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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Drew G. I. Hart: The Bible, Race, and White Supremacy (Reissue)

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Drew G. I. Hart about racism, white supremacy, and the church as they explore the following questions:

  • What was Drew’s experience attending a predominately white university?
  • What is white supremacy?
  • What are some mistakes we make when we think of white supremacy?
  • What are some subtle ways white supremacy can show up?
  • What is systemic racism? 
  • Why is understanding the history of race in America so important?
  • How have racial slurs evolved?
  • Does the Bible help or hurt the fight against white supremacy?
  • How has theology been affected by white supremacy?
  • What are some ways we can combat white supremacy in our theologies?
  • What is anti-blackness?
  • How does race affect our social interactions today?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Drew G. I. Hart you can share. 

  • “We’ve been taught, all of us… by hundreds of years of racial inertia to see Black people as dangerous.” @DruHart
  • “Sometimes we often act the like church was kind of drug into slavery and white supremacy but no we were often leading the way.” @DruHart
  • “At what point are we going to live into our non-conformity as Christians and not be patterned by the racial patterns of our society?” @DruHart
  • “Many Christians that have been kind of feeling like they’ve always been able to just be the primary voices, they need to maybe sit at the feet of those who have been most oppressed, marginalized, and most vulnerable in this society.” @DruHart
  • “We need to own in the church the degree to which white supremacy has been imbedded into Christian theology and biblical hermeneutics.” @DruHart

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

[Introduction]

0:00

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Music begins, then fades out]

Jared: Hey everyone, we thought it was important this week to interrupt our regularly scheduled program and look back at a conversation that we had with Drew Hart, an assistant professor of theology at Messiah College all the way back in season one of the podcast called “The Bible, Race, and White Supremacy.” I was introduced to Drew as he came to our congregation many years ago and talked to us about race. He has a book called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, which we would endorse and recommend for you to pick up. And as I thought about this, back in this first airing of this episode in 2017, it was only two weeks after the events of Charlottesville if you want to look that up, back then, and what happened there, that we recorded this episode and it was very fresh on all of our minds and all of our hearts. And here we find ourselves again, in light of the untimely deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. So, it’s important conversation. I would encourage you to take it to heart and may we continue to fight for, and be a part of, a more just world. With that, here’s our conversation with Drew Hart: The Bible, Race, and White Supremacy.

[Music begins]

Drew: Sometimes we act like the church was kind of drug into slavery and White supremacy. No! We often were leading the way. Many Christians that have been kind of feeling like they’ve always been able to just be the primary voices, they need to maybe sit at the feet of those who have been most oppressed, marginalized, and most vulnerable in this society, right? Those who are least, last, and lost in our society. Those are some of the voices that can help our church rediscover Jesus anew in a really meaningful way.

[Music ends]

Jared: All right, welcome Drew to the podcast here. It’s good to have you.

Drew: Great to be in conversation with you.

Pete: Fantastic.

Jared: Good, good. So, we’re talking today about race and the Bible. We’re always talking about the Bible, but this topic of race, we want to just start with, you know, Drew, there’s a lot of things that theologians who study all sorts of things can choose to go a deeper dive with, and learn more about, write books about. This idea of racism and race in the Bible, how does it connect with your story? Why are you interested in this?

Drew: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, for me, I grew up in a Black church. I’m kind of a church boy in some ways, you know, it was my family and Jesus, and that was kind of the norm for most of my time growing up. And then I kind of got a sense of call towards the end of high school and wanted to study the Bible and ended up going to a Christian college in Pennsylvania, and I was a biblical studies major. And my time on campus, it was, I guess you could say a life changing experience, but not necessarily always in a good way. My experience there was that many of the Christians on campus, the White Christians on campus, one, they, many of them had not had much exposure with students of color on campus, especially Black students, especially students from the city. But even more than that, I repeatedly encountered what I would call anti-Black racism, you know, a fear of my body, and it was kind of strange to see how many people were threatened by me kind of having the sense of being scared and intimidated by my presence. And I would hear repeatedly students call other Black students thugs and all those other kind of terms that go along with just the Black stereotypes of Black people being dangerous. And so, for me, it was eye opening because my expectation was that I’m going to a school where I’m going to, you know, be with my brothers and sisters in Christ and this is going to be an amazing experience, and I kind of really misjudged what the broader Christian community was going through and dealing with. And it caused me to struggle and ask some really hard questions about Christianity in general, but more particularly Christianity in America and the kind of White Christian formation that many of my peers had received. And so, that set me on a trajectory. I was a biblical studies major in college, and then I, my MDiv time, I was really much more focused on those questions, and then before I knew it, I found myself in a Ph.D. program. I’m diving even deeper. I’m wanting to think about western Christendom and the history of it, and White supremacy, and how that flows out of it. And so, all these things just kind of developed out of initially, my negative experience that I had with many White Christian peers that really didn’t exhibit what I thought was Jesus, shapes lives as it related to most of the students of color on campus.

4:53

Pete: How did you handle that during your college experience? Did you have, like a community you could detox with, or were you sort of on your own and just pondering and brooding over this in your own mind? Or did you have a positive outlet? How did you handle that?

Drew: Yeah, so it was a few things. I often say that my first two years on campus, it was more probably just a kind of coping mechanism. I’d make a lot of racial jokes that were stupid, you know, my big Black friend. Nothing really substantial, you know, but it was just my way of trying to make sense of being a Black body in a place there were so few of us there. Because I was a Bible major, one of the great things about my program was that, you know, we asked really tough questions in the classroom.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: So, in the classroom, it’s a very different way of looking and reading scripture than I had before that forced me to think like, what I’m seeing out in the everyday, you know, experiences and encounters on campus and what I’m learning in the classroom seem to be very different. If God really is this kind of justice-oriented God, and the God that brings Jews and Gentiles together, then why is this really all this mess existing as it is? And so, that was one resource was just being a Bible major. But even more than that, I mean, I began to cling more and more to other students of color on campus in a way that I hadn’t really relied on them prior to that. And so, many students of color became a family and a safe haven to kind of lean on when things got really challenging.

Jared: Before we, you know, we talk about race and the Bible, let’s just hang out with race for a minute, because you’ve already used a lot of concepts I think we could unpack and talk a little more about that you can maybe help define for us further. So, some of the things I’m thinking about, White supremacy, anti-Black racism, which you connected to fear in some ways, talking about Black body and that experience. Can you maybe just take some of those concepts and tie it to race and society and help us get a fuller picture of what we’re talking about for those of us who aren’t people of color maybe haven’t experienced or maybe can’t really grasp.

Drew: Yeah, no, that’s great. White supremacy, that’s certainly a term that needs to be unpacked. Especially right now because it’s a term that’s being used quite a lot both mainstream and in everyday conversations because of some of the current events. But one of the mistakes that we make when we talk about White supremacy, I think, is that we think that it only applies to folks who are participants in the KKK and neo-Nazis, and you know, some of that overt public stuff. You know, we think of White supremacy and we think of burning crosses and calling, you know, Black folk the N-word and all that stuff, and footage from the 1950’s and 60’s. But if we really understand White supremacy just in terms of the actual meaning of it, really what it’s about is racial hierarchy. Right? There’s not a way that we can use a different word, racial hierarchy. And all that means is that the way that race has been constructed, like, race itself is a social construction, like, biologically there aren’t races as people imagine, it’s ways that we’ve kind of construed humanity. But it’s not just a neutral construing of different groups, it’s all designed to create a hierarchy to say who is better, more superior, more intelligent, smarter, beautiful, normative, any of those kind of categories. And so, White supremacy is really about that racial hierarchy, that again, we can see going back to like, colonialism. You know, think about Christopher Columbus, right, as he comes over into the Americas. He’s judging up, you know, his superiority in relationship to the Indigenous communities that lived here first in America. When they brought Africans over, they deemed them to be at the bottom of all human races, right? So, they actually, you can see, Immanuel Kant and all these supposedly great Enlightenment thinkers, many of them had, like, very clear scales of hierarchy in terms of who was more superior and who was least superior. And always, White Europeans were always at the top and Black Africans were always at the bottom. And so, White supremacy really is about that idea. It’s an ideology that claims that Europeans are more superior than everybody else around the world. So it’s important to understand that. That’s it’s not just then, about Nazis, but any way, even in subtle ways, White supremacy can show up. And I’ll  give one easy example that kind of can make it plain.

