THE NEPHILIM! A Word Study and History of Interpretation

Be there giants?

2 Timothy 3:16 famously says that all scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  Unfortunately, not all of it is easy to understand.  So let’s pick out a really weird verse and see what God has to say in it!  We’ll take a good look at the verse itself, explore the history of its interpretation, and see what we can make of it.

Genesis 6:1-8

6 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

What on earth is happening in this passage?  For me, the pinnacle of weirdness is in verse 4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” What the heck?

To make heads or tails of this passage, we have to be able to identify 3 different groups: the sons of God, the daughters of man, and the Nephilim.  Unfortunately, it’s incredibly hard to translate the Hebrew here with any level of certainty.  Not only are the words and phrases vague enough that they leave several interpretive possibilities on the table, but exact phrases like these are used so rarely in the Bible that we don’t have a lot of clues to help us out.

First, we have the sons of God or “bene haelohim”.  The phrase appears two other times in the Bible (Job 1:6 and Job 2:1) and in each instance it clearly means “angels.”  That being said, Genesis and Job weren’t written at the same time, and there are several other translations that would be well within the bounds of reason.  It could mean something like “men who follow God” or “men who are like God,” (aka godly men).  To add even more confusion to the matter, the word “elohim” can mean “God” or it can be used to refer to any being that’s particularly impressive.  It could mean “king.”  It could mean “angel.”  You get the picture.  Bene haelohim could easily mean “sons of kings” or “sons of warlords.”

Clearly the “daughters of humans” (a phrase uncommon in Scripture and more clearly rendered “daughters of man” in Hebrew) are intended to be the opposite of whatever the sons of God are.  If we say that the sons of God are angels, then thinking of them as human women makes the most sense.  If the sons of God are godly men, the daughters of man are intended to be worldly women.  If we say that the sons of God are the sons of kings or warlords, then they are intended to be peasant women.

Finally, we have the Nephilim.  You know a word is bad when Bible translators don’t even touch the thing.  There’s a few options here as well.  The literal translation from the Hebrew is “the fallen ones,”  It appears in two other places in the Bible: once in Numbers when the Hebrew spies look over at Canaan to see if it is safe to inhabit and they see nephilim (usually rendered “giants” in English) and again in Ezekiel 32 to describe warriors that have fallen on the battlefield.  In a battlefield context, the word could also be used to talk about strong attackers, or those who “fall upon” their opponents with attack after attack.  The giants idea might seem out of left field, given the English translation, but an ancient Greek manuscript grants us a little insight.  The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC) has Nephilim translated as “gigantes” or giants, so there’s some kind of cultural or linguistic link there, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

Where does that leave us?  Well, we have three story options starting to emerge.  This could be a story about angels coming to earth, having children with humans, and giants being born as a result of that union.  It could be a story about righteous men of God having children with worldly women, leading to a slow compromise of faith over the generations.  Then there’s the option that it could be about the sons of rich merchants mistreating peasant women and raising a generation of fierce warriors.  Each of these seems viable.

So what now?  Well, time to look at tradition.

The oldest interpretation I could find was from the Book of Enoch.  This little apocryphal book (book that didn’t make it into the Bible) was probably written between 200 and 300 BC.  And obviously Enoch didn’t write it.  Enoch is the guy who was famously “taken away” by God in Genesis 5:24 (and there’s much speculation about what THAT means, but that’s a story for another time), so someone else must have written it and popped his name on it.  The book is basically an attempt to retell the story of Genesis more thoroughly, filling in all the plot holes that the original has.  In the retelling of this story, the sons of God are DEFINITELY angels that come to Earth to have children with human women:

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied, in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’

1 Enoch 6:1-2

Not only do they have children with human women; they give humans science and technology!  Unfortunately for them, God is not best pleased with this development:

Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the great day of judgment he shall be cast into the fire.

1 Enoch 10:4-6

Bad times for Azazel.

Does the story sound familiar to you?  It sounds suspiciously like the Greek myth of Prometheus to me!  A lesser divine being comes to Earth, hands out some tech, and gets banished to torment in a barren wasteland for their sin against the divine being/beings in charge.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this book starts showing up around 200-300 BC considering that Alexander the Great did his grand crusade of the world between 356 BC and 323 BC.  Would it be so crazy if an Israelite that heard the Greek myth was looking for greater clarity in their Scriptures and took a little inspiration from the Greeks?  I don’t think so.  Mind you, that’s a disputed point, but the dates and the narratives are too similar for me to dismiss.

