Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“The Beloved Oppressor” and Bad Atonement Theories

Sasha Baron Cohen stars as "The Dictator."

Larry King interviewed Admiral General Aladeen of the Republic of Wadiya (a.k.a. Sasha Baron Cohen) a few days ago in advance of Baron Cohen’s forthcoming movie, “The Dictator.”  (If Baron Cohen’s first film, “Borat,” is any indication, the film will no doubt prove to be simultaneously offensive and ridiculously funny.)


One part of the interview (which you can view in its entirety below) has me thinking about certain highly problematic theories of the “atonement” (which is just a fancy word theologians give to explain Jesus’ death on the cross and what it accomplishes):

King: Do you have favorite other oppressors?

Admiral General Aladeen: …My favorite unfortunately is dead.  Kim Jong- KJ- I miss him a lot.  He was a fun man.  He died as he lived- in three inch heels.

King: But he was ruthless to his people.

Admiral General Aladeen: No, he was not ruthless to his people.  He was a sweetie pie.

Theologians have tried through the centuries to give expression to the meaning of atonement.  One especially popular theory goes by the name “penal substitution” or “satisfaction” theory.  (The details of these theories may vary slightly depending on the theologian, but they tend to paint a similar, general picture of God.)  According to this understanding of the cross, God in God’s perfect goodness could not allow human sin to go unpunished.  For this reason, God sent God’s one and only Son to die in our place and receive the full penalty for sin that we really deserved.  A wrathful God, in other words, had to be “satisfied” in order to be reconciled with sinful humanity, and only the death of God’s very own Son- how is that for twisted, fatherly love?- could pay the price.  In Jesus, God in God’s great “love” spares us from getting our just desserts in the form of eternal torment in the flames of hell.


Within this framework, God comes out looking a whole lot like Admiral General Aladeen of the Republic of Wadiya.  He functions as a “beloved oppressor” of sorts, for whom “love” equates with ruthless, unrelenting punishment, but whom, through some pretty poor theological acrobatics, we Christians have still managed to label a “sweetie pie.”

It’s no wonder so many people in the church don’t know how to evangelize when they’ve been spoon fed this kind of logic.  It’s like having to tell a kid that their lima beans taste like ice cream.  It’s also not surprising that so many “unchurched” people will stay this way.  They’re right to wonder if this kind of theology is in fact “Good News.”

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Nature and Grace

A little snuggle before lunch. (Photo credit: Marius Croetzee, Barcroft Media)

If you read yesterday’s sermon, you may have caught some refrains on this theme. The picture I mentioned of the leopard snuggling with a baby antelope might almost pass as a Hallmark card, were it not for the fact that within the hour the antelope will become the leopard’s grisly lunch. But, that picture speaks to the often baffling, jarring interplay of nature and grace in our world, a world in which we can see the beginning outlines of Isaiah’s picture of the lion lying down with the lamb, but only hazy, often erasable ones at best.


The other day my husband sent me another link, this time to a series of images of Yosemite National Park set to music.  The natural beauty of creation here is in full adornment:  I couldn’t help but watch the video with an appreciation for how God’s grace already imbues nature.  If Jesus never came to restore our world, I could still look at this video and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation, having been touched by the grace of a benevolent God.

In such cases, it is, I think, dangerously erroneous to suggest that grace negates or overcomes nature- or to describe nature as “evil.”  With all respect to my Reformed forebearer, John Calvin, and his interpreters, the concept of “total depravity” is only so helpful.  Yes, it provides a helpful framework in which to grapple with how something so horrific within human nature, such as the Shoah, can happen.  But it also falls prey to eliding the grace inherent in Nature itself.


Here is where I find the words of contemporary Catholic theologian, Father Robert Barron, especially helpful.  (If any of you have seen Terence Malick’s movie, “Tree of Life,” which came out in theaters last fall, I think you’ll especially enjoy Barron’s critique as it relates to issues of good and evil, nature and grace.  I myself have not seen the movie, but am looking forward to it now.) What strikes me most, however, is how Barron depicts the relationship between nature and grace as a delicate interplay or God-breathed dance that is itself blessed and affirmed by God, with the implication that the dance itself somehow belongs to God’s greater plan of restoration.

