence to suggest that there are significant differences between the brains of religious and non-religious people – but I also don’t think it’s been adequately studied to give a definitive answer.

I see the questions about fruit of the Spirit as a different question. Personally, I don’t see these as traits that are unique to religious people. I think religion might help cultivate these attributes, but I think plenty of non-religious people exhibit them as well. Again, I don’t think this has been explicitly studied – and I think it would be difficult to design a good experiment to look at this parameter – but I’d be more inclined to expect differences in brain activity that correlate with kindness and gentleness and patience, etc.

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Correction:  By way of elaboration to yesterday’s post, in which I joke about the genre of movies that Saskia shows her fruit flies in her experiments, I asked Saskia to share a bit more about the kinds of “flicks” she shows her flies.  She wrote the following: “…the movies I show are way simpler – patterns of motion really. I can’t say what the fly itself ‘likes,’ but I’ve been studying a particular cluster of neurons that respond really strongly to looming stimuli – that is stimuli that mimic an object moving towards the fly on a direct collision course. I’ve shown that these neuron are “necessary and sufficient” for the fly’s escape response – that is these cells are why when you try to swat a fly it usually gets away.
Got questions or opinions?  Just leave them below.  Tomorrow join the conversation about how a Stanford neuroscientist takes the Bible seriously.

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From Boobs to Brains: A Four-Part Interview with a Stanford Neuroscientist

Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Saskia de Vries shows movies to fruit flies and observes how their brains respond.

What can our grey matter tell us about sin and redemption?

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If all this boobie talk is becoming tiresome- incidentally just the other day NPR’s Terry Gross was interviewing someone who has written a whole book on breasts- we’re on to a subject I find frankly far more scintillating.  It’s one that we’ve been waiting for, and it won’t disappoint.  Today is the first in a four-part interview series with friend and fellow saint and sinner Dr. Saskia de Vries- about implications of the latest discoveries in neuroscience for Christian theology and how these two areas, of neuroscience and theology, might converse with one another.

Saskia and I met in college through the InterVarsity circuit.  Now, more than fifteen years later (my college reunion is next weekend and I’m not going because I’m in denial) we both have traveled a bit spiritually and theologically  (while, I would like to think, and speaking for myself, keeping the very best of our evangelical influences).  Saskia went on from Yale to earn a PhD from Harvard in neurobiology, and currently is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.  She has spent her entire career studying visual processing- how the cells and circuits of the brain detect and encode visual information (ie. how an image is turned into a neural signal) and how that information is used to guide behavior.  She currently studies this in fruit flies, where she records the electrical activity of tiny cells in the fly’s brain while she shows movies to the fly.  (I have a question in about which flicks are her flies’ favorites. )

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"I'm in the mood for a romantic comedy." "Aw, c'mon! We always see chick flicks. How about an action thriller?"

In July I’ll have the privilege of leading worship with Saskia and preaching to her church, Old Presbyterian Church, in San Francisco, where she is an active leader in the community.  Saskia, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.

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How did you become interested in the relationship between neuroscience and theology?

For the most part these have been distinct interests. I have been interested in both fields for a long time. I think I got more directly interested in the relationship when a few years ago I was revisiting some of the confessions of the church. I found myself really frustrated about what I feel are misconceptions about our selves, as humans, and the world. I understand why they are in there, some more subtly than others, as these confessions were written hundreds of years ago and reflected the accepted understanding of the world at the time. But our understanding of the world has changed, significantly. And I found myself frustrated that the self-correction that is the norm of science seems to be missing in theology. I have to believe it’s not all together absent, but it seems to me that we are largely willing to ignore what we’ve learned about ourselves and the world in order to hold onto these historical documents. We do so only as a disservice to ourselves. We don’t ignore it in other realms of life – when it comes to legal practice, or medicine, or technology. But we do in the church. Why? To what end? I think this need to cling to the past is hurting the church.

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How has your vocation as a neuroscientist informed your faith?

As a scientist, you are trained to ask questions. We constantly ask questions, and sometimes the most exciting breakthroughs come not from asking new questions, but from asking old questions in new ways. As technology develops, and as we learn more, we often have new insights and new tools with which to ask old questions. Questions, however, aren’t always encouraged when it comes to faith. Many view faith as believing things without asking questions, or at least not too many questions. But I’ve always asked them. And I’ve found that I can put a lot of question marks into the midst of my faith, and yet my faith persists. I don’t necessarily believe everything that many consider required of a Christian, but I continue to follow Christ. In fact, I believe I probably follow Christ more faithfully with the question marks there than I did without them.

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You are a Presbyterian, which means you belong to a confessional church that is “reformed, always being reformed.” How do you see our confessions needing to change or stretch into the latest discoveries in neuroscience?

So many of our confessions were written some 300-400 years ago, and were written in the mindset and worldview of that time. And that’s fine, good even. But as our understanding of the world and of ourselves has grown, I think our confessions need to, too. I think, for starters, our confessions can reflect what we’ve learned about the origins of the world and of our species. But this is not a dominantly central part of our confessions.

The confessions are written with a very strong dualistic sense of self – that our body and our soul are distinct. This does not hold with science, and some have argued is not even biblically accurate – I refer you to the work by Nancey Murphy on this. I think this is harmful to our understanding of ourselves, reducing us to heads and hands as Marcia Mount Shoop said in her book a few times. (You can read an introduction to Mount Shoop’s book, “Let the Bones Dance,” here: http://blog.beliefnet.com/fellowshipofsaintsandsinners/wp-admin/post.php?post=1584&action=edit.) Maintaining this duality is also harmful to our relationships with each other and with the world around us.

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Further…the ideas of strict rationality and free will are very strong undercurrents in the confessions, particularly how it relates to the concept of sin.

We Christians talk a lot about sin and redemption. How do your studies enrich and problematize these two categories?

Perhaps one of the big problems emerging from the intersection of neuroscience and theology regards the concept of sin or morality. More and more we are finding biological causes for immoral behaviors: brain tumors that result in sinful behavior, genetic predispositions to violence or addictions, etc. How do we hold people accountable for behaviors that they aren’t freely choosing? Can the same behavior be sinful if freely chosen but not if it results from a tumor or brain trauma? And perhaps most commonly, is homosexuality a sin if you are “born this way?” These are tricky questions, that I think underscore problems in our understanding of free will and our understanding of sin.

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As a follow-up to Marcia Mount Shoop’s book which you reference earlier, she argues that a central Christian claim is that redemptive transformation happens at the cellular level. How would your work corroborate this?

I like this idea. I am very much a physicalist – I believe that our mind and our souls are one with our bodies. And to the extent that our experiences change us, they change our bodies – even on a cellular level. Experiences, both good and bad, can change the neural connections in our brain, the genes that we express and the molecules that we make. This is true for traumatic events (eg. PTSD) as well as healing events. And so yes, I think that redemption reflects changes that happen cellularly.

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Tomorrow, are human beings hard-wired to believe in God? Is faith just a firing of certain neural circuits?  Stay tuned. And, got a question you’d like to ask Saskia?  Leave it here.




 

 


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