Thursday, December 29, 2022

Best Books of 2022

Many books that cross my desk are aimed at students or laypeople, rather than biblical scholars. I read and enjoy many of them in order to be able to recommend them to students and others interested in biblical studies. I leave at least a brief review of all the books I read on GoodReads. Of the 40 books I read this year, I'm limiting my "best books" list to those that were game-changers for me personally. 

Each of the following six books is not only beautifully written and impeccably researched, but opened up new vistas in how I think about God, Scripture, and the life of faith. I'm so grateful for the hard work that went into writing each one and to all those who were involved in releasing these to the world.

Women and the Gender of God, by Amy Beverage Peeler

This is a daring book. Amy Peeler tackles a controversial issue: the gender of God and its implications for women. For some, to raise these questions at all is objectionable. For others, Peeler's high view of Scripture will suggest that she herself is captive to patriarchy. However, readers who take the time to engage her argument will find that neither critique has merit.

Like it or not, many people today reject the Christian faith because of their perception that the Bible portrays God as masculine/male. Is the Bible even good for women? Peeler patiently shows why these questions are worth asking and how the Bible itself offers a robust response that both affirms women and glorifies God, without making God male. Part of her answer is to help Protestants recover the biblical portrait of Mary.

Peeler's grasp of the secondary literature is impressive. Her arguments are sophisticated and theologically astute. She is attentive to nuance in Scripture, and her faithful reading yields an illuminating vision of a good God who invites women to be full participants in God's work in the world. I'm so grateful for her work. I expect it will be an essential resource for years to come.

Cursing with God: The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer, by Trevor Laurence

A remarkable work--lyrically inspiring and imaginatively compelling. For many, it will represent a paradigm shift. Laurence not only rehabilitates the imprecatory psalms for use by the church, but he demonstrates their compatibility with Jesus' call to love our enemies. This is more than a treatise on imprecation; Laurence offers a profound work of biblical theology in service of the church. He draws our attention to imprecation hiding in plain sight in the New Testament, and he charts a path for churches who are ready to recover this neglected aspect of the whole counsel of God. In a world plagued by injustice, this book is a gift we urgently need.

One of my favorite things about this book is the sample liturgy in the appendix. Although this is the published version of Laurence's dissertation, he offers such practical help for church leaders who want to shepherd their congregations in praying the imprecatory psalms.

Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle's Vision for Men and Women in Christ, by Cindy Westfall

In the stuffy room marked "Paul's Views on Women," where a weary debate has been at an impasse for centuries, Westfall raises the blinds and throws open the windows, letting in light and fresh air.
With my three degrees in theology and four-and-a-half decades in the church, I thought I had heard it all. But just ask my husband (at home) if he's ever seen me gasp so many times while reading in bed, and if I've ever interrupted him so many times to read him a sentence or a paragraph.

Westfall's conclusions are carefully researched and well argued. She has a way of turning things inside out to help readers see what was right there in the Bible all along. Her book simultaneously delighted and depressed me. If she's right -- and I think she is -- then some corners of the church have unnecessarily missed out on hearing the Spirit-empowered voices of women for a very long time.

Church leaders, I beg you to read this book. You can't afford not to.

Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us about Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength, by Kat Armas 


Kat's exegesis is impeccable and her stories are captivating. She weaves personal and international stories with stories of women in the Bible. The result is a compelling invitation to reconsider what counts as theology and to (re)discover the voices of those hiding in plain sight. An absolute must read. I devoured it in one day!

Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and in the Church
, by Bethany McKinney Fox

Fox's book is such a gift to the church. The opening chapter was worth the price of the book! It shifted the way I think about disability. Each chapter addressed Jesus' healing ministry from a different angle--first century context, medical perspective, disabled persons' perspective, and pastors' perspective--followed by chapters on the seven marks of healing in the way of Jesus and the seven ways this can be lived out in the church. 

Although the first six chapters focus primarily on physical disabilities, the final chapter offers many ideas on how to include people with intellectual disabilities in the church. One of Fox's big ideas is that inclusion of people with disabilities is not simply an act of compassion modeled after Jesus, but that people with disabilities have so much to offer the church. She advocates for full inclusion of people with disabilities in the decision-making and ministries of the church and challenges us to re-think our services so that they are less reliant on verbal proclamation and more holistic and multi-sensory. I'm grateful for her careful thinking and clear vision. It's usefulness goes beyond the church -- this book has given me much to think about with regard to college classroom instruction and campus life. It was well worth the read!

Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels' Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism, by Matthew Thiessen

An excellent reexamination of Jesus' healing narratives, demonstrating that Jesus did not disregard Jewish law. Several of his healings focused on those suffering from ritual impurity caused by lepra (a skin disease sometimes erroneously translated "leprosy"), genital discharges, and death. Rather than set aside the ritual purity system, Jesus removed the sources of ritual impurity, showing that his power was even greater than the temple.

Theissen includes a chapter on exorcisms and on Jesus' Sabbath "violations" as well as an appendix on dietary laws. These contribute to the overall picture that Jesus upheld Jewish law.

So much of what Thiessen points out is evident to those reading closely, but somehow with all my years reading and studying the Bible I had missed it. An illuminating book!


What's the best book you read this year? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Are Tattoos OK for Christians? (Part 3)

If you're just joining the conversation, you'll want to read the first two posts in the series first (Part 1 and Part 2). In those posts I address the important questions of the role of Old Testament law for Christians and the purpose of the law in Leviticus that prohibits tattoos.

I've argued that Old Testament law is still relevant for followers of Jesus, but that we need to do the careful work of discerning the purpose of a law in order to see how it can and should inform our lives today. Now we've come to the practical question: so can I get a tattoo?

That all depends. The next step is to consider what tattoos in general communicate in your context and what the tattoo you want to get communicates. I began this series by talking about how my grandparents frowned on tattoos. Were they wrong? Not necessarily. In their generational and cultural context, a tattoo carried an ethos of rebellion and disrespect. In many cultures or contexts around the world today that may still be the case. Some jobs prohibit them. In some cases, a tattoo will close doors or shut down conversations. In other cases, a tattoo facilitates connections with others.

The operative question, then, is what will a tattoo communicate to those with whom I come in contact? Will it open up conversations? Or will it shut them down? Will a tattoo get in the way of my obedience to God's calling on my life? Will it interfere with ministry or relationships?

Tattoos are very common where I live in Southern California. For that matter, they're very common in rural Alberta and in Portland, too. That makes them not particularly edgy or rebellious, even in church or academic settings. At least three of my colleagues down the hall in Biola's Bible department have tattoos. Your setting might be different.

If you discern that a tattoo is not problematic in your context, then it's time to ask the more specific question: what does this particular tattoo communicate? Obviously you want to choose something that you will not tire of seeing. Tattoos are permanent! But beyond that, the most important question is whether your tattoo will conflict with your Christian testimony. Will it send mixed messages? Will it distract from your identity as a follower of Jesus? If so, then I would advise you not to get it because it falls into the same category as bodily disfigurement in Leviticus 19:28 that I discussed in the previous post.

My Tattoo, Hebrew for 
"Belonging to YHWH"

I first had the idea of getting a tattoo while I was working on my doctoral dissertation. I was writing about Israel's "invisible tattoo" to which the Name Command pointed: "You shall not bear the name of YHWH your God in vain" (my translation of Exodus 20:7 from Hebrew). My study of this passage convinced me that it does not prohibit speaking the divine name, but rather that it draws on a wider biblical concept of God's claim on the covenant people. YHWH's name was attached to them via the priestly blessing (Num. 6:27). Their behavior ought to reflect the one to whom they belonged. As I explained earlier, the apostles taught that through faith in Jesus the Messiah, believers are grafted in to that same covenant (Rom 9-11; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). Peter speaks of our identity in terms of name-bearing (1 Pet. 4:16). I thought it would be meaningful to make the invisible visible--a permanent reminder of my Christian vocation. Deuteronomy 7:6 reads, 

For a holy people you are, belonging to YHWH [‎ליהוה] your God. YHWH your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

The underlined text here matches what it says on the high priest's forehead medallion. The high priest literally bears God's name as he goes about his priestly duties. His life is dedicated to God's service.

Later in Scripture, Isaiah speaks of a future day when God would pour out his Spirit with the result that the people of Israel would again be eager to identify as covenant members:

Some will say, 'I belong to the LORD' [‎ליהוה]; others will call themselves by the name of Jacob; still others will write on their hand, 'The LORD's' [‎ליהוה], and will take the name Israel. (Isa. 44:5 NIV)

Both of these underlined phrases mirror what is written on the forehead of the high priest. They also bring to mind the righteous in Revelation 7 who are marked with God's "seal." Revelation 14:1 specifies that God's name was written on their foreheads. Seals with writing on them nearly always included the owner's personal name with "L" attached to the front of it indicating that the seal belongs to the person by that name. The most natural way to understand the seal on the foreheads of the righteous in Revelation is to suppose that it says LYHWH [‎ליהוה]. These people are the counterparts to those designated with the mark of the beast. 