In this framework, what is painful or tragic within Nature, if not redemptive in itself, is still necessary for how it contributes to God’s final summing up of the whole cosmos.  If the forces of nature and grace not only underlie the cosmos but play out in human affairs, their encounter- their clash- are strands of a final piece of artwork that God is weaving together, one that in the sum of its parts is even more beautiful.


Here is Barron: “[Nature and grace] are not good and evil. They’re both elements within the universe that come together to produce the roughly beautiful order of God’s creation. God is the wise Provider- the provenant Governor of the universe, who allows what we call evil, or negativity, for the purpose of greater good…God allows…a certain play of nature and grace.” You can hear Barron’s reflections here, thanks to Andrew Sullivan:

The other day there was an ugly accident in front of my house: the stretcher, the ambulance, the police cars, the cordoned-off street, the shell-shocked witnesses and then the sometimes annoying, gaping onlookers like myself were all part of the picture.  It turns out that a woman ran a stop sign will talking on her cell phone and ran right over a man who was on his first day of a job blowing leaves on the side of the street.  (As I later learned, the man’s injuries were serious, but thankfully not life-threatening.)


Maybe much of life is “accidental” like this.  There’s a sense in which we human beings- much like a leopard and a baby antelope who  in the moment that the leopard was hungry happened to be the most vulnerable in the pack, so vulnerable it could not even recognize danger- are often crashing into one another.  That’s the nature of things. “Shit happens,” as the bumper sticker goes.  Tragedy weaves in and out of our lives, taking its casualties with it.

But maybe what distinguishes people of faith is their belief that in it all a good and gracious God is taking these strands of tragedy and interweaving them with others, and in turn making something more beautiful and more grace-filled than we can comprehend in the moment when we’re asking, “how could God let this happen?”  Maybe, too, what distinguishes people of faith is their willingness to step into that often baffling interplay between nature and grace as those who, in trusting that God is weaving something beautiful, also join God in this mission.

So, maybe in the end Dostoevsky is right.  Maybe beauty really will “save the world.”  What do you think?


The Good Shepherd: Jesus Epithets Continued (A Sermon)

"He walks with me and talks with me along life's narrow way..."

The following sermon, “Children, Can You Hear Me?,” which I will preach this Sunday to the people of The Presbyterian Church of the Resurrection, is also a continuation of our series on Jesus epithets.  Today’s epithet comes from John 10:11 where Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd”:


“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” –John 10:1-10


My son got a book for Christmas last year titled, “Children, Can You Hear Me?” It’s supposed to be written in the voice of Jesus- only this Jesus, with the exception of his trademark fashion signature (the white toga swathed in purple which he promptly trades in for jeans and a T-shirt), has a crew cut and is good at swinging from monkey bars and karate chopping the devil.

If it’s not creepy per say, it seems at least a bit cheesy- the idea being that Jesus goes everywhere with us like a perfect tag-a-long partner, and we simply call on Him and He answers, like some cosmic dial-up figure. He’s a superhero and a magic genie and a best buddy all rolled into one convenient package.

But there’s a sense in which it really doesn’t matter if Jesus can swing from monkey bars and do karate chops and other “cooler,” more powerful stuff, if we can’t actually hear his voice. And by “hearing,” I don’t mean audibly picking up some sound from the heavens, be it in the form of a booming command or a gentle whisper. I mean, rather, simply being able to recognize when Jesus is speaking to our hearts. If we can’t recognize Jesus speaking to our hearts, then who Jesus is or what He came to do is, practically speaking, of no real consequence for our lives.


And Jesus would say in today’s passage that his sheep “hear His voice.” Jesus would say that His sheep “follow him because they know his voice.”