In any case, we’ve got the angels and giants theory on the table.  How does mainstream Judaism react in the coming years?  They don’t seem to care for it much.  Not only is the Book of Enoch never canonized, but a majority of rabbinic writings that emerge tend to favor readings that cast the sons of God as tyrants and the Nephilim as powerful warriors.  These readings gain more and more momentum over time.  Nonetheless, the apocryphal books have their supporters.  There are certainly people, especially at the fringes, that strongly support a supernatural reading.

When Christians start popping up, they’re a little more interested in the whole angels and giants thing.  After all, a lot of early Christians were on the fringes of Judaism.  Apocalyptic Judaism was a fringe movement that focused heavily on the coming of the messiah, and the Book of Enoch was very popular with them.  If mainstream groups didn’t like the Book of Enoch, it was because they were scared of its prophecies concerning the messiah!  And so early Christians inherited the angels/giants theory from some of their earliest supporters.

Mind you, its momentum didn’t last long.  After about the year 300, the angel/giant theory seems to take a nosedive in popularity within the Christian community.  Not only did they slowly accept 1 Enoch as “not legit,” but they started asking questions.  What is an angel?  What can an angel do?  Are angels all male?  When did angels fall?  Why does the term say “angels” when clearly disobedient angels are devils?  Jesus said specifically in Mark 12 that Angels have no interest in procreation.  Why did the angels do that?  What happened to them? And what happened to the giants, because if you render that word “giants” to resolve their appearance in Numbers, you need them to survive a world-ending flood that the Bible deliberately says they would not have survived.  The whole interpretation is just incredibly bizarre and doesn’t make logical or narrative sense. So theologians started speaking out against it.  You have heavy hitters like Clement and Augustine weighing in against it.  Chrysostom goes so far as to call the theory “blasphemous.” 

To read the passage well, Christians looked back at what happened previously in Genesis and tried to think about how this puzzle piece fit.  Genesis 5 is highly interested in genealogies.  Seth is born to Adam “in his image and likeness.”  Genesis 1:26 previously established that Adam was made in God’s image and likeness.  To some interpreters, this was a symbolic passing of the torch.  Seth inherited his godliness from his father, and his people would continue to strive for godliness in the coming generations.  There became two types of people on the Earth: the children of Seth, and the children of Cain.  These two branches seem to be symbolic, more than biological.  The devout and the worldly both lived on the earth, though living in very different ways.  This, then, is a story in which people of faith decide to compromise their beliefs to intermingle with the attractive people of the Earth.  As Eve tempted Adam, so now the daughters of man tempt the children of God.  The resulting offspring are fallen; they do not know God, even though they know the ways of the world quite well.  The only truly devout man left is Noah.  You know how the story goes from there.

By the time the reformation rolls around, there seems to be broad consensus that this view is correct.  Martin Luther presents it as the obvious meaning.  John Calvin only brings up the angels and giants thing only to ponder why ancient thinkers would possibly have thought something so odd:

That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.

Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 6:2

The matter seems settled.  But lo and behold, the angels and giants make their way back into popular Christian thought around the 18th century.  At this point, modernists (a group that considered their Bibles to likely contain large amounts of mythology) started re-investigating the issue.  If the Bible is full of myths that aren’t literally true, why can’t this be a story about angels and giants?  Ironically, some fundamentalists reached the same conclusion, but through very different methodology.  If the Bible is always true and you don’t need tradition to understand it, then why shouldn’t you be willing to believe a fantastical story about angels and giants?  It’s one of those weird points in history where really conservative people go one way and really liberal people go another, and somehow they end up making a giant loop and meeting up at the same point.

But now we’ve looked at all the interpretive options and poked around all the major strands of tradition.  What do I believe?  Well, you ought to know that I’d rather be wrong with the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin than right with anybody else.  Not only is their interpretation the most well-represented in Christian tradition, but it just makes sense.  It’s logical.  It fits the Biblical narrative leading from genealogy to flood, and it addresses a constant theme in the Bible: don’t compromise your faith to fit into this world more comfortably (Deut 7:3, 2 Corinth. 6:14, Deut 16:21, etc).  To be a true disciple of Christ, you can’t afford to compromise any part of the truth.  You have to live your whole life in constant worship and obedience.  Not only do I think this is a good interpretation, but I think it’s something that’s an important reminder as we try to live out our faith today.  We live in a world that’s increasingly secular.  Our culture is more than happy to accommodate Christians that are willing to compromise on the things that they believe.  If you’re willing to make a few concessions, you’ll fit in easier.  You’ll be the “right kind” of Christian. Your life will be significantly attractive on the outside.  If you don’t?  Well, things might get difficult. 

As people made in the image and likeness of God, we can’t afford to compromise truth for temporary gain.  After all, we know truth itself in the person of Jesus Christ. The only way for us to live well is to hold fast to truth and to continually honor God, rather than ourselves.