9:35

So, in the 1940’s, there was something called the Clark doll experiments, in which they had children, sociologists took one child at a time, either Black or White, and they would sit a White doll and a Black doll in front of them and they’d ask them a series of questions. Which doll is the pretty doll? Which doll is the good doll? Which doll is the bad doll? Which doll is the ugly doll? And you can imagine that most of the White children in the 1940’s gave all positive attributes to the White dolls and negative attributes to the Black dolls. But what was more shocking for the researchers was the response of the Black children. They actually also were more inclined to give positive attributes to the White doll and negative attributes to the Black doll, even though the dolls, other than the color of the doll, they looked identical, right? And so, they saw the White doll as more beautiful and more intelligent and smart and good and also the Black dolls as bad and ugly. So, that’s one of the kind of simple ways in which White supremacy is synced even in children’s minds. And so, it shaped how they saw the world and others, and so, most of those kids, I’m sure, weren’t a part of the KKK, but they had internalized these socialized ideas that were rampant in American society. And much later now, in the 21st century, that same experiment has been reduplicated with even more nuanced and different shades and all kind of stuff, and they’re finding a lot of the same results, is that all children, especially white, but all children are inclined to internalize this idea of White supremacy and also, on the other hand, anti-Blackness, that’s what I meant when I said anti-Blackness. This idea that not only is it a racial hierarchy, but that one of the most permanent functions and features of our racial hierarchy, hierarchical way of thinking, is that Blackness is bad. And so, Black people have always been deemed especially bad, negative, dangerous, thugs, criminals, all these kind of terms that had kind of morphed over time to describe African-American people. Hopefully that’s helpful.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: And so, then my experience is just me encountering the significance of that in even Christian campuses.

Jared: So, what I hear you saying is White supremacy is really a preference for Whiteness, and the scale is really, is that explicit, kind of on the one side or is it subconscious on the other side so that even Black children can have these elements of White supremacy, meaning, a preference for Whiteness without ever having that be, being even aware of that.

Drew: Which then, if that’s the case, and I think evidence shows that it is, then we can’t, it’s too simple to just scapegoat neo-Nazis and KKK and those bad White supremacists, because it permeates our whole entire society in ways that even many Black people aren’t necessarily aware, sometimes, of the ways that we’ve internalized it. And so, it’s something that all of us need to take seriously and begin to kind of admit to, you know, intentionally working on and undoing in our minds.

Jared: Yeah, and if you say within that, you talked about the anti-Black racism, and you connected it with fear, which I think strikes a chord with me, because when I was trying to understand a lot of this idea of White supremacy or racism systemically, it didn’t really click for me, I didn’t understand it for a long time until, for whatever reason, I was confronted with the idea. Maybe I was finally self-aware enough to know that in certain places… For instance, I was in Phoenix and would take public transportation to teach at a university, and I found myself sitting by a lot of people of color. And when I was sitting still and was really aware and open to even asking the question, I found out what was really happening is I was afraid. And so, it wasn’t this, it wasn’t a negative feeling like, antagonism. It was just a fear. So, can you say, that was just so profound of a revelation to me, sitting on that train thinking, oh, I’m afraid. Why am I afraid? Because I’m sitting next to a Black person. That’s what systemic racism is. Oh! I’d never considered that before. So, just, can you say more about that as a phenomenon?

Drew: Yeah, I mean, and this is one of the kind of, I mean, to really understand it, in some ways we have to really understand the history in our country that, I mean, obviously like, I think we can underplay how much the aftermath of slavery still shapes our social interactions today. During slave times, you know, Black people were believed to be designed to be slaves for White people. After slavery ended, one of the biggest problems was that now Black people are roaming free and are not in their right place. And especially, obviously, that rhetoric became particularly strong in the South, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.

14:26

Drew: Because we need to restore the social order, put people back in their right place, and what did that look like? This is post-slavery, we see the emergence of the convict leasing systems, right, where hundreds and thousands and thousands of Black people are basically put in a neo-form of slavery through the convict leasing system for things like not getting permission to change jobs or loitering or whistling at a White woman, right? All these things happened. It was also the share cropping system, which is also a neo-form of slavery, again, where people are working the very same lands that their poor parents works as slaves. Now they’re doing it and basically stuck in a cycle where they can’t get out of it and where White people can change the terms of the agreements that they’re always in debt year after year. And so, we see all these different peonage systems where the whole goal was to put Black people back under the control of White people. And in some ways, what we see historically is that a free Black body is a dangerous Black body. The most dangerous, the people who were most likely to get lynched, right, were people who expressed their freedom in a society that said they weren’t designed to be free. Not to say that, though maybe not so overt, it’s still subtly shaping how people gaze at Black bodies. That Black bodies, we’ve been taught, all of us, Black people included, have been socialized by hundreds of years of racial inertia to see Black people as dangerous. And so, it’s not uncommon for people to come across another Black person, and maybe, you know, they might have personal Black friends that they love, and yet in this encounter with a stranger, have this instinct of fear, because it’s deeply ingrained in American psyche to fear free Black bodies. They’re dangerous, right? That’s their rhetoric. And so, even the language of thug, which gets used now, is just a new form of communicating those same old ideologies. It’s mutated, it’s upgraded its software, to, you know, 3.0 or whatever, but it’s still the same basic, it has the same roots going all the way back –

Pete: It’s a racial slur.

Drew: Absolutely.

Pete: Yeah. Well, ya know, Drew, let’s think about maybe going in a direction of how to address the problem. And you know, assuming that White supremacy, the way you define it, is probably a part of our churches more than we realize.

Drew: Yeah.

Pete: And there are many well-meaning people who would never think of themselves as racist or White supremacist but probably are. And just in your experience, let me ask you this, does the Bible help or hurt? Or both?

Drew: Yeah. Yeah.  And yes is my answer, right? It helps and it hurts. But I mean, it’s been used, right, to reinforce racism, and it’s been used to resist it and to liberate people from it. And so, it’s one of those hard things that we don’t always like to acknowledge, that it has the capacity to kill and destroy, and it has the capacity to bring life and to heal.

Pete: Mm hmm. So, what do we do? I mean, you know, people have argued for a very long time and it was a breaking point during the Civil war with Christians in the North and South, you can use the Bible to support both sides if you know what passages to go to. But how, what can we do? I mean, it’s more than just citing some Bible verse, right? How can the Christian faith, I guess, which is more than just citing Bible verses but it’s theology, it’s hermeneutics, it’s contextual – how can we help this? If that’s even the right word. How can we be agents of healing and change in the church and how might the Bible be helpful, how might a particular use of the Bible be helpful to move us in that direction?

18:50

Drew: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I would say one of the things that I think needs to be taken seriously is, let’s pay attention to the particular traditions that have been especially liberative and peaceful and transformative in the midst of these challenges, right? So, there’s no question that, as you mentioned, you know, you can pick any verse you want to and kind of, you know, stack them in the right order and make your case. But there are particular ways that certain communities have read scripture in a way that has been life-giving, that has been transformative, has been restorative. So, I make the case that, you know, that particularly, I mean, I’m looking, I think about, like, the Black church. I think about Anabaptists, I think about many Christian communities that have emerged from the underside of White supremacy Christendom that have gained particular hermeneutics and ways of reading scripture together that are life-giving. And so, we ought to, as Christians, all of us, be paying a special attention to these communities that have different ways of approaching the texts that don’t lead to more oppression and domination and killing of others. So, that would be my starting point, was to just suggest who other Christian communities that have helped salvage western Christianity from itself, right? How can we sit in circles and in conversation with them around the biblical narrative and begin to study and to read these texts anew, these sacred texts anew, and see which texts are the, you know, we talk about the cannon within the cannon. What are the particular texts that are really important to different traditions? What are those texts and how are people interpreting them? And I think that that process, for all Christians, is really meaningful, right? That learning, you know, because I teach an African American theology course now at Messiah College, and as much as I love, you know, having as many African American students as possible in my class, I also believe deeply that this class is meaningful for all students and that will enrich all of them to take seriously both the theology and the ways of reading scripture that have emerged over time by Black voices in the face of White supremacy.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]

Pete: Well, just picking up from what you just mentioned, is there a favorite text or narrative or story that maybe you might use in classes to help people see things from, let’s say, a non-dominant culture perspective. Something to really push people to see, listen, look at what the Bible is doing here and how can we apply this to our day and age? Are there any narratives or stories or passages that you find to be more helpful than others?

