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Episode 208: David Farrier – What’s Going On With Megachurches?

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, David Farrier joins Pete and Jared to discuss what he has uncovered while researching the downward spiral of megachurches. Together, they explore the following questions: 

  • No, seriously. What’s going on with megachurches? 
  • Why do a lot of megachurches seem to have a cookie cutter approach that they’re modeled after? 
  • What components are behind the success of a megachurch? 
  • How do young adults factor into the megachurch formula? 
  • No, seriously. What’s going on with megachurches? 
  • Why do a lot of megachurch models seem to have a cookie-cutter approach? 
  • How do megachurches become so successful?
  • How are megachurches able to appeal to and target young adults?
  • How does the initial “good message” of a megachurch get so twisted around? 
  • Why is the churn rate seen at a lot of megachurches a red flag? 
  • What do people think they’re doing for God when they’re volunteering in megachurch systems? 
  • Are there any solutions for large churches to create better systems? 
  • How do we go from the Jesus we find in the Bible to the systems of megachurches we have now? 
  • Are certain demographics more prone or susceptible to a celebrity-type culture? Why?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from David Farrier you can share: 

  • “If you go along to a church and you sign up to God’s path and you choose to be a certain type of Christian—if  you fall in line—it’s great. It works until it doesn’t.” @davidfarrier
  • “When you’re a young person who is figuring out the world and trying to figure out who you are, these places [megachurches], I could not think of a worse place to be to make you feel mentally unwell.” @davidfarrier
  • “Whoever you think and believe Jesus was—he was like a revolutionary, he had incredible ideas, he was kind, he was great. And when I look at what these megachurches are, they’re not that.” @davidfarrier
  • “I have very little beef with Christianity, I certainly don’t have any beef with Jesus. It’s what the systems have become—it’s something else entirely.” @davidfarrier
  • “People getting into these positions of power leading these churches who are literally narcissists. When you have people driven by their image and their ego and their possessions, I just think that’s an incredibly dangerous combo.” @davidfarrier
  • “I don’t know whether these megachurches can survive in their current state and not have casualties. With their current makeup, they would not exist without creating trauma.” @davidfarrier
  • “These megachurches…[are] another example of colonialism and the white man coming in to another culture and going, ‘Hey, this is the truth. Come to us.’ It’s very complex, obviously, but the leaders are generally white and wealthy.” @davidfarrier
  • “The second you’ve got a man saying, ‘we have the answer,’ and it’s removed from Jesus, or any religious leader, it’s like, just step away. Don’t go there. It’s not going to be good.” @davidfarrier

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]

Pete 

Hey, everybody, welcome to this episode. Our topic today is a deep dive in the megachurch and our guest is David Farrier.

Jared 

David is a journalist and producer from New Zealand. He co-hosts Armchaired and Dangerous, a monthly podcast with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, about conspiracy theories. He has a newsletter named Webworm that you can subscribe to at webworm.co.

Pete 

.co Yeah. He’s very careful. He couldn’t afford the “m.”

Jared 

He said he couldn’t afford the “m.”  .co, webworm.co.

Pete

[Mildly amused chuckle]

Jared 

But I was really excited to have David on. I’ve been just following what he does with Armchaired and Dangerous and recognize that he started writing about megachurches, and I thought it would be a really good guest to talk about some of the scandals. There’s been a lot of things in the news. We often have, I don’t know if everybody knows this, but we usually have really nerdy guests who maybe not, you wouldn’t equate with like pop culture.

Pete

Right.

Pete

But sometimes, we have people like David on because they’re, this is in the news. These are things that are coming up, whether it’s Hillsong, that new documentary on Discovery+ or other…

Pete 

NXIVM on HBO

Jared 

Right, yeah.

Pete

There’s an old good one, too, on Scientology, which is also an HBO, which is an amazing, and they’re all so connected, but…

Jared 

Right, exactly.

Pete

Now, those are cultish things. But we’re also talking about the megachurch, which gets a little bit sort of touching

Jared 

It can be a little culty.

Pete

We’ll let David explain that.

Jared 

Yeah. Excellent. All right. Well, let’s get into it.

[Music begins, plays in background]

David 

When you’re a young person who is figuring out the world, and you’re experimenting, and you’re trying to figure out who you are, I could not think of a worse place to be to make you feel mentally unwell. I keep questioning their motives. Is his motivation saving people from the eternal pits of hell or is his motivation to feel really good about himself and to have a nice house and a nice car and to sort of see this the Empire he’s running?

[Music ends]

Jared 

Well, welcome, David to the podcast. It’s great to have you.

David 

Thanks for having me.

Jared 

Yeah, absolutely. So, we’re really excited to hear about the work you’ve been doing on megachurches. They’re just, this is in the zeitgeist in a lot of the conversations that we’ve been having. And so, it’s great to have someone who is an expert journalist who can give us some of the scoop on what’s going on what you’ve been learning about. But before we do that, maybe you can say a little of your experience with the church and Christianity before you even got into writing about megachurches.

