October 17

Paul and Women: Another Look at 1 Corinthians

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains some disheartening passages with respect to women. In particular, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36 are the ones that have caused the most trouble. These verses are problematic not only because of what they appear to say, but because they seem somewhat incoherent. The former presents three arguments, yet the footnotes in the NRSV make clear that translators have had to torture the middle one to bring it in line with the others. The latter contradicts what Paul has said elsewhere in the same letter, namely it says that women should be silent in church when he’s already said twice that women do not have to be silent in church.

What gives? Paul may be many things, but he’s rarely incoherent or self-contradictory. Thus, as I read these passages again this week, it struck me that something is wrong with the way we interpret them.

Consider two things about Paul’s writing. The first has to do with his style: he often quotes arguments and then rebuts them. This is seen clearly in 1 Cor 6:12-13:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 

Keep in mind that Koine Greek had no quotation marks. The only way we know that Paul has quoted someone else’s argument, unless he says so explicitly, is by context.

The second is that, apart from his letter to the Romans, Paul always writes to address specific issues in a church. In 1 Corinthians, he says he’s writing “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you… For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…” (1 Cor 1:10-11). This is the theme of the entire letter. Yes, he addresses some other issues, including a situation of sexual immorality among the members (1 Cor 5), spiritual gifts  and the nature of the church as one body (1 Cor 12), and the nature of Christian love (1 Cor 13). Yet each of these can be seen in the context of the letter as a whole as arguing for unity in the Corinthian church.

It is noteworthy that 1 Cor 11 as a chapter goes on to discuss abuses at the Lord’s Supper, and corrective measures to be taken. Again, this is in the context of division within the church (vv. 18-21).

Some scholars have suggested that the three arguments about women that begin the chapter are in fact quotes of what Paul has heard from members of the church in Corinth. This has been dismissed by other scholars because, aside from a few short instances in 1 Cor 6, Paul has not done so in this letter without specifically identifying such arguments. Similarly, many scholars agree that it seems likely that the opening salvo in 1 Cor 14 is actually a quote he has heard from Corinth, but they dismiss this as improbable because he has not done so elsewhere.

Yet the result is a letter that, on these two issues, makes Paul virtually unintelligible. Particularly in the second, why would he tell women to be silent in church when he’s already discussed and approved of them teaching and prophesying in church? It’s nonsensical. Which begs the question: what if Paul did quote other arguments in both places? Read with that in mind, the issues of logic and style in the two passages quickly resolve themselves. Knowing what I do of Paul, I find it inconceivable that the illogical reading is the correct one.

Here, then, are my renditions of the two passages, which I offer as true to Paul’s style and his well-recognized ability to argue a point effectively. I’m no Greek scholar, but I have taken advantage of the ambiguity of certain conjunctions, and I have used the alternate translation noted in the NRSV.

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. And I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 

[But some of you say,] “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”

[Others say,] “For this reason a woman ought to have freedom of her head, because of the angels. For in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. And just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”

[Still others say,] “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

Now, if you are disposed to be contentious— [Let me be clear:] We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor 11:2-16)


[Some of you have said,] “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

So, did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. (1 Cor 14:33b-38)

In this last paragraph, “did the word of God originate with you?” the Greek uses the masculine version of the pronoun “you.” Clearly this accusation is not addressed to the women of Corinth! It seems far more likely that it addresses those who have voiced such an opinion.

Viewed in this way, the 1 Cor 11 passage seeks not to criticize the church because women have their hair uncovered, but to resolve a dispute about that issue by stating emphatically that there’s no such tradition, so quit arguing about it. Likewise, the 1 Cor 14 passage seeks to silence those stirring up controversy over the obviously-prominent role women had in the Corinthian church.

Both are consistent with what we know of Paul, who partnered with both men and women in spreading the Gospel, and whose friend Priscilla became a church leader first in Corinth and later in Rome.

This is not the place to discuss 1 Timothy, which was written by a different writer, though attributed to Paul. It, too, contains some passages that many women find troubling, but it was written decades after Paul’s death and addresses a different time and context.

Ephesians is another matter entirely, and one which deserves a blog post of its own. Suffice it to say for the moment that the most repeated command in that letter’s passage on marriage is that husbands treat their wives with agape, the love of God, an observation that sheds further light on the opening admonition in 1 Cor 11:3.

The goal of this post is to reconsider these two problematic passages in 1 Corinthians with a rational approach that expects Paul to use the effective rhetoric for which he is so well known, and which our current translations fail to deliver. Admittedly, this leads to the conclusion that Paul is actually arguing the opposite of what many traditionalists think he’s arguing. You’re welcome to disagree with me. But it bothers me to be satisfied that Paul was having an off day when he wrote this one, and thus produced not one but two passages that don’t make much sense, and both on the same general topic.


September 23

Why I Hate Theology

“In the most radical and existential uniqueness which he is, man has to reckon with the fact that this mystery of evil is not only a possibility in him, but that it also becomes a reality, and indeed not insofar as a mysterious, impersonal power breaks into his life as a destructive fate.” (Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996, 102-103.)

I encountered the following sentence as an undergraduate. It is a pivotal thought on evil in one of the most important books by Karl Rahner, the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century. But what does it mean?