Drew: Yeah, I mean, and I think that there’s tons of them, right? I think, for me, sometimes, even as I’ll say scripture is used, abused in all different ways, sometimes I have to like, remind myself of that, because it seems so obvious.

Pete: Yeah.

Drew: For me, it seems that the Bible seems like such a prophetic, liberative text. But I do know and am very aware of the texts that have been used otherwise. But to answer your question, I think simple stories like, you know, Jesus when Mama Zebedee, right, comes with James and John and Jesus, right? And you know, she wipes the spit off their face and tries to make this do with Jesus. And what’s interesting is that after, you know, the disciples they get angry, you know, that they I guess maybe were not on the end. Jesus kind of responds to them by saying that the Gentiles lorded over you, right? That’s what they do, they lorded over you. So, like, even that language, like, for many of my students don’t even think about the fact that the Gentiles in that case are these Romans that are oppressing them that are occupying their land, right?

23:54

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: And so, all of a sudden you see Jesus naming and unveiling not only the hierarchy but the power dynamics in play, and then saying it’s not so among you, that that’s not how we live life, right? Except there’s this kind of non-lording over others way of life that Jesus is kind of pointing them to. But I think that’s just one small example of this reading these texts and thinking about ways that they kind of undermine and unsettle, kind of, White supremacist domination that kind of has gone in our land for so long.

Jared: Well, Drew, I want to go back to something you said earlier about a cannon within a cannon. First of all, because I wonder if a lot of our listeners would even know what you mean by that, but I also would like to hear more of what you’ve experienced as your students and others as you, we were talking earlier, Drew, that you came to our congregation, or something that we sponsored to talk about race on a few occasions at a workshop, and through those experiences, what are those cannons within a cannon? I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on what texts, so maybe explain what you mean by cannon within a cannon, but what texts do you find different perspectives focusing on? So, those people that you tend to think are resistant to admitting that maybe this thing of White supremacy exists, do they tend to focus on a certain number of texts, and were the liberative or the people who are willing to recognize it, do they focus on a certain set of texts? What are you observing?

Drew: It’s interesting, because I think, sometimes I feel like many folks actually have never actually read the Bible. So, there are, but there are stories and ideas and verses that I think kind of get privileged for a lot of folks. I think that, you know, I mean obviously, I mean, this is maybe a little crude, but you know, John 3:16 is in everybody’s head, right? And I think people in general think they like the gospel of John, and I think people will quickly highlight the violence and judgement of God in the Old Testament. So, there’s certain texts that I think, for many American Christians, at least certain stories, biblical stories begin to emerge as being privileged ways of helping and lenses through which we can see God, privileged texts that define what Christianity is about for them that define, you know, escaping this evil world –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: And worrying about, you know, he creation and the people that are living.

Pete: I mean for conservatives, you know Drew, for conservative Christians, escapism is almost what the gospel is about.

Drew: Right.

Pete: And so, you don’t have a lot of room for what people also call social action. In fact, that’s what the liberals do.

Drew: That’s what the liberals do, right.

Pete: So you’re not going to have a lot of time, you know, with the mentality like that to sort of discuss this issue, which actually affects people and maybe one of the ways forward, which I guess you implied before, but, is having people with different skin color interact with each other and get to know each other. So, this is a humanized issue, not just an abstract thing out there.

Drew: Right, right, absolutely. And so, I would say, like, on the other end then, some of the texts, I mean, like historically Black church tradition has emphasized the Exodus narrative. And so, the idea of, you know, God being a liberator of the oppressed has been a huge theme that you can see through most of the spirituals and a lot of the Black church tradition. Certainly not without problems also, as you know, I know many of our Native American brothers and sisters will, you know, also point out some of the challenges of focusing on that text and what that means for them if they are Canaan, if they identify with Canaan and the conquest into Canaan. But nonetheless, I think you know, what are these key texts along the way? And I think, you know, for most Christians, you know, even just taking seriously the life and teachings of Jesus, right? Not just Jesus is my savior, and as you mentioned, you know, just help my escape this world, but Jesus has joined us and that we want to actually take seriously his teachings and his life. When you think about how that shapes us in a very different kind of way, because I would argue that race is, it’s a kind of formation, it’s a kind of discipleship. And so, if our Christian discipleship is distorted, then we need to even that much more, take seriously trying to be shaked by Jesus even more significantly in our Christian traditions. And so, I think that that, it’s interesting, like, for me, I’ve studied not only African American theology and Black theology, but also like, Anabaptist theology. Even though the emphasis are different, in some ways, there’s a lot of similar moves, right? This kind of turns towards the particularity of Jesus. It’s one of the similarities that we see between these two traditions, even if one is focusing more on the peace of Christ and the other the liberation of Christ, they’re both making a similar turn to kind of push against the abstract Jesus that’s being utilized to justify oppression. They’re kind of turning towards actually going back to the story of Jesus and seeing that as more liberative.

29:13

Jared: Well, and what I’m hearing, and maybe this is even a question/comment for Pete here and for you. But, what I’m hearing is, there’s something too, because I’m thinking of all my progressive friends and a lot of my conservative friends who would self-identify that way. There does seem to be this fundamental difference, and maybe I’m over simplifying, but in general, there’s a way we read the Bible in which the goal is to get you to heaven. So, there’s this abstract Jesus with this heavenly perspective and really, the goal, all that, you know, even the Exodus narrative is really metaphor or type or symbol of the ultimate Exodus, which is a spiritual Exodus. And then, the other tradition that’s a little more earthy or that when Jesus talks about “blessed are the poor,” it’s not the, I think it’s the Luke version where it’s “blessed are the poor” and the Matthew version, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Right? So, is it really the poor, like, physically here on earth poor? And I think it’s important because it seems to be the lens, like, the first lens through which we read it. Because it’s all fine and good to say let’s follow Jesus, but which Jesus are we following? Are we following the one that’s talking abstractly and is trying to get your soul into heaven, are we talking about the Jesus that’s saying the same words but maybe is talking about liberation here and now and what we do to unchain those imprisoned and to liberate the oppressed here and now? So, do you, is that fair assessment and again, I would ask both of you. I’m thinking I’m over-generalizing, but it feels like until we get to that difference, we can equivocate, we can talk about Jesus. We kind of have to ask which Jesus, or we can talk about the Exodus, but which Exodus?

Drew: Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, there’s no question that, I mean, I always think of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth who, right from the get go, they want to make plain that they’re very different Jesuses that are being followed, right? So, for Frederick Douglass, it’s in his slave narrative at the end in his appendix, he says that there’s no further distinction or difference, like they’re so far apart, the Christianity of this land versus the Christianity of Christ, the true Christianity of Christ. And so, for him, he wants to make a differentiation that just because someone is calling themselves a Christian, doesn’t mean that it’s the true Christ. Now, obviously, to claim the true Christ is to make a particular claim. I guess one should prove, but certainly as a matter of faith, we can certainly stand on that. I think that the difference between the escapism of, you know, let me say my prayer. Let me go to heaven and that’s all that matters and everybody else can go to hell versus the con of actually taking seriously that Jesus, you know, was in Luke 4:18-19, he says, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he’s anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recover sight to the blind. Let the oppressed go free to proclaim the Lord’s favor.” Well, if Jesus really means that, then that’s a very different kind of posture towards others and towards people that we engage every day.

Pete: I mean, it strikes me too, Drew, that maybe another way of putting this is that, you know, we all have our theological lenses through which we look at things like day to day social issues that affect us. And maybe, you know, part of the power of things like what has happened recently, at least when we’re recording this, in Charlottesville, is to force us to reimagine our theologies.

Drew: Yeah.

Pete: That how much our own thinking, I mean, none of us has God in our pocket and you know, we all create God in our own image, we really do. You know? I know I do. But we need to be reminded sometimes of those lenses can actually distort our understanding of the real thing and maybe that’s part of what we’re talking about here. We have Christians who see things in certain ways because of how they’ve been taught and how they’ve been conditioned, and they highlight certain passages and minimize others, or they, you know, choose an interpretation of the Exodus story that is maybe, more abstract and less liberative because that’s how they’ve been taught. And that will affect how they deal with people who look different than they do. That’s a big task. You know, we’re talking about theological reeducation.

Drew: Yeah, no. As you were talking, it made me think of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote when he was in prison, he said something to the effect of like everything you might expect of God, God has nothing to do with that. Then he goes on to say, like, you know, we need to immerse ourselves slowly again and again into the birth/life teachings of the death and resurrection, right? So, this idea that we all have these projections of God that we make –

Pete: Mm hmm.

