Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Sarah Ruden, a joyful iconoclast

posted by Rod Dreher

sarahruden.jpgThe most exciting book of historical analysis I’ve read in ages — indeed the most exciting book period — is the Classical scholar and translator Sarah Ruden’s “Paul Among the People” (Pantheon) which attempts to defend St. Paul against his modernist critics (e.g. those who consider him an impossible troglodyte for his views on women and homosexuals) by explaining the Greco-Roman social and cultural context in which he composed his letters. It’s quite eye-opening, and remarkable in part because Ruden is a research fellow at Yale Divinity School (no bastion of Christian conservatism), as well as a Quaker pacifist. What makes reading Ruden such a pleasure, aside from the quality of her thinking and her prose, is her willingness to question settled truths, and to do it with such a lightness of spirit. She doesn’t cast herself as a culture warrior, as such, but as someone who simply thinks that Paul gets a bad deal from contemporaries, who judge him by the standards of our own time, heedless of the cultural realities of his era, that the Apostle addressed in his letters. In short, she’s sticking up for a man who in some leading circles is an underdog.
Clearly a pacifist who would take on translating “The Aeneid” is someone with an intrepid character and an iconoclastic way of seeing the world. Did you know Ruden is the first woman to have translated the entire epic poem?
I recently had an e-mail exchange with her, and publish it here, with her permission. It’s a little long; part one is here, and part two is below the jump. What she has to say I find remarkable — especially the respect she learned for the power of faith on the ground in South Africa (that part is after the jump, which is to say, in the extended entry):

I told an academic friend about your St. Paul book, and he said, “Wow, I guess she doesn’t much care about her future in academia.” The idea is that by writing a book defending the apostle’s most controversial positions, especially on women and homosexuality, you are sabotaging your career prospects. What do you say to that?

Well, luckily I don’t have to worry about my future in academia, because I’m only a virtual academic now. I can only credit God for bringing me out of what was and might have stayed a catastrophe.
My father was an environmental biology professor, and my mother taught high school biology. My brother is a biological anthropology professor. My sister is an entomologist (bugs) and married a biology professor. But as a teenager I couldn’t get started on the science career expected of me: I still can’t add up a column of figures or read a diagram, though I’m good at languages.
I couldn’t imagine life outside the academy, but my family wasn’t able to advise or help me in the humanities. At twenty-one I took a dumb flying leap into a Harvard Ph.D. program in Latin and Greek. I’d rather not go into the practical results, except to note that any serious effort on my part toward an academic career ended when I dropped off the tenure track at the University of Cape Town fifteen years ago. I’ve now had a series of non-funded visiting scholar appointments (with occasional teaching), which I enjoy and am grateful for, and I make my living through writing and editing. I’m blessed beyond hope in being able to write anything I like.
One good thing, I think, coming from a lot of hard experience is that, though I’ve seen a lot of the academy, I still see it the way a child would. It was never made comfortable for me, and I never developed any insider rationalizations. I’m sure I have the sourest of grapes, but I do encounter people who ask the same childish questions–more such people now that so much of the money is gone, and now that Western culture is in such distress and doubt.
Here’s some of what I want to know. Why should we hugely compress the range of historical time from which we cause students to read, and also the array of permitted thematic questions? (In many schools, you’re now not only kept to race, gender, and class, but you’re punished if you say anything ABOUT race, gender, or class that quite a tiny elite wouldn’t also say.) And why at the same time do we tell students that, anyway, it’s all about their expressing their own concerns, when they don’t yet know what an intellectual concern is? Isn’t that going to produce little more than a confused boredom and a little skill at parroting?
I’d like to see some of the seriousness of science brought back to the humanities. My father treated both his curriculum and his research as life-and-death matters. He looked at a biology class and believed it was up to him to dissuade them, for example, from smoking, or from allowing toxic waste dumps without proper liners in their future communities. He looked at an epidemiological study and pictured a childhood leukemia victim shrieking as her IV shunt is put in, and his mind raced over the knowledge and technology and laws that could prevent such suffering. My sister and brother-in-law don’t see any important difference between their work in a college and their environmental activism–in short, people need them. What’s the big difference between those attitudes and the attitude that should prevail in the humanities?
That’s especially true right now. Through literature, and especially religious literature, we can ask questions related to our survival. “Now that we have such hard choices, what’s actually useful to us? Who and what are we, anyway?”
If I could give one suggestion for revitalizing higher education, it would be to re-emphasize and reward general knowledge and good teaching, and slacken publication requirements. These compel scholars to produce rickety treehouses of specialization. If you can get papers and books out on topics nobody on the outside cares about, you can fill your quota in safety from competition and criticism–with the cooperation of colleagues who are doing the same in their own research. I don’t blame any of them–they have families to support and few professional alternatives, and they can’t change the system from inside. But I do fervently wish it would change.
What do you say to those who would argue that you, a Quaker pacifist, are giving aid and comfort to their enemies the religious conservatives with this book?
Well, I wouldn’t agree that anyone accusing me of giving aid and comfort to enemies is a fellow pacifist in the first place. Among pacifists, that ought to be a compliment, not an accusation.
To “walk orderly” as a Quaker is to appreciate the feelings of people who disagree with you. In dealing with homosexuality, individual Meetings had to decide, though complete consensus, to what extent they would include and accommodate the gay men and Lesbians who came to them. The concerns of even the most conservative members, as well as the petitioners, had to be respected, so the process was trial-and-error and quite slow, and in some places it has halted up to this day. Some so-called Conservative Friends will never be comfortable with open homosexuality, so certain default decisions of their Meetings will remain the same as the positions of the Catholic Church: not to sanction a gay marriage, for example, or not to let homosexuals teach in the sectarian school. The Mennonites, another pacifist sect with which I spend time, are in a similar quietly divided situation.
Christ–and Paul–called us first of all to love one another. That’s why the liberal Quaker Meetings, no matter how right they thought they were, and no matter how frustrated they became, didn’t say to their dissenters: “Hey, obviously we must allow gay marriage, and if you don’t like it, you’re reactionary and don’t belong here.” That’s also why, in the book, I worked hard not to denigrate the liberty of conservative Christians–including Paul! The modern conservatives have had different experiences than I have, as Paul did. That doesn’t say anything against their goodwill, or against their membership with me in the family of Christ.