Diagramming the sentence suggests that it is self-contradictory. So what is Rahner trying to say? I’ve puzzled over it for ten years, and I still don’t know. His “pivotal” thought makes no sense. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a translation error, though my understanding is that Rahner was no more intelligible in his native German. His brother, when told that Rahner’s work was posthumously being translated into English, is said to have quipped, “That’s wonderful. I hope someday they translate him into German!”

Obviously precision is important when postulating a systematic statement of the nature of God, his Creation, and our relationship to both. Many theologians, like Rahner, go to great lengths to express complex thoughts in precise terms.

Unfortunately, the result is unreadable for even many university-level readers.

This level of theology creates an ivory tower, a bastion of particular intellect that develops its thought in enforced isolation from the world by virtue of its unintelligible diction. (How’s that for a wordy sentence?)

In other words, Christians and theology live in separate worlds that can never (or at least only rarely) meet.

Can you imagine if Jesus spoke like that? How many followers would he have gained? Instead, he spoke in simple concepts. “The Kingdom has come.” “Feed the poor.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We take Jesus’ simple concepts and discuss whether they are prophetic or apocalyptic, pre-millennial or post-millennial, and the veracity of dispensationalism.

Perhaps these are valuable intellectual exercises. Surely some people enjoy such parsing. And I have to admit, Rahner challenged my horizons when I studied him as an undergraduate. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much this level of thought contributes to the Kingdom of God.

This semester, we’re reading Charles Scobie. He’s much more readable than Rahner, but just as wordy, dissecting and analyzing (not always effectively) the main points of Christianity. The 1,000+ page book contains five (5!) chapters about Jesus. He’s written more about Jesus than the Gospels themselves!

This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Rabbi Hillel, a pre-Christian Jewish reformer:

“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary…”

In my congregation, there is a woman whose brain was damaged in an accident when she was a child. She reads at what I would describe as about a third-grade level. Yet she is one of the most loving, Christ-centered people I have ever met. If you want to know what the Kingdom looks like, meeting her is far more demonstrative than reading Rahner.

The truth is, I don’t really hate theology, but I do fund it tedious and often distracting. Often wonder which is the better use of my time: reading 1,000 pages of systematic theology, or going out and doing what Jesus told us to do.

September 22

This Is the Day

This is the day that the Lord has made! (Psalm 118:24)

I’ve been thinking lately of my friend, Margarita Mike. We called him Margarita Mike because he got sober when he was in college, stayed sober five years, went out and drank one margarita, and came back. He stayed sober another five years.

Then Mike decided he could have another margarita. This time, things didn’t go as well. He couldn’t stop. He’d been drinking for eight months when I called him about a business situation for a mutual client. I asked him how he was doing.

“I’m not doing well at all,” he replied. “I can’t stop drinking. Would you have coffee with me sometime?”

I readily agreed. Helping people get sober as I got sober is one of the top priorities in my life. We agreed to meet the next afternoon at a local coffee shop.

That night, I got a phone call. Mike had wrapped his car around a telephone pole. My friend was gone.

I have always wondered whether things would have been different if I’d met him for coffee the day we spoke. Maybe they would have. Maybe they wouldn’t. The point is, I’ll never know–because I didn’t. I know from experience that alcoholism is a deadly disease. I almost died from it. I’ve been to more funerals than I can count on my fingers and toes.

No one expects that today is the last chance. Sometimes it is.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a couple of situations I’ve run into. One was a woman I rode the elevator with at the hospital. I didn’t know her and didn’t speak to her. Yet I could feel that she was toxic, so oppressed by darkness that it was rolling off of her. We got off the elevator and went our separate ways, and I said nothing. Surely she’ll realize her torment and seek help when she’s ready… right?

The other was someone I know fairly well and consider a friend, but not a close friend. As we were praying together, I felt a deep heaviness from this person. As I focused on it, I realized it was a curse. (Yes, curses exist. And Jesus died cursed so that our curses may be broken.) I brought up the subject of curses as an invitation, but my friend said nothing. We parted with no further discussion.

I have some knowledge of the ways of darkness. My family was tormented for five years. We experienced accidents, depression, psychosis, substance abuse, and illness, not to mention a ridiculous series of random setbacks in our lives. We became self-destructive. More than once, I was close to suicide. My wife nearly died twice from reactions to benign medications.

The torment of darkness can be fatal. And it’s surely miserable, especially compared with reconciliation to God. Moreover, if we believe what Christianity teaches us, the repercussions of what we do today can follow us beyond death. I’m not talking about merely accepting Jesus as Christ to avoid going to Hell. There’s far more to it than that. Sometimes, as any addict will attest, Hell follows us.

Yet most of us, including myself, don’t approach our religion with the urgency this suggests.

There are those who stand on street corners wielding a Bible and a hand-made sign proclaiming that you need to find Jesus today. I wonder if anyone listens to them. I hope so, but I never did.

There are those who go door-to-door and teach [their version of] what the Bible says. They are committed, loving people, and I think sometimes they do some good.

Most of us accept that other people are responsible for their own spiritual health. Yet when my own spiritual health was in jeopardy, I was unable to solve the problem myself. I needed help. This was as true last year when I sought deliverance as it was 32 years ago when I got sober. In both instances, I had no idea how to solve the problem. I needed someone who did.

Since Mike’s death, more than five years ago, I never put off meeting with an alcoholic or addict who asks for help. I also confront someone who appears to need help but not be willing to admit it. It often doesn’t help. Statistically, some 90% of alcoholics and addicts die from their disease. But I’m one of the 10%, and I want them to have every chance to be one, too. And never again do I want to be a day too late.