34:08

Drew: So, it really is a different kind of formation that we need to enter into that’s going to continually and slowly and patiently undo those filters, right? And so, one of those practices that we –

Pete: And being self-critical, which is hard to do. We have to be self-critical and there’s nothing too push us towards self, healthy self-critical, not a loathing, but a healthy self-criticism. I think there’s nothing to push us towards that better than life. Stuff that happens that we see that makes us think, my goodness gracious. I sort of agree with those bad guys over there, what’s wrong with me? What am I thinking about? Where is my head right now? And boy, that takes a lot of time, I imagine.

Drew: Yeah.

Pete: It’s been taking a long time. It’s been taking hundreds of years in our country. Well, what else do you have for us Drew? Have we solved this problem? I don’t think so.

Drew: No. I mean, well, I’ll just go back and, I mean, I think that taking seriously as we’ve already been talking about Christian discipleship. I need to go back a step before that and say we need to own in the church the degree to which White supremacy has been embedded into Christian theology and biblical hermeneutics, right? Like, I think we’ve refused to own the depth and the degree to which that has happened. I think many Christians, it’s easy to kind of look back, and be like, oh yeah… slavery is bad. You know what I mean? These kind of superficial things, the outcome of the things never actually interrogates our actual theology itself and say there might be something that has happened to our theology that could not only accommodate doing those kind of things, but in many ways bolstered bad work, right? That it was the church that often, sometimes we act like the church was kind of drug into slavery and White supremacy. No! We often were leading the way.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Drew: So, I think that there just needs to be more honesty in owning that and in acknowledging that and lamenting these realities. Then, from that, I think it creates a space where we can kind of grope our way towards something more faithful.

Pete: Reclaiming the prophetic voice of the church to critique culture rather than just go along with it.

Drew: Yeah. And so, we need to engage in different practices, we need to learn. I often, I believe that what we hear Jesus talking about the first is last, the last is first, I believe that there’s times in which many Christians that have been kind of feeling like they’ve always been able to just lead the way and be the primary voices, that they need to maybe sit at the feet of those who have been most oppressed, marginalized, and most vulnerable in this society, right? Those who are least, last, and lost in our society. That maybe that those are some of the voices that can help our church rediscover Jesus anew in a really meaningful way.

Jared: Excellent. Well, Drew, we’re coming to the end of our time here, but you mentioned one last thing. You mentioned taking our past seriously, doing the grieving, the repenting, the lamenting of that. Taking responsibility for that. But what would be one thing that you would say that we can do, people maybe people of color or not, that we can do as we’re moving, what’s something proactive that we can be doing? What advice would you give us?

Drew: I mean on the most easiest, basic level is start reading from different authors and learning from different theological sources, right? Who are the kind of people that we’re kind of going to to learn? So, if there’s something distorted about our Christian traditions that allow for accommodation of White supremacy, then what if we take some time to learn from those voices that have been marginalized and ignored and dismissed in the theological tradition that have actually, for four hundred years, been resisting all these things, right? While most White Christians were going along with it for the past four hundred years, only after the fact do Christians say, oh yeah, that was bad. Well, Black Christians, for example, have been for all four hundred years, the majority of Black Christians knew that there was something terribly wrong with Christianity. So maybe there’s some, a time in which we might want to take those voices and people seriously and learn from them. And so, I encourage people to read widely, read Black womanist theologians, and biblical scholars, and as well as Native American and other underrepresented groups. Just take the time to begin to read the Bible differently in view of others. And that’s, I mean, books are actually a very safe, easy thing to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to disrupt your life, at least not initially. Now, if you’re actually going to try to be obedient as you hear from God, then that should unsettle and disrupt your life, but I believe that that’s a simple starting point.

39:14

But even more than that, I think that, you know, we’ve got to begin to live differently in terms of our daily practice. So, you know, most people live, they, you know, the average White person goes to all White church, live in all White neighborhoods, send their kids to all White schools, interacts mostly with all White social networks. At what point are we going to live into our non-conformity as Christians and not be patterned by the racial patterns of our society, right? And decide that I’m going to put my body along certain bodies that I’m not supposed to and enter into certain spaces and dwell there that I’m told are not my spaces. In what ways am I going to begin to have new ways, intentionally develop new ways of seeing others, right? I think all these things are actually part, should be part of our Christian discipleship. It needs to be embodied and lived out and fleshed in our everyday lives. What we do Monday through Saturday actually matters. Our social relationships actually matter, and our willingness to live in solidarity and struggle with those who are struggling for justice, that actually is a part of discipleship.

Jared: Good advice, Drew. Thank you for that. And as we head out, maybe you can, why don’t you let people know what projects do you have out? Are you working on any new projects and maybe where people can find you online if they want to learn more about the work you do?

Drew: Yeah, well first I would just note, I have a book called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, which is extremely helpful for just trying to enter into these kind of conversations and breaking down even further what that means for us as the church. You can find me, I blog at the Christian Century, my blog is called Taking Jesus Seriously, though it’s not always active. I’m on and off. More active space that you can find me at is on Twitter, @DruHart, you can find me there, Facebook and all other places. And I’m often traveling quite a bit around the country speaking, and so just look it up, I might be in a town or city nearby.

Jared: Great. Well thanks again for coming on and talking to us about this important topic and explaining some of these concepts to us. It’s truly helpful, it’s good to have you on.

Pete: Yes, thank you Drew, we learned much.

Drew: Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it.

Jared: See ya later.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well folks, thanks again for listening to another episode of The Bible for Normal People and we found our conversation with Drew Hart to be just wonderful. Make sure you find Drew on Twitter @DruHart. And also, if you get a chance, to look at his book Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, a very important and highly praised book about obviously a very, very important topic. As usual, you can reach Jared and me on Facebook and on Twitter and on my website, https://peteenns.com/. There you can see my speaking schedule, you can book me if you’d like, and just see the books that I’m working on and also the conversations that we’re having there.

Jared: And we want to highlight today, the community that we would invite you to be a part of. We have a Slack community, which is an app, basically allowing you to message back and forth with a group of people around topics of the Bible, what it is, and how we read it, and that’s part of what we’re doing on Patreon. So, if you want to learn more about that, you can go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, scroll through the rewards and for $5 a month, you can have access to this growing community of people who have these conversations on a regular basis. Pete and I will drop in on occasion for some helpful, and if not, sarcastic comments.

Pete: Or just belch for like, a half an hour, and then go away.

Jared: Well, it’s not audio.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: You’re going to type it out?

Pete: Shoot. Yeah.

Jared: You’re going to type out your belching? That’s commitment.

Pete: I didn’t know that.

Jared: That’s commitment.

Pete: That changes everything.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: What do I do now? Oh no. Okay.

Jared: All right. Well, we’ll talk to you guys next time.

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The Bible and Intersex Believers with Megan DeFranza

Interview with Megan DeFranza: The Bible and Intersex Believers

September 11, 2017

On this episode of the Bible For Normal People, Pete and Jared talk with theologian Megan DeFranza (actually, Megan educates Pete and Jared) on a topic that affects deeply the lives of many, but that few Christians even know is a topic. And Megan might surprise you about what the Bible and church history have to say about it.

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00:00

Pete:  You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet.  Serious talk about the sacred book.  I’m Pete Enns.

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas. 

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete:  Hello everybody!  Welcome to the Bible for Normal People podcast.  Our topic today is the Bible and Intersex Believers and our guest is Megan DeFranza.  She is a theologian and she’s currently serving as a visiting researcher at Boston University School of Theology.  That’s pretty impressive, folks.  Don’t know if I have to tell you that, but it is.

She’s written a wonderful book to sex difference in Christian theology.  This topic, the Bible and Intersex Believers, what does that even mean?  Megan’s gonna help us understand that.  I know I can speak for myself and for Jared a little bit.  I’m 56 years old.  When I was in high school, this wasn’t even on the radar.

Last year, this wasn’t on my radar screen.  It wasn’t until Megan came to speak at Eastern University where I teach, where she’s talking and I was like, “Oh.  I didn’t know any of this.  It’s really interesting.  It affects people’s lives in ways that I can’t even imagine.”

Jared:  After she spoke at Eastern, Pete was telling me about it over dinner and I had to talk with her.  I got on the phone right after that and said, “What is this that you’re doing [laughter]?  I don’t understand.”  It is just very fascinating, so I was just really excited to have her on the podcast and just explain it, even for me to better understand.

