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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Interview with Tom Oord: The Uncontrolling Love of God

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Tom Oord about the things God can and cannot do and how that affects our view of the Bible and salvation as they explore the following questions:

  • Why did monotheism create the problem of evil?
  • Why does the problem of evil matter?
  • Can God be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving at the same time?
  • Are there genuine evils in the world or is suffering and pain part of God’s mysterious plan?
  • Does the Bible have a consistent theology on God’s character?
  • What discoveries did Tom Oord make when he looked at what the Bible said about God’s power?
  • Are words like “revelation” and “inspiration” helpful for talking about the Bible?
  • How do the ways we view God impact the way we read the Bible?
  • Can God communicate to humans in an infallible way?
  • What do we lose if we come to think God does not have control?
  • How does our concept of love get shaped by the concept of justice?
  • Why did Jesus die?
  • What is kenosis

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Tom Oord you can share. 

  • “Since I think love is inherently uncontrolling, this revelation and inspiration [of the Bible] can’t be controlling.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “God really needs our cooperation if love is to win. God really needs our cooperation to overcome evil. ” @ThomasJayOord
  • “God doesn’t need us for God to exist… but in order for God to get the kind of outcomes, consequences, results that God wants and given that those results are always framed in terms of love, God really needs our loving cooperation.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “I go so far as to say God simply couldn’t have given a clear message because to do so God would have to control the message and the messengers and I don’t think God can control.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “We as individuals and in society are consistently learning what love requires given where we are at in our time.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “What is loving is partly contingent on the context and who’s involved, you know? Maybe it is the case in some contexts that acting in some ways is loving but other ways is not.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “If God can’t deny God’s own self, and God is love, God must love. And maybe this love is self-giving, others-empowering, uncontrolling. That might then become a clue on how we might rethink God’s power in light of God’s love.” @ThomasJayOord
  • “I still think God’s powerful, I just don’t think that God has the kind of controlling or single-handed determination that many people have thought God has.” @ThomasJayOord

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

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:  Hey!  Welcome normal people to this episode of the Bible for Normal People.  Our topic today is “are there things God can’t do?” and our guest is…Jared.

Jared:  Tom Oord, otherwise known as Thomas Jay Oord.

Pete:  And that’s J-A-Y Oord.

Jared:  Yes.  Who was a professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University and said some things that we’ll talk about that are a little bit different from what you would typically hear.  He wrote some of this—we asked the question, “Are there things God can’t do?”  Tom Oord wrote a book called God Can’t.  (laughter). Spoiler alert—

Pete:  There’s—(laughter). There’s your answer—

Jared:  And another one that’s a little more descriptive, at least the title, The Uncontrolling Love of God.  We talk a little bit about how our views of God impact how we read the Bible, especially in the ways that Tom has developed his view of God, and, of course, relying on years and years of Christian tradition and history.  He’s not making this stuff up out of nowhere.

Pete:  Right.  And just living through maybe some frustration or crisis of faith earlier in his life about thinking through what God is like and how the Bible—how it’s oftentimes understood—doesn’t really help and maybe some reasons people give for why God does certain things in the Bible.

He didn’t find those things very satisfying.  He just went in another direction and he said, “Maybe there are some things that God just can’t do.  Not that he won’t.”

Jared:  Right.

Pete:  That God—and I shouldn’t say he—but that God can’t do.  That can raise hackles, right Jared, because we think about God as being powerful and all-powerful.  How can an all-powerful being not be able to do things—

Jared:  Evil.  Yeah.

Pete:  He’ll get to that.  But maybe there’s something about God that’s more fundamental than a god of power and sovereignty and that kind of thing, so—

Jared:  And I really appreciated—this could have been a hairy episode in terms a lot of weighty concepts and a lot of things that I feel like Tom navigated really well in terms of being able to articulate it for every-day people.  I think you and I fall in that camp of “this isn’t necessarily our world either.” 

Pete:  One term he said, “kenosis,” a couple of times and that’s—

Jared:  Yeah.  That’s good.

Pete:  Maybe just if people aren’t familiar with that.  It’s a Greek word.  It comes from Philippians Chapter 2 where Jesus “emptied himself,” so to speak, of His divine prerogative and didn’t take advantage of it.  That word “kenosis” refers to that.  There are theologians who talk a lot about God’s kenosis and emptying Himself—

Jared:  Or kenotic.  You might hear it that way—

Pete:  Kenotic.  The adjective.  That’s what he means by that when we get to that.

Jared:  Yup.

Pete:  So.

