Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 167: Joshua Harris – A Story of Public Deconstruction

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast,  Pete and Jared talk with Joshua Harris about how to balance accountability for harmful ideas with grace and compassion as they explore the following questions: 

  • How did books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye fit into the broader idea of purity culture?
  • What does it mean to proof-text the Bible?
  • How has Joshua Harris’s views changed on faith, scripture, and God? 
  • What are possible repercussions when scripture and sound doctrine are used to elicit fear and control?
  • How can you find hopefulness in not knowing all the answers about God? 
  • How can we navigate the tension between justice and grace? 
  • How did the movement-based evangelical culture of the late 90’s/early 2000’s (Promise Keepers, True Love Waits) have an impact on today’s purity culture?
  • Why is the process of forgiving yourself so important? 


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Joshua Harris you can share. 

  • “Purity culture wasn’t just shaped by my book – it was shaped by the abstinence movement, it was shaped by a reaction to a very sexualized culture, and it was essentially a manipulation, trying to use fear to get young people to stay away from sex.” @HarrisJosh
  • “The outworkings of purity culture – which I now see twenty years later – was really a distorted view of the body, a distorted view of sexuality, a distorted view of even God.” @HarrisJosh
  • “If no one takes that step to say, ‘let’s take responsibility,’ if no one takes the step to say, ‘here’s the part I played,’ if nobody does that, then we don’t learn from the mistakes, we don’t grow, we don’t offer any kind of healing to others.” @HarrisJosh
  • “If we don’t have space in our view of humanity and the world for people to grow and change, then everybody has to be locked into their immaturity; everybody has to be locked into their bad doctrine, everybody has to be locked into their bad ideology.” @HarrisJosh

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript


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.

[Jaunty intro music]

Jared: Can’t get enough of The Bible for Normal People? Did you know we have lots of videos on YouTube? Just to go https://www.youtube.com/, search The Bible for Normal People, you’ll find videos from myself and Pete talking all things Bible.

Pete: And you know, right now we actually have an episode, and this episode is “A Story of Public Deconstruction” with Josh Harris, who’s best known, probably, for his very controversial book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Jared: Yeah, and I appreciated us diving into this idea of public deconstruction and wrestling with these questions of accountability for harmful ideas that he owns while also having some grace and how do you wrestle that, even within ourselves, since we all kind of have those stories.

Pete: Right, well, let’s get to it.

[Music begins]

Joshua: Practically any issue – the inerrancy, the authority of scripture – it all connected back to the Gospel. And so, you had to fight for everything with such strength and to not fight, to ask a question or to say, hey, maybe we don’t need to be so adamant about this was like saying, “Hey, maybe the Gospel is not such a big deal.” In the settings that I was in, scripture, sound doctrine, were used to control.

[Music ends]

Jared: Well, Joshua Harris, welcome to the podcast.

Joshua: It’s good to be here guys, thank you.

Jared: Yeah, it’s great, great to have you. And a lot of, one of the things that Pete and I were really interested in was just your story and you’ve had quite the journey, you know, writing I Kissed Dating Goodbye, being a pastor, going to seminary, going through some shifts in your beliefs – maybe take some time here and just share a little bit about your journey with faith.

Joshua: Well, the order that you listed is actually pretty important to my story. I was a pastor and then I went to seminary, which is not the best order to do those two things. But I grew up in a setting that I really love, I have so much appreciation for the way that my parents raised me, but like a lot of people in mid-life, I’m unpacking that, I’m trying to understand that, I’m trying to understand the good and the not so good of that. But my mom and dad became Christians in the Jesus movement of the late 60’s, early 70’s, they got married right after they became Christians, they had me right after they got married, and they wanted to, you know, give their lives to serving the Lord, they wanted to protect me and my other siblings from the mistakes and the dangers that they had experienced in the world, and so I was raised, not only in a very conservative, zealous evangelical home, but also a homeschooling family. That was a big part of our identity that my parents pulled us out of the school system so that they could raise us up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, you know, protect us from the influences of the secular culture, and that’s really all that I knew.