Why don’t I take the same approach with those who are suffering spiritually? I hate confrontation. I don’t have the confidence; after all, I’m new to this myself. Maybe I’m afraid of being labeled a religious nut. Maybe I’m afraid of damaging a friendship.

Would I damage a friendship to save someone’s life from addiction? Risk being labeled a nut? Step out on a limb and take a risk? You bet I would.

But religion is a private thing… right?

In a nation in which suicide rates are rising, violence against people unknown to the perpetrator is rising, drug overdose rates are rising, and antidepressant use is rising, I’m not so sure that’s true. We are a spiritually sick culture, and that sickness affects us all.

I’m tired of going to funerals of people who died too young, and seeing misery on the faces of people who are materially well off compared with much of the world. Not when there is an answer.

The challenge set before me, then, is to take the same attitude with those who suffer any kind of spiritual malady as I do toward those dying of addiction. I have been saved from misery, and it’s my responsibility to pass that on, today.

It’s a challenge I set before you, too.



August 23

Buddha, Ram Dass, and the Gospel

“Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?”

That’s what this month’s marquis asks at a local church. And while it’s clever, that’s not the most important question for me.

All my life, people have told me, “Be grateful you’re alive.” That never made sense to me. Even in my earliest memories, I wasn’t glad to be here. My undiagnosed autism made my life a challenge, and I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I was suicidal at age 15. The suggestion that we suffer in this lifetime so we can be in Heaven in the next was, to say the least, unsatisfactory, It spoke of a cruel, even sadistic, God that I could not accept.

I rejected that god and became an atheist at age 13. Later, as I sought help with my addictions at age 25, I graduated to agnostic. That’s a natural state for an autistic person who often needs to see in order to understand.

When I got serious about exploring a spiritual life, I tried several churches. All of them proclaimed a message of future salvation. None of them addressed my primary questions: How do I live in this world? What do we do about suffering? When I accidentally stumbled onto Buddhism, I heard a different message. It wasn’t based in faith in things unseen, but in a practical set of steps to take to address the problem of individual suffering. Summarized, the Buddha’s first sermon, the Four Noble Truths, can be stated this way:

  • Life is suffering.
  • If there is suffering, then there must be a cause. That cause is attachment.
  • If there is a cause, then there must be a means to remove that cause. That is nonattachment.
  • The means to nonattachment is the Eight-fold Path.

This made more sense to me than anything else I’d ever been told about life and how to live it. I became a Buddhist for several years.

Then the 1992 riots devastated the city I lived in. It was clear to me that people who could behave that way were in a lot of pain. This brought up a new question I had not considered: what about other people’s suffering? Was it enough to simply relieve my own suffering?

As I pondered this, I became convinced that it was not. My meditation teacher said that compassion meant being aware of the suffering of others while remaining in nonattachment. Hindu teacher Ram Dass said something different: “There is a paradox: everything is the way it is supposed to be, and our job in this life is to work to end suffering.” This sounded better, but still lacked the promise of making things better. Later, I heard Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne say that if you have compassion, you must help those who are suffering. This made more sense. I followed this instruction for about a decade. I helped his organization with planning and strategy, learned a lot about community development, and eventually became a field researcher and strategist for the peace movement in Sri Lanka on a team that helped bring about the 2002 cease fire.

I came away from that experience exhausted, traumatized, and bitter. I vaguely sensed that something was missing. By that time, I had finished my BA in Theology. I’d had a very powerful experience of the presence of God. But it terrified me, and I ran away from God– or tried to.

It took years before I revisited the “God question.” When I did, it was because of suffering. This time, it was not the meaningless of life I struggled with, but grief over the loss of a baby. And this time, I was led inexorably though not unwillingly to Christ.

I have great respect for Buddhism. It does contain truth– though in my opinion based on 50 years of experience, not the whole truth. I still agree that the biggest question in life is not eternity, but suffering.

It is with this lens that I approach the Gospel. And the Gospel meets me there. Jesus’ ministry was not simply about salvation after death. His first proclamation in the oldest of the four Gospels is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The King James version said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English reads, “the kingdom of God has arrived.” Darby reads, “has drawn nigh,” while Young reads, “hath come nigh.” Revelation adds, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Messiah… (Rev 11:15). 

This Kingdom of God that Jesus announced is not some future event– at least not entirely. It is herenow.

Then there’s the Great Commission. Mark’s version (the earliest) reads,

Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:14-18)

The other versions omit references to healing, but Jesus says in Matthew for example, “Observe all I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). This would surely include his earlier instructions upon sending them out for the first time:

[P]roclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. (Mt 10:7-9)

Then there’s John’s report:

“Do you love me?… Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17)

The Gospel cannot, in my reading, be separated from relief of suffering. Yet it is not our selves that do the work (John 14:10). This is what was missing from my life: I tried to do the work. It was an impossible job for a mortal. But nothing is impossible for God (Mt 19:26). And in John, Jesus tells us:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)

The Gospel is clear: God’s Spirit works in us and through us, empowering us to change that which mere mortals cannot change. The Kingdom of God is obviously not fully present, and suffering cannot be completely eliminated. But it can be reduced. That goal is what gives my life meaning, purpose, and connection with God, which in turn reduce my own suffering.