Jared:  All right.  Let’s let him get to that—

Pete:  Let’s let him get to that—

Jared:  Here’s—

Pete:  I can’t.

Jared:  Are there things God can’t do? (laughter)

[Jaunty Music]

Tom:  It’s not just that God is inviting us to participate, inviting us to contribute, but God just could get the job done single-handedly without us if we decide not to cooperate.  I’m saying God really needs our cooperation if love is to win.  God really needs our cooperation to overcome evil.  That’s gonna feel strange to a lot of people because they kind of like a god who could fix things single-handedly even if we don’t cooperate.

[Jaunty Music Ends]

Pete:  Hey Tom.  Welcome to the podcast.

Tom:  Hey.  It’s my pleasure to have this conversation with you guys.

Pete:  Yeah.  Great to have you here.  Well, listen.  Tom, why don’t you just take a couple minutes and introduce yourself to our listeners and a little bit of your spiritual biography and your career and even how you got interested in theology.

Tom:  (laughter)

Pete:  Most people want to do biblical studies, but when they can’t hack it, they do theology (laughter).  That’s the way I look at it.

Tom:  Well, I got to s—

Pete:  Jared’s told me not to insult my guests.  (laughter)  I shouldn’t do that.  I’m sorry.

Tom:  Well, I got to say I’ve been thinking about God stuff since I was a little kid in church and Sunday School and wrestling with the big questions.  Although, the questions when I was younger are a little different than they are today.

But I was one of those people who took theology seriously.  I was an evangelist.  I went in this thing really hardcore trying to convert people, get them into heaven, that sort of thing.  Then, I went through a crisis of faith in college and was an atheist for a short period of time, because the reasons I had for believing that there was a god and evangelizing about that god, those reasons no longer made sense to me.

I returned to faith based primarily on two things:  one, this search for meaning that I was engaged in; secondly, these fundamental intuitions that I ought to be a loving person and that other people ought to love and the view that there must be some kind of source for these intuitions.  And that source, most people call God.

05:04

For a while, I believed in a loving god.  I thought Jesus was pretty cool.  That was about the extent of my theology.  But over time, I developed various views and developed a kind of theology that eventually led me to grad school to get a PhD, to begin teaching philosophy and theology and I did so for a couple of institutions.

Not too long ago, I was forced out of my institution for having, we might say, too progressive of a theology for the President’s liking.

Pete:  Okay.  Well, we’ll probably get to that.  Some of the ideas that you have in your book.  Just, very briefly, since you mentioned it, you said you had a crisis of faith in college.  Again, a lot of our listeners have passed, including myself and Jared, through these things too.  What generated that for you in college?

Tom:  I was hard-core into evangelism.  I did a lot of studying of the Bible and studying of arguments.  But I took this philosophy/religion course and for the first time, I read things from really smart atheists, agnostics, those from other religious traditions.  It was really for the sake of intellectual honesty that I stopped believing in God.  It wasn’t like I was mad at the church or some youth pastor abused me or whatever.  It wasn’t some rebellion.  It was really an intellectual question and one that I kept at, which eventually brought me back to believing it was more plausible than not that there is a god.  I’m not certain there is a god.  I live my life based on this plausibility that there is a god of love.

Pete:  Coming back to a different kind of god?  Is that fair to say?

Tom:  I think so.  Yeah.  It wasn’t like I didn’t think God was loving before, but I did start rethinking some of my key views about God and I’m sure we’ll get into some of those as this interview goes on.

Jared:  Yeah.  I maybe just want to jump into the deep end with that a little bit, because Pete’s been saying, “recently,” and I would agree with this, that we keep talking about the Bible and it seems as though many of these conversations when we talk about how to read the Bible really hinge on this question of “what is God like?”  and that tends to impact how we come to the Bible. 

It sounds like you’ve gone through some shifts about what God is like.  Some of your books and writings and a lot of what you talk about has this perspective on God that maybe our listeners haven’t heard much about before.  Can you talk about some of those key elements or shifts for you about what God is like and how that’s impacted how you practice your faith?

Tom:  Sure.  Let me address three issues pretty quickly.  One, I used to believe the Bible had absolutely no errors because God is sovereign and God would make sure that we had a revelation of who God is that was error-free. 

Then, I actually read the Bible.  (laughter)  Turns out there’s lots of inconsistencies at least, if not outright errors.  That made me question how I should interpret the Bible, what kind of role it should play. 

Eventually, it made me change my view of God’s activity, God’s power even in the world.