“I know it when I see it,” said one chief justice about obscenity. Maybe something similar could be said about God’s voice: we know it when we hear it.

The thing is, what about those times when we’re wrong? What about those times when we think God is speaking to us when in fact God is not- or at least not in the way we thought God was or wanted God to? Do we need to worry in times like these that we’re not among Jesus’ sheep?  That is the question that first hits me when I read this passage.

These days there are a lot of voices. Sometimes they’re external ones- all those things that society would tell us we should be. Fit, toned, rich and beautiful, thanks to a gym membership and a secure retirement savings account or the latest in plastic surgery. Fashionable. Successful. Strong. Youthful. Rich, or at least comfortable.


Sometimes these voices echo what we’re hearing on the inside. The voices say, “I have to have more of x, y or z”- you can fill in the blank- “to be somebody, to make my mark in this world, to survive and to win.”  They say, “I have to have more financial security.” Or, “I’ve got to look more attractive.”  Or, “I want to be powerful.”

And, if we think these voices (be they internal or external) are loud, that’s probably because they’re only giving voice to the nature of the world you and I inhabit. Because we live in a “dog-eat-dog” world.  A world in which Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” is more than just a scientific theory with its adherents and detractors, but actually plays out on factory floors, in school classrooms and within halls of government (not to mention the church).  Most of the time in our world the strong really do rule the weak, and “the one with the most toys wins,” as the bumper sticker goes.


The other day I saw a chilling picture. It showed a newborn antelope snuggling up next to, of all things, a leopard. What the picture didn’t show was that the leopard had done what leopards in the wild do: it had caught the baby antelope and was about to eat it- and would one hour later. But for almost a whole hour before its ensuing kill, the leopard had let this poor, helpless animal snuggle up next to it and even play with it, like a baby with its mother. The baby, oblivious to the danger it was in, had not been able to recognize its mother’s cry and would die because of it.

When we don’t hear Jesus’ voice, we’re no sheep at all- because we’re dead sheep, or at least on our way to being dead: it will be just a matter of time before the wolf and the thief snatch us away.  So I suspect the question of greater importance to contend with is not whether or not we can be sure we are Jesus’ sheep.  The question, I think, is really whether we are on the pathway to everlasting life, or whether we, like sheep gone astray, are just waiting to die at the hands of the next marauder and intruder who come along.


Because if we only get to be dumb sheep, we might as well be alive ones, with hope and a future. Because what Jesus is saying here is that He really is the only Source of everlasting life. Because if Jesus is “the good shepherd,” He dutifully, faithfully and lovingly leads the sheep back and forth from the safety of the pen to the rest and nourishment of green pastures and then back again; and, he is the only one who has staked his life on our livelihoods. And, similarly, if Jesus is the Gate itself- if He keeps out the wolves and the thieves who would seek to steal, kill and destroy us- He guards all of our comings and goings.

This Jesus is far more than a feel-good, best friend with superhero powers whom we can call upon any time of day, like a genie in a bottle. This Jesus is one who is in fact calling us all the time, who by virtue of the fact that he calls us by name, knows us intimately, better than we know ourselves. He knows we’re all like sheep gone astray and He knows we need guidance and protection and crave abundant life- things we’re often prone to forget.


This Jesus is the same anointed king of Israel that the prophet Ezekiel (in Ezekiel 34) speaks of as God Himself. In a world in which the powerful prey on the weak, the rich on the poor, and the healthy on the sick, Jesus is the one, true and trustworthy Shepherd. His is the one, often lonely voice who tells us we’re more than simply pawns in the depressing cycle of Nature’s brutal elimination of the weak.

Listen to the words of this Divine Shepherd as Ezekiel hears them: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land…I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:11-19).”


Rich pastures that feed us.  Homecomings for the lost.  Healing for the sick.  Strength for the weak.  When God speaks, God’s voice transforms and informs our conceptions of reality: it asks us to believe that God’s way and God’s kingdom are best for us, and not just best for us, but best for the whole world.