[Read more of my exchange with Sarah Ruden by clicking forward...]

I am an Orthodox Christian, and what most people would call a religious conservative, though “traditionalist” would be more accurate. I find myself ever more frustrated with an alienated from the cultural politics of American religion, because they impoverish our understanding of what Scripture and Tradition has to tell us, and condition our minds to regard faith instrumentally. I don’t want a church or synagogue to be The Republican Party at Prayer, or The Democratic Party at Prayer. In my daily prayers and thoughts about how to live out my faith more perfectly in this world, I am growing more aware by how radical the Christian call is to stand in opposition to some of the most cherished dogmas of both the liberal and conservative political movements. (Robert Inchausti’s great book “Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries and Other Christians in Disguise” is the book to read on this). I suppose what excited me so much about your book on St. Paul is how even though you come out of what is generally thought to be a liberal religious tradition (insofar as that label means anything today), you fiercely reject our culturally conditioned reading of Scripture, and the Pauline letters, in an attempt to figure out what the Apostle was actually trying to say to his readers. It seems to me to require an almost heroic effort to clear away all the ideological Kultursmog that the culture warriors of left and right put out, and to try to see a thing for what it is — and to wrestle with it openly and cleanly. Put another way, I’m eager to let the ignorant armies of left and right carry on their trench warfare, while we who may generally identify broadly with either the conservative or progressive religious and intellectual traditions run off together to recover the ability to see things with fresh eyes, and to talk about them honestly and rigorously, but without rancor. I mean, what else is there? What could possibly be more dull than the same old polemical pissing matches between left and right, and the self-satisfied congeries of the righteous on both sides, standing together to affirm their mutual goodness against the evil Other, from whom they arrogantly believe there is nothing to learn?
Is this impossibly Utopian, in your view?

It IS impossibly Utopian, in the best way: it’s religious! As long as we acknowledge that Utopia belongs to God, then our work will be humble enough to strive toward God’s Kingdom, not our own rigid and very limited notions of what’s right and good.
In my circles, we’re supposed to deride the flag-waver who asserts that God loves our nation more than others, but I’m bored with that, and more inclined to get annoyed with the typical clerical politician of the left–just because no one around me challenges him, however strange his statements: for example, that “poverty elimination” and Christianity are functionally the same thing.
Aside from the obvious Scriptural and theological objections you could make to that, there are horrors of the twentieth century to look back on: the massive poverty elimination projects in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cambodia, China, and Tanzania. The result was always elimination of the poor, those irritating barriers between human ideology and agency, and the paradise leaders insisted that these can create on their own.
In many South African NGOs, I saw played out the paradox that faith is the basic thing that brings social justice. Activists who relied on their human capacities were ground into the dust. Activists who believed that God was in charge were unstoppable. If they got things wrong, they just tried another way, because they saw themselves as weak sinners with a very partial vision; it was okay, and in fact comforting, to admit they were wrong. If their practical goals turned out to be destructive or impossible, they could cheerfully let them go–to love God was their mission, which no one could take away from them. And like Paul, they have done far more for human justice than they ever consciously intended, merely by impressing on people–who had never heard such a thing–that God cared about them and had suffered for them. The passion for justice in southern Africa is, I believe, mainly a legacy of the Scottish missionaries. So dig it–I’m a Quaker in awe of Calvinists.

Love that Sarah Ruden. Buy her books, willya? She needs to be encouraged to write more of them.



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lancelot lamar

posted February 26, 2010 at 11:54 am


What a lively and intelligent young woman. Thank you, Rod, for bringing her to our attention.
Loved the photo of her–life, surprise, wonder and joyful radiance–not much seen among academics.
God bless her and her work.