As a kid and then later as a teenager, I followed my dad into speaking and doing conferences and that turned into publishing a magazine for homeschool teenagers. And so, I had these gifts of communication and this love for connecting with people and influencing people on a large scale and I really used that by writing, by, you know, being a conference speaker, and that’s, you know, you mentioned I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I Kissed Dating Goodbye grew out of that moment in my life where I was wanting to do something big for God. Billy Graham was my hero, I idolized Billy Graham, I wanted to, you know, do something great like that with my life, and I prayed this prayer of Lord, you know, help me write a book that will change the world. And when I Kissed Dating Goodbye was released, I thought it was the answer to that prayer, you know? It was here was this book that was calling for people to be more zealous, more radical, not just save sex for marriage but go even further and avoid dating altogether. Don’t kiss before you’re married, don’t get entangled in emotional, you know, connections with people if you’re not ready for marriage and there was such a huge reaction to that, that it just kind of confirmed my view that I was doing the Lord’s work.

So, that’s sort of the story that led up to, you know, what people know me best for.

Pete: Mm hmm. Just hearing your story, just this little bit of it, Josh, it’s so common that when people get to be adults, you really see how parental influence has driven so much of what we’re dealing with, you know?

Joshua: Hmm.


Pete: That sounds awfully negative, but you know, the old joke if you’ve had parents, you need therapy. Right?

Josh: [Light laughter]

Pete: But we all have that, right, and you really are a product of your parent’s passions, right, and their beliefs and their thoughts and then you wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye. You were how old? Early 20’s as I recall?

Joshua: Yeah, that’s right. I was 19, 20 when I wrote it. It was released when I was 21.

Pete: Can you give us, for those who might not be familiar with the book, can you just give a very quick summary/synopsis of what the book is about?

Joshua: Sure. Yeah, the book was a response to the True Love Waits movement that was sweeping North America, and really the world. People were calling for abstinence, a greater commitment to purity, saving sex for marriage was a big focus, there were cultural battles taking place around that and I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a book that said if we really want to be serious about honoring God and living, you know, genuine love for each other, then we need to not only avoid having sex, we need to avoid dating which leads to temptation. Dating is practice for divorce, dating sets us on a really dangerous trajectory, and so we should stop dating, kiss it goodbye, and instead live our lives purposefully as singles, enjoy friendships, enjoy relationships, but really just focus on serving the Lord and preparing to be a good husband or wife.

Jared: Well, that, even hearing that doesn’t sound too problematic. I mean, for me growing up I would’ve grown up in a very similar culture to you, Josh, and now that we have a lot of language around, maybe, what I experienced as a kid as purity culture, can you maybe describe what purity culture is and how I Kissed Dating Goodbye fit or didn’t fit, you know, what was the cultural moment this was fitting into more broadly around this idea of purity culture?

Josh: Yeah, you’re right. You know, purity culture wasn’t a term that we used back then. I think that the place that I Kissed Dating Goodbye played is that it took a lot of the ideas that were being discussed in different subcultures of Christianity and it popularized a lot of them for the broader evangelical community. And purity culture wasn’t just shaped by my book, it was shaped by the abstinence movement, it was shaped by a reaction to a very sexualized culture, and it was essentially a hyper focus and a, I would say, manipulation, trying to use fear to get young people to stay away from sex. And so, it did that by kind of, you know, warning or threatening with the consequences of sex. And so, if you have sex, you’ll be used up, you will be less than, you’ll be, you know, you won’t get to your marriage as a virgin, you’ll face all these soul ties and disappointments of fear to keep people from doing it and then, which leads to shame, which leads to kind of a repressive attitude towards sexuality. And then I would also say promise – promise of if you do it this way, you know, God’s way, then you’ll have an amazing sex life, it’s so much better, the world can’t compare to what you have as a Christian within heterosexual marriage relationship. So, that was the kind of, you know, environment that we describe now as purity culture, but the outworkings of that, which I now see twenty years later was really a distorted view of the body, a distorted view of sexuality, a distorted view of even God I would say, and the outworking of that in people’s marriages or lack of marriage or sexual dysfunction, you know, is very real. And my book played a, sadly, a significant role in that.

Jared: Before we get there, can you just say just another, a word on that so we can make, be clear about that. In your mind, how has that idea of purity culture and all the things that you just talked about, how has that been damaging to, you have this unique experience where a lot of people probably have shared how that purity culture has been damaging to them. So, what are the stories you’ve heard, and maybe, how has that been damaging to you too, even in your own, in your own life?