That’s my take!  But rather than end on a dramatic note, I’ll end with some humility.  It’s a tough passage!  If you think I missed something or want to dig around on your own, check out some of the resources below!  See what you think!   Either way, wrestle with those tough verses when you find them.  If all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, sometimes we have to do a little bit of wrestling to see what God is saying.

Great articles if you want to know more:
https://www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/B/bene-elohim.html
https://biblehub.com/interlinear/genesis/6.htm
https://lutheranreformation.org/get-involved/bible-study-luther-genesis-61-8/
https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/01-genesis/text/articles-books/newman-gen6-gtj-1984.htm

Fake Quotes from Famous Saints

The other day, I got an e-mail from a higher up in the Methodist church that ended with this quote:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

-John Wesley

I closed out of that message in a tizzy because John Wesley never said that!  Honestly, John Wesley never said most of his famous quotes.  Kevin Watson did a phenomenal series about quotes that Wesley never said here.  Just about every Wesley quote that makes its way onto a key chain, wall hanging, or church bulletin isn’t actually his.  The fact that a reputable higher up in the church was misquoting him was a bummer.  Did he not care about the integrity of the quote?

But as comfortable as it is to slip into self-justifying outrage, there are a TON of quotes that famous saints “said” that they didn’t actually say, and… they’re not bad!  They’re pithy.  They’re clever.   People love them!  They get referenced in reasonably educated circles and they’re popular in churches. So what do we do with all these fake quotes?

Francis of Assisi supposedly said “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”  Not only is it not in his writings, but it’s not even a quote that suits him.  He’s known for his preaching, and preaching was one of the core tenants of the Franciscan monks that followed in his footsteps.  Why would someone that values preaching so much speak so flippantly about it?

Theresa of Avila supposedly wrote this famous poem:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on the world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

But she didn’t.  Not only is it found nowhere in her works, but this blogger did a great deep dive on the origin of this poem and theorized that it was originally created by Methodist Minister Mark Guy Pearse, who said the second half in a sermon that he gave in 1888, and Quaker medical missionary Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree, who added the first half of the poem after acknowledging she took the second half from him. From there, other people started adapting the poem, and it gained a life of its own. I can’t personally guarantee that they’re right, but it seems like a really decent stab at locating the history of one of those mythical quotes. It still does leave a big question: how on Earth did it get attributed to Theresa?

None of these quotes have an oral history that dates back to the time of the figure in question.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt, they’re fake.  Are they malicious forgeries?  Who can say.  I’m going to guess no.  It’s hard to prove that sort of thing, so it mostly boils down to a guess.  I’m willing to give the parties involved the benefit of the doubt and say it was a mistake or some sort of misunderstanding.

That being said, it’d be silly to pretend that the quotes don’t benefit from their connection to famous historical figures.  It makes you sound way smarter if you say “As St. Francis of Assisi once said…” rather than, “I saw this on a keychain once…”  The quotes gain a certain amount of gravitas from their attachment to big-name historical figures.  Some very significant religious organizations have these quotes plastered on their websites, and they almost certainly wouldn’t if they were anonymous.  There’s no shortage of blog entries and news articles pointing out that these quotes are not legitimate, but there’s not enough church history nerds out there to keep them from getting through the cracks! 

So… what do we do?

I’ve seen some books take the position of claiming the quote is “attributed to” the saint in question, but probably wasn’t actually written by them.  I don’t know how much good that does, if only because it still creates a really fun backstory for the quote and then picks at it without adding a positive alternative.  We could always take the position of saying that they’re anonymous.  That would certainly detach the quote from it’s fake history, but nobody wants to engage with a quote by “anonymous,” so at that point, you may as well not use it anymore.

How much does the integrity of the quote matter?

It reminds me of a little story from The Decameron (basically the 14th c. Italian version of the Canterbury Tales).    There’s this guy named Ciappelletto, and he’s garbage.  He launders money, writes fake documents, lies, gambles, etc.  You get the picture.  One day, he gets really sick. His friends are afraid he’s going to die, but the Church won’t bury him unless he confesses his sins to a clergyman, and his sins are so horrible that no clergyman would absolve him. His friends will end up stuck with his corpse, and it’ll be a whole awkward thing. But Ciappelletto has an idea. They get this friar to come in and take his confession, and Ciappelletto just gets crazy with it.  He makes up lie after lie after lie about what a saintly life he’s led.  Sure enough, the friar absolves him and even buries Ciappelletto in his own convent later that day… but things don’t stop there. The friar is so moved by what he heard that he preaches about the virtuous life of Ciappelletto to everyone who will listen.  Before you know it, people are using items that Ciappelletto owned as relics and going on pilgrimages to his grave.   They claim that miracles are worked in his name!  Lots of people live holier, more Christlike lives because of the (fake) legend of Ciappelletto.  In the end, our narrator points to the whole affair as, “a manifest token of the superabundance of the goodness of God to us, inasmuch as He regards not our error but the sincerity of our faith,” (First Day, 090).