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Larry

posted February 26, 2010 at 12:04 pm


I just finished reading “Paul Among the People” and also highly recommend it. It will make a lot of people, both “liberals” and “conservatives” uncomfortable, Ruden is not at all afraid sacred cows (she appears to like them barbecued). She also writes with a light, but highly informative touch. For instance, she points out that if you transliterate “Paul” into Greek, it means “man with a mincing, queeny walk”, which is not a definition you are likely to find in any dictionary, but is still highly informative.



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Larry

posted February 26, 2010 at 12:05 pm


Sorry, “Paul” above should be “Saul”. Sarah was explaining one possible reason that Saul changed his name.



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Ted

posted February 26, 2010 at 12:08 pm


“If I could give one suggestion for revitalizing higher education, it would be to re-emphasize and reward general knowledge and good teaching, and slacken publication requirements. These compel scholars to produce rickety treehouses of specialization.”
How I loved this quote. The miserable state of academia, and the proliferation of such “rickety treehouses,” was an important reason in my decision not to pursue graduate work in history after. This woman, however, had a vision that I did not have, and found a way to write and speak outside of the academic cloister. Good for her.



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Hector

posted February 26, 2010 at 12:43 pm


Re: the massive poverty elimination projects in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cambodia, China, and Tanzania
Uh?
I’m not sure how Tanzania gets grouped together with the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cambodia or China. You may or may not think highly of the late President Nyerere and his socialist ideology (he’s still very highly regarded in Tanzania, from what I hear from people who have been there, and his efforts enjoyed some modest success as well as some failures) but Tanzania wasn’t known for concentration camps, killing fields, cultural revolutions, mass murder or the like. They were a garden variety one-party state of the kind that was common in Africa and Latin America in the 1960s – no worse. Not a liberal democracy but certainly not particularly brutal.
Nyerere was also, of course, a devout Catholic, and a Christian socialist as opposed to an atheist Marxist-Leninist (which may be part of the reason _why_ there were no killing fields, gulags, great purges, etc.).
I don’t disagree at all with her general point as it pertains to North Korea, China, the Soviet Union, etc. but I thought the inclusion of Tanzania was a bit…..odd, to say the least.



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Turmarion

posted February 26, 2010 at 12:46 pm


I’ll definitely have to have a look at her book, and maybe her translation of the Aeneid, as well!



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Charles Cosimano

posted February 26, 2010 at 1:02 pm


In her own way she has made a very good case why Paul should not be considered as a serious guide for us. We do not live in the First Century Roman Empire and to extrapolate from that culture to ours is foolishness. As Paul was clearly writing to issues of his time, he cannot be writing to issues of ours. As he was writing to issues of the culture of his time, he cannot be writing to issues of ours.



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Rod Dreher

posted February 26, 2010 at 1:27 pm


Charles, I can see how you’d see it that way, and I do think that’s a plausible point to make, especially from a non-Christian perspective (e.g., yours). Interestingly, Ruden never tips her hand as to whether or not she personally believes Paul’s teachings on this or that controversial thing ought to be binding on us today. She’s only defending him in context of his time and place. Christians do read Paul’s letters as authoritative for determining Christian doctrine, though obviously different churches will interpret that in different ways.



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Peter

posted February 26, 2010 at 1:35 pm


I think that Ruden’s point is one that has been made by theological progressives for awhile: before we accept the teaching of Paul as “gospel,” let’s understand the historical context. Many people who question the reliance on Paul’s teachings about homosexuality have said what Ruden has said: his idea of homosexuality was shaped by a specific cultural context that has little to do with our current understanding of how gays and lesbians live their lives.
She’s not giving aid and comfort to conservatives; she’s voicing the lonely views that progressives have been making for decades in terms of understanding Paul.



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Appalachian Prof

posted February 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm


We bought the book, and I’m reading it and enjoying it.



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MWorrell

posted February 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm


Thanks for the lead, Rod… it’s on my short list.



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BobSF

posted February 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm


I’m glad you brought her up again, as I thought your previous post which allowed no comments was pretty unfair.
If her book defends Paul’s views on homosexuality by explaining what a horrible thing First Century homosexuality was (an explanation I don’t accept, by the way), I cannot fathom why his views are considered authoritative when homosexuality in today’s culture is nothing like what she describes as having been the situation in Paul’s time.



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deb

posted February 26, 2010 at 2:37 pm


Thanks for this interview, Rod. Very interesting. I bought her book after reading your earlier post on it and plan to read it very soon.
As a refugee from grad school who finally couldn’t envision being happy in academia for the reasons she mentions, among others, I’m very glad to see how she’s creatively made a way for herself. More power to her, and may her tribe increase.



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readingbill

posted February 26, 2010 at 2:46 pm


What Charles and Peter write has been my experience, too, with understanding Paul. I haven’t read or heard of a knuckle-dragging Paul recently (since the ’70s?) on women or hommosexuality except in some broad caricature that progressives reject.
I would also like to extend that concept of understanding Paul in context with his time to his assertions about what Jesus’ death means, particularly in Romans 3:21-26. Should we understand Jesus’ death today in context of Paul’s first-century theology of propitiation?
Of course, such a discussion would open one up to charges of relativism and liberal irrelevance, but it is a discussion worth having.