Secondly, I started wrestling with questions of creaturely freedom and God’s knowledge.  So, this idea that if God could somehow know the future with absolute certainty, then how am I free to actually choose to do other than what God already knows is in the case.  There seemed to be an incompatibility in my way of thinking between what we might call “exhaustive divine foreknowledge” and my free will.

The third big thing and the one that I’ve been working on in the last few books is the problem of evil.  If there is a perfectly loving God who is incredibly powerful, then why wouldn’t this God prevent the genuine evils in my life, the lives of my friends and family and the lives even of those who don’t like me (laughter) more broadly.  Why wouldn’t this God prevent those evils?

I eventually came to believe I had to rethink God’s power.

Pete:  Rethink God’s power.  Okay.  Yeah.  Gee.  That’s interesting.  The problem of evil’s been around before the Bible.  (laughter)—

Tom:  Yeah.  (laughter)

Pete:  The ancient Babylonians wrote about this too—

Tom:  Since there was evil.  It was a problem—

Pete:  Ever since there was evil—  (laughter)  When you introduce a divine being into that—that is the problem.  That’s why you have this problem of evil.

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  I remember hearing someone say a while back that when you have a pantheon of gods, when you have many gods, you can sort of chalk evil up to the gods are warring with each other—

10:03


Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  But once you have monotheism (laughter), that’s when you have a bigger problem, because why would an all-mighty and all-loving god blah blah blah and all that kind of stuff so.

Tom:  Yeah.  You know, there’s a—I’m sure many of your listeners know the New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, who wrote a book about ten years ago.  I think the title of the book is God’s Problem.  In this particular book, he goes through the various approaches to evil and scripture and concludes that the Bible really doesn’t give a precise answer to this big question and even is very biographical in saying that, for him, personally, this was the reason why he could—he’s either agnostic or atheist, but he’s not the theist that he was when he was younger.

I look at the Bible and see those same stories and see those same kinds of issues that Bart brings up.  But I’ve carved a different kind of answer than the kind of answer or quasi-solution that others have suggested that I think is actually aligned with Scripture, if interpreted or read in a particular kind of way.

Jared:  Before we do that, I want to back up.  I want to make sure everyone is understanding we’ve kind of throw out some philosophical concepts and I think—

Tom:  Sure.

Jared:  –there’s a loaded term in the problem, the problem of evil, which would be—you can even pile on, but traditionally, it would have been three things:  an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God and given the reality of evil, it seems improbably that we could have all three of those things.  The powerful, the knowing and the loving. 

Usually, in our response to this or a theologian’s—I think of Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, who kind of popularized this—

Tom:  Yeah.  Yeah.

Jared:  We’re usually kind of taking out one of those things and saying, “Maybe this is the response.”  Is there anything else you would say to set up what the problem of evil is and why it matters?

Tom:  I think you’ve identified it pretty well.  I think the other element of this that you’re assuming is when you look at the answers given by theists of various religions, but especially Christians, is the question of evil itself.  Are there genuine evils in the world or is everything that is painful, all suffering, actually a part of some mysterious divine plan meant for some greater purpose, meant to teach us a lesson, meant as punishment, meant as something that means that these painful events aren’t really genuinely evil from God’s perspective, just pretty difficult for us in our limited perspective.

Pete:  Boy.  That raises a lot of questions (laughter).  The problem of evil—I’d like to get into how you are approaching that and how you are handling Biblical texts.  Can you give us an example of how something in the Bible that you might read a little bit differently than a Bart Ehrman would read it?  That might get us into thinking about the Bible a little bit differently than maybe we’re used to.  Can you give an example?

Tom:  Sure.  Let me start generally and then I’ll go to an example.

Pete:  Okay.

Tom:  When I look at the Bible, I don’t think of the Bible as a systematic theology that’s coherent through and through.  I think of the Bible of a collection of writings, narratives, poetry, etc. that sometimes is in conflict internally.  But I see over and over again themes about divine love and God’s call for us to love.  We might say that love is, to use the language of John Wesley, the whole tenor and scope of Scripture.  In other words, it’s kind of the main theme. 

I think it’s especially witnessed to in Jesus Christ.  So, when I come across stories—let’s say in the Psalms when the Israelites believe God wants them to bash the babies’ heads against the rocks.  I don’t look at that and say, “You know, that’s really a loving thing from God’s perspective.”  I look at it and say, “Nope.  That isn’t loving and those folks who thought God wanted them to do such dastardly deeds simply get God wrong.”

I’m wiling to say some images and stories about God in Scripture are incorrect and I do that based upon a broader view of Scripture which says that I think the majority of passages or the broad scope of Scripture points to a God of love who calls us to love, who is most perfectly revealed in Jesus, who loves also. 