The burning question for me is not where I’ll spend eternity, but what to do about suffering, mine and others’. The Gospel answers these questions. In my opinion, any theology that doesn’t come to this conclusion not only misreads the Gospel, but is not very useful.

July 23

The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous: A Response

Gabrielle Glazier’s article in The Atlantic, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” is an interesting read–thought provoking, despite the fact that it contains misrepresentations and misconceptions about AA and a good deal of irrational thought itself. I’ll come back to those points.

Let’s begin by noting the question, stated more than once, that if alcoholism is a disease, why don’t we treat it medically? The answer, obviously, is that medicine has little to offer the true alcoholic. As Glazier notes, alcoholism is a complex set of symptoms. Psychiatry has advanced a great deal since AA was founded in 1935, but it remains basically alchemy. What is known about the workings of the human brain is dwarfed by what is not known. And in practice, psychiatry itself ignores scientific method (and the well-being of the patient) in favor of generalized strategies untailored to the individual and unreliable in the hands of individual practitioners. Some time ago, over a three year period, four professionals diagnosed me with four different psychiatric conditions, each indicating a very different course of treatment. All four were wrong. We must remember that there is no test for chemical imbalance. There is no test for alcoholism.

It is also ironic that at a time when religious people and even scientists are rediscovering the power of prayer for healing, psychiatry is dismissing God as unscientific. Well, yes, it is. But science is beginning to admit that it does not have all the answers, and psychiatry in particular should be at the forefront of that admission.

Glazier notes that there is not a bright line division between alcoholic and nonalcoholic. That is true in a sense. Yet we know from scientific research that there are physical characteristics associated with alcoholism, including changes to liver cells that result in processing alcohol differently, resulting in physical addiction to alcohol. Part of the problem with the article is its fallacy of equating alcohol abuse with alcoholism. Our society has largely adopted this attitude: people who get in trouble because of alcohol are sent to AA by judges, by parents, and by treatment centers. Not all of them are alcoholic. Some may become so, and some are just going through a period of heavy drinking due to negative or positive conditions in their lives. (My brother had to “re-evaluate his drinking habits” while in college; he’s never had a problem since.)

But the main complexity in treating true alcoholics– those who have both the physical addiction and a mental compulsion to drink– is that alcohol is a treatment for an underlying condition. Despite Glazier’s assertion to the contrary, AA well recognizes this fact: “Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 64). Of the twelve steps, only one of them even mentions alcohol. The others speak of finding a higher power, admitting fault, forgiving others, and setting things right.

The underlying condition of an alcoholic is difficult to identify. When I was drinking, I would have told you I was drinking to kill the pain. But it wasn’t physical pain. It was a deep, psychic pain. I might have told you it was the pain of living. Today, I would characterize it as a deep spiritual dissatisfaction with life that only alcohol (and various other drugs) could relieve. Until I found AA.

Therein lies the problem: Glazier relates that doctors in Finland are using a drug called naltrexone to block the components of alcohol from reaching the receptors in the brain. This would work for a person who drinks for the effect of getting drunk. Why drink if alcohol does nothing for you? But imagine for a moment that alcohol is the only thing you’ve found that makes life bearable. Take it away and life becomes unbearable. Naltrexone makes the alcohol not work. Will you live in agony, or stop taking the blocker? For an alcoholic, the answer is obvious. Absent some other way to ease the pain, we will return to alcohol again and again, regardless of the cost to our health, our families, and our careers.

Glazier, a self-described non-alcoholic, relates that she tried naltrexone and found that her desire to drink diminished. My wife (a recovering alcoholic thanks to AA) relates that to trying my prostate medication to see if it makes a difference. Absent the mental and physical addiction to alcohol, which non-alcoholics can’t grasp, an experiment like that is meaningless. Can Glazier imagine wanting a drink so badly that she would leave her baby alone in a crib while she went to a bar or liquor store, or drive drunk with her child in the car? So badly that she would drink the night before she was scheduled for a court-ordered urinalysis test to verify she was still sober? So badly that she’d drink even while taking antabuse, which would make her vomit violently and uncontrollably when she did so? So badly that, like my uncle, she would drink even if her liver had failed and the doctor told her that one drink would kill her? I seriously doubt it. I wonder of she can imagine the efficacy of naltrexone in those situations?

How can this underlying pain of an alcoholic be addressed? Carl Jung said a massive psychic change was required. AA suggests a spiritual experience. Buddhist practitioners have had success with intensive meditation. There’s been some success with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). But in general, psychology and psychiatry have little to offer. Psychology too often fails because alcoholics themselves do not tell the truth. We fear giving up the only thing that makes life bearable, and we lie and obfuscate to ensure that doesn’t happen. Psychiatry fails because, well, it’s a science only when compared with astrology. They don’t know why an alcoholic is so maladjusted to life. How can you fix something when you don’t understand its cause?

AA offers a simple (but not easy) approach that creates a spiritual experience in the practitioner. Yes, it works. I’ve been sober 32 years. But does it work for everyone? Obviously not.

As an aside, I’ll be the first to admit that AA is difficult for atheists. I was an agnostic when I got sober, and that was a challenge. The difficulty for atheists is obvious if you go to a meeting in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka or Thailand: there aren’t many sober Buddhists. Using AA as an atheist can be done. I’ve known atheists who have. (They often don’t remain atheists, though; the spiritual power of the process eventually causes them to acknowledge faith in God, though it may take years. I myself, formerly agnostic, am now a seminary student.) But I agree that AA is not necessarily for everyone.