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Boz

posted February 26, 2010 at 3:16 pm


Rod,
Thanks for posting this. I’ve been interested in Sarah Ruden since I picked up her translation of the “Aeneid” in a bookstore and was completely bowled over by it. Everybody should read it; it’s unbelievably good.
That said, some of the commenters above are correct. Ruden is making standard theologically liberal arguments about Paul’s views on homosexuality. You’ll notice that she simply side-stepped all your points about her making conservative arguments.



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Rod Dreher

posted February 26, 2010 at 4:02 pm


Ruden is making standard theologically liberal arguments about Paul’s views on homosexuality. You’ll notice that she simply side-stepped all your points about her making conservative arguments.>>
I take her to be a theological liberal, though she doesn’t quite come out and say so. “Paul Among the People” is certainly not a book arguing in favor of theologically liberal viewpoints, though it could be appropriated for those purposes if one wanted to. It’s point is that the “hard sayings” of St. Paul on women, on homosexuality, and so forth — the kinds of things that many of us moderns struggle with — actually represented radical liberation in Paul’s place and time. Understand: she’s not saying, “Yes, they were dreadful sentiments, but you’ve got to understand the poor old fellow’s context.” No, she says, “Paul was a hero.” Big difference.
Sarah’s book would provide an excellent starting point for a dialogue between progressive and traditional Christians on St. Paul’s legacy today.



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Quiddity

posted February 26, 2010 at 4:19 pm


What’s always puzzled me about Paul is, why did the church grant him the status as an authority on anything?
Is it his (self-reported) vision? Clearly, on significant doctrinal issues, he was in opposition to many who knew Jesus personally. A historical analysis of the early church should present him as a schismatic minority voice. That Paul’s writing are canonical and used to counter Pelagius is a real tragedy. (And don’t get me started on St. Augustine, who is decidedly Pauline with a miserable view of human depravity.)
True, Paul is not liked these days for some of his social stands, as Rod notes. But what about taking the guy as a whole? It sure looks like a case of survivor-bias, with the other Christian strains disappearing due to Roman repression (e.g. destruction of Jerusalem in 70).



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Peter

posted February 26, 2010 at 4:20 pm


Understand: she’s not saying, “Yes, they were dreadful sentiments, but you’ve got to understand the poor old fellow’s context.” No, she says, “Paul was a hero.” Big difference.
I’m not sure you’ve read much progressive theology lately. Even Bishop Spong saw Paul as a heroic (and human) figure struggling with himself and his times. Progressives merely remind literalists and the orthodox that Paul’s teaching do have a very specific cultural context and–no matter how heroic he is–you need to understand where he was coming from before you decide that Paul’s teachings are meant to be God’s word and teaching for all modern times.



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Rod Dreher

posted February 26, 2010 at 4:26 pm


Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s a very late modern development in Christian theology to decide that most of the New Testament can be written off because Paul doesn’t make sense to us today. No faithful Catholic or Orthodox could begin to agree with that. This is why we believe we have to read Scripture through the authoritative interpretive lens of the Church. When every man is his own pope or church council, and feels at liberty to toss out parts of the Bible he doesn’t like, on his own authority, there’s much danger afoot. I don’t call that liberation; I call it a dictatorship of relativism.



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Mark

posted February 26, 2010 at 4:27 pm


Mr. Dreher – thanks for the pointer to this book. (Buy it!)
What amazes me about the book, even more so in light of the interview, is the scholarship. I too take Ms. Rudin to be more of a theological liberal (it comes through in the book’s preface), but the committment to real scholarship is astounding. She does not flinch from reaching unpopular conclusions, nor does she overstate her case or step out of the bounds of her expertise. Reach and restraint. It is sad but not surprising that a real scholar could not find a permanent place in the academy.



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Peter

posted February 26, 2010 at 4:33 pm


When every man is his own pope or church council, and feels at liberty to toss out parts of the Bible he doesn’t like, on his own authority, there’s much danger afoot. I don’t call that liberation; I call it a dictatorship of relativism.
Of course, but not everyone is orthdox in their views. Even Catholics and the Orthodox have accepted contextual understanding in interpreting the Bible (and bootstrapped perceived meaning in other situations). That’s why Catholics and the Orthodox don’t agree on everything because of that exact role of interpretation. It’s why the role of women has changed, even in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, because of a rethinking of what the Bible said (or was perceived to say) about women and a look at cultural context.
It’s the dictatoriship of relativism that gives voice to your wife and Fredrica and all the women of the Orthodox church in 2010. Don’t kid yourself about that.



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John E - Agn Stoic

posted February 26, 2010 at 5:09 pm


When every man is his own pope or church council, and feels at liberty to toss out parts of the Bible he doesn’t like, on his own authority, there’s much danger afoot. I don’t call that liberation; I call it a dictatorship of relativism.
I call it freedom of religious belief.
Some of us think that to be a Good Idea.