I’m willing to jettison, or at least think some stories and some ideas in Scripture are incorrect.

15:05

Pete:  Before we get now into maybe some more specifics, because you raised something, I just know the question people are asking and maybe you can riff a little bit on whether you think words like revelation or inspiration are worthwhile for talking about Scripture.  If Biblical writers get things wrong (by the way, I’ve said similar things so I’ve had)—

Tom:  (laughter)  Yes.

Pete:  By the way, you’re helping me answer the question.  (laughter)  How do you articulate those things or do you want to redefine those things or just think of different categories entirely?

Tom:  I like the words revelation and inspiration.  I think God inspired the Biblical writers and there’s a revelation of who God is in Scripture.  But often tied to those words is a particular view of God’s power which assumes that if God wanted to, God could give a crystal clear, unambiguous message that would be free from error in any sense.

In other words, a particular view of divine sovereignty that I reject.  When I use those terms, I mean them seriously, but I’m rejecting the idea that inspiration means that God controlled the process entirely to make sure that whatever we find on the text, which, of course, as you know, there’s lots of texts.  It’s not just one.

Whatever we find there isn’t necessarily exactly what God wanted.

Pete:  Okay.  I think you’re putting your finger on something that I’ve heard too, that a lot of notions of the Bible being inspired or revealed by God, it is sort of God is up there and the sovereign God—

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  –is dictating these things will be written.

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  Am I overstating or missing your point when I say that maybe you’re folding terms like inspiration and revelation into this over-arching theme of Scripture which is the love of God?

Tom:  Yeah.  That’s a nice way to put it—

Pete:  Okay.  Okay.

Tom:  Since I think love is inherently uncontrolling, this revelation and inspiration can’t be controlling.

Pete:  Wow.  All right. 

Jared:  I think that just illustrates the point beautifully we were making earlier where the Bible is impacted by what we think God is like.  So, if God is—

Pete:  Yes.

Jared: –inherently uncontrolling, then whatever mean by revelation and inspiration needs to have that view in mind as well.

Tom:  That’s right.  I even go further on this revelation and inspiration issue to distinguish my view from some other views you’ve probably heard, other views which say, “God could have given a perfect message and made sure it was put on paper and transmitted throughout the generations.  God could have done that, but God accommodated to the people in their time.  They didn’t know any better and God decided, ‘Well, I’m not going to fix this.’” 

Those kinds of views typically assume that God has the kind of power to give an inerrant message about who God is, but God decided for whatever reason not to give that clear message and accommodated to their ignorance or their views of the time.

I go so far as to say God simply couldn’t have given a clear message because to do so, God would have to control the message and the messengers.  I don’t think God can control.

Pete:  All right.  So, God can’t do things.  Thanks for being our guest today, Tom (laughter).  I think we’re done with this episode.

Jared:  We have our tweetable quote.

Pete:  I’m watching our graph go down in terms of people—(laughter)  I’m just kidding.  Obviously, I think I get what you’re saying.  Flesh that out a little bit more, that God—

Tom:  Sure.

Pete:  –God can’t communicate in an infallible way.  Is that what you’re saying—

Tom:  Yeah.  I am.

Pete:  Okay.

Tom:  I am saying that—

Pete:  Flesh that out a little bit more.

Tom:  I think that God is constantly communicating.  God is constantly acting, calling, inspiring, empowering.  This is not a God of deism.  This is a God who is always active all the time and always communicating.  But, I don’t think this communication is single-handedly imposed upon the world and that God has the kind of capacities to make sure we get it right every time. 

There’s always some kind of creaturely cooperation that’s necessary and even when cooperation is there, that doesn’t guarantee that humans get everything perfect.

Pete:  So, this is all relational.  Okay—

Tom:  Yes.  To the core.

Jared:  Yeah.  Yeah—

Pete:  Which is love.

Jared:  Yeah.

Tom:  Yes.  And—

Pete:  You’re sort of blowing my mind here, Tom.  But that’s all right—

Tom:  No.  (laughter)  In some ways, this shouldn’t be too shocking to your listeners, because if they grant that the Bible at least has inconsistencies, if not contradictions, and if they also still want to think that God had something to do with it, then they have to ask the question, “well, why wouldn’t a loving and powerful God make sure we got it right?”  (laughter)  “and make sure there were no inconsistencies?”  I’m saying, “Maybe we need to give up on the idea that God can control in that kind of way.”

