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May 2019

Brave Woman

The Guardian today published a story on Julie Burkhart who has bravely worked to maintain access to abortion in Kansas after the assassination of Dr. George Tiller.  

I met Julie in 2011 at a reproductive justice conference at Oklahoma State University.  She was one of the main featured speakers and I was an invited panelist and participant.  All of us invited guests hung out socially after the academic events.  Julie was then still deeply grieving Dr. Tiller but bravely organizing a response.  

River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  

Buffy & the Academy

A fun article in the Atlantic on why Buffy the Vampire Slayer is beloved of academics.

Back in the mid-Aughts I was invited to write an essay for a volume on the philosophy of Buffy which was being edited by a friend of mine.  I was going to write an essay on the concept of God revealed in the show, more on that in a moment.  But I ended up backing out not feeling I had the time to devote to the essay by the deadline in order to prepare something of the quality I would want to publish. 

I do regret that decision, by the way.  Which made reading this article a little melancholy.

In the final season there was so much talk about the "First Evil," I kept wondering when I first watched it if there was going to be a "First Good."  Maybe even a literal deus ex machina to close the series.  At the time I figured the show would end one of two ways--if Joss Whedon was fundamentally a pessimist or nihilist, then Buffy would be killed and the First Evil would conquer the world, or if Whedon was fundamentally optimistic then Evil would be defeated maybe with this appearance of the First Good.  

Of course the finale was not as final as I had hoped, which initially disappointed me.  In retrospect, however, I came to realize that the finale had in fact revealed the God concept of the show when Buffy's power is shared among all the potential slayers.  It's idea of the First Good was a immanent power, particularly a female power.  

But I never did the good work of more fully developing this interpretation.

Berry Criticism

This review of Berry's essays in the New York Times seems woefully unfair to me.  The author is correct that Berry has often written on the same topics, which is a reason one doesn't really need every essay he's ever published.  But the author fails to highlight some of the key themes that are so important, such as affection or what it takes to really build community.

Yes, Berry can sound like a crank at times, but I have found his an essential voice.  I read both his essays and poetry, admiring the latter deeply while often feeling challenged by the former.

And, yes, he is "conservative" on many issues while being "progressive" on many others, meaning he doesn't fit well into our current political divides.  I think he likes it that way.  I believe this is part of his essential function, however.  He is the rare voice trusted by folks across the spectrum who can speak words of challenge to them on some of their sacred cows.

Now Behave!

Now Behave!

Titus 2:11-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 May 2019



            Continuing with our series based on some of the letters in the New Testament, today we come to Titus.  The Letter to Titus presents itself as having been written by Paul to one of his former companions who is now leading churches and missionary efforts on the island of Crete.  Hear now these words of instruction:


Titus 2:11-15


For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.


Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.


For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.


            Two words, and one exclamation mark, to summarize the Letter to Titus: Now behave!

            This author comes across as a stern parent, though the core message is that in response to God’s grace, we should be zealous for good deeds, living self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.

            The book is about proper order for leaders, the church, and the home.  This letter provides instructions on appointing elders and bishops for the church and their qualifications.  Titus is warned about false teachers who are trying to deceive the people, and he’s told to rebuke the deceivers “sharply.”

            Titus is also supposed to teach his congregants how to live good lives.  There are specific instructions for old men, wives, young men, and slaves, with an emphasis on obedience and submission to authority.  Also enumerated are a number of good behaviors such as controlling passions, being gentle, and acting courteously.  The letter also adds that we should “avoid stupid controversies” and speculations.


            So, if you were here last week when I preached on the Letter to Philemon, you might be confused.  The Letter to Philemon promotes a new social order based on radical equality.  Instead of telling people what to do, it encourages them to freely choose the right thing.  Instead of telling slaves to submit to masters and wives to husbands, the Letter to Philemon treats all people as partners together in God’s mission, of equal worth and dignity, thus subverting hierarchy and patriarchy.

            You might then be wondering, can these two letters be written by the same person?  After all, both claim to be written by Paul the apostle.  Yet, the social relations described in Titus sound less Paul and more like the ideals of family life promoted by the Roman empire, as influenced by Stoic philosophy.  What’s going on here?


            Well, you wouldn’t be the first to ask such questions.  In the ancient church, some wondered if Paul really authored the Letter to Titus.  At the beginning of the 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher was the first modern scholar to speculate that some of the letters attributed to Paul might not have been written by him.  That conclusion that has now received widespread agreement among biblical scholars. 

Strong consensus exists that Titus, along with First and Second Timothy, were probably written by some second century church elder making a claim for Paul’s authority in order to give his own advice to churches.

So, that would explain why this letter contains such a different social vision than what we read last week.  At best, this author is trying to give churches advice on how to avoid persecution given their social environment.  But at worst, this author comes across as supporting the status quo of social life in the empire, with its patriarchy, slavery, and economic exploitation.  Which puts this letter at odds not only with Paul but the overwhelming tradition of the New Testament.

In the early centuries of Christianity there were many debates around questions of equality, leadership, and church order.  Bart Ehrman writes:


Paul’s churches split in lots of ways. . . .  Some Pauline Christians thought women should be treated as equals and given equal status and authority with men, since Paul did say that ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female.’  Other Pauline Christians thought that women were equal with men only “in Christ,” by which they meant “in theory,” not in social reality.  These Christians were keen to tone down Paul’s own emphasis on women, and one of them decided to write a set of letters


In the long run a view very much like that of the author of Titus gained power, with the more radical interpreters of Jesus and Paul sidelined for much of Christianity’s history.  Robert E. Goss calls Titus “a tremendous power play within the history of the Church” and one with long lasting, negative consequences. 



            What, then, are we to do with Titus?

