Once in a while, in the rarest cases your own imagination, images conceived in your own heart and mind take to life in someone else’s depiction. That’s certainly how I felt watching this week’s installment of #FindingJesus as the @cnn series presented St. Helena, mother of Constantine and we might say matron to all Christian pilgrims. Her long neck, the graceful sweep of her hands, the pained brow of a troubled but purposed life that held in place the earned crown, took to screen on Sunday’s episode. She was strong, resilient, clever and cunning and it is to Helena we owe the gift of Holy Land pilgrimage and the blessing of pressing our hands into the dust teaming with resurrection life. If we are indeed to be fascinated by early church holy women, we must include St. Helena in the conversation. If we retrace the steps of Jesus, turn over stones this Holy Week, it is to Helena we owe thanks. While her story is dated to later antiquity, her contributions to the Christian church cannot be rivaled.
According to Eutropius, Helena came from a lowly background and St. Ambrose will later explain that Helena was an innkeeper or a stable maid, perhaps much like Rahab who welcomed the Israelite spies. Though it is unknown exactly how, Helena will meet and become involved with Roman General Constantius Chlorus. While later sources consider Constantius and Helena to have been married, by the time he becomes Caesar, Constantius will divorce and/or dismiss Helena to marry another woman, though Helena has borne him a son—Constantine in or around 272. Constantius then sent Helena and Constantine to the court of Diocletian who is known for his empire wide persecution of Christians.
Surviving Diocletian’s court, Constantine distinguished himself as a general and in 306 following the death of his father, Constantine was hailed Augustus and Caesar. It was in 312 that Constantine saw the vision of the Chi Rho and had had his soldiers paint it on their shields. As Constantine rose to power he became more involved with the Christian church, though he also maintained allegiance to pagan gods and practices as evidenced by coinage and other architecture.
According to tradition, soon after convening the Council of Nicea in 325, a period of family strife for Constantine when rumors of his eldest son Crispus’ affair with Constantine’s second wife Fausta as well as Crispus’ plans to usurp his father surface. Constantine has Crispus killed and later learns that the rumor has been Fausta’s creation to further her own son’s interests. Constantine then has his wife killed in a most unpleasant way. It is shortly after all this treachery in 326 that Empress Helena, by now named Augusta sets out to re-trace the steps of Jesus and discover the true cross.
It is Helena’s journey to the Holy Lands which leads to the re-discovery of many important sites for Christianity, previously taken over by Hadrian and others to build pagan temples and shrines. Helena orders the excavations of one of these sites on the prompting of a dream, believing it to be the site of the true cross. Legend is that upon finding crosses underneath the shrine, Helena takes pieces of the three to a dying woman. Upon placing the cross of Christ on the woman, she is healed. Helena then has the cross split into pieces of wood and disbursed through the empire to encourage the faithful. Helena will also have churches built in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives to venerate the life of Christ.
This Holy Week as we read the stories of the Gospels, enact the sacred rituals and remember the life of this Jesus who walked the streets of Galilee and ultimately went up to Jerusalem and Golgotha, let us give thanks also for the woman who first helped us mark these steps so we might follow Jesus in his.
Judas- traitor or friend of God; this is the question raised as we consider the codex discovered in the 1970’s found later to be “The Gospel of Judas” deemed heresy by the Bishop of Lyon in AD 180. The Gospel of Judas is the subject of this week’s installment of the CNN series Finding Jesus.
If you follow this blog you know I am fiercely passionate about the academy equipping the church. That is to say, I understand a good bit of my work to focus on building a bridge between scholarship and pastoral ministry rather than maintaining our long formed silos fashioned by history, schisms and creeds. I advocate for the formation of persons who are educated and informed about matters of faith, church history, theology and scripture.
Part of the process, then, is confronting topics once discussed only in scholarly circles such as The Other Gospels. While the canon of the New Testament, formally named as only 27 books by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in his Festal Letter of 367 AD, we now know there were many, many other writings. We call these works, the New Testament Apocrypha and among these letters are works that are also called Gospels. These other Gospels include, but are not limited to, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip and Gospel of Judas which we are delving into here.
Judas is a codex of fragments that have been reconstructed and debated for years since the first translation published in 2006. In the Gospel of Judas, the author presents Judas’ first person account of life with Jesus. In the pieces of recovered text, Jesus is found imparting to Judas secret knowledge through visions and Judas is ultimately entrusted with the difficult task of turning Jesus over to the Sanhedrin so that the will of God can be accomplished. Here Judas does the hard thing for the good of the world.