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Hector

posted February 26, 2010 at 5:20 pm


Re: “Paul Among the People” is certainly not a book arguing in favor of theologically liberal viewpoints, though it could be appropriated for those purposes if one wanted to.
To say that ‘Paul’s views on homosexuality were heroic and correct in his time, but were designed for a differnt culture and context than ours’ seems to be pretty much what you would hear from a garden variety Episcopal or ELCA priest. It’s not theologically liberal in the same sense as one of the whacky people on the faculty of an Ivy League Divinity School might be, true. But it’s theologically liberal in the sense that it reflects the views of most of the pro-gay faction within the Christian church today.
You’ve said in the past that you are opposed to the factions within the Anglican and Lutheran communions (and presumibly also dissenting Catholics, Orthodox, etc.) who think that homosexuality can be OK, and that’s perfectly fine. I don’t think you’re a homophobe for thinking so. But please be aware that the people who you disagree with are, for the overwhelming majority, people like Sarah Ruden, and like me, and like my priest back home (who is celibate, ultra-traditionalist in his liturgical views, fond of going on about the ’19th century heresy of universalism’ and how ‘abortion is worse than slavery’, but who has also come to the view that what the early church condemned as ‘unnatural sin’ doesn’t necessarily apply to homosexual relationships today. Don’t say that she isn’t making a theologically liberal argument- that IS the standard theologically liberal argument. ‘Paul was a dumb misogynist’ is something you might hear from an atheist, but not (in my experience) from liberal leaning clergy of the church.
People like that pro-abortion Jezebel at Episcopal Divinity School are not the majority in the Episcopal or the ELCA church, and they’re not the majority on the pro-gay side.
God bless your family, and especially your sister, and have a blessed Lent.



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MikeW

posted February 26, 2010 at 5:22 pm


Thanks, Rod. Interesting post and comments. Added to my short list, too, behind a couple of Swedish mysteries.



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Geoff G.

posted February 26, 2010 at 5:26 pm


Um, this is hopelessly self-serving and unlikely given her academic status, but does she take graduate students? If so, with what kind of background?



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Jon

posted February 26, 2010 at 5:59 pm


Re: the massive poverty elimination projects in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cambodia, China, and Tanzania
Along with Hector’s question about Tanzania., let me express my own puzzlement why the efforts in the totalitarian nations ae being called “poverty elimination projects”. I don’t think Lenin, Mao etc. were trying to eliminate poverty, whatever their propaganda. I doubt they gave a flying fig about poverty. One might rather name their efforts “Power consolidation projects”. That’s what they were after: power.



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Cecelia

posted February 26, 2010 at 6:04 pm


very interesting – glad you posted on this again. Admit I am fuzzy on the details – having a senior moment – but is there not some doubt that all of the epistles attributed to Paul were written by him? I am pretty sure that this is a view held by some Biblical historians. Does she address this issue in her book?
It seems obvious to me that we should try in all cases to understand people from the past in terms of the culture they lived in. This period in Christian history seems very interesting to me – there was a bit of disagreement between Paul and Peter over the issue of sex. Paul preached that people shouldn’t have sex whereas Peter was not convinced of this. It seems part of the reason Roman female patricians were attracted to Christianity is because of Paul’s preaching on this issue – hence the spate of early female Roman martyrs who refuse to marry.
LOL – does not speak well to the state of Roman marriage. But it does show that this was perceived – at least by some women- as being a message which liberated them from social norms which they clearly did not like. When Peter arrives in Rome it seems this then becomes a very hot topic – to marry and have sex or not. I share Quidditty’s curiousity about why Paul achieves such prominence (and yeah – I could do without Augustine too). Is it because he gets to Rome first?
The force of his personality?



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Jon

posted February 26, 2010 at 6:14 pm


Peter:
Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches have exceedingly long histories, and span multiple diverse cultures, with the result that these churches are fully aware that customs change over time, and are not the same everywhere. Neither church was ever into hidebound literalism, and the fact that they have instituted reforms today (whether for god or bad) is not evidence they are secretly modernist at heart. If you look at the history of these churches you will find that they periodicaly adusted their attitudes and rules to go with the times and cultures in which they found themselves.
Re: If her book defends Paul’s views on homosexuality by explaining what a horrible thing First Century homosexuality was (an explanation I don’t accept, by the way
Why can’t you accept Ms Ruden’s picture? Sure, there must have been decent same sex couples in antiquity. But meanwhile the sexual abuse of slaves was completely legal, and while sexual abuse of social inferiors was technically illegal, the rich and powerful were rarely prosecuted for it– and might get off with a triffling gift of money to their victims if someone did raise a stink.
Re: I cannot fathom why his views are considered authoritative when homosexuality in today’s culture is nothing like what she describes as having been the situation in Paul’s time.
Violent homosexual rape still happens today. See: prisons; various pederasty scandals. Paul’s words on the subject are not outdated, even if we like to think we’re a lot better than those noisome old Greeks and Romans.