David 

Yeah, I guess, like putting it really simply, I grew up in a Christian home, pretty, in New Zealand, pretty bog standard Christianity, I suppose. I think we sort of, it’s funny, my memories aren’t great when I was a kid, like they’re kind of faded. Like they’re positive memories, but they’re hard to access. But we were sort of involved mostly in like, I guess, the Baptist kind of tradition, so not too intense, but also those classic kind of Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell and leading a moral life and a personal relationship with Jesus and that kind of thing. Anyway, I was pretty into it. And I ended up comically, I mean, I was born on Christmas Day, which is quite funny, and ended up living in a town in New Zealand called Bethlehem, which is also quite funny.

Pete

[Laughter]

David 

I wish I could say I was born in Bethlehem, but I moved there later in life. But I ended up attending private Christian school in Bethlehem in a town called Tauranga in New Zealand, and I really enjoyed it there, like I really fit in.

4:55

David 

I, in a large part sort of liked knowing the answers to everything and I ended up being a prefect at that school. So, you know, rewind to when I was 17, you know, opened assemblies by praying and that kind of thing. So, I was super into that kind of world. But I also drifted out of it fairly quickly once I left for university and experienced a few other kinds of life things that came into conflict, I guess, with my faith, which sort of made me walk away to the point where, yeah, all cards on the table, I describe myself now as a happy agnostic.

Jared 

So, I’m curious, as you were telling me about that, did you have any experiences with megachurches growing up in your experience with the church? Like, I would have gone to a megachurch at a young age. And so that would have been more of normal for me, but I’m curious if you if that would have been a normal experience for you?

David 

No, not really. Like, I have certainly been to a megachurch service, probably in my late sort of late teens, I’d say, but it was never the norm. So like, I was more of a small Baptist Church, kind of a guy, smaller congregations, you know, not this emphasis on, you know, amazing musical performances and giving money endlessly. It was much more low key. And I think that’s why when I’ve come to look at megachurches later in life, they’ve kind, of it’s been a very novel thing to me. Like, I kind of look at them as a bit of an outsider, in a way, and I understand sort of the tenants of how they work, but it’s not something that I was immersed in. So, I still find it really kind of shocking and interesting and amazing. And, you know, Hillsong is something I started observing, sort of, from a journalistic sense a while ago, and, you know, then sort of realizing that in New Zealand, where I, I spend a lot of my time, there are a lot of versions of Hillsong. And they’re all literally cookie-cutter versions of that model, to the point where the pastor’s at those churches talk in the same way that Brian Houston talks, you know, they’re the same delivery, exactly the same. And I got really fascinated with that as well, because they are just cookie cutters of each other.

Jared 

Can you say a little more about that? What, why do you think that? Why do you think that is? What is it about? The “we have to do it this way,” it has to be a cookie-cutter approach to be successful.

David 

It works! I think it just works so well. I mean, you look at how big Hillsong got, this huge success story. And you know, the money’s flowing in and there’s so many bums on seats, and there’s so many souls being saved. That model clearly works, so why not emulate it? And in New Zealand, you’ve got these megachurches like Life and City Impact and Arise that I’ve been writing about a lot. And they all, you know, they’re all essentially endorsed by Brian Houston. They’ve all had interactions with Brian Houston over the years. He is their hero, he is their success story. And you know, those churches have largely been really successful in New Zealand. They, they’re big, they work, they have members coming in. And it’s yeah, it’s you know, Brian Houston. He got that formula right. So why wouldn’t you copy it?

Pete 

Yeah. Well, that brings up a question for me that I’ve been thinking about. You say that, you know, they work. That model works. Why do you think it works so well?

David 

Well, I think for a church like Arise, which is the church I’ve been writing a lot about on my newsletter, Webworm. They are in a lot of university towns, and they are primarily recruiting young people into their church. And I think the megachurch system, and that sort of certain form of Pentecostal Christianity, it’s just really appealing to a certain teenager who is maybe feeling a bit lost in life, doesn’t have friends. They’re potentially in a new university city. And, you know, these churches actively recruit on campus, they go into hostels, they go into, you know, their dormitories, they go into the actual university grounds. And they say, “Hey, we’re having a gathering tonight. Why don’t you come and do this fun thing? We’ve got food, or we’ve got movies or whatever.” And people go along, and they find, “Oh, my goodness, I here’s this really super positive message. This is sort of a direction for how to live my life,” and, “Oh, my goodness, this music is amazing and slick, and this isn’t what I thought church was at all. And, you know, Arise Church in New Zealand, it sits at about 10,000 members, which is big for New Zealand. You know, we’ve only got 6 million people that live in the whole of the country. So, 10,000 is a big membership. And, you know, the membership generally stays at about 10,000. It’s not rocketing up. And that’s just because the churn rate is so high that they’re spitting people out the other side, but they’re also getting new university students and young people in immediately. So, I think the appeal is like, wow, this is family and community and excitement while I’m sort of scared in my first year at university. That might not last my homeliness here, but right now, it’s amazing. And you know, let’s get involved.