Here's how I see it: every human being throughout history bears the name of the one to whom they offer their allegiance. In John's vision in Revelation, the invisible becomes visible. Our allegiances become obvious.

Nizar Razzouk, 28th generation tattoo artist
at Razzouk Tattoo in Old City Jerusalem

In the new creation, I'll have a tattoo on my forehead. Until then, I'm declaring my allegiance to YHWH by writing his name on my hand, in the spirit of Isaiah's prophecy. During my recent trip to Israel, I made an appointment at the world's oldest tattoo shop, Razzouk Tattoo, where Nizar Razzouk marked me as one "belonging to YHWH." Nizar is the 28th generation in his family to make a living by tattooing Christian pilgrims, which tells me that this is a very old practice indeed. For 700 years, Christians have wanted to permanently mark their allegiance to God in this way.

Believe me when I say that I'm not trying to become "the tattoo lady." I'm still very cautious about permanent body markings. However, I hope that this series has helped to model the kinds of questions we should be asking of the biblical text as well as ourselves. The point is not to "get around" a biblical prohibition, but to understand why it matters to God so that we can respond faithfully. I pray that I have done so, and that these reflections have helped you to think well about how you can do so, too.


If this series has piqued your curiosity about the biblical concept of bearing God's name, you can read further in my accessible book, Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters (IVP), or in my more technical published dissertation, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue (Eisenbrauns). For a complete list of podcasts where I've talked about these concepts, click here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Are Tattoos OK for Christians? (Part 2)

I knew this would be a controversial topic. Already the debates are breaking out on social media over the first post in the series, where I consider the Christian's relationship with law in the Hebrew Scriptures. For some, Leviticus 19:28 provides the definitive answer: NO to tattoos. Others' concern with tattoos arise from their desire to avoid worldliness.

In order for us to do this topic justice, we need to consider the purpose of the law given to ancient Israel. I tell my students every semester that the key to faithful biblical interpretation is to read each passage in its historical, literary, and theological context. Imagine that these are the three legs of a stool. If one is missing, the stool falls over! Paying attention to each of these dimensions can help us discern the purpose of the law without distorting its message.

I recall a story about a woman baking ham. She had grown up watching her mother slice both ends off the ham before baking it. She wasn't sure why, but she figured "mother knows best," so she continued the practice when she had a home of her own. One day she got curious and asked her mom the purpose of slicing off the ends. Her mom looked surprised: "Our pan wasn't long enough!" Tradition on its own is not a good reason to do things. When we don't understand the purpose, we run the risk of missing the point altogether.

It's not always possible to know the purpose behind a law in the Bible. But it's worth asking the question. In the case of the tattoo law, we have a clue right in the text itself. 

Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:28 NIV)

Historically speaking, it seems that the Israelites were tempted by surrounding cultures to disfigure themselves either to commemorate or maintain connection with the dead. Roy Gane explains that 

"Lacerating oneself in mourning was a heightened expression of sorrow (Jer. 16:6, 41:5). In the Ugaritic Myth of Baal, when the chief god 'Ilu (El) learns that Ba'lu (Baal) is dead, he goes into paroxysms of grief that emphasize the magnitude of the catastrophe" (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary I:315). El slices his skin with stones and razors, pours dirt and dust on himself, and wears unique clothing. 

Were tattoos also associated with these distraught mourning practices? It's possible. 

A similar passage found in Deuteronomy 14:1-2 offers further insight:

You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession. (Deut. 14:1-2 NIV) 

Deuteronomy sheds light on the purpose of this law by explaining the motivation for obedience. Somehow, this bodily disfigurement was inconsistent with Israel's identity as the people belonging to God, YHWH's treasured possession. Some scholars think that Moses' farewell sermon in Deuteronomy 12-26 is modeled after the Ten Commandments by expanding on each one in order. If they are right, then the law against bodily disfigurement appears in the section of Deuteronomy that expands upon the Name Command (Exodus 20:7), that is, the command not to bear God's name in vain. Are you starting to see the connection?

Literarily, the command appears in a chapter that covers every conceivable domain of Israelite life in order to illustrate how holiness might be expressed. The refrain is "Be holy, because I, YHWH your God, am holy." The point is to express the character of God in our interactions with others.