Does it matter that Ciappelletto was a rogue if his legend helped others grow in Christ?

Does it matter that Wesley, Francis, and Theresa never said those things if it helps people know God better?

…YES!  Faith is about truth!  The elements of our faith should be able to get by a simple Google search without being clearly and inarguably fake.  Better to build a house on the rock of truth than the sand of convenience. Fight the misquotes, dear friends. Say they’re anonymous! Say they’re misattributed! Ignore them if you want! Just don’t say they’re true.

The Decameron can be read here.

Can God Act? Charles Taylor and the Impact of Secularism

A few weeks back, I was chatting with my spiritual director and somehow I got on the topic of religious language.  A friend of mine uses religious language that’s really foreign to me.  For example, she might say: “I woke up this morning and was so grateful that the Lord gave me one more day, and so I thanked him with all my heart.  Later on, as I ate my cereal, I pondered, ‘Lord, what are you asking of me today?  What do you want?  Should I go to the store?’”  For some reason, her language just makes me a little uneasy. Obviously it bothered me enough that I wanted to process it with someone else! Why does she have to talk like that?

My director’s response was simple enough, “It’s very brave of her to talk like that.  She knows that most people in our world don’t sound like her, but she chooses to use that language anyway.  What makes you uncomfortable with her language?”

I threw out some bad guesses about religious background and education, but they were all nonsense.  I didn’t have a good answer.  I’ve just been sitting with that question for a few weeks, trying to ask myself why her language bothers me so much.

God must have heard me crying out, because I certainly ended up reading in the right direction; I stumbled back onto the work of Charles Taylor.  His work in A Secular Age may only be from 2007, but it’s a masterwork for religious people of all traditions.  He investigates the philosophy of secularism, how it developed, what ideas hold it in place, and what it means for religious thought today.  Admittedly, I’m not reading Taylor directly; I’m reading Andrew Root’s The Pastor in a Secular Age, which builds on Taylor’s work to see how pastors understood themselves and their society historically to determine what a pastor’s challenges are today.  That being said, it’s a book in Charles Taylor’s tradition.  Root is very much building on what Taylor’s work (in a delightfully readable way).

In any case, it had an answer to my burning question: I’m a pretty secular person. It’s no wonder that language about a God that acts feels wrong.  Does God exist?  Sure!  But it’s uncomfortable to address him as a being that acts and moves and has a being.  God is, after all, in us!  He is sustaining all things!  He is creating!  At least, that’s the way we talk about him in mainline churches.  But if we’re being honest, that’s all pretty passive, impersonal stuff.   God looks suspiciously like a weird spark somewhere between personal inspiration and natural law.  It’s not the kind of God you really need to worry much about, and it’s certainly not one that you wake up every morning talking to.

Here’s two big reasons that really hit me as why mainstream Western society has a hard time talking about God in an active voice:

1. We’ve dis-embedded God from public life.

Historically, God’s will was understood to be the foundation of public life.  Just think about Joan of Arc!  Why did she fight the English?  Because God wanted France to win.  She was God’s instrument, and God’s will was made manifest through her.  Again, think about the “divine right of kings.”  Why was someone the king?  Because God wanted it like that!  There was no way to divide what was happening in the world from the active work of God.  God acted, and the world was shaped according to his authority.

The rise of democracy made God’s action in the world a little harder to understand.  Power wasn’t vested in a king; it was in the will of the people!  But if you consider the way that God’s authority was popularly interpreted in the public square, that brings a bit of a problem to seeing God’s work in the world:

[In democracy,] sovereignty comes from the people, not from the king; but the king’s sovereignty comes from above, from God; so democracy is already an implicit rejection of God.

Taylor, Dilemmas and Connection: Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 228.

Ever wonder why so many American founding fathers were deists?  This is why!  When public life is a primarily a product of human will, rather than divine action, it’s harder to believe in a God that actively takes an interest in public affairs.  We moved from a system in which God was acting and the world was shifting according to his will to a system in which people were responsible for organizing themselves to manifest God’s ideal world.  God ceased to be the primary actor in public affairs and the role of the individual became far more prominent than ever before.

