I recently reconnected with a classmate from my high school days. Our first several exchanges focused on updating each other on what had happened in the decades since our graduation. Once we discovered that both of us had become Christ-followers, the discussion turned to sharing our respective points of view on a variety of subjects – prayer, spiritual life, the Bible – and eventually to the issue of sexual orientation. My former classmate was surprised to hear that I had a very high view of the inspiration of Scripture, yet favored the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church. He asked if I would mind explaining my thinking on this subject in a plain and straightforward way. This article is my response to that request.
Part 2: Jots and Tittles – Applying Midrash to the Words of Jesus
In my previous blog post on Midrash, I reflected on the dilemma in which the Church finds itself today: attempting to apply univocal, linear approaches to the study and interpretation of Scripture in a world in which both science and theology have discredited Enlightenment Modernism’s promise that human reason could arrive at objectively certain, universal truths in all areas of human knowledge, including religion.
To extricate ourselves from this predicament, I suggested, we need a deeper approach to the study of Scripture – one that would allow us to “triangulate in on the truth” by harnessing the Bible’s multiple voices – and that such an approach already existed in the ancient Jewish method of Bible study and interpretation known as Midrash, the workings of which I then set about to explain.
Having set forth the principles and the process of Midrash, I would like to invite my readers to participate in applying them. Over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to walk through the steps of Midrash with time in between each of the steps for your observations, comments, and questions. The text I have in mind is very familiar – the “jot and tittle” passage from Matthew, in which Jesus says “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass , one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt. 5:17-18 – KJV).
To review, the four steps of Midrash are:
- Peshat (lit. Simple). Read the text for its simplest, most literal meaning.
- Remez (lit. Hint). Rather than seeking to avoid or rationalize what appear to be contradictions or textual errors, seek them out as hints of deeper meaning.
- Drash (lit. Investigation). Use imagination to explore all possible meanings of the text.
- Sod (lit. Secret). Meditate on the mysteries revealed through the Drash and open ourselves to surprising revelations.
In today’s post I will walk us through the first two steps of Midrash.
Midrash on Matthew 5:17-18
Step 1: Peshat (Simple).
Since the first step In Midrash is examining the simple meaning of the text, let’s establish the literal definitions of a few key words:
- Destroy (vs. 17). From the Greek katalu’sai. Literally, to dissolve, to disunite, or to break down into component parts.
- The Law (vss. 17 & 18). From the Greek nomon. Corresponds to the Hebrew ha-Torah. Literally, Law or Instruction. Refers to the portion of the Hebrew Scriptures known as The Law (i.e., the five books of Moses).
- The Prophets (vs. 17). From the Greek propheta). Corresponds to the Hebrew ha-Navim. Refers to the portion of the Hebrew Scriptures know as The Prophets.
- Fulfill (vs. 17). From the Greek plarosai. Literally, “to fill completely.”
- Jot (vs. 18). From the Greek iota. Smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. Corresponds to the Hebrew yod, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.
- Tittle (vs. 18). From the Greek keraia. Literally, little horn. Often translated as “the smallest stroke of a letter” (e.g., a serif, a breathing mark in Greek, the dot on the “i” in English). Corresponding mark in Hebrew is unclear.
- Fulfilled (vs. 18). From the Greek genatai. Literally, brought into existence or being.
Step 2: Remez (Hint).
Our familiar exegetical methods tend to assume that a specific Biblical text must have a single, definitive meaning. Therefore, when we come upon what looks like a contradiction or textual error, depending upon where we fall on the conservative-liberal theological continuum, we are predisposed to make one of two choices. Those of us on the conservative “side” tend to ignore or rationalize contradictions in order to harmonize them, while those of us on the liberal “side” tend to discount the authenticity or authority of the passage.
Midrash considers such choices as a false dichotomy and avoids them both. Rather than seeking to avoid or rationalize apparent contradictions/errors, or discount the text because of them, Midrash assumes that God meant them to be there as hints to make us dig deeper. So let’s track down a few of those “contradictions,” shall we?
Within the Passage. There are several apparent inconsistencies within the two verses we are examining.
- Mt. 5:17 – Jesus lists only two of three parts of Hebrew Scripture:The Law and The Prophets. The section of known as The Writings (ha-Ketuvim) – roughly equivalent to what Christians know as the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the books of Wisdom – is omitted.
- Mt. 5:18– Jesus lists only The Law, dropping any reference to The Prophets.