One thing we do know from the ancient context is that tattoos were used to mark slaves, either privately owned or those who served in temples. When we consider the background to the Sinai instructions, the bigger purpose becomes clearer. YHWH had rescued the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh so that they could serve him instead. In that context, a tattoo would conflict with YHWH's claim on them and their purpose to represent him to the nations.

Photo by Ben P L
Wikimedia Commons

Theologically, this connects with the wider theme of bearing God's name, which I've written about elsewhere. In a nutshell, God's claim on Israel was like an invisible tattoo. He placed his name on them via the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:27) so that they would serve him as a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:4-6). They were not to carry that name in vain by living like pagans (Exodus 20:7). The high priest wore a gold medallion on his forehead that announced he was "holy, belonging to YHWH" (Exodus 28:36) and the seals of the 12 tribes on his chest, which he carried before the Lord (Exodus 28:29). His uniform enabled him to represent every Israelite.

Can you see now why in that context a tattoo might obscure their God-given identity and vocation? To disfigure their bodies for the dead or tattoo themselves to indicate allegiance to another master could compromise their testimony.

This background sets us up to consider the third relevant question: what does a modern tattoo communicate? We'll tackle that question in Part 3 of this series.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Are Tattoos OK for Christians? (Part 1)

Jerusalem Cross - Razzouk Tattoo

The world's oldest tattoo shop is situated in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. That in itself may come as a surprise to those who -- like me -- grew up in Christian communities that frowned on tattoos.  It's not your average tattoo parlour. For 28 generations (since 1300AD!), the Razzouk family has been tattooing Christian pilgrims, first in Egypt, and now in Israel. The shop is filled with Christian symbols -- the Jerusalem cross, the crucifix, Mary, St. George and the Dragon, the crown of Christ's victory, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and many others. 

Growing up, I don't remember seeing tattoos on any of the Christians in my community. My grandparents and parents were so firmly against the idea that the topic never even came up in our home. It was simply obvious that Christians shouldn't get tattoos because it directly contradicted Scripture. The Old Testament book of Leviticus clearly says, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD." (Lev. 19:28 NIV) For many Christians, that ends the discussion. 

But since childhood I've met many Christian friends with tattoos that did not predate their conversion. Were my grandparents wrong about this? Are tattoos actually ok for Christians? Or are these Christians disobeying Scripture?

This is a complex question that requires us to carefully think through several related issues.

To answer that question, we must consider a few things: (1) the role of Old Testament law for followers of Jesus the Messiah, (2) the purpose of this particular law in Leviticus, and (3) what a modern-day tattoo communicates. I'll talk about each of these in a separate blog post.

The Role of Old Testament Law for Christians

Christians take a variety of positions on this issue. On one end of the spectrum are those who say that all the laws have been set aside in Christ. We'll call this view the anti-law group. On the other extreme are those who say that Christians need to obey all of them. We'll call this the pro-law group. Most Christians fall somewhere in the middle, seeing ongoing validity to some laws, but not all of them. Deciding which ones still apply--and how--is the tricky part.

In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus insists that his purpose was not to do away with the Torah or the Prophets, but to bring them to their fulfillment. He says "until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Torah until everything is accomplished" (v. 18; modified NIV). It's obvious why those in the pro-law group would gravitate toward this passage. In fact, Jesus insists that "anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven!" (v. 19)

This is one reason I wrote a book with the subtitle Why Sinai Still Matters. I don't think that Christians can ignore the commands of the Old Testament. However, it's not as simple as following all of them. Many of the commands can no longer be kept because the temple was destroyed in 70AD. Laws pertaining to ritual purity and the sacrificial system are no longer relevant in the same way they used to be. Not only was the temple destroyed, but Jesus claimed to replace the temple with himself (John 2:19-22; Matthew 12:6). The apostles spoke of believers in Jesus as being built into a new temple (e.g. 1 Peter 2:4-8; 2 Cor. 6:16). That tells me that we no longer need to observe the laws pertaining to temple purity in the same ways that Israel did. However, we can see that Paul still felt they were instructive for believers. He tells the Corinthians that their role as the temple of the Spirit necessitated their separation from worldliness (2 Cor. 6:17). These laws still teach us about holiness and help us understand Jesus' relationship with purity, and they instruct us by analogy to ways of honoring God.

The purpose of some of the other laws (e.g., kosher diet and circumcision) was to separate between Jews as God's covenant people, and non-Jews. What we eat marks us as a community and either prevents or allows our fellowship with other people. I'm writing this post from the JFK airport in New York, where I've just come from a week in Israel. I saw firsthand how carefully Jewish communities still keep kosher food laws. Jewish passengers on my flight had different meals and scrutinized even the fruit juices to see if they were ok to drink. 