10:10

Jared 

So, what are the things? Because when you describe it like that, from an outside perspective, I think people might say, Well, what’s wrong with that? Like, oh, that’s great. Offering a meal, you offering community, you’re offering a sense of purpose.

David

Totally.

Jared 

So, what gets turned around in that? What have you uncovered?

David 

Yeah, well, I mean, what I’ve uncovered is that it works until it doesn’t. So, if you go along to a church, like Arise, and you, you know, sign up to God’s path, and you choose to be a certain type of Christian, if you fall in line, it’s great. You’ve got instant family, you’ve got friends, you’ve got positivity, you’ve got all that stuff around you. I think the problems begin for people, and what I certainly found, is when it doesn’t work.

So, you know, one super clear example is if you’re gay, for example, or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community that doesn’t fit in immediately—uh-oh, you’re sinning, this is a problem. And certainly, Arise does the “pray the gay away” thing we are very specifically told that your sexual orientation is a lie from Satan, and you must change. So that’s a really simple example of how—uh-oh, I’m not feeling great about myself now. I now feel terrible, and I’m going to be made to feel terrible as long as I exist in the system being myself.

Pete 

Yeah.

David 

Another really clear thing I found early on is that these internship systems where they’ll bring people in, and they’ll use them as interns and volunteers, and just really work them to the bone, because you know, they’re big productions, these services, you know, a huge visual component. It’s like sitting up for a band to play a gig, it’s a huge production, and they use interns to run everything. And then that becomes problematic as well.

Jared 

Well, and maybe I’ll jump in here with a little bit of my story, too, because I was actually a pastor at, I don’t know if you’d call it a megachurch, we had 3500 members.

Pete

Well, not by New Zealand standards, that’s for sure.

David 

[Laughter]

Jared 

Of course. We had about we had 3500 members.

David

That’s big. It’s a big population.

Jared

Yeah, and I was the pastor of serve, which meant I oversaw all of our volunteer opportunities. And there were two parts of that. There was volunteerism within the church, and then there was volunteering with, you know, outside the church in terms of outreach and things like that. And one of the reasons that we ended up leaving and my wife was very critical of this was the observation that it’s all about getting new people in the door. So, everything is about new people, and recruiting. And then once you’re in, everything falls on you, and everyone gets burned out, they don’t ever have any, like childcare workers because they don’t want, they don’t want to expect any new people to serve. It’s only if you’ve been there for a while. And it became that’s that churn rate you talked about earlier is like, we get you in with all the free gifts, and it’s a bait and switch, once you sign on the dotted line as a member, now you’re expected to give your whole life a way to get new people in. And it almost feels a little bit like a pyramid scheme of sorts.

David 

It very much feels like a pyramid scheme. And, you know, you look at how, you know, something I found fascinating about Arise is this honor culture, and a lot of these megachurches, and everyone is taught to just endlessly honor their leaders. And you’ve got, at Arise, you’ve got John Cameron, the lead pastor, he’s, you know, he walks in there, and he’s a celebrity. People will turn to Him, they admire him. Beautiful green rooms before gigs, only certain people can go in to meet with him. He’s a celebrity in there. And then you’ve got these university students who have a student loan, who have been told to, you know, to do good work and in God’s eyes, you have to, you know, work your ass off and set this service up. And the burnout rate is just incredible in there and there’s such a hierarchy and such a structure that, you know, you get, you know, I’ve talked to, you know, I’ve been reporting on this now for about one and a half months. And, you know, I have literally been out about 600 pages of emails of former interns who are just telling these stories. Because you know, Arise has been around for 20 years now. There’s a lot of them, especially when you consider the churn rate, and they’ve just been ruined. And they just, they didn’t know what happened to them. They just experienced this place that sucked them in, that took everything from them, at some point, actively encouraged them not to pursue further study, and to come and just be involved in church life. Suddenly, you’re cut off from the rest of the world completely, and your other friends and everything, your whole life just is the church. And it’s incredibly hard to leave, you’re incredibly stressed out. And when you ask about the other side, you kind of look around not knowing what the hell happened.

14:45

Jared 

It’s funny that you say that because the things that you’ve been describing: don’t question leaders, you belong until you don’t, isolate you from the rest of the world. You’re just describing cult behavior.

Pete 

Yeah, that was the question I was gonna ask. Yeah.