Pete:  Right.  It’s one of these issues that is all around us in the sense that it can be somewhat unsettling and uncomfortable and even divisive among people because you have to engage the Bible at some point.  That’s exactly what Megan does.  All she does is engage the Bible and the history of the interpretation of the Bible and theology and all those—

Jared:  The ancient church.

Pete: —the ancient church and ancient readings of biblical text to show a rather surprising story that intersex is not a new issue.  People have been thinking about that and commenting on it for a long time. 

For us, today, people like me and Jared, for who it’s new, where we’ve been, we were never taught this in seminary.  I never really thought through it and never had to, because it wasn’t brought to my attention. 

This is an issue, like other issues (for example, gender equality or same-sex marriage), it’s so potentially volatile, it actually forces you to go back and re-examine your own thinking, your own theology and the biblical text.  You actually can’t get around that once you start listening to people who actually know the topic, how much there is in the Bible that can help us think through some of these kinds of issues that sometimes lay buried or sidelined, because it’s not where we are.

We come at the Bible with our questions already premade.  What these issues do is they force us to ask different kinds of questions we would never have thought up on our own.

Jared:  And unearths our assumptions.  I appreciate how when you look at the Bible through a particular lens, it helps you understand that you’ve been making assumptions all along that you didn’t even know.

Pete:  Right.  Right.

Jared:  Good.  Let’s have this conversation with Megan.

[Jaunty Music]

Megan:  We’ve done our theological reflection.  We’ve done our biblical study, only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female.  That’s not good enough.  We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.

We haven’t done that yet.  Let’s start a new conversation.

Jared:  Welcome to the podcast, Megan.  It’s very nice to have you.

Megan:  Thanks so much for having me.

Jared:  The topic today is the Bible and the Intersex Believer.  This term, neither Pete nor I had ever really come into contact with that term before we met you, Megan, last year or a few years ago.

Bring us up to speed on what it is we’re talking about—

Pete:  If we don’t know what it is, nobody knows about this—

Jared:  Clearly.  Clearly—

Pete:  That’s the way I look at it.  Enlighten us all—

Megan:  That’s really common.  The reason it’s new is because it’s a fairly new term for a very old phenomenon.  Intersex is just a broad umbrella term that talk about bodies that don’t fit the medical definitions of male and female.  There’s a mix of male and female characteristics in the same body and that can happen in a lot of different ways.

Jared:  What would be some common things, just concrete examples of—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  —where this term might be appropriate for people?

05:00

Megan:  Yeah.  One of the most common kinds of intersex is something called androgen insensitivity.  You have a baby that’s born with XY chromosomes, which is your typical male pattern and they make the gonads, which are neutral in the first few weeks of gestation, go and become testes and starts secreting the typical level of male hormones.

But, at the cellular level, the cells can’t process those male hormones.  The body defaults to female.  On the inside, it looks like male anatomy and on the outside, it looks like female anatomy.  That’s a fairly common kind of intersex.

You can also have the opposite with XX chromosomes and ovaries, with extra production, or higher-than-typical production of androgens that can make a female body look more masculine or anywhere in-between.  Something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia.  All these fancy medical terms, which is why we use the generic “intersex” most of the time.

Pete:  Thank you.  [laughter] Yeah.

That’s very helpful to distinguish intersex from other terms that float around like—

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  —the alphabet soup.  Right?

Megan:  Mm-hmm.

Pete:  This is something that is a new term that people are maybe beginning to see and maybe come to terms with, for the sake of a population that probably feels, I would imagine, rather isolated and misunderstood.

Megan:  An older term would be hermaphrodite or androgyne.  But those are mythological creatures that have full sets of male and female anatomy, which is humanly impossible, which is one of the reasons we’ve moved away from that language towards stuff that’s more precise, to the particular variations of individual people.

Pete:  You’ve written a wonderful and tremendously scholarly and well-researched book, Sex Difference in Christian Theology, and you have a website that is just very informative.  It’s a wonderful thing to visit if people—if you want to know anything, folks, that’s where you go.

To me, it raises a question of curiosity.  What is it in your life that is driving you to be passionate and supportive of the intersex community?

Megan:  I started this work because I grew up in a very conservative church, where being a woman with a mind was a problem.  I started studying gender and sex difference and biblical scholarship and history and all of that, to try and figure out how I could serve God and not sin, because I happened to have a female body.

That led me to research, to talk about, that there are not just male and female in the world, that there are all these intersex variations as well. 

It was hearing those stories, the stories of individuals, particularly recent medical history, where with our advanced technology, we here in the United States and Europe and elsewhere, have tried to fix intersex.  Doctors come in to a baby that is born with ambiguous genitalia.  They’ll say, “We can figure this out.”  They’ll do plastic surgery on the genitals of a child to make them look more typically male and female.

These surgeries have lasting harm, pain for life, for many many people.  Hearing their stories of physical pain, of feeling unsafe to share their stories in their own faith communities, pastors saying, “Thanks for telling me, but please don’t tell anybody else,” really drove me to realize that my questions about gender and my frustrations as a woman in the church were small in comparison with my intersex siblings in Christ, who had all of these added complications.

It was really hearing their stories that led me to say, “We’ve got to do something about this.”

Jared:  As we get into the topic, it’s just interesting to me the contrast that some of our listeners will have where you’re using lots of medical terms and you’re talking about the technology and the science of a lot of things here. 

How does that connect with the Bible for Normal People?  Say more about how your story coincides as you became aware of all of this within the church community.  When did you start thinking about how the Bible fits into all this?

09:49

Megan:  For me, the Bible was the place I started.  Reading scriptures about women’s place in the church led me to go back and look at history and realize that in Christian history, we’ve thought about gender differences very differently over the last 2,000 years, since the birth of Christ. 

Getting into that history, the history of biblical interpretation, really was the thing that moved me to say, “Wait a minute.  If we’ve thought about this differently in the past, that gives us opportunity to think differently and maybe in fresh ways in the present about differences that, actually, the ancient church was quite familiar with, but we’ve lost that language and knowledge, even though our science is more sophisticated.”

Pete:  Can you give an example or two?  I can imagine people listening, saying, “What are you talking about [laughter]—

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  —we’re just having this conversation about gender and we thought what we think today is what people have always thought,” which is a typical response, “what I think is what the church has always thought.”

You’re saying it’s more diverse and very early on—

Megan:  St. Augustine, in the City of God, talks about hermaphrodites.  He says, “As for hermaphrodites, also called androgynes, they’re certain very rare, but every culture has people that they don’t know how to classify as male or female.  In our culture, we call them by the better sex.  We call them men.”

Pete:  Hmm.

Megan:  Here’s Augustine saying, “Oh yeah.  Everybody knows about hermaphrodites.  We assign them on the masculine side.”  In the ancient world in Rome and Greece, there were laws for men and laws for women and laws for hermaphrodites and laws for other categories of people that we’ll talk about as we continue here.

Pete:  With Augustine, for example, he lived around when?

Megan:  He lives in the third, fourth century in the Christian Era.

Pete:  That’s a long time ago, right—

Megan:  It is.

Pete:  Was there a tone of judgment in reading Augustine about what we call intersex or was he just matter-of-fact about it?

Megan:  In that passage, he’s very matter-of-fact, actually—

Pete:  Okay.

Megan:  —just stating a fact that everyone’s aware of.

Pete:  Not freaked about it.

Megan:  Not freaked out.  He’s much more concerned about castrated eunuchs and their place and pagan religious cults.  He speaks very harshly of them.  But he’s very matter-of-fact and fairly neutral when it comes to hermaphrodites—

Jared:  You say “neutral.”  It’s interesting to me—what I heard you say and maybe I misheard—“we have this category of people and we as a community assign them to the male side of things.”  Actually, it seems like there’s some social consequences to that.  It would be a more of a place of privilege at that point.

Megan:  Right. For hermaphrodites, Augustine is giving them the male privilege, whereas, it’s interesting—castrated men, men who had their testes or crushed or cut off or birth and who developed differently or who maybe did that later on in life, he says of them, that they are “no longer men,” even though they were born whole.

Pete:  That’s confusing.

Megan:  Yeah.  Sure is.  [laughter]

Pete:  Just to fill things out for the benefit of people listening, can you point to something else that might be instructive for us, another example or two from this ancient church period or from other cultures, perhaps?

Megan:  Certainly, in the Jewish culture, there was a recognition of more than male or female.  The ancient rabbis came up with four additional categories between male and female.