And, Jesus is talking to you and to me and has been all the time.  He has been telling us we’re His. He’s been telling us we belong to His kingdom. He’s been telling us to follow Him, because in following Him we’ll discover what real life looks like. Life that doesn’t end once we stop breathing but keeps on welling up from within us and beyond the grave.  Life that can’t help but dribble out and touch other lives and all creation.


And if you can’t hear Jesus talking to you, then chances are you’ve been letting those other voices speak to you too much. Maybe you need to silence those voices just a bit. Turn off your radio.  Disconnect your iPhone. Tell your brain to stop its frantic mutterings for just a little while. Then ask God to help you listen better, and center in on Jesus and His words in Scripture.

And, if your issue is not distraction, it may be one of discernment- because if it’s true that we’ll know God’s voice when we hear it, it’s also true that sheep must learn to hear the shepherd’s voice.  If you’re struggling to distinguish God’s voice from the rest of the din, here is a hint: chances are that God’s voice will have something to do with this abundant life Ezekiel and Jesus are talking about. Life that cannot be reduced to a better wardrobe or the right job or the next prescription drug or the perfect relationship. Life, instead, that rings with a God-breathed purpose to simply feed on God’s goodness and dwell in God’s love. Life that honors God’s justice for those at the bottom of the food chain. Life that will often demand some level of dying on our parts.


There is no general rule here for how to discern God’s voice.  Scripture doesn’t give us a handy two-step litmus test or a reader-friendly manual with a 1-800 number to call if we get in a pinch. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest at least two ways we can begin to discern God’s voice from all the rest.

The first has to do with the content of what we hear. The Westminster Shorter Catechism in our Reformed tradition states that human beings’ chief aim is to “glorify God and enjoy God forever.” And, I suspect that one clue as to whether we’re in fact hearing God’s voice will be whether what we’re hearing can be said to fall clearly within one or both of these categories of glorifying and enjoying God. Does what we hear glorify God, insofar as it helps us to love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as ourselves? And, does what we’re hearing help us simply enjoy God? These are questions we might ask ourselves anytime we’re not sure whether what we’re hearing is actually God’s voice.


The second way to discern God’s voice has to do with community.  We will do well to look around and see where the rest of the sheep are and whether we’re hearing the same thing they’re hearing. It is hard to hear the Shepherd’s voice when we’re off behind some rock clinging to a craggy hill far away from the rest of the herd bleating for help. Sure, when we’re all alone out there we can be assured that the Good Shepherd will come looking for us- but it will be a whole lot easier to hear the Shepherd’s voice when we’re with the rest of the bunch to begin with. Are you seeking God’s voice in community and with one another? The particulars of what God says to you may differ a bit from one person to another, but the overall direction should, I suspect, be similar.


And when we begin really to hear and discern God’s voice, Jesus’ assurance is that we won’t want to do anything other than follow. We follow because we hear and recognize whose voice it is.  The Good News here is that God is speaking to us all the time whether or not we choose to hear- so much so that He even risked his life for it.

The question, then, for us today really is the title of a somewhat cheesy children’s book, afterall. This time, though, the question doesn’t come from a guy who belongs in a J.Crew catalogue and follows us around all the time with a spooky smile, or magically appears next to us in our office or at the grocery store.  This time the question comes from the ruler of a kingdom that will one day prevail over the “dog-eat-dog” order of this world that is passing away. This God of the universe who is making all things new and is leading, wooing, and calling us out, who is herding us with the rod of a good shepherd, who is sending us out into the jungle out there and inviting us to be by his side all the while, this King who commands a kingdom that is not of this world but for which He tells us to pray, this same One, asks, “Children, can you hear me?”

Lord Jesus Christ, give us ears to listen.