David 

Yeah, I mean, it’s funny throughout all my writing, I haven’t said cult, because I’m also aware that these churches have a lot of money and I don’t particularly want to get done for defamation. So, I always go with cult-like, because there are some minor differences to an actual cult. But the, you know, it’s all pretty questionable. Like all the things are pointing in that direction. And, you know, when I first started writing about this stuff, I just watched an amazing documentary called The Vow, which is about the NXIVM.

Pete

Oh, gosh, yes.

David 

Sex cults, and I was watching this thing. And it’s I was just thinking, this is the same thing, minus like, the branding and the rampant sex. It’s the same thing of this power structure, this leadership structure, working interns to the bone, giving financially giving everything to this church, and you get trapped in this space. And so the, I was just watching this NXIVM thing going on. No, this is, this is like megachurch. Like, this is what we’re dealing with here. And, you know, it’s what, and like NXIVM, you know, as people tried to get out of that cult, the people left on the inside were just so tied to it, they wouldn’t see how bad it was, you only saw it once you got out the other side, which is what I’ve been trying to do with my reporting is just give voice to those people that have been through it, and are on the other side, and can now speak about what that experience was like.

Pete 

Right. You know, what I have picked up on too is, and you look at these people who are a part of these movements, let’s just call them movements. And how could they be so dumb? But they’re not dumb people.

David  

No.

Pete

They’re actually, many of them are very educated, but they’re looking for someone to give them the answers to tying the complexities of life together, they offer that in some sort of a package. And once you’re in, it’s really hard to let go of that. And you might be more prone to put up with various forms of abuse.

David

I could not agree more with all of that. And you know, the people in these systems aren’t stupid. There’s some incredibly smart people in there. Again, I don’t mean to keep going on about NXIVM, but a lot of people in NXIVM were like really smart, creative, amazing people. And it’s, it’s amazing what they got drawn into.

But, you know, the, you’ve got the leaders in these spaces, they’re all, like to be frank, they’re all extreme narcissists. And that comes with a certain type of behavior and a certain type of being. And when you’ve got these narcissistic leaders leading these places, they’re really good at gaining your favor and your trust, and that’s all they do. And I think it’s really hard. If you’ve never been involved in church at all, or in a religious structure, the idea of how much your whole life and your whole self-worth gets wrapped up in the space. And certainly, with a church like Arise, they’re very cynical about how they worm their way into every aspect of your life, including the database they use to sort of track whether you’re attending services and what you’re doing and what life groups you’ve attended.

Pete 

Really?

David

Oh, yeah. I’ve just written today on Webworm about the system they use called Flocks, which is a very funny name for their database,

Pete

[Uproarious laughter]

David

But they track your attendance.

Pete 

No, it’s okay. Because it’s a Christian name.

David 

Yeah. Because it’s a Christian thing.

Pete

Yeah, You can do whatever you want, you know.

David

For how close you are to God, you know, green through to red.

Pete

[Light laughter]

David

And it’s, I mean, you can’t make some of the stuff up. But yeah, once you’re in, it’s just it’s so hard to leave.

Jared 

Well, I have some thoughts on that. I’m trying to figure out how to get there. But because I think I want to ask the question first, but I do have some thoughts around it. And I want to tie it into this system like Flocks, because again, I can provide some insight because I had a system like that.

David

Yeah, you did it.

Jared 

Of course, it was like, 20 years ago. So, it was a very different system.

Pete 

[In a super incredulous tone] You did that?  Why are we even working together? Jared, you’re crazy.

David

[Light laughter]

Jared 

Everyone deserves a second chance, Pete.

Pete 

Whatever.

Jared 

So, my question is, what do people think they’re doing for God, when they’re in these systems? It’s clear that they’re not, they don’t think that they’re just supporting these narcissistic pastors for their own good. And like, with these pyramid schemes, you think you’re selling a product that you believe in or things. What? What are these? What do people think that they’re doing for God? Like, how do they sell this to people?

David 

Alright, it’s a good question. I mean, you may know the answer far better than I do. But I mean, in my mind, for one thing, they think they are there to honor God. And that is like a ticket to heaven and a ticket to a good life. And they also think that they invest heavily in the church because they all preach prosperity doctrine, that if they give their money to the church, then essentially, God will give back to them. Right? So, just being in there and being present and worshiping. They think they’re given a life in heaven and that their life on earth is going to be like, quite good until they get there.

I think they also see their outreach as being incredibly important, saving other souls.

20:00

David 

Like, a lot of those members, they see new people coming in the door signing up. Holy shit, they’ve just literally rescued them from an infinity in the fiery pits of hell. And they’ve inserted them into, you know, a golden ticket to heaven. That’s, they believe that that’s like genuinely the best thing you could ever do for someone. So, getting new people in the door, and putting on the best musical performance they can so that they come up to the front of the end and give their lives over to God, and feel welcome. That’s a huge motivator, I think. And the idea that, you know, potentially all they’re doing is being fleeced and being sucked into a system won’t even cross their minds. Right?