In Acts 15, leaders of the early church met together to determine how to handle Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. They prayerfully decided that Gentiles could follow Jesus as Gentiles. They did not have to first convert to Judaism by undergoing male circumcision and keeping Kosher food laws. The basis for their decision was James' exposition of Amos 9:11-12, which explicitly refers to "all the nations that bear my name." To bear Yahweh's name was to be a covenant member. The idea that Gentiles could be covenant members seemed revolutionary, but it was right there in the Prophets! 

Peter added to James' insight by noting that as he preached to Gentiles, the Spirit came upon them. Since the Spirit is a sign of covenant renewal, Peter's experience testified that God had already chosen Gentiles to belong to him. Early Jewish followers of Jesus needed to adjust their expectations of what constitutes covenant membership. 

First Peter 2:9-10 confirms this idea that Gentile followers of Jesus are covenant members. Peter is writing to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, but he applies to them the covenant titles conferred at Sinai: royal priesthood, holy nation, treasured possession. 

Acts 15 and 1 Peter 2:9-10 are the reason why I believe that Christians are members of Yahweh's covenant with Israel, and why I conclude that Sinai still matters for us. In Paul's words, we have been grafted into the covenant (Romans 9-11). That means the law is still relevant, even if aspects of it change on the other side of the cross. We cannot easily dismiss the rest of the laws of Leviticus. That brings us to our second question: what was the purpose of the law against tattoos? 

As I've already noted, not all the laws apply today in the same way as in Old Testament times. That doesn't mean that we can go through the Torah with a black Sharpie, crossing out the laws that no longer apply. Every law remains useful for "teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness," as Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim 3:16). For an extended discussion of the ongoing relevance of the law with examples, see Richard Averbeck's new book The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church. Averbeck has spent a lifetime studying and teaching Old Testament law from a Christian perspective and his approach to the subject is very helpful.

I'll address the answer to the question of the purpose of this particular law in Part 2 of this series. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Rethinking Disability in the Church

It was 1991 or thereabouts. My Dad's cousin had come for a visit, and we had the glorious opportunity of bringing Jane to church with us. We had recently made a major church transition -- from Christian Reformed to (wildly) charismatic. Our new church had lively worship, dancing in the aisles, prophetic words, and (cue dramatic music) healing prayer. The latter was of particular interest to us because Jane had been in a car accident as a teenager and become a quadriplegic. 

Everyone loved Jane. She was the glue that held the extended family together. Her penmanship was stellar, even without the use of her hands. She carefully held her pens in her mouth to write letters that were pages long. She drew incredible art with her mouth -- beautiful enough to print and sell as greeting cards. Jane was keeper of memories, planner of reunions, and our family's favorite destination in Southern California (ok, Disney was fun, too, and if Aunt Jane came along, you could get to the front of every line!). 

Traveling with a wheelchair was not easy, so her visit to Colorado to see our family was highly anticipated. Her parents drove out with their wheelchair-accessible van for a visit. My grandfather built a ramp so that she could easily access the house. Jane's parents and my grandparents were not interested in visiting our church. (They were convinced we had fallen off the deep end!) But my Dad was allowed to borrow the van to bring Jane with us to church.

Although it was 30 years ago, I can still vividly remember our drive to church. My anticipation soared. I had seen a person in a wheelchair go forward for prayer, and I had watched them get up and walk. I was utterly convinced that Jane would leave church walking on her own two feet. All the way to church my brother and I gushed about what the Holy Spirit would do. We couldn't wait to witness a miracle!

Photo by Hans Moerman on Unsplash
I was only 14 or so at the time. Chalk it up to immaturity, but I never once considered how our effusive faith might have felt to Jane. It never occurred to me that our excitement might have been painful or awkward to her. We never asked whether she wanted healing prayer. We just assumed. I never wondered what would happen to her faith or to ours if she didn't walk out of that service on her own two feet.

I don't clearly remember the service or the drive home, but we were sober. Quiet. Disappointed. I wonder how Jane felt. A few days later we went on an outing to a park. A group of Christians approached and surrounded her wheelchair and asked if they could pray for healing. That was the first time I realized how awkward it must be to have so much attention from well-meaning people--even strangers--who wanted to "fix" her broken body.

During those years in a charismatic context, I mainly thought about disability as a physical problem that needed medical or miraculous healing. While I still believe that Jesus can and does heal, I 've begun thinking differently about disability. Perhaps the places where healing is most urgently needed are our attitudes and our communities.