Here we run into one of the first misconceptions about AA: the claim cited in the article, originally made in the 1955 version of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, that 75% of the people who came to AA stopped drinking. That number is now closer to 5-8%. But that’s not what the original claim says.

“Of alcoholics who came to A.A. and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way, and 25% sobered up after some relapses…” (Alcoholics Anonymous, xx, emphasis added)

Two things are of note: first, they were dealing with alcoholics, not problem drinkers. Oldtimers who got sober in the 1950s told me that back then, hospitals wouldn’t take an alcoholic, and health insurance wouldn’t cover their treatment. People detoxing would often go into seizures in a meeting, and no one called an ambulance because it wouldn’t come. The social stigma against alcoholism was so strong at that time that you had to be pretty far gone to go to AA. You just didn’t see the casual DUI driver or tippling college student in meetings.

The second point is the phrase “really tried.” The Twelve Steps are not rocket science. AA wisdom says that no one is too dumb to work them but some of us are too smart. They demand a level of honesty and willingness that most people just can’t muster. They demand a level of commitment that comes from the certainty that there is no other possible way to survive. The dying alcoholic is a good candidate for this program. The DUI driver trying to stay out of jail or the binge-drinking college student trying to please his or her parents is not.

As more and more sources send drinkers to AA, the proportion of alcoholics who are willing to “really try” drops. Obviously, so does the success rate. What is AA’s success rate among “true” alcoholics? No one knows, because there’s no effective way to measure them. It’s an anonymous program, after all. Clearly it’s higher than 5-8%, but no one knows how many of the people being sent to AA are actually alcoholics.

It is also noteworthy that not all step-based recovery centers take the steps seriously. During my bout with mental illness, I attended one that had patients read the first three steps while undergoing therapies, CBT, and various other activities. We didn’t actually work the steps. Meetings were optional. Perhaps it was coincidental that many of my fellow patients were there for the second or third time.

Here’s one of the more frightening things I read in the article: the statistic that some 22% of those treated for alcohol dependency could return to moderate drinking. I’m not against drinking–for the nonalcoholic. But for the alcoholic, the risk is so great, why would I take a 4 out of 5 chance that I can’t  drink moderately? I’ve been told by certain ministers that if I’ve accepted Christ into my life, I can drink socially. Maybe so. But if they’re wrong, I would lose my career, my family, and probably my life. Why would I even try? That’s irrational.

Herein lies another irrationality in the thinking behind the article: that drinking is normal, and that normal is good. That idea alone drives many who struggle with alcohol back to the bottle. We desperately want to be “normal.” The truth is, from the time I first got drunk at age 16, I never wanted to just “have a drink with dinner.” I wanted to get as drunk as I could as often as I could. Yes, I’d lie to you, both about how much I wanted and how much I’d had. But honestly, I wanted to be shitfaced drunk as much of the time as I could. Periods of sobriety were miserable. (They usually lasted about ten hours while I went to work.) Why would I think that even after 32 years sober, it would be any different? More to the point, why would I take the chance? That would be irrational.

This thinking also blurs the lines between those who struggle drinking responsibly for whatever reason, and those who are alcoholic. That line can indeed be blurred, as some of the former work their way along the spectrum into the letter category. But by failing to distinguish between those who truly have an addiction and those whose drinking habits we just don’t approve of, we do both a disservice.

Glazier highlights one fact that is undeniably true: abstinence alone will not work in the treatment of alcoholism. An untreated alcoholic will crave that which gives him or her relief until he or she eventually gives in and drinks again.

Let’s put this another way: unlike the problem drinker, alcohol is not the problem for an alcoholic, it’s the self-prescribed treatment of the problem. The problem is far deeper, and is as yet unidentified by science.

Something has to change if an alcoholic is to get sober. This article, while trumpeting the scientific method, highlights that science has so far failed in the treatment of alcoholism. In the absence of real answers (or even real understanding) from the psychiatric community, and with the increasing respect for the role of God in healing, why take aim at AA? It’s not the only answer, but it has gotten million of alcoholics like me sober.

Surely that’s a good thing.

May 14

Revelation Part 3: The Ongoing Restoration


In Part One, I noted the varying uses of verb tense in Revelation. As I pointed out, verses 20:7-10 contain 12 verbs; 6 are in the past, 2 are present tense, and 4 are future tense. Similarly, the description of the fall of Babylon contains both past and future tenses. This makes it impossible to assign the events in Revelation literally to the past, present or future– at least, not without suggesting that John didn’t say what he meant.

Revelation thus portrays events that occur outside our concept of time. In that sense, they both have happened and will happen. Put another way, they are continually happening. Thus, Revelation is not a prophetic view of the future, distant or otherwise. It is a description of God and Christ working in the world throughout our concept of history.

This puts the events described in a very different context. As I mentioned before, books could be written (and have been written) about the contents of Revelation. This, on the other hand. will be a very short summary.

Let’s take the example of the seven seals. First, I find it striking that, as the Lamb breaks each seal, the four living creatures (the symbols of God’s creation) “call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!'” (6:1). I’ve noted the writer’s love of irony. In Genesis 1, God calls Creation into being; here, Creation calls God’s work into being.