If you’re a citizen in a Western democracy, you’ve probably internalized this logic.  For example, what’s your first thought when a political candidate you despise wins the election?  Probably something like, “Dang, we needed to mobilize our voting base more effectively and appeal to a broader audience.” You probably don’t worry that this is a judgement from God for failing to live faithfully. When we have such power at our disposal, it’s hard to envision the results of an election, the outcome of a war, or the laws that we live by as a product of God’s action, rather than our own successes or failures in the public arena.

2. We’ve divided the natural world from divine purpose and action.

In previous eras, everything that happened was full of deep meaning.  Lightning struck near you?  Sign from God.  Good crops?  God is happy.  The sun rose?  God wanted the sun to rise.  The whole world was a theater for the divine, and God’s intimate work was everywhere.  Was it superstitious by our standards?  Oh, absolutely.  But every detail mattered intimately.  Today?  Well, today it’s hard to believe that anything is particularly meaningful.  The discovery and codification of natural laws have brought huge breakthroughs to the understanding of science and medicine, but (when they’re coupled with the elements of our secular philosophy) they’ve also closed off our understanding of the universe.  Whereas before the universe was open to God’s action, constantly being affected by the divine will (or the will of other, less pleasant entities), now the system is largely seen as self-governing and closed off to any outside parties.  For example:

When the fifty-five-year-old woman asks her pastor about her cancer, we’re quick to claim that its cause is impersonal. It’s just the odds, bad luck, the randomness of an impersonal order, or childhood exposure to some toxin or chemical. Yet if this is so—and it might be—then it becomes much harder for her to trust that a personal God can act to heal her. It is less frightening to assume that it is just the odds or bad luck that makes her sick—it’s nothing personal. She did nothing wrong, nor is some malevolent personal force after her. Yet, while this is less frightening, without a personal cause it is much harder to imagine (and explain) the intervention of a personal God in a presumed impersonal universe. And maybe more importantly, it becomes a challenge to provide meaning to her illness and death. She is stuck with a meaninglessness to her disease because, though deeply personal to her, her disease is only a fading echo in a dark, cold, impersonal universe where everything dies, swallowed in the tsunami of massive, impersonal time and space. If the cancer is caused by no personal force, how can a personal God affect her, other than by providing some banal comfort or cold indifference?

Root, Andrew. The Pastor in a Secular Age (Ministry in a Secular Age Book #2) (p. 56). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Where we previously saw God reaching into our world and acting, now we only see the cold logic of natural law. It’s harder to blame God, but it’s also harder to expect anything from him.

Hopefully none of this feels like a glorification of the past and an utter rejection of our present world.  Not at all!  After all, I live here and there’s some pretty cool stuff to enjoy!  It’s just a way of trying to explore why previous generations could easily see God acting in the world around them, and why we find it so hard.  Their philosophy naturally emphasized the role of the divine, whereas ours emphasizes human action and natural law to a far greater degree.  No wonder my friend’s language made me so nervous!  God is doing things?  Talking to people?  Planning stuff?  Eew.  Gross.  Please use more passive language for your God.  It sounds ridiculous when you act like he exists. 

What would it mean to imagine that God can talk over a bowl of cereal?  That he wants something and that we’re capable of hearing it?  More than that, that other people are capable of hearing God too, and he is acting in the world to make his will manifest?

What We Fight is So Tiny: Trust and Rainer Rilke

“God has a plan for all of us.”

That’s a truth that exists in my brain that occasionally gets dredged up when I’m talking about theology, but I don’t think I really know it in my heart. Not when it matters, anyway. When life gets frustrating, I lose myself to anxiety, stress, and disappointment. God’s plan may be a theory I’m aware of, but it’s not a reality I’m living into. To put it in meme terms:

It’s not all that Christian of me.

I’ve been wondering, “How can I trust more when things are going wrong?” This poem by 19th century Austrian poet Rainer Rilke told me exactly really helped me reframe things:

The Man Watching
Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on 
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, 
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny! 
What fights with us is so great. 
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm, 
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things, 
and the triumph itself makes us small. 
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us. 
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews 
grew long like metal strings, 
he felt them under his fingers 
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel 
(who often simply declined the fight) 
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand, 
that kneaded him as if to change his shape. 
Winning does not tempt that man. 
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, 
by constantly greater beings.

Gorgeous. One line that especially stands out to me: “When we win, it is with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.” My worries are so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Christians throughout time have been subject to starvation, torture, and the threat of death, and they trusted God. Here I am, terrified about tiny things. I’m fighting over details, and that fighting makes me small. What would it take to give up my fighting and surrender to something far greater? To willingly be defeated by God and trust that it’s for my benefit?