“Lost and Found”: More on Narcissistic Evangelism

If you read yesterday’s post, “Narcissistic Evangelism,” then this morning’s reflection from the gem of a devotional book, Celtic Daily Prayer, may seem poignantly relevant.  Member of the Northumbria Community Aidan Clarke writes: “What I believe about Jesus could not be contained in a thousand books.  I believe in Jesus more than I believe in the pen with which I am writing these words.  I cannot, however, expect you to believe my beliefs.  Imagine you meet me in a cafe and I introduce you to a friend. I say, ‘This is Jesus.’  I do not then give you a list of things you must believe about His family and a thick book to memorize before I let you speak to Him.  I don’t ask you to believe in Him- because you can see Him for yourself.  I ask you only to trust Him and to get to know Him.”


Clarke speaks to the crux of what I am calling “narcissistic evangelism.”  It’s no wonder that the Dan Savages of this world are turned off by Christianity when they’re implicitly told that knowing Jesus equates with simply adhering to a prescribed set of moral codes or applying every part of the Bible literally, devoid of its historical context.  When we introduce Jesus to people by asking them to accept at the outset a list of beliefs about Jesus or His ethical expectations for us, we are, I think, as lost as the people we claim to be evangelizing.

I guess I’m inclined to think that our “lostness” and our “foundness” depend in any given moment on where we are standing in relation to Jesus. What do you think? Leave your reflections below.

Next, some reflections on nature and grace from this “pessimistic optimist” (to borrow Reinhold Niebuhr’s expression).


Narcissistic Evangelism

Dan Savage writes the sex advice column "Savage Love."

Last week someone inquired about the book I’m writing.

“It’s a book for all those who would describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious,'” I had replied.  (The “spiritual but not religious” are all the folks who check “none” next to “religious affiliation” on questionnaires.) “My book is an effort to introduce them to God’s grace through memoir and Christian theology in the form of bumper stickers.”


“Isn’t it a bit narcissistic to assume that just because someone hasn’t been found they’re lost?,” my interlocutor had asked.

I’ve been thinking about his question ever since.  Maybe that’s because intuitively I can’t help but think that at least in one way he is right.  If evangelism is really about making others into our own image- if it’s merely assuming that I, as the “evangelist,” am “found,” and you as the “evangelized” are lost, or that my job as an evangelist is to “find” you- then we do run the risk of being narcissistic.

The truth is that Scripture has a profound ability to call into question our own ability to find anything.  To the degree that we once were lost and now are found, as that good old hymn “Amazing Grace” reminds us, it is because God has first found us.  Human beings are all just a bunch of dumb sheep when it comes to figuring out this thing called “life” on our own.


Evangelism is, I think, simply being truthful about this fact that God first found us and keeps on finding us.  Being truthful does not require assuming anything about the “lostness” or “foundness” of those with whom we share this truth.  It only asks us to bear witness to Jesus as the Good Shepherd in life’s messiness.

The other day controversial gay spokesperson Dan Savage spoke at the National High School Journalist conference in Seattle, and reportedly angered some students who walked out in protest when he called into question biblical authority around issues of morality.  If the Bible got slavery wrong, Savage declared, referencing the book of Philemon as an example, why would we not then assume that the Bible could fall short of the mark on more complex issues of human sexuality?


In times like these when we feel like our sacred texts are being mocked, I wonder if at least one big reason we Christians react defensively has to do with our own deep-seated fear of being lost.  There is something scary about the prospect that the thing we thought was our guidebook could in fact be erroneous or outdated in some way.  A less-than-perfect map means we’re less in control of our destination.  Sometimes the easiest thing to do in times like these is to assume that someone like Savage is himself lost.

But I suspect that evangelism is less about “being right” and defending one’s sacred texts than it is about suspending our preconceptions and assumptions about where others are in relation to The Way, The Truth and The Life who is Jesus.  When we learn to do this, I suspect that the Dan Savages of this world will end up being more “found” than we first assumed them to be.  And, I suspect, so will we.  God, afterall, doesn’t need us to defend God.  God only asks us to love because God first loved us, and the beginning of love is the end of our narcissism.