Twenty years after that "unsuccessful" healing service, I was in seminary. Gordon-Conwell offered seminars each semester on special topics. One was on disability in the church. Our focus was on accessibility and inclusion. One assignment was to interview someone with a disability to find out what barriers prevented their full participation in the life of the church. It was eye-opening to think for the first time about how much body strain a wheelchair user may experience when their wheelchair is parked on a slope or when conversation partners are standing. I learned that churches rarely have accessible platforms and that sometimes the fellowship hall or classrooms are impossible to reach. I learned that I should always ask first before pushing someone's wheelchair.

When someone using a wheelchair or walker enters our community, if we're paying attention, we quickly discover ways we have failed to make our institutions accessible to all. Thankfully, building codes ensure accessibility for new construction projects, but churches and schools often have older buildings. We were so blessed to have a student in a wheelchair a few years ago at Prairie College. She had a can-do attitude about participating in the community, so I didn't hear her complain that the only bathroom she could access was on a different floor of the dorm than her bedroom, or that a couple of guys had to carry her upstairs in her wheelchair to reach the campus social events, or that the wheelchair ramps weren't always shoveled after snowstorms. Most classrooms could not be reached by elevator, so the registrar had to schedule hers in the the rooms she could access. Her presence gave us eyes to see where we needed to prioritize renovations. 

Bethany McKinney Fox does not consider herself disabled, but she has offered a similar gift to the church by opening our eyes to the ways we cause unintentional hurt or fail to remove barriers to inclusion. Her book, Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church investigates Jesus' healing stories from the perspective of disability. By sharing her experiences as a friend of those with disabilities, Fox has helped me to see areas where I need to grow. 

For one, I had never considered how the healing stories in the Gospels might be painful or awkward for people with disabilities. Even more, the way we teach these stories can cause harm. Fox walks readers through biblical stories from various points of view -- medical practitioners, people with disabilities, pastors and church leaders -- showing how what we see depends on who we are. She demonstrates how Jesus' healing ministry involves far more than bodily restoration. Jesus's healing addresses the whole person and their community. It says as much or more about who he is than about the disabled person.

Her last chapter casts a vision for church communities that include a wide range of people from able to disabled, participating fully. She challenges churches to think not only about providing access but also reshaping corporate worship to better meet the needs of the entire congregation. In a recent article for Christianity Today magazine, Fox and Rosalba Rios consider how the pandemic has expanded our vision of what is possible. They suggest, "Now that we are in an extended season of adaptation, churches that have been less flexible or unwilling to change their structures may be called to a new sense of imagination."

Improving accessibility for people with obvious disabilities yields benefits for so many others whose disabilities are less obvious. This is true in schools as well as the church. For example, at Biola University, when we post a scanned book chapter for students, it must be an accessible pdf (one page at a time, rather than a 2-page spread, with extra space trimmed away and optical character recognition so that e-readers can successfully read them). This obviously benefits blind students, but it also benefits the significant percentage of students we serve with dyslexia, whose reading comprehension is much higher when they can hear the text. 

Fox's congregation includes people with physical and intellectual disabilities on staff. They've reshaped their services around shared meals and community. Multisensory experiences and interpersonal interaction are essential to effective teaching in her context. Fox's vision presents new possibilities for the full participation of all its members. The result is messy, but beautiful.

Fox describes able-bodied people as "temporarily abled." We're all dependent as babies, and we'll be dependent again at the end of life. Any of us could be just moments away from some debilitating injury or disease. Rather than thinking of the able-bodied as normative, we could think along a spectrum of abilities. Many people who appear able-bodied carry hidden disabilities such as chronic pain, learning disabilities, or social anxiety.

Some people with disabilities long for healing. Others embrace their embodied limitations as part of their identity -- whether blind or Downs syndrome or wheelchair bound. Yes, Jesus could heal their bodies, but he hasn't chosen to do so. Perhaps Jesus' greater hope is to heal the community from our inattention to the ways we have made it difficult for others to fully participate. One treasure in Fox's book is the stories she includes, told in first-person by disabled friends about their experiences in the church. This is one reason I've shared Jane's story.

Being God's Image:
Why Creation Still Matters
Coming May 2023 from IVP
In 2018, Jane went home to be with Jesus after 45 years after her accident. At the time she was the longest surviving quadriplegic in California history. Maybe that was the miracle? She, her parents, and her other caregivers figured out the right routines to keep her hydrated and nourished and to ensure that she didn't get bed sores. The community of care gathered around her was rich in love. She often told us that she didn't feel like she belonged in her broken body, like she was trapped. Maybe today she's walking streets of gold. But maybe, just maybe, Jesus is pushing Jane's wheelchair and feeding her manna and Jane finally feels fully at home in her own skin. I don't know exactly how these things work in the new creation, but I'm open to a wider range of possibilities than before.