20:21

Jared:  I think the flipside, and I wonder here what some people you’ve interacted with have said and how you’ve responded, because in the way I think about it, I’m often thinking of the flip side of power, which we recently in our culture with the politics and other things, we think of power negatively, but the flip side of that is that power can also bring comfort. 

We’re losing by saying that God is uncontrolling as well because if God’s not able to manipulate the situation in my favor and I put my trust in God’s ability to do that, then I feel like I may be floating in what I would call Jean-Paul Sartre, the “terrible freedom” is this sense now that I have to step up and cooperate and collaborate and be active in this process.

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  Do you run into that with people who are not always celebrating this uncontrolling God, but there’s a loss or a grief there too?

Tom:  Yeah.  It was John Calvin who called his view of predestination, “a comforting doctrine.”  I think some people who go through difficulties in their own lives find some comfort in thinking that despite the garbage and the pain and the suffering, that in some mysterious way, God is still in control. 

But lots of other people, and I get letters from these people just about every week, see that same God and say, “That gives me no comfort at all to think that God either caused or even allowed the horrible things that have happened to me and others.” 

There is an interesting issue here in terms of what’s comforting and what’s not to various people.

Jared:  For me, what it does is it helps me practically when I talk to people about the Bible, it’s important to recognize you are an active participant in this process—

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  —and our community of faith are active participants.  I think of “will of God” theology that I would have grown up with where—

Pete:  Right.

Jared:  —our only job, sort of like Indiana Jones with the invisible path, is to throw some dirt on it so that we can kind of see this path that God designed for us, but if we’re not careful, we’re going to miss it.  What I hear you saying is when it comes reading our Scriptures and enacting our faith, it’s a much more participatory process, which does come with some risk, but it’s also empowering.

Tom:  That’s exactly what I’m saying.  I’m even going further than many people would go who are into some kind of relational or participatory theology.  I’m saying it’s not just that God is inviting us to participate, inviting us to contribute, but God could just get the job done without us if we decide not to cooperate.  I’m saying God really needs our cooperation if love is to win.  God really needs our cooperation to overcome evil.  That’s going to feel strange to a lot of people because they kind of like a god who could fix things single-handedly even if we don’t cooperate.

23:35 (Producer’s Group Endorsement)

25:05

Pete:  Let me try to act like a theologian for a second.  (laughter).  Are you saying–  I want to try to understand what you’re saying.  Are you saying that God in God’s essence needs us or that God has set up the universe in such a way that we get to participate?

Tom:  I’m saying that God doesn’t need us for God to exist.  God exists necessarily, to use classical language.  But in order for God to get the kind of outcomes, consequences, results that God wants, and given that those results are always framed in terms of love, God really needs our loving cooperation.

Pete:  Because love involves risk?

Tom:  Yes.

Pete:  For God to love, He— God can’t control us.  Okay—

Tom:  Exactly.  Yeah.

Pete:  Hmm.

Tom:  The way I put it technically is this:  love is inherently uncontrolling and love comes logically first in God’s nature.  Which means that God can’t choose not to love, God can’t choose to control.  It’s God’s very nature to love in an uncontrolling way.

Pete:  Okay—

Jared:  And that’s inherently relational as well, because that’s built into the definition of love—

Tom:  That’s right.  That’s right.  Yeah.  Very relational.

Pete:  I don’t want to get into hyper speed here, but let’s see where this goes (laughter)—

Tom:  Okay.

Pete:  God’s judgment is one that you would feel is ultimately redemptive for all creation?  For all people?  I’m asking the hell question—

Tom:  Yeah.  Oh gotcha.  Okay.—

Pete:  Yeah.  Oh yeah.  That.  (laughter). Right?  Let’s say you need eternal punishment or at least maybe annihilation of creatures, I think people would say doesn’t seem to come from love, but from retribution.

Tom:  That’s right.  So, I don’t believe in the common—I almost said traditional, but I don’t traditional’s the right word—

Pete:  Yeah.  It’s not traditional.

Tom:  The popular view of hell.  I also don’t like the common view of annihilation because I think it presupposes that God gives up on some people, that God says, “Pete—he’s been evil for 80 years (laughter)—there’s no way he’s redeemable so therefore, he’s going to get annihilated.

Jared:  That is a true story.

Pete:  You’ve been talking to people.  (laughter)

Tom:  I think—I actually have a view of this that I call the relentless love eschatology that says that God never gives up in this life or the next.  God never sends people to hell, but there are natural, negative consequences that come from saying no to love, in this life and the next.  It’s not like God’s—it’s not maybe what we would call a classical universalist’s view which says, “Ally, ally, in come free.”  Then everybody goes to heaven even if they don’t want to be there. 

