Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Book Review: 'Phoebe' by Paula Gooder

Paula Gooder's book 'Phoebe'

Paula Gooder, Phoebe: A Story, Hodder & Stoughton, 2018

Phoebe is somewhere between a historical novel, an exceptionally good interactive museum guide, and an adult’s version of the children’s TV series The Storykeepers, full of daring young Christians braving the culture around them to pass on the stories and letters that they have been entrusted with.

The book consists of two parts. First comes the main body of the book, the fictional story of Phoebe in Rome. She has travelled there from Corinth with a task from Paul and a secret mission of her own.  It’s not exactly a novel - though it has much of the narrative arc of one, and is as much of a page-turner. It's a fictional account of what life as an early Christian would have been like, told through the eyes of Phoebe, the deacon mentioned by Paul in Romans 16. It’s an engrossing story, and Gooder's profound scholarship is lightly and effectively incorporated.

In telling this story, although it is fictional, Gooder draws on her own considerable scholarship, both biblical and historical. The second part consists of historical notes, referencing and explaining some of the details and the evidence behind the artistic licence taken in the story.

One of the episodes that stands out most for me is when Phoebe first encounters the Roman Christians telling the stories about Jesus that have been handed down among them. She is astonished – in Corinth, we’re told, they argued about theology with passion and vigour, but she has never come across this kind of corporate storytelling before. That was an entirely new insight for me into the variety of the early Christian experience. 

Similarly, later in the book Peter visits Rome, and tells them a story they hadn’t heard before – that of his betrayal of Jesus before cock crow, and then his forgiveness by Jesus at the lakeside. The way in which Gooder describes the hearers of this story incorporating this new insight, this new detail, into their faith – and its impact on one main character, who feels himself to be beyond forgiveness - is electrifying. Its a very effective and thought-provoking dramatisation of how the early Christians received the content of their faith as a continuing process of revelation rather than as a package deal.

We also see how different groups with the Roman church react to aspects of the letter Phoebe carries – Paul’s ‘Letter to the Romans’ - which causes as much consternation as interest! The tension between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus on certain points is sympathetically portrayed, and Gooder succeeds in winning our empathy on all sides.

Gooder also deftly handles the question of different attitudes to women. Nobody in the book is opposed to Phoebe’s presence as Paul’s deputy. But there are sparks of tension as the wisdom of women preaching – and thus risking attracting unwelcome attention or persecution to the whole group – is debated. Phoebe’s own back-story is a moving and all-too-real one of human trafficking and the vulnerabilities of young women – in which Roman society seems both impossibly distant from, and yet eerily close to, our own. 

I read this book in two sittings, and came away feeling almost as if I had just heard some of the stories about Jesus for the first time - as if I was having to make a really difficult decision about whether to risk following this new way - as if it mattered. There's a freshness and urgency to the story that captures something of what it must have been like to be hearing all this for the first time. 

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday

Thoughts for Maundy Thursday, on John 13:1-15

Footwashing was a rather more normal thing then, of course, than it is now. If you were walking in sandals on hot and dusty roads, through donkey dung and maybe worse, then your feet needed even more cleaning than even the pongiest toes amongst us nowadays. We find taking our socks and shoes off to have our feet washed in this annual ritual a bit awkward feet – few of us like our feet, so we might worry about what they look like – we worry about smelly – personally, I worry about getting cramp if my feet get cold – you might worry about being ticklish. But in Jesus’ day footwashing wasn’t an odd, awkward ritual – it was just another dirty everyday personal hygiene task.  Perhaps the closest analogy for us is wiping your bottom.

In fact, thinking of it as a bit like wiping your bottom perhaps gives us an insight into why Peter reacted as he did. I have often heard from people who, as they are getting older, are fearful and resistant to becoming dependent on others for that sort of intimate, embarrassing personal hygiene assistance. In contemporary society, we tend to guard our independence fiercely, and can often imagine nothing worse than letting others do such things for us and to us as we decline and become incapable of doing them ourselves. Sometimes people even speak of a preference for suicide, hoping to take a trip to Switzerland before they get to that stage of dependency.