Jared 

Right. Right. Well, that’s and that’s what I had been thinking is I’ve been trying to think through this week, as we were getting ready to talk to you of what, what is it that people think that they’re doing? And because I was wondering is like, there’s certain verses from the Bible that keeps coming up that you use and utilize, but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s actually deeper, where the entire system, so the brand is equated with the gospel, or the brand is equated with God/Jesus. And then you can just do whatever you want.

David 

Yeah, it’s all the brand. And I mean, I’m not a scholar by any…a lot of your guests know so much. But just looking at some of the sermons on YouTube that John Cameron and other pastors are, it’s just they’re in loops. Like this, they cherry-pick certain verses out of nowhere. And the messaging over the years is just the same stuff. Like it’s so the idea that it’s sort of biblical is just so farcical because they’re just picking like a few Greatest Hits.

Jared 

So, they have like, three themes that reinforce the system, and then they just find different ways to package that.

Pete 

Right.

David 

Oh, completely. And it’s, I mean, it’s this place. I mean, we haven’t even gotten to the really insidious stuff. Like this word I kept coming across when I was talking to former members and interns and volunteers and staff is this idea of uplining. And you know, what happens is, if you’re a young person who realizes their whole, you know, their whole ticket to Heaven is sort of based around their moral purity and how good they are, then, you know, if something bad happens to them, or they’re ill, they feel they’ve sinned, then they’ll go to their life group leader, and they’ll tell them. What they don’t realize is that that information is uplined. So, it goes to the leader on top of them, the leader on top of them, suddenly, a lot of people know about this deeply personal thing you’ve told to one person at that church who you admire.

So, I heard stories of people that had been sexually assaulted and raped, they would go and tell this incredibly, sometimes criminal information to a leader. Suddenly, a lot of people know about the information. And they immediately, often made to feel incredibly guilty about that thing that had nothing to do with them. And suddenly, the only way that they can morally get back on track is to repent and to get deeper into the church and the level of guilt they feel in judgment from people because of this process of uplining. I mean, privacy be damned, that, you know, the church could not care less. But that’s just an example of a system they have in place this idea called uplining, that does keep people in line and trapped in the system for years.

You know, I spoke to one woman who had spent, she had been there since the church was formed. She’d been there nearly two decades, and she sees those two decades as being time in a vortex of just…and she just can’t believe it happened to her. You know, it’s not people being sucked into this thing for six months, you’ve got people emerging, you know, from decades in the place.

Pete 

Yeah, I mean, it’s like, you come in the door, because they’ve, you’ve been sold something. You’re in deep, deep, deep trouble with God. And we have the solution to that. And plus, we’re fun to be around. We’ve got great music, we’ve got light shows. I actually spoke in a place once where they had like a fog machine, which was really cool. I could get used to that, Jared.

Jared 

Do you want one here in the studio?

Pete

[Laughter] Yeah, just do it now.

But the thing is that, you know, that perpetuates itself. Because as you go through and real life hits you, and you maybe think things are not part of the system, or you are something that’s not part of the system, and you sort of tell that to people. That’s just another thing to use to say that’s the problem, and we still have the solution to that. You can never get out. I mean, that’s why I think for people who actually leave that, I know people who have left conservative churches that are not cultish. And it takes them years and years and years to get those voices out of their heads. Something like this, where… I mean, I don’t know what the people’s motives are who run this. I really don’t.

25:00

David 

I keep questioning that. I mean, I keep questioning their motives, you know, I look at John Cameron and I go, look, is his motivation saving people from the eternal pits of hell or is his motivation to feel really good about himself and to have a nice house and a nice car and to sort of see this empire he’s running?

Jared 

I wonder if it evolves over time, too, where it begins in a good place. And then as it snowballs, you lose sight.

Pete 

Because you have so many fringe benefits there. You got a lot of nice stuff, you know?

David 

Completely. And I mean, I when I left, you know, as I said, I’m agnostic now. When I left my belief system, I mean, I left because I found out I was bisexual, right? So that, for me, was a soul crushing moment, where everyone around me was suddenly saying essentially, you, sinner, you’re evil… My whole life change very quickly. And when that system, when I realized that—uh-oh, I don’t fit in the system anymore. And you think, oh, I want to leave, I just remember years of trying to come up with like little hacks where I could keep my faith and keep my place in heaven, but still kind of be myself, but maybe not be a sinner. And yet, when you extract yourself, it’s really fucking hard to do. And it’s, an issue being in that system, it’s really hard to explain to someone. And you know, I still to this day, I’m 39. And it’s still a little part in my brain that is worried that maybe Hell’s real and I’m going there. That will never leave because it was drilled into me when I was, before I could think, literally. So yeah, leaving these places, and I was in a very loose form of Christianity. So, if you’re, if you’re in a really intense form of Christianity, plus you’re financially tied up to it, because you’ve given so much of your money there. It’s just I have huge admiration for anyone that manages to get out.