This is a god who always invites, always calls, never gives up, but we always have the free choice, in this life and in the next, to say no to that invitation.

Pete:  That’s not very evangelical.  (laughter).

I’m chuckling too.  I’m thinking of—that’s a different way of picturing God for a lot of people who have been raised in the western evangelical world—

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  Right?  Because this seems to be giving something up of God that’s really cherished.  But I guess you would say you’re not really giving something up as much as gaining something.

Tom:  I think so.  Another way I’d say it is this:  what if we took the steadfast love of God as our primary starting point, the love that is everlasting, the love that never gives up, the love that never forces its own way, all Biblical phrases?  What if we kept that at the very center and thought about theology, including what happens after we die, in light of that idea?  We might come to some kind of view similar to the one I’ve tried to propose here?

Jared:  So, if—I want to come back to this notion that I think comes from the Bible itself around justice.  When we talk about some of these concepts, I keep coming back to how does love and justice interact, when we have the prophets and these notions that God is just.  How does that—because I think that’s one of the questions that comes up for people—it’s all fine and good to talk about love, but how does our concept of love get shaped by the idea of justice?

30:02

Tom:  Yeah.  Justice means many different things and one of the common ways to distinguish between two of the major ways to think about justice is to talk about justice as retribution, which is the divine discipline, God kicking your butt or whatever for doing something wrong—and justice as distributive and reconciling, which is the idea that we want to make sure people have equal access to what’s good and that any kind of negative consequences that come about are consequences that God tries to use to reconcile us in love to a right relationship.

The view I’m proposing rejects the retribution model.  It rejects the idea that God is a divine spanking machine that takes you out to the back woods if you sin, but it doesn’t give up on the notion that there are real, natural, negative consequences for sin, so it isn’t some sort of extreme relativism.  God is just doing nothing and anything we do has no consequences.  I retain that aspect.

Jared:  When you read the Bible—say reading Deuteronomy—there seems to be this retributive sense of “if you do these things, you’re blessed, if you do these things, you’re cursed”—would you say that’s talking about natural consequences or would that be one of those areas where you would say, “they just got God wrong” in that sense?

Tom:  I would say natural consequences.  The vast majority of passages along those lines, I can affirm—I can say, “There’s abundant life to be had when you follow God’s leading to love.”  It doesn’t mean everything turns out rosy all the time, because we also live in a world in which others don’t love and we sometimes reap the natural, negative consequences of their lack of love.

But there is joy, there is abundant life in responding to God’s call to love.  That’s what those passages are speaking of.

Jared: Would they have conceived of love, because it seems like, in the context, the framing of what love is in that context is to follow the covenant—

Pete:  Obey.

Jared:  Those laws.  Which for us—

Pete:  Yeah.

Jared:  —would seem strange.  I don’t think of not wearing mixed cloth clothing as a form of love today.  How does the law and following those covenant commands fit into that?

Tom:  Yeah.  Some of them might be set aside in my scheme.  Probably a better way to think of them is that what is loving is partly contention on the context and whose involved.  Maybe it is the case, in some contexts, that acting in some ways is loving, but other ways is not.  But another context, that changes.

It’s also the case, I think, that we, as individuals and as society, are consistently learning what love requires given where we’re at in our times.  Today, I think a lot of us believe that love requires that we care for the planet in a particular way that would have probably not crossed the minds of most people a hundred years ago.

Pete:  That increased consciousness is a work of the Spirit?

Tom:  I think so.  Yeah.

Pete:  Okay.  Yeah.  Which goes beyond the Bible.

Tom:  It does.  Yeah.  I th—

Pete:  I’m one of those people that doesn’t think that the Bible actually advocates earth care.

Tom:  I think it’s pretty hard to make that argument.

Pete:  Yeah.  But I think it’s right and think God cares that we do that.  I don’t believe you can get that from the Bible—

Jared:  I’m with—

Pete:  Okay.  Why did Jesus die?  Can we get the whole cross thing into this here (laughter)—I’ve got about 75,000 questions right now, but—

Jared:  I’m glad Pete is just lobbing you the softball questions tonight (laughter).

Tom:  That’s actually an issue.  My Christology is one that I’m working on at the time—

Pete:  Yeah.

Tom: —so I don’t have a full answer for you.  I can’t at least say the following:  Christ’s death is a revelation that God is one who suffers.  Christ’s death is a result of rebellion of people who act contrary to God’s call to love. 