I also love Rilke’s tone. It is, to quote the poem itself “seriousness and weight and eternity.” In contrast to so many modern preachers that portray the life of faith this carefree and delightful romp, Rainer doesn’t shy away from the challenge of faith. God will demand everything. He is the storm on the horizon. His angels will handle your sinews like strings. God is terrifying. The solution isn’t resisting the storm; it’s giving in.

We won’t be the same after the encounter. Jacob, the patriarch that he’s referencing, walked with a limp after his wrestling match. I doubt he wanted a limp, but he got one. He wrestled with the divine, and he was transformed. Not in the way he expected, mind you, but he trusted that this new self was a better self. So many of the heroes of faith were transformed through events that I can’t imagine them asking for. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son. Noah was asked to watch a civilization-ending flood. Elijah hid while he was hunted by the authorities. Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into a cistern. Even Jesus, the grand revelation of God himself, was crucified. God’s action isn’t all sunshine and roses. It’s scary, but we have to trust that it’s good.

Rainer challenges us to trust with the full knowledge that it won’t end up the way we sinful beings would like. The only victory worth having is our own defeat. I only hope I can stop trying to squeeze out victories over tiny things and start losing the battle that matters.

How African is Christian Orthodoxy?

Home to the Church fathers? Victim of Christian colonization? Both?

Back in seminary, I remember one of my friends getting frustrated about the syllabus of our theology class.  It focused on 3 theologians: Augustine, Aquinas, and Kathryn Tanner.  She pulled me aside and vented, “How dare they present this as theology? It’s an ethnocentric, biased, racist presentation of what ‘theology’ is.” Being a little more moderate (and excited to delve into Augustine), I responded, “Well, you’ve got more diversity there than you think. You’ve got an Italian guy from the middle ages, an American woman from today, and Augustine is ancient and from… what… like modern Algeria or something? That’s 2 genders, 3 continents, and 3 eras.” Her response was simple: “Augustine has been co-opted by white people for generations. He’s effectively white at this point. You can’t count him as a diverse voice.”

I don’t want to argue about whether the class was biased. Of course it was! There is no unbiased presentation of information. In choosing which voices to include, you always create a bias. If anything, I think the voices from that class have a more Catholic bias than anything else! But that’s neither here nor there. I’m more interested in her response: Augustine is effectively white.  For those unfamiliar with him, Augustine is the father of Western Christian orthodoxy (Protestant and Catholic) and was born in Algeria when it was under Roman rule.  Admittedly, I don’t know that I’ve heard a lot of people discuss him as a non-white, non-Western source. He usually makes his way into discussions as a primarily Latin-speaking, Roman source (a factor that I assume made her consider him “effectively white”).

There are reasons for that! The Roman Empire stretched across continents and encompassed multiple nationalities. Ideas about who is “white” wouldn’t have been relevant in that era.  Racial stereotypes still existed, but not in the form that they take today.  When we say things like, “Augustine was not white,” it’s an anachronistic statement.  But still, we view the past with the lenses that we wear today.  Why is it that the ancient fathers of the Church born in Africa are often seen as basically European?

Thomas Oden took a solid stab at this question in his book, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.”  It’s relatively readable, but he is pretty bad about name-dropping.  Any given chapter includes the name of 10 or more ancient theologians, most of which the average person will not recognize. I’m just going to pick three theologians that he named that are worth talking about: Augustine, Athanasius, and Anthony of Egypt.  Auggie is the father of traditional Western Christianity, Athanasius is a bishop from Egypt that helped officially establish that Jesus was equally God with the Father (some people at the time were saying he was a lower-tier assistant to God, rather than the real deal), and Anthony is the father of monasticism who I’ve written about previously here.  Each one of these men is African, but rarely has that aspect of their identity acknowledged.

Oden takes a solid stab at uncovering Augustine’s legitimate, non-white ethnicity:

It is likely that Augustine had a mother with Berber background from a family that converted to Christianity at least a generation before his birth in 354. Monica would not have become any less ethnically African just because she married a military officer with a Roman-sounding name. Augustine was born and raised in a remote inland Numidian town (Thagaste) with mixed racial stock. The rock carvings from Neolithic times in Numidia show occupation dating back ten thousand years. Among Augustine’s known family and friends were people who had Berber, Punic, Numidian, Roman and even Libyan names.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Kindle Locations 528-532

Someone with a family rooted in Northern Africa is logically probably not “white” as we would think about it.  Even with a strong roman name like “Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis” (his full non-Anglicized name), he wasn’t ethnically Italian. Latinized names were gradually adopted by native populations during their time in the Roman Empire, so they certainly aren’t proof of ethnicity.  A man that was born in Africa, worshiped in Africa, spoke to Africans, and died in Africa ought to be considered genuinely African.  When Christians built their logic on Augustine’s theology, they were following the foremost thinker of Africa, not Europe.