Further, the followers of Jesus, namely the disciples, are depicted here as utterly clueless and in a nightmare scene, their futures are revealed as blood soaked debauchery and doom. Since Judas is dated to the second century it is interesting that what is offered is a picture of people sworn to the cause of Jesus who are doing anything but living according to his teachings. Essentially, those who Jesus places in leadership think they are doing the right thing but they are not. Given the context of the second generation of the church, in Finding Jesus, Nicola Denzey Lewis suggests Judas is, “a political smear campaign against the people running the early church.”
Scholars debate the translation of Jesus depiction of Judas in the text, while some have translated the greek diamon as “spirit” April DeConick and others read it as “demon” so that Jesus refers to Judas as the “thirteenth demon” so that the text does not vindicate Judas.
Needless to say, this text and others offer us a window into history, a portrait of the early church, and invaluable information as to the tensions and issues inherent in the fledgling movement who had moved towards institutionalization. It is important to remember that Athanasius’ letter did not cause communities to abandon their deeply loved texts and these texts, outside of Athanasius named letters continued to inform church belief and practice.
“Mephibosheth, rise” I said the words like so many times before, moved as I am by this story of David the king and Jonathan’s son. Told the story to a room full of 45 18-25 year old college students who are taking the obligatory bible course for their undergraduate degree, and it caught me again. The gospel lived out in David’s bloodsoaked throne room, in the aftermath of his defeat of Saul’s sons and the near obliteration of Saul's line to protect the new king from another political uprising. Except this one, Jonathan’s son, lame in both feet who had lived his life in secrecy since the night his nurse dropped him while trying to smuggle him out of the palace as word got back that Saul and Jonathan had been killed.
In the ancient world, Mephibosheth was a throw away—as were most with physical infirmities—he wasn’t able to work, to fight, to lead or to hold public office so he was utterly dependent upon the kindness of whomever would take him in. The night they brought him before David he must have thought he’d be killed too and wondered why the king had bothered to bring him in. He asked David, “What do you need with a dead dog like me,” here belying his own lowly status in the kingdom until the king rewrites his story and changes his life forever (2 Samuel 9).
David restored all that Mephibosheth has lost, all that belonged to the house of Saul now transferred to his grandson and the king himself welcomed Mephibosheth to his own table, brought him into the royal family and gave him status as son of the king. Mephibosheth was, at once, given provision and protection in the house of David; his brokenness covered by the benevolence of the king.
I taught that story in class on Wednesday and hung out in strip clubs on Thursday and couldn’t help connect the two experience. I was realize this full awake to the fact this is what the gospel compels us to do, open wide our arms to those who are thought ‘least’ among us, embrace those who are powerless, share with them the feast of abundance found only in the kingdom, enacted by those of us who have also been covered by the king. I was aware how over and over in Scripture the busted up, broken bum is the one for whom the royal robe and fatted calf wait. I couldn’t help but be aware that’s how I felt in the arms of my friends in the clubs. I was awash with emotion as I was welcomed, given a seat of honor and afforded the precious gifts of time and story, of friendship and trust. I was once more, undone by the power of love and reminded again how much we all need it.
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I believed every- single- word. I lay in my bunk at camp in the hot, heavy, humid midsummer of Tennessee, fans whirring in the cabins ages old with dust, names of campers before me scratched into the walls for posterity. While other girls slept and dreamed about boys, I held my flashlight to the text and memorized the words of the Bible to win the contest, acquire the points, to be the best of the Christians that week.
Did I like boys—sure, in fact it was at youth camp that I had my first kiss, first heartbreak, attended my first “couple’s event” where I sat looking longingly at the other girls paired off with pimply boys all shorter than us. All of it, at camp out in those woods down by the river. But what I really loved, what I really wanted, as far back as I can remember, was knowledge.
Even as a hormone raging adolescent I was heady with the idea that I could know more than the other campers, that I could recall information like some sort of super power that I could apply a given scripture as an answer to anyone’s question at any given time. I believed my mastery of Scripture in the King’s English made me a star in the eyes of God, gave me status as good, worthy, and even, better than. But I was young, mind and body not yet fully formed, faith un-tested, and “if/then” systems I’d come to believe from the holy writ still strong in me like so much Geometry.