If you didn’t catch Dan Savage’s remarks on the Bible, here they are: YouTube Preview Image




Mary Magdalene’s Tears: A Homiletics of Remaining

If you’ve been wondering why FSS has been a bit catatonic in the last couple of days, it’s because I’ve been writing a final paper for my women’s theology class- about how to preach to those whose lives have been touched by trauma and who therefore dwell in a “middle space” of “life in death” and “death in life.”  Shelly Rambo’s work, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, which argues for a retrieval of the meaning and importance of Holy Saturday along with a so-called “Middle Spirit” who ministers during Christ’s absence (in hell) in this place in between death and resurrection, lays the central theological groundwork for a homiletical infrastructure of sorts.  Rambo applies the insights of trauma theory to her enterprise, asking how “trauma” (which by definition means no one-time event, but rather the ongoing living out of the initial trauma) problematizes and enriches our understanding of redemption. I have taken Rambo’s theological framework and asked how it might perform in the pulpit.


Since the brainy nerds or insomniacs in our midst might enjoy taking a look, here is my paper:


Letter to the Editor and Correction Re: “Women Body Builders” Article

Rev. Dr. Amy Richter, who was the inspiration of my post two days ago, writes the following in response:

Dear Kristina! Thank you so much! I am so honored–and inspired–on your beautiful riff on building the body of the church. Fantastic! Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I can’t wait to read more of your work!

In the interest of full disclosure, the contest took place 8 years ago. The experience and the subject of embodiment continues to intrigue, delight, and perplex me, so I wrote about it recently. I chose to write the piece so that it would feel more timeless, and therefore, I hoped, more accessible to readers, rather than being a piece of history. The trophy still makes me smile, and I still work out and love that I can lift really heavy weights. I compete in at least one athletic event a year (lately it’s triathlons), because that, too, brings me delight, although what I experience most often is a sense of camaraderie amongst the women who are all giving it our best. 

Thank you again for your ministry! 


Amy, thank you for reading- and most of all, thank you for your work!


FSS Reader Poll, Mid-Week Miscellany

It doesn't get cuter or sappier than this. For more, visit Beliefnet's "Faithful Canine Pals" gallery of images.

Every week I receive a little report from the editors of Beliefnet summarizing the hot content of the week- all that stuff you guys are inclined to read out there.  It seems inquiring minds these days often want to know how to pray for strength or healing, find advice on how to recover from an affair, or get the latest on politicians and celebrities.  And I get that.


Beliefnet readers also seem to like heart-warming stories about animals.  (If you haven’t read my post, “Space Dog: The Animal of Regret,” it’s a tip of the hat to all dog lovers out there.) So I get that, too.

But, I must confess to being more perplexed when popular key words include things like “songs about rain” or “Polish salt mine.”  For you readers, I fear I have little to offer- although I do vaguely remember Milli Vanilli once blaming love troubles on the rain sometime in the 80’s, and before that, Barry Manilow crooning about how he “made it through the rain,” with a wicked seventies do to show for it. I was also mildly intrigued to learn, via Wickipedia, that the Wieliczka Salt Mine, in addition to being one of the world’s oldest natural salt mines dating back to the thirteenth century, is actually a pretty big tourist attraction (if Poland is where you plan to spend your next vacation).


Hot vacation spots notwithstanding, all of this is to say that Beliefnet readers are a bit, well, “eclectic” in their choice of reading. And if you readers are weird this way, we bloggers are even more so.  Up until now, you fellow saints and sinners have been subjected to my own often random and rambling tirades about God and life and everything in between.