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thomas tucker

posted February 26, 2010 at 8:06 pm


Sounds like an interesting book.
But what I don’t understand about her view is that, when your read paul in Romans about homosexuaity,
it seems to me that he has two primary objections to it- it is against God’s law, and it is against natural law. He even condems lesbian acts on those bases, not becaust the acts are forced by an aggressor on a victim.
So, I don’t think her reading of Paul rings true.



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tom22

posted February 26, 2010 at 8:39 pm


Dr. Ruden touches upon the issue of homosexuality and the topic of relations between men and women, but, I think, a close reading of her book argues a larger theme. She believes that St. Paul is a central figure in Western Civilization. She argues that he is the first truly Western Man. He is the first person to literally spread the gospel that each person is possessed of a soul and each of us are precious in God’s eyes. This was a revolution in the so called classical world, where very few people were entitled to the rights of citizenship. Little wonder that in a scant few hundred years Christianity triumphed over the barbarous world of polytheism. She also makes explicit an argument that if you accept Paul’s theology, then a lot of other Western values flow naturally from it. If each of us has an immortal soul, concepts about equality and freedom of speech
are fairly natural consequences. This book argues that St. Paul is the foundstion stone of many of our most cherished beliefs.



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Travis

posted February 27, 2010 at 12:28 am


Jon,
Everything you said applies equally to heterosexuals as homosexuals. There are many examples (and have been throughout human history) of abusive heterosexual relationships. Violent heterosexual rape is far more common than the homosexual variety.
So what, in your argument, in any way morally justifies oppression of gay and lesbian people?



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Jon

posted February 27, 2010 at 2:05 am


Re: But what I don’t understand about her view is that, when your read paul in Romans about homosexuaity
Thomas,
When I read those passages, I see a pure narrative– not a normative point at all.
Romans is Paul’s meditation of the theme that we are saved by faith, not by Law (meaning the Law of the Jews). What Paul was saying is that some people (presumably the Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora*) had abandoned the worship of the true God for the (Greco-Roman) practice of idol worship. These apostates also took up Greek fashion in sexual recreation. And God abandoned to them to their lusts, and the pain therefrom. So the fact that they were sealed by birth unto the Law did nothing for them. They abandoned faith in God, and God abandoned them. Their pain from same-sex lust is just an illustration of how passions can destroy you when you do not have faith. Reading this passage as being about homosexuality totally ignores the larger context.
*Hellenization was a huge issue for the Jews all through the Hellenistic and early Roman era. I suggest reading the books of Maccabees for a good overview to the topic. Christianity itself was rejected by the rabbinical Jews as being too Greek– and too open to Gentiles.



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MJ

posted February 27, 2010 at 7:13 am


Thanks for this interview — hope to read this sometime.



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Jon

posted February 27, 2010 at 11:02 am


Re: So what, in your argument, in any way morally justifies oppression of gay and lesbian people?
Where in my post do you see me justifying oppression of anyone? It should be obvious from my other post here that (like Hector and several others here) I do not take a “fundamentalist” approach to the so-called clobber-verses of the New Testament. I rather see them as applying to specific forms of homosexual activity, not to all gays everywhere in every situation.
I do not want to start yet another flame war on this topic; there were too many of them on Rod’s former blog. But respectfully I would ask you to put the broad tar brush away.



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BobSF

posted February 27, 2010 at 4:18 pm


Why can’t you accept Ms Ruden’s picture? Sure, there must have been decent same sex couples in antiquity. But meanwhile the sexual abuse of slaves was completely legal, and while sexual abuse of social inferiors was technically illegal, the rich and powerful were rarely prosecuted for it– and might get off with a triffling gift of money to their victims if someone did raise a stink.
I haven’t read her book yet. My comment is based on Rod’s previous thread (the one with no comments) that summarized them. I find it very hard to believe that, in a culture without the stigmatization of homosexuality that exists today, the predominate form of homosexual relationship was that of the abusive-master/slave-subordinate. And, as Travis has subsequently pointed out, nothing offensive about homosexuality that you have mentioned didn’t have a probably far more common heterosexual parallel. To repeat your words with a slight modification: the heterosexual sexual abuse of slaves was completely legal, and while heterosexual sexual abuse of social inferiors was technically illegal, the rich and powerful were rarely prosecuted for it.
Also, the number of “rich and powerful” people was really very, very small, while the number of same-sex attracted regular folks was, in all probability, several times their number.
Violent homosexual rape still happens today. See: prisons; various pederasty scandals. Paul’s words on the subject are not outdated, even if we like to think we’re a lot better than those noisome old Greeks and Romans.
If you accept that Paul was concerned with abusive homosexual relationships, and if you view his words as authoritative, it strikes me as very odd to condemn all homosexuality. Most Christians in this country today, and certainly virtually all the “conservative” ones, do not limit their concerns to prison rape and sex abuse. If they did, the gay community would be their ally.