            Do we think this letter contains any word for us?

            As I pondered these questions leading up to writing the sermon this week, I thought of our Puritan ancestors.  Look again at the description of upright living and social and family order described in Titus, and it sounds very like the Puritans.

            The Puritans believed that we are called by God to live virtuously and that our personal virtue has implications for the family and wider society.  A virtuous life is one of “simplicity, modesty, and charity” to quote the historian Amy Kittelstrom.

            But there exist a set of interesting historical outcomes to the Puritan way of life.  Their emphasis on virtuous living gave birth to democracy, to liberalism, to universal human rights, to our current denomination, the United Church of Christ, and its vision of Christian ethics rooted in equality, freedom, and inclusivity. 

            How did this come about?  Well, that’s a more complicated historical story than I have time for in today’s worship.  There are many historians who have treated the matter.  I recommend Amy Kittelstrom’s The Religion of Democracy as one good recent book on this evolution.

            Without getting into all the details, let me sketch a little bit of what happened.  One feature is that the Puritans and early Congregationalists understood themselves to be finite Christians who sin.  Their finitude and sinfulness affected their ability to know. Therefore, they understood that they only possessed some truth and could not claim full, infallible knowledge.  These theological understandings gave rise to intellectual humility, curiosity to learn from others, and critical examination of ideas. 

            The emphasis on moral virtue also focused attention on improving the self.  To cultivate the self meant to grow spiritually, morally, and intellectually.  So a live of virtue included valuing education.  The Puritans were highly literate, teaching both sons and daughters to read.  They read the Bible constantly, while they also read the great classics and the best intellects and authors of their own age.  They founded schools wherever they went.  Remember that Omaha Public Schools began in the basement of the First Congregational Church.

            Over the course of a couple of centuries as the Spirit moved these once very conservative Christians, they developed ideas of tolerance, charity, and freedom of thought. They embraced historical-critical scholarship of the Bible, which taught them to consider questions like “Who wrote the letter to Titus?”  They began to ponder whether the ethical commands of a book like Titus are best understood not as absolute moral laws to govern people in all times in places, but as descriptions of a historical context.  Ultimately they decided that the Letter to Titus was wrong about slavery, about women, about church organization. 


            I think we can learn from our forebears how to handle this letter.  Much of its particulars about family and society we disagree with, because they do not reflect the best human wisdom and are even contrary to the social vision of the rest of the New Testament.

            Instead, I want to suggest two things we can take away from reading the Letter to Titus.  First is that we should live virtuous lives as expressions of gratitude for God’s grace.  For us those virtuous lives will be more equitable and just, while still being expressions of love, gentleness, and courtesy. 

And the second takeaway is that virtuous lives were once before the fertile ground in which freedom and inclusion came to fruition.  May our leaders, our churches, and our homes be gardens for the Holy Spirit to bring forth a new and better world in the time to come.

This Blessed Earth

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family FarmThis Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I moved to Nebraska in 2010 all new UCC and DOC ministers gathered at Camp Kaleo in the center of the state in the Sandhills near Burwell for an orientation to ministry in Nebraska. One of our speakers was a western Nebraska rancher. He talked about rural-urban divides and how urban folk don't understand ag issues. I pointed out that many urban people were deeply concerned about agriculture as evidenced by the growing interest in eating locally and organically; I almost mentioned my long fondness for Wendell Berry. The rancher was very dismissive of what I said. Later, I was talking to my Conference Minister and asked him about it. His answer, "For a family to have survived farming in Nebraska, they have bought up the land of their neighbors and they now run such big industrial farms that the ideas of organic farming challenge how they've been living for a couple of generations." It was a good learning moment for me.

Genoways book is a story of one year in the life of one Nebraska farm family, a liberal family at that, but ones who still farm with contemporary industrial practices. The book helps you to understand why and the history of getting there. I deeply appreciated it for conveying how difficult and complex farming is today and the breadth of skills and knowledge required to be successful--from mechanical and IT know-how to grasping global trade, chemistry, bio-engineering, energy policies, climate science, and more. SO different from the life my grandparents led and their farm I have such nostalgia for. The book left me dizzy and wondering why anyone does it anymore.

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Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures

Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian ScripturesTime and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures by Ephraim Radner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am interested in approaches to scriptural interpretation that resist the hegemony of historical-critical method, so I was interested in this defense of figural reading. Except even I, who did a PhD in metaphysics, did not anticipate the overly dense metaphysical sections. Plus, there was much in these sections I did not concur with. I ultimately skimmed through huge portions of the book, and appreciated much more the final chapters with more practical application for the preacher.

Radner argues that the task of preaching is to lead the listeners into the text rather than establishing THE meaning. He writes, "Our figural goal is to lead and go with our people into a realm of meanings and trace out its parameters and interiors. It should be a realm in which, of course, we do not leave our listeners as disoriented wanderers, but as creatures taken by the scriptural forms themselves, so as to lead them further, or into a clearing, or back out again, in some posture of transformed wonder." I particularly like that "transformed wonder" idea.

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Descartes: A Biography

Descartes: A BiographyDescartes: A Biography by Desmond M. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very thorough biography that did help me better understand Descartes, which will hopefully bear fruit in my teaching. The downside of this book is that it spends a great deal of time in minute details of Descartes' movements and correspondence where a less detailed but more thematic (and shorter) overview would have been sufficient for my needs. But some thorough bio like this does need to exist.

The most surprising discovery for me was the speculation on Descartes' sexual orientation. The gay community can grasp onto the slightest rumors to consider whether some prominent historical person was gay or bi, but I had never heard Descartes mentioned. But Clarke's speculation, always very sober, was persuasively of at least the possibility.

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