As the first four seals are broken, four riders are released. The first is the lover of power, the second is war, the third is famine and poverty, and the fourth is death. How often in history have we seen this cycle? Does it predict the future? Of course it does, for whenever a power-hungry leader arises, war and suffering and death follow.

With the fifth seal, the martyrs call out for justice, and with the sixth the existing structures are thrown into turmoil. Then there’s an interlude in which the 144,000 chosen and the multitude of believers from every nation are identified. This is a choosing up of sides between believers and evil.

With the breaking of the seventh seal, the seven trumpets bring forth plagues and tortures. Yet, as 9:20-21 makes clear, the point of these disasters is to cause people to repent, turn to God, and change their ways. They do not repent, and the story continues.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
    and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.” (11:15)

The Kingdom has been established! But the woes are not over. The dragon and the two beasts emerge. The first beast makes war on the believers, but an angel warns:

Let anyone who has an ear listen:

If you are to be taken captive,
    into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
    with the sword you must be killed.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)

Clearly, just as Jesus conquers with the Word, the believers are to eschew violence.

Even now, there is an opportunity for those who follow evil to repent (14:6). Yet seven plagues follow, ending with the fall of Babylon. Here, too, there’s a strong sense of irony: Babylon, the Great Whore, is destroyed not by God, but by those who serve her (17:16-18). Similarly, there is an entire chapter (18) dedicated to lamenting the fall of Babylon, the world’s great economic power– and yet the fall itself is never described. An angel declares before the plagues, “Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (14:8), and again after the plagues as the beneficiaries of Babylon lament (18:2), but the fall itself is never recounted.

Then follows the battle at Harmageddon, in which Christ the Warrior defeats the beast and slays the kings of the earth with the sword of his tongue (19:17-21). Satan is thrown down for a thousand years, then rises and is defeated. The dead are judged.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21:1-2)

Yet here again, though there is a great deal of rejoicing for the wedding and a detailed description of the New Jerusalem, the wedding is never described. It is apparently already accomplished. Through the city runs the river of life, which comes from God and the Lamb. The vision closes with these words:

[H]is servants will worship him;  they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (22:4-6)

In the epilogue, John relates that the time is “coming soon,” yet “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (22:11). His benediction closes:

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (22:17)

Revelation is surely a vision of hope, yet not hope for the distant future. (It has, after all, been almost 2,000 years since it was written to give hope to the churches of Asia.) The gift of the water of life is available now. Babylon is fallen now. Satan is defeated now.

Revelation is a powerful exhortation that evil doesn’t have the last word, Jesus does. Every day.


May 7

Where Are Your Works?

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:12

I was sitting in class one day listening to a lecture. Suddenly, I saw a vivid image of Jesus’s side as he hung on the Cross, at the moment before he was pierced by the spear. At the same time, I heard a cacophony of voices chanting, “Where are your works? Where are your works?” It grew louder until I couldn’t hear what my professor was saying. This went on for about five minutes before it began to fade. But the image reappeared to me several times throughout the day.

Modern Christians are skeptical of works, and rightly so. In the 1200 years following Constantine, works were sometimes viewed as the means of salvation. They aren’t. The Bible clearly tells us that we are saved through grace. Surely any evangelical Christian can quote this verse:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Yet for some reason, many tend to ignore the following verse:

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

The presence of grace does not negate works, it makes them inevitable. How do we miss that? In our skepticism of works, we discount the words of James, the brother of the Lord:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith [alone] save you? (James 2:14)

Martin Luther seems to have found a conflict between Paul and James. (He preferred Paul.) I don’t see any conflict at all. If we have received grace, if we have received faith, we will do works–not to become saved, but because we are saved.

What were the works that Jesus did, which he tells us we will do more of? He welcomed sinners and outcasts. He fed the poor, healed the sick, and challenged traditional authority. He prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles. He warned the rich about the dangers of wealth. He reminded his listeners that they were sinners, that they (in Paul’s words) fell short of the glory of God.

And he gave his life to save others.

Look around at the Church today. Do you wonder, as the voices caused me to do, “Where are your works?”

I look at my own life, and I wonder, “Where are your works?”

By this, I mean works of the Spirit. I’ve done works. I gave up a lucrative career that was, in my view, unethical. I believe strongly in social justice, and have written, protested, organized, and campaigned. I helped bring about a six-year cease-fire in a faraway, war-torn country. I’ve fed and housed people who needed it. I’ve “loaned” money to people I knew couldn’t pay it back. But I did it to try to get closer to God, not because the Spirit moved through me.

(I do believe that the Spirit moved through me when I was doing peace work. But that wasn’t because I had faith. The results we achieved were clearly the work of God, but at the time I was not a Christian and I came home scarred and exhausted. I was not living in the Spirit. Thankfully, God can use anyone to achieve his intentions.)

Last August, I finally accepted the forgiveness of Jesus Christ for my sins. I’ve shared before about my long and meandering journey. I’d been baptized, but still hadn’t fully accepted Christ. Have I fully accepted him now? I think there’s still another step I need to take. Perhaps more than one.

Following my acceptance, I began to experience gifts of the Spirit. I had already learned that I can (sometimes) see demons. This gift grew stronger. I also began to have visions. I’ve had one experience in which, through me, the Spirit healed someone. This is all to the good.