Josh: Yeah. Well, the, I have had a lot of those stories shared with me. I took way too long to listen.


For a long time, wrote criticism off as people just being haters, people not being serious about holiness, or misapplying my book and it took a lot of time, it took me failing in different ways, me being disillusioned in different ways to finally start understanding that the stories of how these ideas of purity culture, which were embodied in my book, influenced people. And I think a big mistake that I made in, you know, the way I framed my book and even just the churches that I was a part of is that we tended to have one story for things, you know? If the pastor had an experience, then everyone else can have that experience, you know? If this was your experience of raising your kids or marriage, then you could just share your formula and other people could enjoy that.

And as I began to hear these diverse stories, I began to see how there were these themes of, you know, fear about sex, spending so much energy trying to deny and kind of subvert your sexual desires that then when you get married, you just can’t turn those on or there’s still shame around it, there’s still confusion around sexuality and an inability to kind of connect with your own pleasure and so on. Another consistent theme is, if you are so focused on not awakening feelings, not awakening sexual desires, well, you need to get married as soon as possible. And so, people rushed into marriages and ten, fifteen, twenty years later they’re dealing with the fallout of that or they passed up relationships that they look back on and they say, “Why didn’t I give that a chance? I was so worried about, you know, not having sex that I didn’t pursue a relationship with someone that maybe I had a, you know, special connection with.”

So, it takes time, to use the biblical language, for the true fruit of ideas to be seen and I think with purity culture, I, in hearing all these stories, not only was heartbroken by them, but I think I also, you know, it was like holding a mirror up in front of me. I began to see, wow, this has shaped me in many ways. You know, I, I kind of lived the book and the ideals in my own life in a really dramatic way, and you know, my divorce is something that’s public and my ex-wife and I really try to honor each other by not going into details of that, but we both would say, yeah, the purity culture structure is not something that we would want to encourage others to follow, let alone our kids and those are conversations that we have.

Jared: Mm hmm. You mention the Bible in that, you know, this is The Bible for Normal People, so I would guess that the way the Bible was presented to you was a huge motivator for your views that within purity culture and I Kissed Dating Goodbye. So, maybe talk a little bit about that and then how have your views on the Bible changed over these years?

Josh: Well, you know, when I was reevaluating the book, I went back and –

Pete: You mean the Bible or your book?

Josh: Oh, yeah.


Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: Let’s be clear! Let’s not get confused in our antecedents.

Josh: Oh, my goodness.

Pete: You mean your book.

Josh: When I was reevaluating I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I went back and reread it for the first time in a long while and I saw just how I misused scripture quite dramatically just picking particular verses, taking them out of context, using them in a way that carried a lot of weight, and then using illustrations from people’s lives or these dramatic moments or whatever to create so much just forcefulness in terms of people feeling like “I have to do it this way. This is God’s best. If I don’t do this, there’s so much, you know, that I’ll miss, there’s so much that I’ll lose.” And I thought I was being faithful by, you know, quoting scripture and pointing to scripture, I thought I was building my arguments around scripture, but I look back now and I see that, you know, in so many ways I was not taking in the full arc of, if you will, the story, the true narrative of redemption. I was really creating a rulebook, I was using the Bible as a rulebook and creating a very, you know, even more strict and extreme rulebook for people when it came to dating.

Pete: By proof-texting, or just –

Josh: Well, yeah, exactly. Exactly. Mm hmm.

Pete: Like, lifting passages that the starting point really wasn’t the Bible is what I’m hearing you say. It was more the ideology and then the Bible came into service –

Josh: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Pete: That’s pretty common, by the way. I never do it. Jared does it once in a while.

Jared: [Laughter]


Pete: But it is, all kidding aside, this is sort of like, the battle, I think, to try to listen to that overarching story as you’re talking about and to try to read these things carefully with a lot of wisdom rather than just using it to baptize our views. But that’s such a common thing. So, okay, so as far as, like, now goes with the Bible, let’s just talk about that for a couple of minutes. Do you, I mean, there’s no right answer here. This is The Bible for Normal People, people are all across the spectrum in our listeners and the people we’ve had on, but do you, like, have a connection with scripture, do you read it, how do you read it differently, do you expect different things from it? All that kind of stuff.