It was before all of the losses before life had taken enormous chunks out of my armor, before the formulae I had constructed had fallen apart and failed to bear me up in the hospital emergency rooms, before the phone call in the night destroyed everything bright and beautiful, before cold February snow beside the grave, the grave, the grave. That was before the God I had constructed-- the one I could lead around with a rope, the one who would go where I led and do my bidding according to my Christmas list prayers-- failed me, left me cold and broken and hopelessly lost.
It was before I learned this text was wild and free, mysterious and charged with the super natural, before I knew the people who wrote it were just like you and me. This was long before I knew there would be things I could not know and trees in the garden of which I could not eat and a path, a call into the darkness from which I wanted to run. It was before I knew the leading of the Spirit or the power of Jesus present in suffering—back when I thought this old book was meant for me to study and conquer and apply like so many handbook instructions.
So I studied the words, read them in their original language, eyed yellowed, fragile fragment’s through looking glass and wept before scrolls preserved under the light. And I bowed, humbled and low in reverence for what is long old and true, for what is better and beyond me.
“I believe I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living” my spirit cried, those verses thrumming in my heart, maybe they were only words once, only content before but they were deep in me and came back in the midnight hour while I heard the drip of the machines, the beep and hum of the oxygen and my lips quivered like Hannah’s in the tabernacle. I cried out not in faith but in desperation, and then I knew. The words did not need me, it was I who needed them—her-- Hokmah, Sophia, the wisdom of God the feminine pre existent wisdom of God who came to this world in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus who had sweat blood at his own hour of need, who had cried and languished and begged God to remove the cup that sat before him and bid him drink, Jesus who walked on for love.
Now I repent, I confess, I proclaim, I testify. I will not try to tame it, I will not try to possess it, I will not worship the words, but the one who gave them to me through the fallen, blood soaked hands of the busted up humans whose stories are woven together across the centuries by the Spirit’s own power to remind me that I am not alone and I am in and through and at the end of it all called to love.
I am a Christian and I read it. I am a Bible professor, I am a minister to women in sex trade, I am a wife, a mother, an aunt, a friend and a feminist and that's exactly why I read Fifty Shades of Grey.
I read it for much the same reason I read the Davinci Code, because I am always curious about pieces of art and literature that are deemed "off limits" by the church. As a result of any given smear campaign or all-out assault of a novel from well-intentioned sisters and brothers in the faith; I am convinced I must read the book to form my own opinion as I am sure many, who are speaking out against it, have not.
In the case of the Davinci Code, I wanted to learn exactly what historical claims and MSS evidence was so air tight that it had alluded biblical scholars and been revealed to novelist Dan Brown to the point of threatening our faith. Regarding Fifty, I wanted to know why Christian women were purchasing this book in secret while pastors and church leaders were warning us from it for fear it would erode our marriages and feed our porn addicted proclivities-since we are aware that statistics for divorce and porn addiction are the same inside the church as outside.
My marriage some 15 years intact, and since I don’t struggle with addiction to pornography-- rather a whole host of other sins like worry, overeating and an unhealthy lust for perfection-- I thought it was something I could read and present an informed position not based in fear or rage.
So I read it. Afterwards I felt much like I did after reading the Twilight novels, (another cultural marvel born out of young adult fiction) wondering why in the world this literature was some sort of phenomena.
First of all, I am generally turned off by any and all 30 year old billionaires since I have been in school since Moses and Miriam walked the earth and have been working hard towards tenure, writing and researching my fingers to the bone all the while carrying a full load of classes. I hate to even think about some fantasy world where some young punk who didn't earn it owns his own plane and corporate firm.
The dialogue between Mr. Grey and Ms. Steele was as cheeky (forgive the pun) and cliched as Saturday morning "Saved by the Bell" in the eighties. Though one might accept their sexual appeal towards each other, I was left unconvinced of their love since none of the fires of life had tested it yet. In EL James' defense, this book was meant to be fan fiction as a take-off of Edward and Bella, the same couple who left me asking, "Are you serious??" throughout the Twilight novels. Edward's cool gallantry and Bella's emotionless response to his already dead folk affection was—to turn a phrase-- a waste of vampire blood.