Jared 

Yeah. One thing else I was just thinking of too, as I wonder, and this is an unformed thought, so it may not hold water. But I know, in my experience, in a lot of these places, it also could, it’s simply lack of best practices and figuring out how to do things right. So, for instance, like leadership, it’s this whole cottage industry, within larger churches of like Christian leadership, where they have conferences and have a lot of books and things like that. But they’re not getting that information necessarily from researchers in management schools. They’re getting it from other Christians who have led large churches. And so, you end up with these somewhat toxic, like toxic practices. Because, and I think it is coming to, Pete, what made me think of it was what you said earlier. It comes from this biblicistic idea where everything we need to do to lead organizations or to do anything well is already in our hands in the Bible. So, if it’s in, like, we just need the Bible. If we just read the Bible, well, we would be great, you know, lead pastors of 10,000 people. And that just I think, is toxic, because it actually doesn’t work. And then you end up with things like uplining, which might feel like a good practice in an organization if you don’t, if you’re not trained.

David 

It’s the governance that or lack thereof is problematic. I mean, the main problem at all these megachurches is you’ve got these narcissists at the top that rule everything. And just looking at John Cameron, that the pastor I’ve been talking about, if it was, if he was leading any business, he would have resigned, like, but he’s sticking in there. And there was an internal memo circulated amongst leaders in this church saying, “Oh, no, once this external review is complete, which is the church’s carrying out, John will be back to lead. He’s the one that needs to carry out all these changes.” And when clearly, he’s the last person imaginable that needs to carry out all these changes.

Pete 

Where do you get this idea from? He’s the one to do this. Anyway. Yeah.

David 

It’s mad. Because he’s been successful! He took this model that Brian Houston set up and he’s grown a church to 10,000. It’s the biggest church in New Zealand. For him, that is success. Who else could do that? You know, who else would be capable of such a feat? That’s what he’ll be thinking.

Pete 

And of course, we’re defining success in certain ways. But you know, before earlier, David, you use the word, we haven’t even gotten to like some of the insidious stuff.

David 

We haven’t.

Pete 

Well, we have a few minutes left. I would like to do this and here’s why. Because I think there are people listening to this, who might need their experiences validated somehow.

David

Yeah.

Pete 

So, I think, you know, people have lived through a lot of things. And we have a very, I think, a diverse listening audience. And it’s not about dirt and you know, say what you want to say about whatever. But what are some of those more insidious places? Where’s the deep, dark underbelly where this sort of thing goes?

29:55

David 

Oh, I mean, the things that really stood out to me in my reporting of this church were young people coming to their leaders with stories of sexual assault and rape, and essentially being told those allegations being swept under the rug, and then them being made to feel incredibly guilty about that. So certain situations where I believe things should have been taken to the police, they were literally hashed up. And you know, some of the people involved in the assaults were church members. So that’s highly problematic. But the other thing that I found really troubling was that we had stories of, you know, the leader John Cameron, you know, verbally and physically. Have to couch my language carefully, again, because of the litigious nature these places. You know, John Cameron would physically grab people by the collar and scream at them if they missed a cue. So, there was physical connections there, which were troubling in a workplace. And then, you know, I would describe it and it doesn’t do it credit, but it’s this lad culture, which is, I think, a very Australian and New Zealand way of terming things where it’s like laddish, like boys will be boys. And what that led to was some of these church tours which Arise will take around the country, you know, there would be punching and dead legs. And at one point, Brent who is Cameron, John Cameron’s brother, who was high up in the hierarchy, would show his genitals and chase after other staff at the church.

You know, that that sort of stuff led to one person having a mental breakdown. You know, his genitals are exposed to him, and that was now a running joke for years, you know, we’ll always have that city so and so was the catchphrase that would always be repeated in public. And it’s this laddish bullying culture that is so deeply embedded in this church that I found really all fall in, it was just a really physical manifestation of the power structures that are deeply at play in these places. And you know, when you’re a young person who is figuring out the world, and you know, you’re young, and you’re experimenting, and you’re trying to figure out who you are, these places, I could not think of a worse place to be to make you feel mentally unwell. It’s, you know, they promised the answers, but all they give you is like guilt and a dead leg and sometimes flashing of someone’s genitals. It’s pretty weird.

Jared 

Yeah, it’s the sense that you have the sense again, that you have the answer. And so you must be mature and wise and have all this experience. And you’re seen in that way, when in fact, it’s not the case.

Pete 

They’re 14 years old, right?