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Rod Dreher

posted February 27, 2010 at 4:35 pm


I haven’t read her book yet. My comment is based on Rod’s previous thread (the one with no comments) that summarized them. I find it very hard to believe that
“I find it very hard to believe that” explains it all. Read the book. She’s a Ph.D. in classics. She’s read the literature, the Greco-Roman world is her speciality, and she quotes the sources. And you might also read Paul’s letters. The idea that he was easy on heterosexual sexual vice is absurd.



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Peter

posted February 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm


that these churches are fully aware that customs change over time, and are not the same everywhere. Neither church was ever into hidebound literalism, and the fact that they have instituted reforms today (whether for god or bad) is not evidence they are secretly modernist at heart. If you look at the history of these churches you will find that they periodicaly adusted their attitudes and rules to go with the times and cultures in which they found themselves.
How is this different from the “dictatorship of relativism.” It’s clearly not what the Apostle Paul said about women and he’s as clear about the role of women as he is about homosexuality. Yet, women are given a role in the church–unveiled–and allowed to even run committees over men.



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BobSF

posted February 27, 2010 at 5:12 pm


Why can’t you accept Ms Ruden’s picture? Sure, there must have been decent same sex couples in antiquity. But meanwhile the sexual abuse of slaves was completely legal, and while sexual abuse of social inferiors was technically illegal, the rich and powerful were rarely prosecuted for it– and might get off with a triffling gift of money to their victims if someone did raise a stink.
I haven’t read her book yet. My comment is based on Rod’s previous thread (the one with no comments) that summarized them. I find it very hard to believe that, in a culture without the stigmatization of homosexuality that exists today, the predominate form of homosexual relationship was that of the abusive-master/slave-subordinate. And, as Travis has subsequently pointed out, nothing offensive about homosexuality that you have mentioned didn’t have a probably far more common heterosexual parallel. To repeat your words with a slight modification: the heterosexual sexual abuse of slaves was completely legal, and while heterosexual sexual abuse of social inferiors was technically illegal, the rich and powerful were rarely prosecuted for it.
Also, the number of “rich and powerful” people was really very, very small, while the number of same-sex attracted regular folks was, in all probability, several times their number.
Violent homosexual rape still happens today. See: prisons; various pederasty scandals. Paul’s words on the subject are not outdated, even if we like to think we’re a lot better than those noisome old Greeks and Romans.
If you accept that Paul was concerned with abusive homosexual relationships, and if you view his words as authoritative, it strikes me as very odd to condemn all homosexuality. Most Christians in this country today, and certainly virtually all the “conservative” ones, do not limit their concerns to prison rape and sex abuse. If they did, the gay community would be their ally.



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BobSF

posted February 27, 2010 at 5:16 pm


Argghgh!!!!!!
Blankety-blank-blank-BLANK Captcha!
Sorry ’bout the repeated post. Lost a perfectly good comment.
sigh



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Rod Dreher

posted February 27, 2010 at 5:57 pm


I should also point out that Ruden notes clearly in her book that as someone who was once a very pious Jew, Paul would condemn homosexuality on moral grounds. Her point is not that if Paul had not been living in a culture in which the primary expression of male homosexuality was exploitative, he wouldn’t have held the views he did. Obviously he would have. Rather, she’s trying to explain why Paul’s teachings that are typically the object of loathing by us moderns were seen as liberating by the masses of poor people who suffered under Greco-Roman morality.



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Siarlys Jenkins

posted February 27, 2010 at 10:09 pm


I think I want to read this book.
I think I want to read this book before I explain what it is all about.
I think I want to read this book before I critique whether she properly understands what Paul was saying.
I’m also going to be very cautious about critiquing a book by a woman who understands Greek, based on my thorough familiarity with an English translation developed (depending on which version I read) some 15 to 19 centuries later.
She could be wrong of course, as could we all. But I will have to reach that conclusion by understanding her presentation of the context of the original Greek, not by rejecting it (without ever having studied Greek) based on the notion that I know better.



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naturalmom

posted February 28, 2010 at 1:24 pm


I’ll put this on my reading list as well as on the “to buy” list for the library of my Quaker Meeting. Thanks for the tip.
I’m a fairly regular follower of this blog, but I don’t look at every post due to time constraints. I was pleasantly surprised to get to this particular post from the Quaker Quaker “editor’s picks” links! (http://www.quakerquaker.org/)



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Your Name

posted February 28, 2010 at 5:42 pm


“The idea that he was easy on heterosexual sexual vice is absurd.

But Rod, you rarely address anything gay except gay sexual vice. I challenge you to post more than once about those gays and lesbians in committed relationships (the topic at issue in, say, the gay marriage debate) instead of the sexual vices of some in the GLBT community.
Of course Paul is correct in condemning sexual vices – in both str8s and gays. But that isn’t at issue when we speak of gay marriage anymore than it is for str8 marriage.
I doubt you would ever suggest that though some heterosexuals indulge in sexual vices, that that is “the heterosexual ‘lifestyle'”.