Which is why I invite your feedback: you wouldn’t know it right now, but we’ve actually been indulging in an ongoing series titled “Jesus Epithets” (all the names given to Jesus throughout Scripture); and, in God’s perfect timing, which I suspect will be in the days and weeks to come, we’ll also feature an interview with Stanford neurologist and fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries about how discoveries in neuroscience enrich and problematize Christian theology; but, what would you like to see more of on FSS?  If we are living into what it means to be a “virtual church for real people asking real questions about God and life,” or, to put it another way, an open, online community of religious misfits with questions at the intersection of life and God, be we converted, unconverted or under conversion, what does this look like for you? What kinds of questions, concerns, gripes and celebrations would you like me to entertain for the benefit of the Fellowship?   What contributions might you make? I value your input! Leave your comments below, or shoot me an e-mail at


Women Body Builders: Why The Church Needs More of Them

When she’s not strutting her stuff in body building competitions, Amy Richter is ministering to the people of St. Anne’s parish. Her book, “Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew,” will debut later this year.

What few of her parishioners know, or are only now beginning to discover, is that on one Sunday morning eight years ago Rev. Dr. Amy Richter of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland took second in the Wisconsin State Fair’s physique competition.  This was no small feat.  In addition to training for the event, Richter had to wear a rather skimpy, red, rhinestone-studded bikini that was sent to her in the mail, and to parade across a stage while flexing her shiny muscles for the crowds.


Her introduction? “Next we have Amy Richter, from Milwaukee.  She is 37 years old, and she works as…a priest! Well, hallelujah!”

Her prize?  A three-foot-high trophy that Richter cupped proudly as she walked through the fairgrounds.

Last month in an article for The New York Times,  Richter, who is an Episcopal priest, shared her experience of being a female body builder with the title “Rev. Dr” in front of her name.  She, like I, has had her share of expressed discomfort with her gender in church leadership, all of which has led her to conclude that, “somehow, despite our belief that both sexes can serve the church, it seems there’s still something unnerving about a priest who is a woman.” “It has to do with a woman’s body,” Richter concludes.


Maybe it is precisely this recognition that was at least in part Richter’s motivation for parading her near-naked body across a stage to the tune of a Macy Gray song.  Because if a woman’s body, simply by being seen for what it is, destabilizes and calls into question traditional notions of male-centric church leadership and power- a de-centering that I would argue must happen in the 21st century, and should have happened long ago- then maybe we women in leadership can learn to embrace healthy, constructive ways to showcase our bodies and what they can do.  Maybe strutting across a stage in a red bikini, metaphorically speaking, is the very thing that more of us can and should be doing.

Richter describes how she responded to the inquiries of children who saw her flashy trophy and stopped her to ask how she won it. “I wanted to say I won it for being the strongest priest in the state, for being a woman who is a priest with a really strong and healthy body,” she writes. “I wanted to tell them I won it for being brave, but that wasn’t really true, because I hadn’t been brave enough to tell the people it would be the biggest risk to tell. ‘I got it for being myself,’ I said.”


I suspect you don’t have to go to Richter’s great lengths to be a female body builder in the church.  I suspect that there are a host of ways that women leaders can express who we are and be ourselves despite what those in the pews (male or female, and often they are female) would tell us.  And when we do this, we do so for the building up of the body of Christ.  What Richter stops short of saying is that “being ourselves” is not just about feminist self-expression or self-empowerment for the sake of it.  It is about living into the Christ-centered reality of a kingdom that does not operate according to the powers of darkness that govern our world.  A kingdom at the center of which is Christ and in which there is “no male or female, Greek or Jew.”


A bit of a paradox resides in the notion that, to shine a light on this gender-blind kingdom in which God’s Love rules, we women and our manliest of male brothers will need to do a better job of getting comfortable with women’s bodies.  But, whether they’re strutting across a stage in a bikini to win an award for being strong and healthy, or administering the Word and Sacraments to God’s people- whether they’re the first to witness to the empty tomb and the resurrection of their Lord- women’s bodies are important building blocks in God’s story of redemption- of restoration of the world as it was intended to be.  Let’s treasure them.  Let’s inhabit them with ease without needing to be self-conscious about them.  And for God’s sake- seriously- let’s celebrate them!




Evangelicals on Sex: “High Bars” or “Hang-Ups”?