I explore this and many other aspects of what it means to be human in my forthcoming book, Being God's Image: Why Creation Still Matters (IVP, May 2023). I learned so much while researching and writing this book. I hope it helps others the way it helped me!

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Review of Cynthia Long Westfall, 'Paul and Gender'

Photo of Cynthia Long Westfall's book, Paul and Gender
Photo: C Imes
Cynthia Long Westfall's Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle's Vision for Men and Women in Christ is a tour de force. 

It's not a new book (c. 2016), but I finally took the time to read it, and I'm so glad I did.

Dr. Westfall is a graduate of Biola (where I teach), and currently serves as Associate Professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

In the stuffy room marked "Paul's Views on Women," where a weary debate has been at an impasse for centuries, Westfall raises the blinds and throws open the windows, letting in light and fresh air. With my three degrees in theology and four-and-a-half decades in the church, I thought I had heard it all. But just ask my husband (at home) if he's ever seen me gasp so many times while reading, and if I've ever interrupted him so many times to read him a sentence or a paragraph.

Here are a few nuggets:

  • "Pauline theology of ministry was based on metaphors of slavery and service so that any believer (gentile, slave, or female) could assume any function in the house church without violating the hierarchy of the Greco-Roman culture" (6; cf. 266). Later she explains that words like "pastor" and "deacon" were not technical terms until long after the New Testament. We associate them with prestige and authority, but they would not have had that connotation to Paul's recipients.
  • Westfall problematizes the simplistic views of Greco-Roman authority, showing the many men were under women's authority (as children, slaves, or clients to wealthy women) and that most women had some measure of authority in the domestic sphere (e.g., pages 23, 267).
  • She notes in that context a woman's "unveiled head signified sexual availability, so that a woman slave or a freedwoman was prohibited from veiling" (29). Therefore, "Paul's support of all women veiling equalized the social relationships in the community . . . [and] he secured respect, honor, and sexual purity for women in the church who were denied that status in the culture" (33-34).
  • Paul regularly used male metaphors for all believers and female metaphors for those in church leadership. "Paul's use of maternal imagery for pastoral care illustrates a compatibility of pastoral care with feminine commitment and the female role of nurture" (53).
  • Westfall argues cogently that "head" in Paul is a metaphor that relates to source rather than to authority. While she is not the first to contend for this reading, I found her explanation particularly insightful. "Christ is the source of man's life because he is the creator who formed man in Genesis 2:4-9. Man is the source of woman's life because she was created out of man in Genesis 2:18-23" (86).
  • She demonstrates from Paul's own letters that Paul does not believe women are more prone to deception than men. "Women as well as men in the Christian community are in danger of deception, but the same remedies are available: biblical correction and teaching" (116).
  • Westfall explains the historical background that likely prompted Paul's strange statement about women being "saved through childbearing" (1 Tim 2:15). "Artemis was the patron goddess of the city of Ephesus, and she was literally the savior to whom the women went for safety and protection in childbirth" (136). It is very likely that in 1 Timothy 2, Paul is addressing false teaching in Ephesus and urging women to trust God to watch over them during their vulnerable experience of childbirth.
  • On eschatology, she writes, "According to Paul, there is no differentiation in humanity's destiny on the basis of gender, race, or status. Women, as well as gentiles and slaves, have a shared destiny of authority and rule... Women cannot have a final destiny that was not their intended purpose of function at creation. Rather, it is a transcendent norm for men and women to share dominion" (147).
  • Paul is counter-cultural. "Christianity undercut essential patriarchal rights by requiring men to be faithful in the same way that the culture had required women to be faithful" (203).
  • She explains that in Greek, "Masculine is the default gender, and it cannot be assumed that women are excluded as referents form masculine nouns, pronouns, and so forth, particularly in catchphrases, unless they are excluded by the context" (270).
  • Westfall notes that Paul's letter to Timothy was personal, addressing specific problems in the congregation in Ephesus. "A document like Paul's Epistle to the Romans would have been a more logical place to make a clear prohibition on women teaching and in ministry" (297).