Then we have Athanasius of Alexandria.  Again, we have a similar situation regarding name. Athanasius’s Greek-sounding name that would have been popular in the region after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, but Greeks would have been a minority population in Egypt.  The average person, even in metropolitan areas like Alexandria, was Egyptian.  Greece left the imprint of their language and their philosophers, but those ideas were taken up and developed by the people who did the majority of the eating, breathing, living, and thinking across that landmass.  As a bishop, Athanasius worked regularly with churches that stretched deep into modern Egypt, almost bordering modern day Sudan.  This population wouldn’t have known Greek!  They’d have spoken a language like the native Egyptian Nilotic.  He was someone who spoke to, cared for, and related to the people of Egypt.  Even some of the metaphors that he uses reflect a mind that is distinctively Egyptian!  When people like Athanasius talked about eternal life or spiritual ascent, those terms were packed with meaning that were inherited from ancient Pharaonic religion. They spoke to him and the people he knew because of their cultural heritage.

And then there’s Anthony.  Favorite saint of mine, Anthony.  Anthony helped popularize Christian monasticism and is often considered the first Christian monk.  Not only was he Egyptian, but the ultramajority of people that followed him out to the desert would have been Egyptian peasants.  The academics among them may have written in Greek to make their ideas accessible, but they would have regularly spoken Egyptian Nilotic. As people throughout Europe started monasteries, they were taking on a pattern of life that was developed by Africans.

With these three examples alone, I think it’s clear that the achievements of Africans in Christian theology have been unjustly ignored.  Orthodoxy flowed from the South to the North for centuries!  Europeans don’t get to lay claim to these men simply because they enjoyed their work.  And it’s equally unjust to say that their theological work didn’t find lasting roots in African communities.  There are churches in these regions that have been active for about 2000 years.  If anything, those regions have a better claim to the title “traditionally Christian” than most places in Italy, England, or France.  So why is there a bias in favor of Europe when it comes to claiming ownership over Christian thought?

That bias didn’t always exist.  A popular story in medieval Europe was the legend of Prester John.  He was this grand king from beyond the Islamic lands that controlled an ancient and powerful Christian kingdom.  There were a lot of journeys to try to find him and ask for help!  Mind you, he didn’t actually exist.  Maybe they meant the King of Ethiopia, who fits the bill reasonably well?  Apparently when Europeans made contact with Ethiopia, they insisted on calling the King “Prester John” (much to his confusion).  Whether or not the myth had any grounding in reality, Europeans were aware that there were Christians elsewhere in the world.  They were wise, they were important, and they were very much alive.   Christianity wasn’t understood to be a European phenomenon.

Today, the cultural legacy of colonialism lives on in how we view theology:

We can hardly find these prejudices against Africa voiced anywhere in Christian history until we get to the nineteenth century, especially to the writings of the French Enlightenment, German idealism and British empiricism. It was not until [then] that these prejudices became so standardized that they were accepted without question by educated Westerners-and by Western educated Africans.

Ibid., Loc. 555-557

In an era where Europe was casting off the vestiges of tradition and claiming an unbiased, “scientific” worldview, real Christianity became an intellectual property of Europe.  Good ideas were emphasized as primarily European.  Augustine became a Latin theologian.  Athanasius and Anthony were assumed to be working from their Greek intellectual inheritance.  Anything good that they wrote was supposed to have come from their Western sensibilities; anything that was obscure or odd was a product of unenlightened, superstitious nonsense that Europeans were fighting against.

Orthodoxy was redefined and reframed to fit the presiding worldview, and some of the diverse voices of the early Christians were whitewashed.

There’s something to be gained by seeing the famous theologians of the past for the diverse people that they were.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to completely redefine the way we read them!  If we try to wrap their faith around their ethnicity, we could end up creating the same kind of ethnocentric faith that the enlightenment brought us. We might be tempted to think about Augustine in terms of how African he was, or to have conversations about Anthony as primarily an Egyptian thinker.  That’s all well and good, but both men would much rather be weighed by a more important measure: in terms of the truth that they were a witness to.  Oden put it well:

Orthodox Christians do not admit skin color as a criterion for judging Christian truth. Never have. Never will. African Christianity is not primarily a racial story but a confessional story of martyrs and lives lived by faith active in love.

Ibid., Loc. 545-548

The benefit to recovering the full story of these saints is seeing just how vast the workings of God have been.  Europe isn’t the alpha and the omega of historic Christian faith. Christianity belongs to the whole world, and it always has.