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thomas tucker

posted March 1, 2010 at 8:10 am


Jon- I agree that there is a larger context.( Isn’t there always?) But I think you can serioulsy misread the passages by claiming that they only apply to sexual activity stemming from pagan idol worship. I think that twists the meaning. It is abundantly clear that Paul did mean to condemn homosexual activity in these passages and that he invokes a Natural Law argument in doing so.



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Jim

posted March 1, 2010 at 9:12 am


Like another poster, I am a sometimes reader of this blog. As a Quaker I was surprised to see a link here posted at Quakerquaker. What a delight to see Orthodox and Quakers having an intelligent and enlightening conversation. Just the exchange you posted fills me with optimism again. It is possible for people coming from very different faith traditions to have a constructive exchange. Thanks to both of you for that.



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David

posted March 1, 2010 at 11:03 am


“What do you say to those who would argue that you, a Quaker pacifist, are giving aid and comfort to their enemies the religious conservatives with this book?
“Well, I wouldn’t agree that anyone accusing me of giving aid and comfort to enemies is a fellow pacifist in the first place. Among pacifists, that ought to be a compliment, not an accusation.”
I admire that kind of hardcore Quakerism as much as the next Friend, but I think there’s an imprecision in your question, Rod. Isn’t what you’re really saying Ruden may be doing is not ‘giving aid and comfort’ to religious conservatives but giving them ammunition? And giving ammunition to anybody isn’t so pacifist at all.



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meh

posted March 1, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Steve Hayes

posted March 5, 2010 at 11:33 am


“In many South African NGOs, I saw played out the paradox that faith is the basic thing that brings social justice. Activists who relied on their human capacities were ground into the dust. Activists who believed that God was in charge were unstoppable. If they got things wrong, they just tried another way, because they saw themselves as weak sinners with a very partial vision; it was okay, and in fact comforting, to admit they were wrong. If their practical goals turned out to be destructive or impossible, they could cheerfully let them go–to love God was their mission, which no one could take away from them.”
Brilliant! I can confirm that by personal experience, and just blogged about a few instances too.
I’d really like to read more of what this lady writes — doesn’t she have a blog?



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lovecalculator

posted June 5, 2010 at 5:06 am


You certainly deserve a round of applause for your post and more specifically, your blog in general. Very high quality material
http://www.the-love-calculator.info



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Fotki

posted June 6, 2010 at 11:05 am


Thanks For This Blog, was added to my bookmarks.
http://www.fajnefotki.net



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Fotki

posted June 6, 2010 at 8:19 pm


I’ve been visiting your blog for a while now and I always find a gem in your new posts. Thanks for sharing.
http://www.fajnefotki.net



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Zdrowie

posted June 8, 2010 at 6:11 am


You certainly have some agreeable opinions and views. Your blog provides a fresh look at the subject.



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Todd Vetter

posted June 16, 2010 at 3:02 pm


I’m puzzled by much of this, beginning with Mr. Dreher’s rather empty comment on the “cultural politics of American religion” impoverishing “our understanding of Scripture and Tradition.” I’m unsure what you mean by “cultural politics,” and I’m not going to guess. I do suspect that my understanding and your understanding of scripture reside in very different places, so be cautious about crowding all of us into what strikes me as a pretty small boat. I read and study scripture everyday, and I have no fear of having my understanding of it impoverished by anything other my own insufficient attention to it.
And with respect to your comment on various political parties “at prayer,” find me a church that sees itself as the “Democratic Party at Prayer.” As I’m sure you know, that phrase was used famously by critics of the Gereformeerde Kerk in South Africa, whose infatuation with political power gave theological grounding to apartheid. In the American context, the only thing that rivals this level of grasping corruption – the only thing – is that particularly virulent strain of fundamentalism that has plagued us for the last two decades.
In truth, the “Democratic Party at Prayer” exists only in the fevered imaginations of conservatives trying to atone for their own sins by casting their sin as universal. Show me a “liberal” or “progressive” clergyperson who has openly preached and prayed for the death of conservative politician.
And someone should take issue with the claim Ms. Ruden makes about “clerical politicians” of the left equating “poverty elimination” and Christianity. As a graduate of YDS and a liberal Christian clergyman, I have never been a part of a conversation that equated the two. I will make this claim: scripture reflects God’s preferential regard for the poor, the vulnerable, the powerless, the outcast. As a community called “to follow” Christ, it seems to me that ministry to and regard for the people Christ most cared for should be central to the practice of our faith. That is never the same thing as saying that it is the content of our faith.
Along those lines, the idea that African NGO’s whose mission is rooted in God “cheerfully let go” of their failures and move on to something new is so simplistic and patronizing that it would be laughable if not for the savage reality that at the back of those failures lies devastated lives. Spend time among in an African village and you will be inspired by the capacity for joy in the midst of pestilence and epidemic and grinding poverty. You will see joy that is rooted in faith, but not the mindless “cheerfulness” of which Ms. Ruden so carelessly speaks.
To dismiss the reality and depth of suffering in which so many Africans live as “cheerful” is offensive and displays a detachment wholly incapatible with the compassion of Christ.



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