I’m not a person who thinks that God predestined and predetermined the death of Jesus before the foundations of the world.  I do, however, think that God had in mind, from all eternity, that we ought to live a life of love.  And God could see that someone who loved perfectly is probably going to meet up with some pretty stiff opposition.

These kinds of things are in my mind as I work through my particular Christology and what the death of Jesus is all about.

Pete:  To push that a little bit—I’m with you that I don’t—I mean, who has Christology worked out?  You know what I mean?  (laughter)  Even things like, why did Jesus die is not…

35:12

Jared:  It doesn’t even seem like Paul has it worked out—

Pete:  Yeah.  That’s not the easiest question to answer—

Tom:  Good point.

Pete:  Something like—and I’m just riffing here—the whole insistence that blood is necessary—might that be the perception on the part of New Testament writers?

Tom:  I think that’s right.  Given—you know the Bible better than I do—given what Old Testament writers are saying, it’s very natural for New Testament writers to have that view in mind.

Pete:  Because of their Jewish tradition, their heritage.  It’s almost like the it’s the only—

Tom:  Exactly.

Pete:  —language they have to describe it.  I can hear the push back already and I would respect the pushback that this has been part of how the Christian story has always been told.  The question then becomes does—there hasn’t been one way the Christian story’s been told about the cross, but basically, blood’s been important.  That raises the issue of whether theology keeps moving and progressing and changing—

Tom:  It does.  I think there’s very strong evidence that it does.  It doesn’t mean that the Bible has changed, although there’s various versions of the Bible and interpretations and all that, but the way we have interpreted the Bible historically has definitely changed.  You’re talking to a guy who’s written a book that says, “God can’t.”  (laughter) That means I’m a person who thinks that there might be some better ways to think about God’s power than at least has been in the majority opinion.

I’m banking on the idea that there are better ways to think about God than maybe have at least dominated in the Christian tradition.

Pete:  Just a quick thought, here, Tom.  Do not go back to evangelism, because you’d really be bad at it.  (laughter) I’m just thinking.  It’s not going to work.  Door-to-door, doing this stuff.  There’s no pamphlet you can give them—

Tom:  Well, you know—

Pete:  There’s no chic tract you can give them.  There’s no pamphlet.  Nothing.  I mean, just—

Tom:  I know you’re joking, but the truth is I get tons of notes from people who say, “Your way of thinking about God allows me to believe in God again.”  It is common.

Pete:  Isn’t that interesting—

Tom:  Yes.

Pete:  The thing is—not to join the party here—but I get those, too, for different reasons and different angles—

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  It sort of terrifies me that—I’m sort of an apologist and an evangelist and I never wanted to be either of those things and so are you—

Tom:  There’s no doubt. 

Pete:  You’re an apologist for a different way of thinking and people are tracking with it.

Jared:  Not to break up the pat on each other’s back—

Pete:  Jared, we’ll be back to you in a minute.  Can you— (laughter)

Jared:  Not to break up the self-applause—

Pete:  The mutual admiration society.  (laughter)

Jared:  I did want to draw us back to what we talked about at the beginning and maybe reframe it, which is to say, when we talk about the Bible, it really can’t happen—how we interpret the Bible is inevitably wrapped up in what we think God is like.  I would just make an extra step that I’m hearing in the theme of this conversation is that we can’t make judgments about what God is like without our own experiences—

Pete:  Yes.

Jared:  —and there’s a mixture—kind of an ad mixture of the Bible informs that, but our own experiences inform that—

Tom:  Definitely.

Jared:  —so there is that important part of our theology that has to accept and integrate that our experiences matter and they’re not just a problem to be solved, but actually are perhaps a Spirit-guided process in this shift and how theology can and must and necessarily change over the generations.

Tom:  Yeah.  I totally agree.  Let me give you an illustration of how my particular experience then allowed me go back to the Bible and see it and read it differently.  I was moving to this view that maybe God can’t do some things.  I thought to myself, “That’s obviously not in the Bible.”

Then I thought, “Hold on a second.  Let me read the Bible again.”  (laughter)  I started running across all kinds of interesting passages.  The writer of Hebrews says, “God can’t tell a lie.”  James says, “God can’t be tempted.”  The Psalmist says, “God can’t grow tired.”  There’s a really great passage in the Old Testament in which the Israelites are fighting against some other nation, (maybe you know it Pete) and they say that the other nations have these iron munitions of some sort and therefore, “the Lord can’t conquer them.”—

Pete:  Right.  Yes.  Exactly.