- Mt. 5:17-18– The words translated as “fulfill” and “fulfilled” have different meanings: “to fill to the full” and “to bring into existence or being,” respectively.
- Mt. 5:18– The literal meaning of “tittle” is unclear. We do not know its equivalent mark in the Hebrew and Aramaic with which Jesus and the Gospel writer were familiar.
In the Context of the Passage. After making a statement that appears to rule out making the smallest of changes to any text, Jesus appears to do exactly that, making them more specific and strict.
- Mt. 5:21-22: You have heard it said…that you shall not kill…but I say…
- Mt. 5:27-28: You have heard it said…that you shall not commit adultery…but I say…
- Mt. 5:33-34: You have heard it said…that you shall not make false oaths…but I say…
In Comparison to Related Passages. In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus appears to go even further in amending the Law, overturning the entire section dealing with kosher food laws.
- Mk. 7:19: Thus [Jesus] made all foods clean.
Examine the passage yourself. You may well find other apparent contradictions, omissions, or errors that I overlooked. If you do, I hope you will include them in any comments you care to make.
Step 3: Drash (lit. Investigation).
This step is your chance to fully engage this passage. In the step of Midrash known as Drash or Investigation, we are called upon to use our imagination and creativity in order to explore all possible meanings of the text.
So here are your instructions:
- Review all of the apparent contradictions/omissions/errors I identified above along with any you have spotted yourself.
- Assume that every apparent contradiction/omission/error is inspired: that God caused them to be placed there as hints to spur your curiosity and imagination, and to drive you toward a deeper, broader, and more complete understanding of God’s word.
- Using your imagination and creativity, brainstorm all of the possible meanings of the text.
When you have completed these three steps, I hope you will share your thoughts with me. After all, Drash is at its best when it is done as communal dialogue.
I look forward to Midrashing with you!
Part 3 of the series “The Dis-Integration of the Church” – click here for part 1, click here for part 2
In the first post of this series, “Religious Homophily: A Theory of Conservative Church Fragmentation,” I presented sociological and psychological support for the notion that “conservative” Christian churches (principally, those whose congregations adhere to exclusive theological beliefs) fragment and divide because factions within the congregation eventually split over biblical interpretations. The research into conservative fragmentation was in response to Ken Howard’s article, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” which demonstrates that church splitting is on a significant rise, even to the point of outpacing the growth of Christianity itself. In the second post of the series, “Status of the Liberal Church: Fragmentation or Dissipation?,” I explained that “liberal” Christianity suffers more from congregational dissipation than fragmentation. In other words, dwindling memberships occur more frequently in liberalism than actual church splits. Those who leave mainline Protestantism either transfer into an unaffiliated status or into evangelical churches. In this article, I will seek to answer whether theological conservatism and strictness play a vital role in denominational switching, as well as what factors cause churches to grow numerically. In the end, the idea that liberal theologies cause a deterioration in mainline Protestantism, while conservative theologies produce growth, is an oversimplification of the relevant factors that account for congregational development. Though theological conservatism tends to correlate with numerical expansion, it does not do so consistently and in all cases. Nonetheless, correlation does not equate to causation. Conservatism and strictness are merely two among a myriad of other influences that are present among growing churches, including (most notably) higher birth rates, higher youth retention, and a focus on evangelistic efforts.
Part 2 of the series “The Dis-Integration of the Church”
click here for part 1
In my last posting, “Religious Homophily: A Theory of Conservative Church Fragmentation,” I presented sociological and psychological support for the notion that “conservative” Christian churches (principally, those whose congregations adhere to exclusive theological beliefs) fragment and divide because of hermeneutical tensions. In other words, conservative congregations break apart because factions within the congregation eventually disagree and split over biblical interpretations. The research into conservative fragmentation was in response to Ken Howard’s recent article, “The Religion Singularity: A Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity,” which demonstrates that church splitting is on a significant rise, even to the point of outpacing the growth of Christianity itself. But what about mainline-liberal churches? Are they fragmenting just like conservatives or are they suffering from something else? Is the overall decline in liberal membership a result of fragmentation or a completely different problem?