Josh: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, I found myself a little anxious coming to this conversation with both of you because I had a feeling you’d ask me that kind of question and I think –

Pete: [Light laughter]

Yeah, but there’s no wrong answer!

Josh: I… well see, but I think that just kind of reveals my own programming in different ways because while I’ve, you know, talked to a lot of people in a lot of different settings about purity culture or the ideas in my book or, you know, even in general terms, you know, the kind of unraveling of my views on Christianity and faith and if you want to use the word deconstruction, whatever you want to call that, I haven’t necessarily had to get into the specifics, or maybe I’ve been avoiding the specifics of what do I think about scripture. And I feel really conflicted about that. You know, I, in the last several years, I have talked about the fact that I don’t, I don’t feel comfortable identifying as a Christian. You know, I felt like I needed to create this space in my own life, have the freedom in my own life to explore, to try to figure out what I believed about God and spirituality, and just life in general apart from what felt like all these restrictions in, you know, the evangelical, conservative evangelical world that I’d grown up in. And it was a little bit of a, you know, this, I just, “get me away from all of it!” I’m not trying to be in the tribe anymore, I’m not trying to explain or defend what I’m doing according to all the rules that I’ve imbibed, and I’ve taught and so on.

Pete: You need to press reset in that sense.

Josh: Yeah, that’s a great description. I felt like I needed to press reset and so, you know, everything from walking into a church to even picking up my Bible can be, it can just be this flood of all of these feelings and memories, many of them negative, sadly. I have positive ones, but I, it’s hard for me to access those. It brings me back into the pressure of leading a church in the denomination that I was a part of. It brings me back into this constant pressure of making sure that I taught exactly according to the doctrine that I was supposed to be teaching, that I was being Gospel centered enough, that I was being, you know, really teaching in an expository manner and all those kinds of things. And so, I think that there are so many layers that have been kind of piled onto my view of the Bible that it’s difficult for me to come to it without just feeling this angst and just negative energy, I guess is the best way.

Pete:  I mean, it’s triggering, right? I mean, it’s triggering. And by the way, that sound that you’re hearing right now is the sound of several thousand of our listeners saying, “yeah, that’s my life as well.” You know? It’s triggering to have been in, let’s just call it a toxic environment that you participated in and actually aided and abetted and then you sort of see, “no.” And, but that doesn’t let go.

Josh: Right.

Pete: That stays in you. You carry that with you for a long time and it takes, sometimes it takes walking away from the Bible or from God or from church or from everything just to allow yourself to sort of, just get to even know yourself a little bit.

Josh: Mm hmm.

Pete: Right, so –

Josh: And the other thing that I think has been interesting for me is I know that there are Christians who they come to the Bible with a different interpretive grid. You know, they’re able to see it and interpret it and apply it in different ways. And, you know, in the world that I was in that would’ve been, those were liberals. You know? Those were progressive Christians that were not being faithful to scripture and so on. And so, I found it difficult at this moment in my life to open myself up to new ways of seeing scripture.


It’s almost easier for me to just say, “Listen guys, just bag it all, I gotta walk away from all of it,” than it is to shift my thinking and say, “maybe I don’t have to read the text this way. Maybe, you know, maybe it doesn’t mean this. Maybe there’s, you know, a flexibility on this particular topic or whatever it might be.” That’s just, it’s like, it’s like I don’t think the same way, but I can still find myself judging people because I, because I spent so many years in a context where we just judged the hell out of people, you know, if they weren’t as faithful as we were to scripture and to sound doctrine.

Jared: Just to go on this idea of toxic, just can’t help but make the, draw the analogy with toxic relationships where to reform that relationship, to reimagine it, to go through that process is very challenging. In a lot of ways, the healthier or certainly easier route is to just cut it off and to go a different route and to make a different path and that’s kind of what I’m hearing is, and I think that’s true for a lot of people within Christianity is, yeah, that just seems super murky and I don’t know how I go down that without a lot of pain and a lot of trauma and a lot of things where this other path of just, let’s just let that go and maybe go a different way just seems like a much easier, and I don’t mean that as like a cop out, I mean maybe that is the better, sometimes, way to move forward.