Tom:  —There’s all kinds of weird things going on.  But this one passage especially has been important to me.  It’s in Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Paul says, “When we are faithless, God is faithful because God cannot deny Himself.”  I have then begun to work with this idea, “Look, if God can’t deny God’s own self, and God is love, God must love.  Maybe this love is self-giving, others-empowering, uncontrolling?”  That might become a clue on how we might rethink God’s power in light of God’s love.

I still think God’s powerful.  I just don’t think that God has the kind of controlling or single-handed determination that many people have thought God has.

40:29

Pete:  Also, that God would lay down that power.

Tom:  Yeah.

Pete:  I don’t want to get into this thing that you said earlier that you disagree with and I think you’re right that God just accommodates to different ways of thinking.  I’m thinking here of a book that I’m trying to finish by William Placker, I think is how you pronounce it—

Tom:  Oh yeah.  Yeah.  Yeah.

Pete:  Narratives of a Vulnerable God

Tom:  Yes. 

Pete:  —which is like, “God is laying down the prerogatives.”  It’s like a kenosis.  It’s an emptying of God’s self and to be vulnerable.  That’s the primary way, which I think is love—

Tom:  I know too.

Pete:  That’s a primary way for God to express God’s love.

Tom:  What makes my view different from Placker’s and many other kenotic theologians is that they think that God voluntarily gives up this power as if God could have retained it and perhaps, sometimes does.

My view says that God’s very nature is this self-giving love.  This very nature is kenotic.  In fact, I call my view “essential kenosis.”  That means that this self-giving is, we might say, involuntary rather than voluntary.  In other words, because God’s very nature is self-giving love and God must God, God can’t deny Himself to quote the apostle Paul, that means his self-giving limitation, we might say, is something God necessarily does because God is necessarily loving.

Pete:  Almost like a good parent.

Tom:  Yes.  Yes.  (laughter)  I use the parenting analogy a lot because some people say, “Well, your God is not in control.  That means your God is doing nothing.”  I say, “Well, you know, a good parent is neither manipulative or absent.  A good parent is influential.  A good parent is there, prodding you, calling you and even sometimes, commanding you to do what is the right thing, but not trying to control you like a helicopter parent nor also absent, never around.”

Jared:  Excellent.  Unfortunately, Tom, we are coming to the end of our time.  I really appreciate all of the new ways to think about the Bible and God and there’s a lot to chew on.

Before we go, are there projects you’re working on or things you can point people to, to learn more about some of your views.

Tom:  I’ve written quite a few things, but the book that’s probably most helpful is one that just came out in 2019 that I’m happy to say has been a best-seller.  It has this provocative title, God Can’t – How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse and Other Evils.” 

In this particular book, I lay out what I think are five aspects to wrestling with the problems of suffering and evil and still believing that there is a god who does stuff and whose loving.

I would recommend that book. 

If you’re more into the scholarly stuff, a previous book I wrote is called The Uncontrolling Love of God, which also addresses these issues.

Jared:  Are there ways people can find you online if they want to interact with you further?

Tom:  Definitely.  I have a website that’s my full name:  thomasjayoord.com.  I’m on the various social media channels.  If you’d like to know more about this idea of a god is who is relational and who experiences time like we do, you might check out the organization called the Center for Open and Relational Theology, of which I’m a director. 

I love to engage with folks who have questions about these issues that I’ve been throwing at you today.

Pete:  Yeah.  That’s great.

Jared:  Well, thank you.  Thank you so much, again, Tom, for taking some time and explaining some complicated things to us in ways that I think everybody’s gonna appreciate.

Pete:  Yeah.  Really helpful.

Tom:  Hey.  It’s been my pleasure.

Pete:  Great Tom.

Jared:  All right.  See ya.

(Jaunty Exit Music)

Pete:  Hey folks.  Thanks for listening, again, to another episode of the podcast.  Hope you enjoyed it.  Hope you have a chance to check out Tom’s books and maybe find him online like he said.

Jared:  If you want to find us online, you can find a lot of things on Patreon.  We are still in the midst of our campaign.  We are less than 100 people from reaching our goal of 1,611 patrons.  So, go to the Bible for Normal People on Patreon:  patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.  Hope to see you there.  We’ll see you later.

Pete:  We’ll see you later, folks, as always.

Jared:  I wanted to say, “Check you later,” in a Matthew McConaughey “Dazed and Confused” style.

Pete:  We’re not that cool.

Jared:  Yeah.

Pete:  See you folks.

Jared:  All right.  See ya.

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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.

Read the transcript

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.

How to Read the Bible Like Adults with Pete Enns and Jared Byas