Jared 

Pretty much, yeah. But can I ask about, as we as we get to the end, I did want to talk a little bit about maybe some solutions for how we can create better systems and you talked about this earlier. And it’s true in my experiences over the years as well, in churches like this, where there’s this fake governance. So again, we want to pair it the real world. So, we have a board, but it’s really just church members who give a lot of money or have said really nice things about the pastor.

David 

Oh, I mean, the structure, Arise was mad. I mean, when I started reporting this, there was a huge deal that John Cameron, the pastor had, you know, left the board and resigned or stepped down. What I found out was that he hadn’t resigned from the church, stepping, it wasn’t stepping down, he had stepped aside. And then as far as the board went, the way that the rules were set up, even though he wasn’t on the board anymore, he still had full approval, as John Cameron, about who got on the board. So, it’s so intrinsically cooked, that the idea of the board being somehow… And they’ve since, since I reported that, have been, changed that rule again. So, they are making changes, which is what needs to happen. There needs to be outside minds involved that can like look at the stuff objectively. When you’ve got 10,000 people under your control of essentially one person and his wife, then that’s a lot of people and a lot of young people to look out for. It’s a lot of responsibility. And, and one person can’t do that. John Cameron can’t do that. There needs to be objective other players involved, that understand how Christianity works, and how this works as a business, who can keep an eye on things and call people out.

And again, like as long as John Cameron stays in control of the space, I would argue very little will change because it’s all about him. And it’s not about the members, he could not care less about them. So, I, look, I again, this isn’t my area of expertise. I don’t know what that looks like what that governance structure looks like. But it needs to be much more transparent and much clearer and everything about this church needs to be really pulled apart and put together again.

Pete 

And maybe we don’t need 10,000-member churches.

34:53

David 

Maybe not! And I should say this, because a lot of people in my reporting have accused me of sort of being anti-Christian and, and all sorts and I’m really not. Like, if anything, reporting on this has made me remember, like, whoever you think and believe Jesus was like, he was like a revolutionary, he had incredible ideas. He was kind, he was great. And when I look at what these megachurches are, they’re not that, like they’re not, in my opinion, biblical, it’s a different thing. So, yeah, I have very little beef with Christianity, I certainly don’t have any beef with Jesus. It’s what the systems have become that something else, in my opinion, it’s something else entirely.

Jared 

Maybe this is an unanswerable question. But I’m curious, how do we go from the Jesus we find and in the Bible, or even other these other iterations of Christianity throughout history, and then get to, because in my experience, these churches not only do find themselves being, they think they are biblical, they think they are following after Jesus, then not only that, but then in one of the most developed ways, like they’re not even just doing it, they’re doing it the best that you could do it? How? Like, I don’t know, do you have any, if you run across anyone who could explain how they got there?

David 

How we got to that point?

Jared 

Yeah, just how you get to this system? And someone being like, yeah, when I look at the Jesus of the Bible, like, this is exactly what I see.

David 

Oh look, I don’t know. I think you have some very people getting into these positions of power leading these churches who are literally they are narcissists. It’s a condition of their brain, they’re wired in a certain way. And I think when you have those people that cottoned on to these religious beliefs, and they also have, they’re driven by their image and their ego and their possessions, I just think that’s an incredibly dangerous… It’s an incredibly dangerous combo. And it’s how we’ve gotten to this point.

You know, as I say, Brian Houston has a lot to answer for, I think that Hillsong model proved to a place like New Zealand because Brian was spent a lot of time in New Zealand. They all copy that model. And it’s a model that again, it works. It’s a business, it’s much more business then Christian. And I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know whether these churches can survive in their current state and be and not have casualties because I almost think that their current makeup, they would not exist without creating trauma and people. And sure, somebody will have a great time. But I think what, as long as they exist in the structure, there’s people that are going to be utterly messed up by the system.

Jared 

Is there a cultural component to this as well, where I think, I can, I’m just thinking we have a lot of maybe, say, Jewish guests, and I think of, you know, I don’t remember what like the culture map of different cultures that are more…

Pete 

I don’t think that there are Jewish mega-synagogues.

Jared 

Yeah, exactly. Where there’s this like sense of like, you’re not gonna probably convince a bunch of like, yeah, you’re just, there’s a sense in which are certain cultures might be more prone to or susceptible to like a celebrity type culture.

David 

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, all the, I don’t know, I don’t, again, I’m not an expert on this. I mean, all the leaders I’ve written about it, these megachurches, drawing people in, fairly affluent white people, you know, this like, and they are seen as being, you know, I think it’s another example of colonialism and the white man coming into another culture and going, “Hey, this is what we’re, this is the truth. This is how you get to heaven come to us.” And, you know, it’s very complex, obviously, but I think there is something in that, that the leaders are generally white and wealthy. And yeah, I mean, there’s much bigger conversations, obviously, around colonization and Christianity and bringing that particular religion to whoever the original custodians of the land were, you know, that’s a whole other conversation.