I cannot do justice to this rigorous book with a list of bullet points, but I wanted to give you a taste of the sorts of claims she is making. Westfall's conclusions are carefully researched and well argued. She has a way of turning things inside out to help readers see what has been hiding in plain sight. Her book simultaneously delighted and depressed me. If she's right -- and I think she is -- then this book offers good news for women who have long felt called to ministry in the church. But at the same time, Paul and Gender saddens me. I feel the weight of the fact that some corners of the church have unnecessarily missed out on hearing the Spirit-empowered voices of women for a very long time.

Church leaders, I beg you to read this book. You can't afford not to.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Finding Home: Retrospect and Prospect

From my plane window the trees crowded in on each other like memories in old haunts. This would be the first time in almost a decade that I would drive these North Carolina streets and breathe this muggy air. Much has changed. I have changed.

Every place we love, and even those we don’t, holds memories like bubbles trapped in sea grass. Some rise to the surface and disappear forever, while others wait. We move on, but the memories stay, holding space for our past should we ever return. Remembrances throng around me here, reawakened. They ambush me with longing.

Street names, restaurants and stores, park swings and trees—taller now—mysteriously open to worlds I had forgotten. They say the stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory. Is that why my throat is choked and tears pool unbidden?

Those were happy years, full of diapers and fingernail clippings, homemade cookies and celery sticks, neighborhood games of kickball, school buses and permission slips and piles of picture books. My tears are not regret, but knowing. I couldn’t see ahead then, though sometimes I wanted just a glimpse. Now I have more than a glimpse, and the truth is much better and much harder than I knew. This tightness in my chest is compassion for my younger self, who will have hard roads to walk and who is worried unnecessarily about things that will turn out just fine.

With children the minutes seem like hours and the years fly by. I can still hear the lilt of my toddler’s voice asking to “go wee” on the neighbor’s backyard swing; now his eyes are nearly level with mine. He and the trees never stopped growing. That early entrance to kindergarten we fought for makes this the last year of high school for his older sister. How time flies! And as for the oldest? I can hear her planning her next elaborate birthday. Ten feels so recent, though twenty has passed.

In these day-long years some dreams have turned sour while others are much sweeter than I dared hope.

Every parent you know carries heartaches hidden from public view, the hardness that won’t receive love, the seeds planted that never bloomed, and the weeds that choked them. It goes both ways, I’m sure, for I am a daughter, too. I’ve reaped the bitter fruit of trees I did not plant and felt the frustration of generational differences.

What would I tell that younger me—that young mother in Charlotte with her future ahead of her?

I’d tell her doors will open. Just learn what you need to while you can. Be faithful with little.

I’d tell her she chose well. Attempting seminary while bearing children was a risk, but it was worth every naptime spent researching and every weekend spent reading. All those seeds sown would bear abundant fruit.

I’d tell her she’s not in charge of her children and their choices and that she can’t spare them heartache. Her job is simply to love well.

I’d tell her most of all that Jesus is everything and that God will be faithful. I’d say the path watered with tears leads to sweetness and light. Why should we fear the sorrow when it wraps so many precious gifts?

As my plane lifted off a week later the chapter closed again, but this time gilded with recollections, like aged wine. We flew westward three time zones, over mountains and plains, deserts and canyons, toward the new place I call home.

On our descent I gazed over smoggy Los Angeles, crammed with houses and businesses, but empty of trees and, more poignantly, empty of memories. Like a book with blank pages, those streets meant nothing to me. I could not feel their pulse. They held nothing of my heart.

Not yet, anyway.

It won’t always be like this. In ten or twenty years the descent into LAX will grip my chest and catch in my throat. Faces and stories will crowd the smoggy air with meaning. I trust it will be so.

Right now it doesn’t happen—that homey feeling—until I’m a mile from home. My world is small here, traversed on sandaled foot—home to work and back, home to church and back, home to park and back. The memories here are thin, like a winter sunset lacking warmth. It feels right to be here, but the stories are too young to cherish, too new to offer substance. If we left now we'd soon forget.

What would future me want me to know today?

I think she’d tell me to cling to Jesus, who’s been with me in every zip code I’ve called mine. He’s the constant and the depth I’m longing for.

She’d say to treasure old friendships and make time to nurture new ones, so the years ahead will hold twice the celebration and half the despair.

And I expect she’d say to savor this beautiful life. After all, the story is only partly written. The sorrows will give way to joy in the end (perhaps sooner?). When some is lost, not all is lost, and what seems the worst is probably not.

I already know well that what seems permanent may not be, and what feels tenuous may prove to endure. So as the strong California sun drops behind palm trees in the evening sky, I am thankful. However fragile it is, I am home.