One was a naturally-born eunuch, which they classified more on the masculine side, but not all the way over to the male.

They have another term, called the ilonite (SP?), which was toward the feminine side, but not always to the edge.

They also used the term androgenos for someone whose right in the middle.  They didn’t know how to classify them one way or the other.

They had a fourth term, which was really something they said, “We’re not sure what we’re dealing with now, but we’re pretty sure their sex will become clear over time.”

They developed laws and rituals, religious laws to govern these various persons and would debate those throughout the centuries.

Jared:  Tying it to the Bible itself; we have the ancient church and we have this Jewish tradition, where Augustine and the rabbis recognized different categories, often the argument or the conversation when it comes to the Bible goes back to Genesis.

Megan:  Right.

14:59

Jared:  It is “God created them male and female.” 

Megan:  Right.

Jared:  How does that square with this conversation?

Megan:  That’s where we all start, right?  This is where it’s important to recognize that the Bible’s a big book and that Genesis is not the whole of the story. 

Certainly, we have the beginning.  God creates them male and female in God’s image and blesses them that way.  But does that mean that’s all God created or all God intended?

Now that we have this other language that I just mentioned from the ancient rabbis, we can look for other language in Scripture and that’s what I was so delighted to find in my research is actually none other than Jesus speaks about intersex people with one of these categories that the rabbis mention in Matthew Chapter 19, verse 12, where he’s being asked about whether or not, you can divorce your wife if she burns the toast. 

He’s being asked to weigh in on this ancient debate about how bad does the infraction have to be for you to divorce your wife.

Jesus quotes Genesis 1.  He says, “Don’t you remember God made them male and female.”  He quotes Genesis 2, “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Then his disciples say, “Well, if we can’t get out of marriage, maybe we shouldn’t get into it, since our parents are typically choosing a spouse for us.”

Jesus says, “No.  No.  No.  You’re not understanding what I’m saying.  There are those who’ve been eunuchs from birth.  There are those who’ve been made eunuchs by others.  There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let anyone accept this who can.”

I like to say, “Let anyone accept this who has any idea what Jesus is talking about.”  [laughter]

The church has debated, “What does this mean?  What did it mean to make oneself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom?”

We know a lot about the second category.  That’s the castrated men that I just mentioned, very common slaves and very expensive slaves, luxury items, status symbols and sometimes even sex slaves in the ancient world.  Castrati were very very common.  We know a lot about that.

This first category, the eunuch from birth, Jesus’ is drawing on this ancient rabbinic of the eunuch, of the sun as it is in Hebrew, from the day the sun first shone upon the child, we knew this one is different.

Here’s Jesus, in the context of talking about divorce and certainly affirming Genesis, he throws in these other categories and he doesn’t do it with any criticism and he doesn’t say, “But God didn’t mean for it to be this way.”  He just lays it out there.

That pushed me to think, “How do we take Genesis and give it its place in the cannon at the beginning, but also recognize that we have to find a way to read Genesis in a way that fits with these words of Jesus?”  So how do we do that?

That’s what I was—

Pete:  This is beyond, then, that all parts of the Bible are equally ultimate and we read verses and they tell you what to think.  You’re actually describing a dynamism in the Bible that we have to take all this into account somehow and make, not to put words in your mouth, but to make theological decisions on the basis of this grand conversation that’s happening in the Bible.  Is that a fair way of putting it?

Megan:  The theological decisions are how to interpret the description that God made male and female.  It doesn’t say, “God made male and female and anything else is a result of the fall.”  Yet, that’s a very quick theological move that many Christians make.  “If there’s not male and female, then anything else must be a result of sin.” 

Jesus doesn’t do that in Matthew Chapter 19.  The text doesn’t tell us that.  That’s a theological reading we’re bringing to the passage.  Does it say that?

I asked, “Are there ways that we can read Genesis that make it fit with the words of Jesus and with the larger canon all together?”  I think that there are ways that we can.  We could read Adam and Eve as the parents at the beginning of the story, rather than the pattern for all people.

We could read them as the statistical majority.  Most people are clearly male or clearly female.  But just because they are the statistical majority doesn’t mean they are the exclusive model or the only way that God allows humans to be born.

20:13

When we look at other parts of Genesis 1, we recognize that there are all sorts of things that aren’t named in the creation account.  There are three different types of animals.  There are the “fish of the sea, the birds of the air and the creatures that crawl upon the earth.”

These are the three categories of animals that God creates.  But we all know that there are creatures that don’t fit into those categories.  Penguins are birds that don’t fly.  There are other things in the sea other than fish.  There are things that crawl, but they live in the water.  There are amphibians that are both water and land animals.

But I’ve never heard an Old Testament scholar like yourself, Pete, say, “Hey look.  Frogs.  They’re proof of the fall,”  [laughter] because they don’t fit into the three categories of creatures—

Pete:  Hey.  That’s my next blog post.  That’s my next blog post.  [unintelligible]—

Megan:  You’re welcome.

Pete:  What you’re saying is exactly right.  I think the response would be, “In the Old Testament, in the Pentateuch, when you have clean and unclean animals, some of these in-between things, “You don’t eat lobster.”  They’re sea animals, but they also have legs.  They don’t fit.  They’re unclean.  You don’t eat them.

This is something I can imagine people, as sort of a counterpoint to what you’re saying, to draw on that.  How might you navigate that particular issue?

Megan:  The canon gives us the way to do that too.  Even if we see them as outsiders.  Lobsters are outsiders.  Bees are outsiders.  Frogs are outsiders.  Maybe this other category of people who don’t fit into male and female.  Certainly, in the Old Testament, we have, laws for men and laws for women and it doesn’t leave a lot of place for anyone who doesn’t fit those categories.

But fast-forward up to the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 56, he talks about two categories of outsiders, one being the eunuch and the other being foreigners, Gentiles.  They’re complaining, “Hey God, it’s not all that easy to be a eunuch or a Gentile and live in ancient Israel.  The system isn’t set up for us.” 

God says, through the prophet Isaiah to them, in Isaiah 56, “Don’t let the eunuchs complain that I’m only a dry tree.  For to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and obey me,” and there’s a long list of things, “I will give to them within my house a name, an everlasting name that’s better than sons and daughters, a name that will not be cutoff.” 

Then he speaks to the foreigners and says that they’re offerings will be accepted on his altar for “my house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples, “ (Isaiah 56:8), which we’re much more familiar with.  That’s in the context of God folding in outsiders, who didn’t fit in earlier chapters of the story.

But God is saying, “Don’t worry.  I’m going to give you a place.”  He doesn’t say to the eunuch, “I’m going to heal you and make you into the categories I intended, either male and female.”  He says, “I’m going to give you something better than sons and daughters.  I’m going to bless you in a way that a Jewish man or a Jewish woman could ever imagine being blessed.  I’m going to give you an everlasting name.”

Pete:  No talk about eunuchs being a product of the fall any more than foreigners would be—

Megan:  Right.

Pete:  —a product of the fall.  There’s nothing in Isaiah—I’m just curious now because I haven’t studied this as closely as you have—but there’s no indication there of how they came to be eunuchs.

Megan:  Nope.

Pete:  Okay.

Megan:  That’s the challenge is that intersex is this broad umbrella term for many different bodily variations. This term eunuch was an umbrella term for many different things.  Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.  Does this mean a castrated eunuch?  Does this mean a natural eunuch?  Is this a position in the court?  We have to do careful scholarship to see what they’re talking about.  It’s not particularly clear in Isaiah and yet, [MUSIC STARTS] there is this idea that however these people came to be eunuchs, God’s blessing them as they are, not requiring them to become something they’re not and healing them into some creational category that we find in Genesis Chapter One and Two.

Jared:  That’s a really good point.  One thing I’m thinking as you guys are talking about the categories and we keep coming back to the words and how that there’s different variations—I want to make sure that we’re being clear—how is intersex different than say transgender which is becoming more and more a conversation, politically and otherwise?  What’s the difference and where does that fit in this conversation?

Megan:  Sure.  Right now, the only difference between intersex and transgender people is that transgender people cannot point to a medical diagnosis.  I know trans people who have said, “I wish I were intersex, because then people wouldn’t think I’m crazy.”  They would be able to say, “Oh no.  Some of their cells are XY.  Some of their cells have just one X.  No wonder they’re body is developing differently or their gender identity is developing differently.”  They don’t have that luxury.