Pete 

Right, right. You know, and the thing about you mentioned about narcissism, I do think that’s a component of this. And maybe another rule is don’t have a narcissist as a leader, but you know, they tend to be in positions of leadership, because they’re good at it. Right?

But, you know, and then you develop this church model, which is pretty much who you are, is what everybody needs. And so, it would breed maybe these larger churches, rather than… I mean, I, someone I know who’s a spiritual mentor of sorts. His name is David Benner, but he was once asked to come to a megachurch. He didn’t tell anybody what the name of the church was, but they said, “Hey, listen, a lot of our people are into contemplative stuff. Can you help us develop like a contemplative wing of our church, so we can do that too?” And he says, because a lot of people are leaving our church and David says, “Well, why don’t you just let them leave? Maybe your church does something good for some people, but maybe it doesn’t have to do everything good for everybody.”

40:00

Pete

It’s like, they didn’t even know what to do with that. That was inconceivable to them that we’re not the eschaton here. We haven’t reached this eschatological moment where our church is the one that has the answer.

David 

That’s the dream, right? I think in these megachurches minds, they are their church. And ideally, they want the entirety of their country to be a member and for other churches to not exist, I think that is their happy place. And some of the recruitment, you know, I’ve heard stories and with other megachurches in New Zealand, you know, church members go into university campuses and say, you know, “Do you want to come on to this event?” Or you know, “ Are you a Christian?” And they’re not just looking for people that say, we’re not a Christian, come to this thing. They’re targeting people who say, we are a Christian, but they’re the wrong type of Christian. And they will tell them why they’re wrong. And they’ll say, “No, come to us. We’ve got the answers.” And I think the second you’ve got a man saying, we have the answer, and it’s removed from even, you know, Jesus, or any religious leader, it’s like, just step away. Like, don’t go there. It’s not going to be good.

Pete

Yeah.

Jared 

One of my favorite stories when I was a pastor was, we had a gay couple, and they wanted to be baptized first. And so, and actually, we all got together and decided, yeah, that we can baptize them. That’s fine. And then they said, well, now they want to be members of our church. And in my mind, like, that’s a no brainer, like, of course, if you baptize them. So, but everyone said, “No, they can’t be members.” And I’m like, so wait. They can be a part of God’s family, but not ours?!

Pete

Exactly. [Laughter]

Jared

So then, the best part was, we’re sitting around like a leadership team and our technical director is not actually a pastor, but he was high up in the organization, so he was in this meeting. He just had this like, flash of brilliance. And he was like, “Oh, my gosh, lightbulb moment. There’s a church right down the road that’s affirming. Why don’t we establish a partnership with them? And whenever gay people come to our church, we send them there to be members there. Because then they can be affirming, they can be a part, we just have this joint partnership.” And you would have thought he had grown like a second head the way everyone just stared at him, like, why would we? And it just brought out the prejudice and the bias, which is what you’re saying. Like, well, actually, when we’re actually honest and upfront about it, we actually think they’re just as wrong probably as atheists about this thing.

David

Completely.


Jared

And so, I just felt so bad for him.

David 

I mean, I love and I hate that story and its various elements. But you what you just said, I mean, that’s the other thing about these institutions. They’re incredibly dishonest. I mean, a very small part of this bigger story that I was just personally interested in was their attitudes towards gay conversion therapy, which was something that has been banned in New Zealand recently through Parliament. And, you know, I got emails, internal email sent between the church that, you know, sorry, it’s being sent externally saying, “No, we do not practice gay conversion therapy. It’s not a thing. It’s not something we’re worried about.” So that’s their public image. But internally, what they will be doing to young people is literally handing them a little prayer tract, and getting them to pray the gay away and telling them that this is absolutely sinful and awful. This is gay conversion therapy, you know. And so, there’s this incredible dishonesty with what they’re putting out into the world and what they’re actually doing to young people. And I find that pretty abhorrent. And just to be honest, like just pretty unchristian. That’s kind of what it comes down to.

Pete

Yeah.

Jared 

Yeah. Well, David, thank you so much for sharing the work that you’ve been doing, and what can, where can people find, if they want to follow your writings on this? Because I know you’re coming out with new stuff all the time around these churches. Where can people find that?

David 

Yeah, look, best place is webworm.co. Not .com, I couldn’t afford to get a.com. So, it’s web worm.co. And it’s a subscription service. But all my coverage of megachurches and other things I write about that I deem important. It’s all free to read. There’s nothing behind a paywall. So, you’re welcome to jump in there and have a look.

Jared 

Excellent. Thanks so much, David, for jumping on. Appreciate it.

Pete

Thank you.

David 

No, thanks for having me.

[Music begins, plays in background]

Stephanie

Well, that’s it for this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout-out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you’d like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to 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. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

45:04

Dave

Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Director, Savannah Locke; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[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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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.