I am vehemently against the forced submission, oppression and abuse of women in any form. I also must caution here and inform readers that there are S&M rings that exist in which women are trapped, coerced and forced to remain and perform. This is a form of trafficking and is the plight of our times.
Though I didn't find this to be the case with characters in Fifty, I read Ana to be consenting albeit foolish and Christian to be wounded and damaged beyond repair such that his only connection with women must be through a mutually agreed upon arrangement providing for his own dominance. It seemed to me that sex was what bound them to one another and they had trouble relating through much else.
It turns out, this is not what my fantasies are made of. Instead, my heart beats for the man who has stood steadfastly beside me through all the twists and turns of life, through all the loss and grief of the past decade and a half, who has helped to steady me on the rocky path of broken dreams and shattered relationships of best laid plans that fell utterly apart. I am not “drunk in love” with a man in a mask, rather a man with a heart revealed through time and tragedy and the occasional burned sweet potato fries.
I wonder if this is the antidote then to all our fear of a movie set to air on the day of St. Valentine, that we quiet our hearts and ease our troubled minds by looking to what we have and who we are, by trusting in the person we chose to do life with and knowing in his arms we are safe and good. Maybe instead of picketing a movie premier or forbidding parishioners to view it, we should take care to make sure the wounded people in our lives know they are loved.
Maybe this cultural phenomena shows us again how important it is that we begin to have real and needed discussions about sex, sexual ethics and relationships in the church, about roles and respect for the presence of the divine in us all. Maybe we see here the critical work before us and we press in to flesh out a theology of women that doesn’t render us silent and less than rather empowered and free. Maybe we should be informed rather than afraid, more Jesus-y and a lot less preach-y and more warm and welcoming to people in pain so they are invited out of the shades and shadows of grey.
She was always there in her red velvet robe, coffee brewing, steam swirling red fine point pen in hand, my mother bent over the scriptures which lay open on our kitchen table in the blue pink pre morning dawn.
In the field beside our home, the farmer would get the cows up while my mother would scour the worn well paper thin pages of her bible for words of hope and peace. I grew up in a home where the bible was revered and read but not always understood. My earliest memories are my mother imparting the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and Moses, Jesus and Mary to me so that these narratives imprinted themselves upon my heart until I deep loved and knew them as well as my own.
Though we read the bible faithfully, tried to own the stories, tried to live according to God’s plan our humanness often broke in and we were rude and short tempered, we were disrespectful and lazy, there were lies and adultery, compassion and jealousy, there was competition and betrayal-- we were nothing like the heroes whose stories we regaled—or so we thought.
As I grew and studied the stories of my childhood, the felt board characters and bedtime tales became my life’s work, my academic and spiritual focus and I learned we were perhaps a lot more like the folks in the ancient text than I had previously thought. It turns out we had skipped lots of the most important parts in Sunday School, hadn’t heard a lot of sermons about the failures, the imperfections, the neuroses.
We never spoke of Abraham trading his wife for favor with the king, not once but twice while he ever remaining the “friend of God.” We said nothing of God’s own attempt to kill Moses on the way down to Egypt after sending him. I missed the story where Lot’s daughters got him drunk so that they could seduce him or of Tamar’s desperation and her scheme to become pregnant so that she dressed like a prostitute to have sex with her father in law which resulted in the blessing of twins. I’m certain I didn’t really know what transpired between Ruth and Boaz or how or why Jesus said, “if you don’t hate your family you cannot be my disciple.”
It seems like today in a world torn by war and violence, where discrimination runs rampant in and outside of the church, where children are killed in the streets and marriages are torn asunder where we fight obesity and starvation on the across the same globe, it might be important to be honest about what the bible does and does not say. To confess what is true, that in some cases we have decided certain parts don’t apply any more but other parts do. We’ve made peace with eating shellfish but battles still rage over the definitions of marriage and the status of women in ministry.
It feels like holding space for a real conversation about the tattered pages of scripture, the stories of our fore parents who tell us how they understood themselves and how they knew God is a sacred undertaking. It seems true that a discussion about how texts have been interpreted across the ages and in different cultures and communities might help us find our way.
Perhaps a confession that the Bible is an artifact of the divine human relationship, illumined by Spirit work and fraught with human struggle is a refreshing and needed proclamation. Maybe though we agree everything necessary for salvation is right there, sewn into the pages, so is a lot of confusion as well as help for our broken, bruised, needy selves if we will trust the work of the Spirit in community to walk with us. Join me on the blog to get honest, gritty and real about what the text says, what it doesn't say and what it meant to the community out of which it was formed and how it has been used across the centuries—here we will be honest about the Bible.