Yet I’ve read the Gospels and seen what Jesus did. “You will do the works that I do,” he said.

I’m not there yet. But I’m willing.

How about you?

April 30

Revelation, Part 2: Three Faces of Christ

Jesus appears in three ways in Revelation. We first encounter him as the Son of Man in 1:13:

clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force (1:13-16).

This is Jesus the warrior, as we will see in 19:11. Yet Jesus’ weapon is his tongue. We are told,

his name is called The Word of God… From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (19:13-14).

It’s noteworthy, however, that the word ποιμανεῖ, translated as the verb “to rule,” is more appropriately translated “to shepherd;” the same root appears in Jesus’ command to Peter in John 21:16: “Shepherd (or feed) my sheep.” Despite the warlike images Revelation offers, Jesus’ “war” is conducted with Truth, not steel, and his goal is to care for, not conquer. If this seems ironic, presumably it is meant to be; like the Gospel of John, Revelation contains a great deal of irony.

The Son of Man appears again in Chapter 14:

“Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14:14).

Here, Christ the majestic becomes the reaper of the earth. The text does not say exactly what was reaped. In the following passages, angels reap grapes and make wine (14:17-20).

The second appearance of Jesus is in Chapter 5. Here we find more irony, as the elder tells John that only “the Lion of Judah, the root of Davis” can open the scroll. But what John sees is not a lion, but lamb “standing as if slaughtered” (5:6). It is not Jesus’ power and glory but his sacrificial death on the Cross that makes him worthy to open the scroll.

As the seals are broken and the story unfolds, we are told more about the Lamb. Washing robes in his blood makes them white (7:14), he will shepherd (the same verb ποιμανεῖ is used as in 19:14) to the water of life (7:17, cf John 4:10, 10:11), he keeps the book of life (13:8, 21:27), and he is “Lord of lords and King of kings” (17:14). The “great multitude” (7:9) has been saved, we are told, because “they have washed their robes and made the white in the blood of the lamb” (7:14, cf 1 John 1:7). It is not only belief in the Lamb that saves, but participation in his blood sacrifice. “They will hunger no more and thirst no more” (7:16, cf John 6:35, Isaiah 49:10).

We should note here that despite the plagues being unleashed on the people of earth (which I’ll discuss in another post), what believers are called to do is to remain firm in their faith, even in the face of persecution. There is no allowance here for violence. In no way do the followers of Jesus participate in God’s judgment. They are called instead to a radically nonviolent response in the face of gathering armies and falling empires.

In Chapter 12, we see the third representation of Jesus: the innocent infant. He is described as ““a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne…” (12:5). (Note the use of the word ποιμαίνειν, another form of the verb “to shepherd”.) Here, in the midst of God’s Kingdom being declared, we encounter the birth of Jesus, the hope for the future. In Part 1, I argued that John intends to place these events outside our concept of time, a topic I’ll return to again; this is surely more evidence of that intent.

There is one final appearance of Jesus that stands out. In the closing passage, John  writes:

 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (22:8-9).

But a few lines later, this very same speaker tells him,

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (22:16).

As we read Revelation, we find a great deal of ambiguity between Jesus and God, as we do also in the Gospel of John (e.g. John 14:7, 14:10-11). In this particular verse, we find ambiguity between Jesus and his servants, suggesting that just as there can be oneness between Jesus and God, there can also be oneness between Jesus and those who serve him (note the language in 22:9: “I am a fellow servant”). Again, this echoes the Gospel of John: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (e.g. John 15:4a).

Books could be written about Jesus as he appears in Revelation (and they have been). However, this short summary of the three (or four) representations of Jesus do give us an overall feel for where Revelation is taking us. Jesus is the Savior, and Jesus is the Word. Yet despite the warlike language describing him, Jesus does not fight his battles with military force. Instead Jesus conquers through Truth and through his own sacrifice on the Cross– a ritual execution by a conquering power that, to readers of the 1st century, was conventionally associated with defeat.

April 23

Revelation, Part 1: The Context

The Revelation to John is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is gory, frightening, and complex. And it has frequently been abused. I recall over 30 years ago, a Christian man I worked with insisted that Babylon, as portrayed in Revelation, was the Soviet Union. He was convinced that the End Times were at hand, and he laid out who all the players were. Thirty years later, the End Times have not come upon us, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.

(I would add here another caveat: If Revelation is about imminent events, which nation do you really think is “Babylon the great… [of whom] all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Rev 18:2-3)? Does that really sound like the Soviet Union or Russia?)

What are we to do with such a complex and disconcerting work? Only now, after reading it multiple times and reading several commentaries on it, do I feel that I am remotely competent to add anything to this question.

The first thing to consider is this: Who was it written for? That makes a difference. Was it written to Christians in 1985? To Christians today? Clearly it was not. It is addressed to “seven churches that are in Asia,” namely what we refer to as Asia Minor, or Turkey. And it was written during the first century, only a few decades after the death of Jesus. We must assume that it had meaning for them, otherwise they would have discarded it. And we must assume that the symbolism John used had meaning for them. In other words, we cannot assume that the images John describes are of nuclear war, for example, There were no nuclear weapons in the first century.