There are some intersex people whose experience is like that of a trans person.  I work with LeeAnn Simon, who’s a wonderful Christian woman and author and she has what I just described.  Some of her cells are XY.  Some have just one X.  Her gonads are part ovarian tissue, part testicular tissue.

At puberty, she didn’t develop one way or the other and chose to, though she was identified as a boy at birth, it wasn’t a fit for her, as an adult, chose to identify as female and to live, to transition.  Her experience is intersex, but it also could be understood as transgender.  That’s not the majority of intersex experiences. 

Sometimes, these terms overlap and sometimes, they don’t.  We have to be [unintelligible]—

Jared:  Where they don’t, what I hear you saying is there’s not a chromosomal or biological thing that you can pinpoint.

Megan:  At this point, where our science is.  It may be that as neuroscience advances, we will be able to pinpoint other things, but we can’t at this point.

Jared:  Good.  I think that’s an important piece of the conversation, that we don’t—

Megan:  Sure.

Jared:  [unintelligible] It’s kind of a Venn Diagram overlap.

Megan:  Yup.

Pete:  Megan, you’ve thought so much about this.  We’ve talked about Augustine a little bit and rabbis and Jesus’ own words.  And Genesis and how that all fits into this.  And Isaiah.   People still come back to Genesis.  Because it’s first, it’s therefore determinative of everything else.

Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  You don’t think that.  Help people walk through why it’s okay not to think that.  It’s at the beginning of the Bible.


Megan:  Sure.

Pete:  You get this wrong, you get everything else wrong.  Plus, it’s all good.

Megan:  Right.  Exactly.  It is important and it does set the stage for the beginning of God’s great redemptive story.  But it’s not the whole of the story.  I see its pride of place is as the opening chapters.  But, at the end of the story, we find a vision of heaven in the book of Revelation where people are included in the worshipping community who don’t fit in the garden.

Here I’m thinking of Revelation Chapter 7, where there’s a great multitude worshipping before the Lamb from every tribe, and nation and language, people group.  If we think about Genesis, we don’t have multiple tribes.  We don’t have racial difference in the Garden of Eden.  We don’t have different languages represented at the beginning.  There are many ways in which this story that starts with these two ends up in full, moving through Adam and Noah and Abraham and all the way through and then folding in the Gentiles and folding in others.

It’s a story that gets bigger and wider and God’s redemptive love goes out.  He blesses the Israelites so that they could be a blessing to all the nations.  It’s this narrow story through these few for the benefit of all, which is why I think we see many things in the book of Revelation that echo things in the Garden. 

There are trees in the beginning and at the end.  But they are not the same trees.  It’s important that we don’t think that we’re trying to get back to the Garden of Eden.  Yes.  It has pride of place at the beginning of God’s story.  But it seems like God’s story gets bigger and more complicated, but also more beautiful and more welcoming than what it is in the first chapters.

Pete:  It’s like the Garden reimagined at the end of the Bible—

Megan:  Yeah.  It is.

Pete:  You’re not actually returning to the Garden.  It’s metaphorical language anyway.

Megan:  Right.

30:04

Pete:  It’s something that is meant to evoke those memories, but then also to go beyond that to something that—

Megan:  It’s called new, right?  It’s called new creation—

Pete:   It’s new.  Right.  Right.

Megan:  It’s not paradise lost and regained, like we’re trying to get back.  It’s a new—God is doing something new at the end of this grand story that is going to have some continuity with what came before and some differences.

Jared:  I appreciate, Megan, what you said about the—you talk about Isaiah and as the story unfolds, it’s interesting that we may start with a garden, but this narrative of inclusivity, of folding more and more people in, really starts just a few chapters later with the start of Israel, with Abraham’s story.

Megan:  Right.

Jared:  Then, from there, we just start including more.  I just appreciated the point about how Israel was then adopted to be a blessing.  Through that, the blessing is this inclusivity.  It’s interesting, in this conversation, that early on in the prophetic literature of Isaiah, that the eunuchs are included pretty early in on that conversation before even—

Megan:  You know what’s even more radical than that?  If we look at Acts Chapter 8, at the first foreigner whose baptized?

Pete:  You took the words right out of my mouth.  Go ahead.  [laughter] Let’s talk about the Ethiopian eunuch—

Megan:  Yeah.  Exactly.  This is the Ethiopian who is a eunuch, who is the very fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, that as the gospel is going out from Judea, through Samaria to the utter ends of the earth, as Jesus said to His disciples at the end of the book of Matthew, and we see these significant baptisms in the book of Acts.  The first foreigner whose baptized is an Ethiopian eunuch, whose made this many-hundred-mile trek to Jerusalem to worship.  Even though he’s an outsider on many levels, he knows there’s only so close he can get to God. 

There’s the Holy of Holies.  There’s the Court of Men.  Outside of that is the Court of Women.  Outside of that, is the Court of Gentiles.  There’s only so close you can get to God as a Gentile and as a eunuch.  He knows that, but he goes anyway.

As he’s reading the prophet, Isaiah, God sends Phillip to him to interpret the Scriptures, to open them and to share with them the good news of Jesus.  This Ethiopian eunuch says to Phillip, “Look, here’s water.  Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?”

I have read that passage my whole life, but until I studied the place of eunuchs in the ancient world, I never understood the significance of that question.

Pete:  Right.  Right.

Megan:  Here he’s asking, “What’s my place gonna be if I follow this rabbi Jesus?

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  Am I gonna be a second-class citizen like I am as a non-Jewish believer?

Pete:  Mm-hmm.

Megan:  Is there a place for me in this new community?  I’m just so frustrated that we don’t have the answer given to Acts.  [laughter] We don’t know what Phillip said.  But we know that one of them commanded the chariot to stop.  They both got out of the chariot and Phillip baptized him.

Pete:  I’ve always read that instinctively, “Is anything preventing me from getting baptized?” as “We’ve got some time on our hands.  Let’s just do this now.”  Not like they’re actually socio-cultural-religious—there’s a matrix there of this. 

Maybe the Bible’s surprisingly not uptight.  [laughter] Go figure.

Megan:  God does tend to surprise us at every turn.

Jared:  I’m wondering—I was just thinking about this connection, this phrase of “foreigners and eunuchs” and how that goes throughout the Bible.  In some ways, do you feel like “foreigners” is clearly throughout the Bible representative of the marginalized throughout, as we get to the Gentiles and others.  Is “eunuchs” also—I’m channeling my upbringing where I want to take that literally, “I’m willing to—you raise some good points, Megan—I’m gonna allow for eunuchs as part of this, but now, I’m going to still exclude others, because it doesn’t say it literally and specifically.

Is there a case to be made in terms of reading and how we read the Bible for taking foreigners and eunuchs as almost representative of this is a narrative of inclusion.  You can’t really accept the eunuchs and exclude transgender people.  You can’t really take this group and exclude that group, because it’s really representative of this radical inclusion. 

What would you say?

35:16

Megan:  First, I would say that in some ways, Gentle or foreigner is not category of the marginalized, if you think just statistically. 

Jared:  Right.  Right.

Megan:  Everyone who’s not a Jew is a foreigner.

Jared:  They’re usually the majority. 

Megan:  Right.  Throughout Israel’s history, they were oppressed by these majority—

Jared:  Yeah.

Megan: —communities, so they were the minority.  You could really read that two different ways.  But definitely, with the eunuchs, we’re talking about people who have been oppressed in many different ways and excluded in many different ways.

Even though the rabbis made space for naturally-born eunuchs, castrated eunuchs couldn’t go to worship in ancient Israel.  Naturally-born eunuchs could.  But they, in some ways, had a double religious duty, because the rabbis are pulling from the laws for men and the laws for women and wanting to make sure all of their bases are covered.

They are this minority group has more to do and it’s harder for them.  I do think that category is one that certainly stands for the outside and the marginalized and those have been excluded, whose voices haven’t been heard, who’ve been considered unclean and not welcome in the worshipping community.

Pete:  Let me ask you a question here, Megan.  I want to try to articulate this clearly.  Following on what Jared just said about eunuchs and the poor and the oppressed, marginalized peoples, you see in Isaiah and then in the New Testament in Matthew 19 and Acts 8, you see a hint, a trajectory of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  I want to ask you if you agree with this.  If yes, great.  If not, fine.  Tell me why.  It seems like the New Testament itself is not the end of the story.  It’s trajectories.  That’s an important thing to talk about for people who take the Bible seriously.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  The Bible, even the New Testament, does not settle all these questions for us, but is itself part of a moment—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —that is also moving, right?  And so—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  I gather you’re agreeing with that, so regalias on your opinion [laughter].