Pete: Yeah.

Josh: Well, I, as you’re talking, I’m just realizing that in the settings that I was in, and again, I know this is not all of Christianity by any means, but in the settings that I was in, scripture, sound doctrine, were used to control.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Josh: We were, it was about keeping people in line and that was framed in terms of guarding the Gospel, sound doctrine was important because the Gospel was always at stake, you know? Gender roles, ultimately connected back to the Gospel and so any, practically any issue, you know, the inerrancy, the authority of scripture, it all connected back to the Gospel and so you had to, you had to fight for everything with such strength and to not fight, to ask a question or to say, “hey, maybe we don’t need to be so adamant about this” was like saying, “hey, maybe the Gospel is not such a big deal.” And so, fear and control are such themes of how scripture is used and how it was applied in a community and in the Christian culture that I was in and it’s just, it’s sad that when I come to scripture, I just, it’s like I feel that fear and control. I know it doesn’t have to be that way. I interact with Christians that have a freedom and there’s a, there’s a living nature to scripture, there’s an openness and a growth that’s present, a joy. And I’m trying to learn from that. I want to be open to that.

Pete: So, right now with respect to just your view of your Christian faith, you’re trying to figure things out and see where you land and just see where you are and let’s throw Jesus and God into this mix as well. Like, where, again, I’m asking the question because those are the big questions people ask when they’re going through this process. Like, I don’t even know what God is anymore.

Josh: Mm hmm.

Pete: Or if God is, I mean, just Jesus, some Jewish guy, right? Or the Bible, or the Christian faith, I mean, look at all the damage that it’s done. What is your relationship with all those things at this point?

Josh: Yeah.

Pete: That’s a bit question.


Josh: Yeah, it’s a huge question. I would say –

Pete: And throw in the universe while you’re thinking about it.

Josh: And the universe. I would say that I’m very much in process. I don’t want to try to land or label myself or say, “here’s where I am,” you know, or join a new tribe, but I definitely also don’t want to just kind of be hedging my bets to say, yeah, well, I still love Jesus, but, you know, I don’t know. I would just say I’m not sure, you know?

Pete: Yeah.

Josh: I’m not pretending that I am following, practicing, believing in all the ways that for years I believed defined you as a Christian.

Pete: But how do you feel about that?

Josh: Well, I think that’s the thing, it’s like, I recognize that I was in a, you know, a context that had very narrow definition of that.

Pete: Yeah.

Josh: And so, how I feel about it is I feel, I feel free. I mean, I feel, I feel like I have more of a possibility of actually encountering who God is or who he might be than I did in the mindset and the framework that was so defined by fear and control.


Pete: So, there’s always that lingering, maybe, fear factor, but also, I’m sensing a hopefulness in even in not knowing and having the freedom to say, “I just don’t know.” And maybe to encounter God differently than what had been sort of a life sucking kind of context you were in. I mean, just from your own experience.

Josh: Yeah, I would say that I have a hopefulness, for sure.

Jared: Well, I think that’s really fair. I did want to make sure we had time to come to this question is that, you know, you have experienced being very publicly an advocate for evangelical purity culture and then having this public change of heart. So, how have you navigated this tension between justice and grace? You know, between needing to be accountable for the ideas that you help promote, but also needing the grace and space to change your mind and have it be a mistake? You’ve mentioned that and I’ve heard other podcasts you’ve been on, or other interviews where you’ve owned up to these things, and these things can be forgiven. So, I’m thinking this, of course, in light of cancel culture conversations that you are, whether you, of course, like it or not, I’m sure not like it, are kind of right in the middle of. So, how have you navigated this justice and grace, mistakes that can be forgiven and accountability conversation?

Josh: Oh, boy. I would say that I just try to keep the focus on genuine human interactions with people and I know that that’s hard sometimes when that’s happening over social media or, you know, different forms of mass communication, but I try to just keep remembering that we’re all humans, we’re individuals, and we’re at different places and I think that I understand people who have been really hurt by, harmed by my book, how deep that runs because of the significance of the decisions that you make. And I recognize that, you know, my book took on a lot of authority. It was, you know, it was claiming to be speaking from the Bible, it was handed to people by their pastors and parents, you know, it was in the, you know, Christian bookstore and so when that’s given to someone at a formative time in your life, it can take on a lot of authority.