Christianity-and-Water with C.S. Lewis

Life hack: Taco Bell napkins make great bookmarks.

Continuing my grand tradition of reading way too many books at the same time, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again this week.  Lewis is so easy to read.  When he writes, I find that he doesn’t have to persuade me about much.  Instead, it’s almost like he’s uncovering all of the things I already believed in my heart, gathering them up, and presenting them back to me in a way far more logical and clever than I ever could have managed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I went through a period where I hated C.S. Lewis with a burning passion.  When you’re a Christian that wants to learn more about faith, he’s one of the only serious theologians that many pastors seem to be comfortable prescribing.  You’d get sick of anyone if they came up that many times!  But ultimately he’s prescribed for a reason: he’s phenomenally good.  Perhaps the closest thing to a mutual source of authority for Protestant churches in America.

In any case, this quote particularly struck me: 

I will tell you another view that is also too simple.  It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right- leaving out the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil and redemption.  Both of these are boys’ philosophies.  It is no good asking for a simple religion.  After all, real things are not simple.

Mere Christianity, 40

It was such a relief to hear that a man as distinguished as Lewis had experiences with pop faith that are so similar to ours today.  After all, how many people do you know that are just Christian enough to acknowledge that God exists, but can’t imagine that this God would want anything aside from their own happiness?  It’s so common! The term “moral therapeutic deism” is thrown around to describe that kind of faith today, and Lewis is talking about it all the way back in 1952.  That flimsy faith rarely gets further than this: God exists and he wants us to be happy.  Don’t be mean, love yourself, and everything will work itself out.  The best of secular wisdom is echoed back at an individual with a tint of religious nostalgia.  It’s distinctly frustrating to hear for those of us that are eager to dig in to Christianity as the core of our life, and a core that continually forces us to give things up, to repent, and to turn back to the baffling God that demands everything.  A faith less than that would seem frivolous to us!  As the famous agnostic philosopher Julian Barnes wrote, “there seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything,” (Nothing to be Frightened Of, 64).

On one hand, it was self-justifying.  I remembering being in seminary and seeing that the United Methodist baptismal liturgy didn’t contain the traditional question “Do you reject the Devil and all of his works?”  I asked the professor about the exclusion and his answer was blunt: “Oh, yes, they replaced that with ‘evil, injustice, and oppression.’  The governing body didn’t think they would be able to get the traditional language approved by a vote.”  What a loss! It’s a tragedy to throw away a liturgy over a thousand years old because we’ve fixed the language with something moderns find more comforting.  That stuck in my head. I imagined myself as the bold Christian, right alongside Lewis, representing the real faith for the world.

But don’t’ worry.  That spiritual cockiness didn’t make it through the week.

I’ve been working on a little project to try to understand how we can be better at Christian service. And as since I want to be better at serving in a distinctly Christian way, I have to understand what “Christian service” actually is and how it differs from other ways of serving it the world (community service, quid pro quo, etc.).  It’s been a delightful adventure so far.  A challenging one too!  I’ve begun by recording each narrative of service in the book of Acts and then recording commonalities between the events to see what consistently comes to the top.  And geeze!  It’s convicting! 

Two of the most common pieces of service in Acts are the invocation of the name of Jesus, and the proclamation of the Gospel.  I have to ask myself, do I do them?  Do I actually use the name Jesus?  The name that caused scandal all those years ago because of the brash claims that accompanied it?  Not really.  I often use “God,” which is a name that’s a lot more culturally comfortable.  It’s easy to say, causes less tension with other traditions, and is printed on all the money for maximum cultural complicity.  And how often do I proclaim the Gospel apart from preaching and teaching in the church?   The popular (and probably fake) St. Francis quote “Proclaim the gospel always.  Use words when necessary,” suits my sensibilities so well.  But is that what the apostles did?  Or is it a way that I can comfortably move in a secular world without risking discomfort?  I suppose none of this is “theology” in the way that Lewis meant it, but it’s certainly a way in which the faith I’m living is not like that of the Christians in the Bible.  I may include the “terrible doctrines” about Hell and sin, but I exclude the terrible actions that would risk embarrassment as I move through the world.

Lewis not only believed uncomfortable truths in the comfort of his own mind, but he lived them out in the real world.  And not always in a way that won him admiration!  Close Christian friends like J.R.R. Tolkien thought he was too evangelistic, and more than a few promotions went to other people because he was “too Christian” for the taste of others (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 135).  He’s proven himself invaluable one more time on my journey.  On one hand, he gives a word that comforts.  On the other hand, the same word cuts to the core. I hope my faith is never too comfortable, in thought or in deed.