The second thing to consider is this: The book was chosen (admittedly with some disagreement among the early Church fathers) to be part of Scripture. Thus, we must assume that it expresses some form of eternal truth. What was said to those churches in Asia must have something to say to us. Yet it is also clear that its message cannot be that TEOTWAWKI is imminent. If that were the case, its first readers would have been gravely disappointed. It’s now 2,000 years later, and it hasn’t yet happened. Or, alternatively, the world as its current residents knew it has ended multiple times, from the imperialization of Christianity to the fall of Rome, from the Black Death to World War II, from the discovery of penicillin to the universal presence of computers and the internet, and from the rise to the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire.

The third thing to consider is the timeline John offers for the events he describes. This is more difficult, because John mixes his verb tenses confusingly. Consider the following passage (emphasis added):

When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev 20:7-10)

Here is a question especially pertinent for literal readers: Is this going to happen, or has it already happened? (Let’s count the verb tenses: 4 future, 2 present, 6 past.) Clearly this cannot be set literally in the past, present, or future unless we claim that John didn’t say what he meant.

We can see a similar conundrum in the Fall of Babylon cycle. The angel announces that “Babylon the Great is fallen” (it has already happened, 18:2), and “in one hour your judgment has come” (it has already happened, 18:10). But there is yet time for her people to come out of her (18:4). The shipmasters “stood far off, and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning” (already happened, 18:17-18), yet the kings “will weep” for her as they stand far off (not yet happened, 18:9-10).

There are two possible approaches to this problem. The first is the “already-but-not yet” view, which many use to describe the Kingdom itself. In other words, it has already happened in God’s view of time , but we haven’t experienced it yet. This view places the events in the eschatological future, beyond our view of history. I see this as the “distant hope” view: that all things will be made right in this world at some point in the far future that we will never live to see.

The second possible approach is one I find more satisfying: the events described take place outside our concept of time. That is, they are eternal; they are continually happening in a cosmological sense. Put another way, they happen not in chronos time, but in kairos time.

As we consider that, let’s look at another passage:

“The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:14-15)

These two verses set a context: God’s Kingdom has been established, even though the woes are not yet over. Does that mean, as in the “already-but-not-yet” view, that the Kingdom is established but we will never see it in our experience of time? Or does it mean that, despite the ongoing woes, God’s Kingdom exists and is perpetually established (and being established)?

As I mentioned above, we must assume that Revelation contains some form of eternal truth, else it would not be part of Scripture. As I read the text, as a writer I am struck by the confusing use of verb tenses, blurring past, present, and future. Respect for the text demands, I believe, that we allow a reason for that blurring. What reason can there be other than that the events John describes are not anchored in time? John is describing not a series of future events, historical or otherwise, but a series of processes that are always in play. The Kingdom has been and is continually being established. Satan has been and is continually being defeated. Judgment has been and is continually being served. Salvation was, is, and will be at hand.

April 17


The Helix Nebula

I woke up at 2:00 this morning thinking about analogies. My brain is funny that way. Specifically, I thought about the relationship between science and religion.

I have a friend who would probably describe it this way:


To him, science is real and religion is made up. Yet fiction does capture and express important ideas. Why else do we still enjoy Shakespeare? And even today, who can read The Grapes of Wrath and not be moved? With a nod to my friend, fiction can also promote negative ideas. Consider, for example, the global impact of certain people’s interpretation of Atlas Shrugged!

And yet there’s more to it than that. Science provides facts, but not morality. When it does provide morality, it is frequently unpalatable–utilitarianism and Social Darwinism, for example. The latter argues that if the point of existence is survival of the species, then only the strongest should survive, a view used to justify the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. The former argues that humans are inherently replaceable, one is the same as another, and are thus disposable. One Australian ethicist argues not only that abortion should be legal throughout pregnancy, but that children should be allowed to be killed even after birth! It seems to me that science is a better source for facts than it is for morality.

So perhaps the analogy should look this way:


This still doesn’t capture the full picture, however. Science measures what exists as matter and energy in the physical (corporeal) world, and theorizes based on that and only that. It does tell a story, though that story is based in a conservatively historical perspective: events happened in this order, with no apparent underlying theme.

Religion looks at the corporeal world, and beyond it to the noncorporeal world that we encounter in glimpses, seeking links between the two. (Yes, even eminently pragmatic Buddhism believes in the noncorporeal.) Religious truths are generally Ultimate Truths that are difficult to express in words. So perhaps we might look at it this way:


This seems appropriate in the sense that science tells us things we can (or at least some people can) readily understand, while religion tends more toward imagery. But there’s one aspect that is still missing. Religion brings many of us comfort and meaning. Admittedly this can, in extreme forms, become pretty ugly, justifying prejudice, hatred, and violence. But it can also bring service, justice, and peace. So here’s yet another way to look at it:


Nutrition gives you everything you need to survive. I’ve been told if I ate bran muffins, beans, and kale, I could live forever. Or maybe it would just seem like forever. What would life be without fried chicken, cheese, and strawberry pie? (Or bengan bharta, tom kha kai, and papusas?) They may not be biologically necessary, but life is pretty dismal without them. Cuisine gives us comfort and identity. It gives us a place to gather and pause together. It brings joy and hope to a landscape littered with bran muffin wrappers and empty water bottles.

For me, this highlights the primary shortcoming of science in the absence of religion: it lacks humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe the universe was created for my own needs and desires. Let me put it another way: science explains the creation of the Helix nebula and allows us to see it. But it’s not science that causes us to perceive it as beautiful.