Surprisingly, exactly how we address this question relates to how we understand and define liberal Christianity. According to a 2008 Pew Forum panel discussion with leading experts on religion and politics, “liberal” Christians are those who adhere to “less traditional views of the divine, spirituality and religious authority.” As a generalization, liberal theology adheres to an “experiential-expressive” concept of religious truth, which relegates religion to its non-cognitive experiences, thereby making the propositional nature of church dogma relative to its historical, cultural, philosophical, and psychological context. Sydney Ahlstrom writes, “Liberalism was, first of all, a point of view which, like the adjective ‘liberal’ as we commonly use it, denotes both a certain generosity or charitableness toward divergent opinions and a desire for intellectual ‘liberty.’ Liberal theologians also wished to ‘liberate’ religion from obscurantism and creedal bondage so as to give man’s moral and rational powers larger scope.” In other words, liberalism was a movement designed to reformulate traditional Christian doctrine into contemporary concepts with the use of modern reason and science, which highlighted human autonomy, experiential knowledge, human virtue, and human progress.
According to Ken Howard, the “conservative” wing of Christianity is merely the descendant of John Locke’s belief in the ability to discern universal truths from external sources and inductive reasoning. The “liberal” wing of Christianity, on the other hand, is merely the descendant of René Descartes’s belief in the ability to discern universal truths from internal sources and deductive reasoning. Ironically, while both sides present inaccurate caricatures of the other, they both fail to recognize that they are simply two different branches from the same foundationalist family tree. Both desire the total elimination of doubt, but their quest for certainty sought out either objective universal truths (conservatives) or subjective universal truths (liberals).
By River Damien Sims
The first twenty five years of our life were filled with certainty. We knew who God was and that “He” made us in a certain way, no matter what. But in that certainty we were filled with fear, depression, and a horrible sense of being the “bad boy” because we were queer. The church in which we were raised, educated, and ordained told us we had to be straight or we were a “bad” boy, in fact we were “intrinsically evil.” The time came when we expressed those fears to our district superintendent and he reinforced our “badness” when he kicked us out of the ministry. Thus we lost all friends, all means of making a living, but most importantly that which gave meaning and purpose to our life—God.
It was on the streets of Hollywood as a whore, and terribly alone that we began to understand God in Christ as an always changing and moving, disturbing, and a totally grossing Mystery. All the gods–straightness, wealth, Jesus is the only One, white is best—all failed us. The following of the rules, being dressed in a certain way, being nice to the right people—all failed. They blocked the image of God in life. It was only in unmasking the image of the God who lives in our heart that we could see the panoply of the god images surrounding us, and come to an understanding of the process of life. It was coming to that understanding that we understood that God has always been in our life–from the moment our mother’s egg was fertilized and God knew who we were, and loved us for who we are. Being queer was a gift from that Mystery. God is in us now. And in that evolution growth became the purpose of life. Sister Joan Chittister says that “creation is the process of human growth, and that life is not a program of expectations, and the past is no longer a template forever, but the God of the future, beckoning us beyond ourselves, beyond the present into the eternal growth of God.” What is true of the individual is true of us corporately as well. God was no longer a certainty, but a mystery and our journey became one of faith. Holiness lies in the journey of faith, of questioning, and listening to that inner voice.
We have never returned to the “organized” church because it holds certainty as one of its “gods”, but we have moved out into the Mystery. In that Mystery we have learned obedience to that which is within us, to the One who created us, guides us; we have learned humility, that we are simply creatures of the Mystery, one among many, we have learned to come to view silence as our friend, to spend time simply in waiting, listening and praying, and from that silence we have learned our call to hospitality, to serving others, and that we are one with others, no divisions, simply children of the same Mystery. Community is found in loving our neighbor as ourselves without regard to race, creed, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or any other label we choose to place on others.
For us that Mystery is found to be best expressed in a creed prepared for children by the World Council of Churches:
“We believe in God, who loves us and wants us to love each other. This is our God.
We believe in Jesus, who cared for children and held them in his arms. He wanted a world where every one could live together in peace. This is Jesus Christ.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, who keeps working with us until everything is good and true. This is the Holy Spirit.
We can be the church, which reminds people of God because we love each other. This we believe.”
And in a summary of our own mission in life we prepared during our time on the streets in which we said:
“The best summary for my mission in life can be found in the statement that: ‘Obedience to Christ does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.'” To be a living mystery means to practice the works of mercy, and in the words of Dorothy Day “to live to the point of folly.” Or in the words of Toyohiko Kawaga “I am a free lance, a tramp, a vagabond. I must go until Christ’s work is done. I go like the wind.”
Deo Gratias! Thanks be to God!
Fr. River Damien Sims, sfw, D.S.T., D.Min. candidate