And so, I’ve had people say to me, listen, people just need to take responsibility, you didn’t force them to read the book, you didn’t force them to do these things, and you know, sure, that, you can say that that’s true, but I think I have a real sense of regret and responsibility because I understand in a religious context how shaping and how formative those ideas can be and it does feel like someone is coming and saying you have to do this. And I think that, I know that I can’t fix, you know, these things by my apologies. I know that, you know, there’s a lot more involved that shaped the world that we were all in at the time and so on, but I just feel like if no one takes that step to say, let’s take responsibility, if no one takes the step to say, here’s the part I played, you know, it doesn’t fix anything but I just want to acknowledge that and try to do better and try to, you know, lift up other voices that are offering alternatives. If nobody does that, then we don’t learn from the mistakes. You know? We don’t grow, we don’t offer any kind of healing to others, and so, that’s the mindset that I bring, and I encounter people that are, you know, just really pissed off and I understand that. I encounter people who are also very gracious and who, you know, express forgiveness to me.

And I also encounter people who say, please, just go away. You know? Like, we don’t ever want to hear your voice again and you shouldn’t speak, you shouldn’t have any influence, you shouldn’t have any platform, and I understand that too. I think I’ve had to wrestle with that the most because in many ways, I mean, that’s kind of like the heart of shame, you know? It’s like because of what I did or who I am, I should just disappear. I should, you know, literally just be cancelled from almost like the earth. And I’ve had to wrestle with that and say, no. You know what? I am going to just continue to exist, I’m not going to be controlled by some new group of people, I’m going to speak up because I feel like it’s part of a healing process for me personally, I’m going to speak up because, you know, I think there are people who will listen to this coming from me that they might not listen to somebody else, and if just one person can experience some kind of closure or healing from knowing that I am not only sorry, but I’m wrestling with these things myself, then for me that’s worth it.


But that is a kind of a daily, weekly challenge for me.

Pete: Yeah. I mean, you know, you were, again, you were very young when you conceived the book and then when you wrote it, and I really appreciate what you’re saying here. And not to detract from that, because I think you’re right in the personal accountability, but part of me also says, and again, I don’t want anyone to mishear me, I’m not taking any responsibility away from you, blah, blah blah. But somebody published you, right? And you were part of a context that encouraged this and you know, someone of your age might not have had the wisdom and the life experience to notice what was happening. And I wonder how much of the responsibility goes to the larger Christian cultural system, right, that said, “Sure, you’re qualified to write a book of incredible complexity that goes into the depth of our humanity, human sexuality, and yeah, go ahead. Knock yourself out. We’ll publish it.” Right? But I think, you know, again, this is my impression and please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you were used. I think you wrote something that was very electrifying, and I think people thought they could make some money off of it, that’s at least part of it, you know. And sure, it aids and abets certain ideology, but I think a little bit of thought by those who make these kinds of decisions should have led them to say, “Not yet. This is not something that someone this young should write.” Any thoughts or any reactions to that?

Josh: I think there’s truth to the idea that there is a system in place that’s driven by, you know, market realities. Back in the late 90’s, early 2000’s, it was the height of the, you know, Christian publishing, you know, world. CBA and Christian bookstores, I mean, juts not only did you have whatever 20 years ago, 60, 70% of people identifying as evangelical or Christians in the, you know, in America, but you had this whole network of Christian bookstores. This was before Amazon, this was before, you know, bookstores were wiped out, basically.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Josh: And so, there was a whole machine that was spreading ideas and evangelicalism was so movement based. You had Promise Keepers, you had True Love Waits, you had, you know, the ideas of purity culture and on and on, Christian contemporary music was huge. And so, yeah, that machine is real, and I do think there’s a need for responsibility. But I would also just say of myself, I wanted that too.

Jared: Right.