Megan:  It’s not—I was helped in this regard.  I remember in seminary reading N.T. Wright’s book, The New Testament and the People of God, where he likens the Bible to five acts in a Shakespearean play, where the fifth act is unfinished.  He sees creation as Act One; the fall as Act Two; Israel, Act Three; Jesus is Act Four; and the Act Five is the Church.

We have only the first few pages of the script in the New Testament, but we are not—we are called to finish the story.  We’re called to live our parts.  We’re not called to be First Century Christians in Rome or in Corinth or in Ephesus.  We’re called to be 21st Century Christians living where we live.

We’re not trying to get back to Ancient Israel.  He keeps saying, “If we’re going to put on this play,” back to the analogy with Shakespeare, “we’re not just going to repeat lines from an earlier part of the story.  We’re going to study the whole story.  We’re going to see the direction it’s going.  We’re going to pick up on those hints that you just mentioned.  If we’re going to put on this play, we’re going to have to improv.”  He uses this term, “faithful improvisation,” where we’re trying to see where the story is going and how do we live in—

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  —our part faithfully, yet without a script.

Pete:  I would add to that Fifth Act, analogously, is that you see that in the Bible anyway because people are winging it.  [laughter]

That’s not a bad way of putting it.  In the Old Testament, you have shifts and changes and new perspectives on things.  It seems inescapable.  To help people to say, “It’s okay to think responsibly and theologically and biblically today about an issue that maybe we have to address in different ways than previous generations.”

39:57

Megan:  We’re so afraid of doing something wrong that oftentimes, we do nothing.  We give the apostles permission to think creatively.  We give Calvin and Luther permission to think creatively, to do something different.  But we rarely give ourselves permission—

Pete:  Why is that?  What are we afraid of—

Megan:  —to do what they did.

Pete:  We should get a therapist [laughter].  What do you think?  You’ve experienced these things.  What—

Jared:  [unintelligible]

Pete:  —are people afraid of?

Jared:  In the congregations that you’re teaching and educating people—

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  —what are fears that you find?

Megan:  There’s so much censure in our communities, right?  If you put a toe out of line, there’s shame that’s brought on by the community.  There’s exclusion.  All of these things.  We don’t want that.  We don’t want to put on the outside.  We don’t want to be cast out like these outsiders.  We better keep in line.  We better follow the script.  We better recite the confession in whatever version it’s in and dare not think differently lest we become an outsider.  I think we’re afraid of becoming outsiders ourselves to our very community—

Pete:  Yeah.  Maybe you’re putting the nail on the head there.  The head on the nail rather.  [laughter] Who wants to be an outsider?

Megan:  It’s hard.

Pete:  Yeah—

Jared:  I was going to say—and not to be too theological, but it seems like that’s exactly what solidarity is about, right, is taking that step in saying, “I’m willing to risk becoming an outsider in order to be in community with the outsiders.”

Megan:  Yeah.  It’s hard.  You don’t get to have it both ways.  You don’t get to have solidarity with the marginalized and popularity with the powerful.  It doesn’t work like that.

Jared:  That’s a good phrase—

Pete:  Which brings me to the entire New Testament—

Megan:  [laughter] That’s a good place to go.

Pete:  —which has a thing or two to say and we could throw the prophets in there as well.  It strikes me, Megan, that this issue is one of several issues that the Church is either dealing with or going to have to deal with that really raises to the forefront—I don’t want to put it negatively, but the complexity even in the ambiguity sometimes of theological decisions.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  It’s not easy—

Megan:  It’s not.

Pete:  Living life is hard enough.  [laughter] To think you have to have all the right answers all the time makes it that much harder, but the life of faith may be not as clear as we think and we’re doing the best that we can, and for some people, and you’re one of them, and I think Jared and I are the same, if we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of people and lives and their experiences and not a system that we think is immovable and unchanging, because oddly enough, the system, which comes from the Bible, is itself a changing, moving thing—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —which is a good model for us.  It’s not going to give us the answers to any particular question, but it is going to drive us to think about—you don’t get off the hook by quoting Bible passages.  Life ain’t like that—

Megan:  But you do have to study them and see where they’re pointing—

Pete:  Yup.  Right.  Exactly right—

Jared:  Which is that faithful improvisation, which is a nice connecting.  The faithful is that rootedness—

Megan:  Yeah.

Jared:  —within the text, which your articulation today—I appreciate this conversation of rooting it in these texts and then still saying—but there is still some creativity that has to happen, some improvisation.  That fifth act is up to us on how we’re going to be faithful to that.

Megan:  I don’t have it all figured out, but what I’m trying to do in my book and in my work is to say, “Okay.  We’ve done our theological reflection.  We’ve done our biblical study only thinking about these idealized versions of male and female.  That’s not good enough.  We have to do our biblical study and our thinking theologically about what it means to be human and what it means to be a faithful Christian in a way that includes everyone in the community.”  We haven’t done that yet.  Let’s start a new conversation where we let more voices come and be at the table and it means voices that have been at the table need to be quiet for a while and listen and see if there’s something new to be learned, new perspectives to be had.

Pete:  Right.  Being quiet.  That’s hard.

Megan:  It is hard. 

Pete:  [laughter] Megan, I appreciate the way you put that.  That’s very well put.  Unfortunately, we could talk for hours about all this.  [laughter] So much stuff.  We’re just handling the Bible.  That always comes up in these kinds of conversations.  We’re coming to the end of our time.

In closing, tell us where people can people find you on the worldwide interwebs.  What projects are you involved in, if you are writing another book?  Make sure you tell us about the book that you have written and make sure people know what that is.

45:21

Megan:  Thanks.  You can find me at www.megandefranza.com, pretty easy to find.  You can see the books that I’ve written there, chapters, and other books.  The main one we’ve been talking about today is Sex Difference in Christian Theology.  The subtitle is Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, where we spend lot more time talking about all these things. 

You can find me there.  One of the things I’m most passionate about is that I just started a non-profit with my colleague, Leann Simon, who I mentioned earlier and we have a website, www.intersexandfaith.org, where we’re working to educate faith communities about intersex, provide support for intersex people of faith and advocate for the inclusion of all God’s people.

One of the things we’re doing, what I’m really excited about, is we’re in the process of making a documentary film, which right now is entitled Stories of Intersex and Faith, where people of faith—right now, we have Christians and Jews sharing their stories about being intersex and being people of faith and the good parts of that, the helpful parts of that and the difficult parts of being intersex and in a faith community. 

We’re hoping to create that as a full-length documentary.  But I’d also like to use that footage to create a series for churches that will be an educational curriculum, that’s video interviews and others, so that we can have better conversations in our communities.  Because as you said, if we’re not already having these conversations in our churches, you will be next year, or the year after that.

Pete:  Or your kids will force them.

Megan:  Right.

Pete:  Right.

Megan:  I want to help provide some resources for churches having these conversations. 

Pete:  Some video clips are on your website, already, of—

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  —you hope to have the longer documentary eventually.

Megan:  Yeah.

Pete:  Okay.  That’s good.

Megan:  Thanks.

Pete:  Listen, Megan, thank you so much.  We had a great time talking to you.  Very informative.  Let’s do this again sometime.

Megan:  Thanks for doing what you do.  Appreciate you inviting me.

Jared:  Absolutely.  Bye.

Megan:  Take care.

[Jaunty Exit Music]

Jared:  You’ve spent another chunk of time with us here on the Bible for Normal People and we’re grateful for that.  Again, if this conversation with Megan DeFranza was meaningful for you, please Google her, look at her website, the subtitle for which is “theology, identity and faithfulness in a changing world.”  That’s at www.megandefranza.com

She’s doing work as a researcher with Boston University School of Theology.

Just look at all the things that she’s doing and support her in the work that she’s doing if this is a topic that connects with you.

We also want to thank everyone who has supported us on Patreon and highlight that there is a growing community there:  www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where we have the ability to connect on Slack which is an app, really kind of a chatboard.

One of the subtopics connecting here with Megan is sexuality.  There’s also “talking to your kids about the Bible.”  There’s “science and faith.”  There are all kinds of people there talking about these topics.

We really want to create a safe place where you can explore your questions, your doubts, topics, get advice, get recommendations, share your stories.   You can check that out and more at www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.

Thanks again for everyone who has supported us so far.