Peter, I’m sure, was quite used to having his feet washed by slaves or servants. Yet he refuses that help from Jesus twice, and emphatically – ‘you will NEVER wash my feet’. What he couldn’t accept was the idea of Jesus, someone he looked up and admired, someone he had recognized as the Messiah, doing something like that for him. It was a class issue as much as an issue of personal space. I recognize that, too, from conversations I’ve had. I’ve heard people who would reluctantly accept intimate assistance from a nurse, or a paid carer, express their humiliation at the thought of their spouse, or their children, or a friend having to do those things for them.

So Jesus here challenges some quite deeply held feelings – both in Peter and in many of us – about wanting our independence, and about what classes or types of persons we find it acceptable to receive help from with intimate tasks.

Jesus’s response is intriguing. He doesn’t deny that he is in a class apart, that he is someone special. Rather, he recognizes that prejudice against someone like him doing something like that and plays into it. ‘You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am’.

Jesus’s washing of the disciples’ feet comes out of a deep confidence in who he is and what his calling is. That confidence is emphasized again and again in this passage. We’re told first of all that it’s the Passover, that festival that we’ve just been exploring, with all its long historical roots of freedom and identity as a chosen and called people. Then we’re told that Jesus KNEW that his hour had come to depart - he has the confidence that comes from a deep inner conviction of the time being right. Then again, during supper, we hear that Jesus’ act of footwashing happens ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God’. Again, Jesus’ confidence in his identity and calling is emphasized.

He washes their feet, has that conversation with Peter, and then returns to the table to explain what he has done. Yes, he says, ‘you call me Lord and Teacher, and rightly, for that is who I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example’.

Out of Jesus confidence in his identity and calling comes this astonishing commandment, to wash one another’s feet. To both give and accept loving, intimate, personal service, in humility and interdependence.

In the other gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the instruction that Jesus gives at this point is to celebrate communion – ‘do this is remembrance of me’. That has proved a much easier instruction for followers of Jesus to put into practice over the centuries. Here in John’s gospel, though, which is so often about the meaning behind the symbols, the instruction John emphasizes is to wash one another’s feet. The point of communion, John’s version seems to say, is not just to eat together, or to remember that last supper of Jesus, or even to make a sacramental communion with Jesus. The point is what it will enable us to become. To become, like Jesus, confident in our own identity and calling - so confident that we become able not just to serve others in humility, but even to accept our own humiliating interdependence.                           

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Disentangling Christianity and Patriarchy

Is Christianity inseparable from patriarchy, or can we somehow disentangle the threads?

I am beginning to suspect that this task of imagination is the urgent task of the church today. It is no secret that numbers of churchgoers are falling, and I suspect that this is because the dominant narrative and metaphor of traditional Christianity – patriarchy – which used to also be the dominant narrative of traditional society, is beginning to fail. Hallelujah to that! 

It is exciting to be part of a new generation of scholars and practioners who are re-focusing on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as the paradigm of gender-bending patriarchy-smashing. Jesus refused to enact the cultural expectations of masculinity and power, instead literally bursting from the man-made tomb that he was placed in by powerful men.

It was a question that came into particular focus again for me this morning, as I sat saying the Church of England’s morning prayer in a coffee shop in my parish, with a young woman parishioner. Today is the feast day of St Bride, the patron saint of one of my parish churches, and we were struck by the contrast between her story – as an abbess of a mixed monastery – and the patriarchal structures that the daily readings are imbued with.

How do we separate the patriarchal structures that the Biblical texts were written in, reflect, take for granted (and, granted, sometimes challenge and/or subvert), from the ‘core’ or ‘essence’ of the Scriptures – the good news, if you like? Is it possible to do so? To me, at least, it seems obvious that it is desirable to do so, but I’m fully aware that in itself is a contested claim. And as a historian and theologian, I wonder how much it is possible to separate the context of the scriptures from their content. Since so much is revealed to us through contested history, narrative, story, poetry, is it even possible to say that there is a ‘truth’ that can be found within or beyond the context?