The way the light shines behind his eyelashes, his stern chin and those velvety cheeks, I hold him close, drink him in and I am undone. I marvel at how this tiny babe can be such a healer, how his breath can resuscitate cold worn hearts and how the gift of him is testimony to the goodness of God and the promise that life goes on. This is the miracle of Max.
On October 12, 2014, my husband and I received a phone call that would change us forever. Less that 2 hours later we were the proud and beaming parents of a newborn son. Only 9 months prior we had been shaken by another life altering call and unspeakable loss. To hear our story as featured on Viewpoint, a broadcast of Christians Broadcasting Hope, click below.
With gratitude to Lifetime and Roma Downey for offering Women of the Bible as an introduction to The Red Tent and as Kate Shellnut observes, also the new reality series about nuns, it is good to pause and consider why the Christian women’s market is such a viable niche.
When we consider that the study of women in the bible is no easy task, that it requires much textual and contextual work to glean from a patriarchal narrative a counter narrative that names otherwise scandalous women as part of the in-breaking of liberation in and through the liberator, Jesus. What is true is, they are there and the contributions of these women are manifold, what’s more, it is clear that God worked in and through these women to accomplish the plan of salvation for the world.
This message, however, becomes complicated and convoluted when we consider that these stories do not come to us from the perspective of the women themselves. Rather, what we have are stories about men, recorded by men, handed down by men and admitted into the canon by men. What is more, we have for the better part of human history, had these stories told to us by men and in contemporary contexts they are dressed with sports analogies and offered up with illustrations that hail from a male sense of knowing and being in the world. Thus, we have never heard, the quiet, revolutionary non dominant stories that are there, buried under Abraham and Isaac, knit beneath the surface of Jacob and Joseph but they are there for those who wish to dig deep and to flesh these texts out with careful study and preparation.
This is why I’m grateful to Lifetime for the introduction of Women of the Bible to the main stream market and for the inclusion of a scholar in the all-female commentator line up. Though there were a couple of foibles--words of Paul attributed to Jesus and the perpetuation of the notion that the second temple period was 400 years when God was silent--for the most part it was accessible and a good many people posted on social media they learned something new. In my view this is what good scholarship and effective sermons should do, invite folks to sit with you, pour a cup of coffee, reflect and discuss, share and exchange insights and then move us all forward to share what we’ve learned with others.
The Red Tent received mixed reviews on social media ranging from people who were thrilled to see Anita Diamant’s stellar work come to life and others who were disgusted that the story was not biblical and therefore of no good use. I am a fan of Diamant’s book and have recommended it widely across the years. For her part, Diamant does an expert job of relaying the bloody, sexual and earthy cultic practices and religious ritual for ancient nomadic people. And yes, the biblical account follows Jacob and his sons and we do not hear from Dinah, here Diamant fills in the gaps and shows us the contours of a young woman in love and the system in which she is forced to live and find her way. The series seems well done with an impressive cast though most of them are several shades too pale to be historically accurate. Overall it seems important that we have conversations about the women in the story of God.
The reason Lifetime and others will benefit from reaching out to this niche market is because most women religious are starved for stories of our mothers. We have grown up with the hero, adulterer King David and the venomous temptress Bathsheba. For Protestants we have been locked away and cheated the texts Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon where the Wisdom of God is most certainly female and leads God’s children through the land. We are only allowed to talk about Mary at Christmas, otherwise, we’ll be suspected of turning Catholic and forget any discussions of Sophia or we’d be accused of worshiping someone other than the one true God. We are empty when it comes to knowing how God has worked in and through women throughout history and we are searching for anyone anywhere who will dare to tell us the old, old story.
The reason why The Red Tent received mixed reviews is because we have domesticated and tamed down wild texts about humans and stories of violence and bloodshed, rape and incest, love and rage until the persons in the pages of our sacred book are one dimensional, idealistic and nothing like you and me in our fallen skin. We need stories like The Red Tent to remind us that our fore parents were, like we are, blood and flesh, impetuous and envious, at times vile and self-serving, flawed and imperfect, yet, so loved.
I say kudos to Lifetime and keep ‘em coming and maybe we will know ourselves better because we remember who they were.
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