"Happy Condom"

On most any afternoon a small ecumenical council of women convenes on the school playground: we include a converted Jew, backsliding Catholic, conservative evangelical, “spiritual but not religious” seeker and yours truly (who, if resorting to labels, would describe herself as a “feminist evangelical”).  We solve the world’s problems while mending skinned knees and changing diapers.


The other day we were wondering which of our represented faith traditions has the biggest monopoly on guilt.  Catholics, evangelicals and Jews were all in a dead heat for first place, with the one difference being the way we talk about sex.  Jews, we agreed, at least have fewer hang-ups about the issue- and they are more apt to talk openly about their problems with guilt.  (Which probably means that in the end Catholics and evangelicals win the prize for biggest guilt trips.)

But, assuming there is a difference between “hang-ups” and “high bars” for morality, where does one begin and the other end? Sometimes I wonder if the space between these two poles is a very small one.  I’m not sure how to negotiate it exactly.  Maybe you’ll have some ideas, and I hope you  leave them here.


A recent video put out by the National Association of Evangelicals claims that eighty percent of evangelicals are having premarital sex.  Yesterday’s article in The Huffington Post would suggest that statistics like these are signaling a change in how evangelicals talk about sex and the abortion.  The article cites, for example, the results of a survey at this month’s Q conference in Washington: when participants were asked in a session addressing how to reduce abortion whether churches should support the use of contraception among their single 20-somethings, 64 percent said “yes” while 36 percent said “no.”

If genuine, these movements in the direction of a more honest conversation that speaks to the reality of how we evangelicals are living outside the pew are welcome.  I hope they keep developing.  I hope that, as the parent of two children who not long from now in the scheme of things will be teenagers, I will have the courage to talk about this reality rather than just offer rose-colored prescriptions.


My own introduction to this otherwise forbidden and mysterious realm consisted of a (literal) “birds-and-the-bees” book in fourth grade, followed in high school by some fear-inducing casette tapes by James Dobson.  Later in college, I remember the leader in my InterVarsity chapter standing up publicly to admit to a small sexual indiscretion (with the exception that it happened to be with someone of the same sex).  He asked for forgiveness only to be relieved of his responsibilities.  It was a bit like a scene in the movie, Saved, except that it really happened, and it wasn’t really funny.  It was downright humiliating.

Experiences like these contributed in those years to my own guilt-laden, “fumbling through” in this arena of sex and sexuality.  To be sure, the inculcation of sex’ covenantal sacredness, on the one hand, protected me from a lot of potentially unsafe and self-destructive behavior.  For that I am grateful to this day.  I instead lived vicariously through the stories of fellow swimmers and sorority sisters who would often shamelessly regale me with the details of their one-night stands.  (Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder if the jaw-dropping popularity of Lauren Winner’s book some years back had to do at least in part with the voyeuristic thrill it offered evangelicals- a chance to be titillated by Winner’s intimate revelations?  But, I digress.)


On the other hand, this somewhat obsessive focus on bodily sexual purity at the expense of other dimensions of the Christian life also reduced the beauty and adventure of a relationship with Christ to little more than “sin management,” and my own failure to live up to the ideal in my relationship with my future husband left residues of shame and guilt around this expression of intimacy that impacted our early years of marriage.

So the question thus becomes, how do we straddle this tension of, on the one hand, lifting up sex as a beautiful, powerful, potentially soul-enlarging expression of our humanity, and letting it become a guilt-ridden hang-up that actually impedes our Christian witness? Not long ago I featured Jefferson Bethke- (another one of those now-controversial Mars Hill people, thanks to Mark Driscoll and his book on sex and marriage)-rapping about how Jesus came to abolish religion.  Here is Bethke again, this time on the subject of sexual healing.  And I must admit that overall I like what he has to say:


YouTube Preview Image

Assuming there is a difference between “hang-ups” and “high bars” for sexual morality, where does one begin and the other end? How do we inhabit that space with integrity?  Leave your comments below!

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