I gave a talk at a conference for women preachers back in the autumn, where I tried to untangle some few threads to give some strategies for preaching the text without drowning in patriarchy – look for the few women that ARE mentioned – they tend to be there for a reason, not accidentally. Look for what their stories do in the context of the main ‘male’ narrative – they often reflect on, or give a counterpoint to, the other characters or emotions that are portrayed in the same or adjoining passages, and often in really fascinating ways. Particularly look at, and take seriously, the few words that women speak – given how much the nature of the narratives tend to silence women by privileging male experience, when women DO speak, their words are hardly likely to be irrelevant. Study the original languages, where at all possible – sometimes our translations misgender passages or interpretations, by, for example using male pronouns because they are conventionally used by a language for a mixed group of men and women.

So there are things we can do, as feminist readers of the scriptures. 

But more fundamentally, we have an issue with the whole patriarchal structure of society that is the context in which the scriptures were written, which provides their dominant metaphors and analogies, and which has then used the scriptural status of those dominant metaphors to justify itself. As Mary Daly put it so well, ‘when God is male, then the male is God’. Or in a different context, James I is said to have declared, ‘no bishop, no king’, recognising that the church and societal hierarchies were intimately bound together as part of the same interpretative framework and worldview.

This is a much deeper question than simply looking for the women in Bible passages, or (correctly) pointing out that the scriptures often contain a subversive undercurrent which speaks of liberation and critiques the power structures that it mirrors and is used to bolster.

It isn’t just about maleness or masculinity, though of course these are key metaphors and components within patriarchy as a system of power. This is about the whole system of partriarchy – with all its ramifications for kingship, lordship, inheritance, strength, power, battle, success, as well as questions of gender, masculinities and femininities. Patriarchy is implicated in class and race struggles as well as gender struggles – it is a whole system of hierarchical values, where those who best fit the reigning view of masculinity (who yes, might, on rare occasions, be a female, or gay, but who generally won’t be) are assumed to not just have de facto power, but to be the ones who ought to be in charge.

In morning prayer this morning we read psalm 99, which repeatedly refers to God using the metaphor and dramatic tropes of kingship and power. It begins:

‘The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble; he is enthroned above the cherubim: let the earth shake’.

If we remove all the references to God as a king or lord – which are of course human metaphors – from the Bible, or indeed from our contemporary prayer books or song books - the pages would crumble into so much confetti. 

Trying to pick hymns for a service that don’t reinforce patriarchy is possible, but blooming hard work. Trying to address the patriarchal threads in the Bible readings can seem relentless – I don’t want to lose sight of everything else that is in there, and preach an unbalanced diet, but I also don’t want to let the patriarchal undercurrents go unchallenged.

Does this mean that we can’t ever rescue Christianity from patriarchy? Or is it possible to dream of a future where patriarchy has been replaced with egalitarianism, and Christianity is still true and loved? I do hope the latter is true, and it seems to me that it must be possible, since to me and to so many feminist and liberationist theologians the driving motivation and rationale for smashing the patriarchy is our Christian faith and the call to follow the example of Jesus Christ.

Disentangling these threads, of Christianity and patriarchy, is not going to be an easy task. But it is one we must face, with courage and a sense of humour. 

Because ultimately, I simply don't buy the arguments that the Bible says God is a man and so men are more God-like than women, or that God is king-like and so monarchies and hierarchies are more God-like than egalitarian societies. The Bible was written by people trying to make sense of how they had encountered God, or heard God speak, in their own contexts and cultures, just as we all inevitably do. They inevitably - just as we do - reached for their own metaphors. To deify those metaphors simply because they are in the Bible is, I'm afraid, to indulge in an unproductive process of circular argument. 

Jesus, not the scriptures, is God's definitive Word. To be in relationship with a person is a two-way process, and so it will and should be constantly changing - because even if God is unchanging, we are not. 

Can Christianity be disentangled from patriarchy? I do hope so.