Josh: In other words, I wanted to be used, I wanted to be, you know, famous for Jesus, I wanted to sell tons of books. I continued to write books, I, you know, as I grew older, I should’ve gone back and reevaluated the content of the book sooner than I did. I should’ve been open to that, but what it teaches me is how people can get locked into beliefs and ideas and ideologies and it has nothing to do with scripture, it has nothing to do with what they actually believe if they were forced to really, honestly, you know, critique and think about it, it’s shaped by, you know, the fact that it’s their job. It’s shaped by this is their community, it’s shaped by, well, I can’t question that or this would fall apart, I’d lose my role, you know, all those types of things. And so, that fear is behind so much of it but what we dress it up as is, well, this is sound doctrine. This is, you know, this is what I believe. It’s right here in scripture.

Pete: This is what Jesus and Paul thought.

Josh: [Laughter]

Yeah, exactly.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Well, we’re coming full circle then, because you know, I think Pete’s mentioned this before, we have a lot of listeners who’ve changed their minds about God, the Bible, church. I mean, Pete and I have too over the years. Have you found it difficult to forgive yourself? Because I think, you know, just thinking about what advice you might have for people who struggle with a lot of guilt because it comes from both sides. There’s this guilt over what they used to believe, right? So, I’m guilty that I used to believe this thing and I probably hurt people along the way by these old beliefs I had. But I’m also now guilty for having new beliefs because my old way of thinking is sort of shaming me for my new way of thinking and it’s all very confusing. It’s sort of getting this guilt from both sides. So, how have you navigated forgiving yourself and moving forward? I think you hinted at this a little bit where you’re kind of criticized from all sides in some ways.


Josh: Well, I think it’s an ongoing process. I think it’s that process of forgiving yourself is so important because if you can’t do that, you can’t show compassion to other human beings who are going to be on the same pathway and if we don’t figure this out in different ways, not just related to books that are written or even just religious viewpoints and so on, if we don’t have space in our view of humanity and the world for people to grow and change, then everybody has to be locked into their, you know, immaturity. Everybody has to be locked into their bad doctrine. Everybody has to be locked into their bad ideology. If the moment somebody starts questioning something that’s problematic we just want to cancel them for, you know, “you got this wrong and so you should be punished forever,” there’s no space for compassion, for compromise, for growth, for, you know, just a safer, gentler, kinder world. And so, I have, you know, tried to look back on who I was at that time and say, okay, what shaped me? What was going on there? What was good about that? You know? There was a genuine desire to try to help people. There was fear in my heart. I have to have compassion to say, yeah, I was afraid, I was receiving these messages from other people. I thought these things with such conviction, and I tried to express that, and I, even when you have good intentions, you can hurt people. And that shapes a compassion towards myself and it also shapes a compassion towards people that I interact with now, you know, that I think are really wrong about things and it gives me an ability to hope for them that they will grow and experience new truths and be able to change, but it’s a winding road for me, for sure.

Jared: You know, I can’t speak for Pete, but, Pete you can speak for yourself, but I think neither one of us are sitting here without, I think we have a soft spot for that.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: Because neither one of us have this podcast or have the ability to speak to people in the way we do without people showing us compassion that, you know, I was saying things that were hurtful 20 years ago and things that weren’t helpful to people, you know?

Pete: Mm hmm, right.

Jared: In front of large groups of people as a pastor, and so, you know, I just, I appreciate what you’re saying, I think it’s really true.

Pete: Yeah, I think those are very wise and seasoned and encouraging words to end on, Josh. So, listen, we really appreciate your time, taking the time to be with us all the way from someplace in Canada, very far away.

Josh: [Laughter]

Pete: 3,000 miles away, beautiful Vancouver, so anyway. But thank you for taking the time, we really enjoyed having a chance to talk with you.

Josh: Thanks for giving me the space to just think about these things. I really am grateful that you are having these kind of conversations. I know a lot of people really look to the work you’re doing and find a lot of encouragement and I’m grateful.

Pete: Thank you, Josh.

Jared: Thanks Josh.

Pete: See ya.

[Music begins]

Megan: Alright everyone, that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show, we hope you enjoyed this episode. And of course, we want to give a big shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They’re the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more.

Dave: Thanks, as always, to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.

[Music ends]



Jared: I wanna –

[electronics beep in background]


Josh: I’m so sorry.

Jared: I just want to make sure, it’s okay, it’s good.

Pete: It’s okay, we’ll cut that out. Dave, cut that out.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: Dave’s our producer.

[End of recorded material]

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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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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?


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?


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.”


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.


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.