On Being a “Half-breed” Seminarian…

Courtyard at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon.

A chill went through my spine as I heard several tribal songs yesterday morning at an event at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland. It was a Collins Lecture on “The Gospel of Conquest” with several Native speakers: George “Tink” Tinker (Osage Nation), Robert J. Miller (Eastern Shawnee), and Kim Recalma-Clutesi (Kwagiulth/Pentlatch). Since I had to be in Newberg for a Hebrew class by 6pm, I could only stay for the first two lectures by George and Robert. But I am glad that I did. I had never imagined that I would ever hear traditional tribal songs in church.

On my way home, I started thinking of how I had never expected to be studying just as much about Indigenous spirituality as I am Christian theology. Nor did I ever expect, when I left Eugene, to even meet a Native American professor teaching at a seminary. But yet here I am on the eve of turning in a writing sample of my thesis on Native Christologies, which will be turned in to the very same Native professor, Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee).

Back in March, when I had first started to consider potential thesis topics, I had a different idea in mind than studying Native Christologies. I had more of a desire to study Native theology more broadly or maybe study the book of Joshua from the postcolonial[1] perspective of Native peoples. Whichever topic I would decide to pursue, though, I knew that it would be an extremely personal endeavor. I knew that I would be unraveling my previous way of understanding my identity as I studied more on Native traditions, history, and spirituality.

My Cherokee half is the half that I have had to study on my own throughout my entire life. Since I have never known my Cherokee father, I have had to lean on white historians and euro-centric textbooks to teach me. You can probably see why this might be problematic.

In college I got a different look at Native identity. I took a Native American literature class and we read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo). It was the first time I learned about “half-breeds” from a non-white perspective. There was a great amount that I could finally identify with.

But the bridge between Native American literature to Christian theology was never really envisioned for me. Although my church settings had never dealt with Native teachings directly, there was always the assumption that because they were not “sound doctrine,” they were not worth looking into – certainly not worth joining any local Native community.

Yet as I have studied Native traditions and as I have considered the world these Native authors describe, I see a world more suitable for Christianity than the West will ever be able to establish. Why do I think this way? While I’m saving the longer discussions for my thesis, there are three areas in Western Christianity that are significantly different in Native spirituality.


Western culture in general is obsessed with material goods – clothes, technology, buildings, cars, etc. And Western Christianity doesn’t really shy away from this. Consider the places of worship for a minute: usually a nicely designed and decorated worship hall, maybe some professional stage lighting with a sweet stereo system, and probably either a couple of giant TV screens or projector screens to display the PowerPoint slides that go along with the sermon (and the handouts). Native places of worship involve very little – if any – human-created things. In the sweat lodges I have experienced, the only materials were the tarps that covered over the branches that connect to create the dome of the lodge with a few mats on the inside for people to sit on. Apart from those, there was nothing else. It was people, songs and prayers, and the earth.[2]

Text based.

Following along with the material focus, much of our Western world is text-based. Something that is written down has more authority in day-to-day life than something that is spoken. When we buy something, we receive a receipt to prove that we purchased that item. And yes this plays a major factor in land claims, which still happen today![3] When disputes arise, the U.S. points to the written contracts as official, mutually binding laws. But many Native traditions see written words as even more untrustworthy than spoken words. Spoken words demand relationship. Spoken words demand that the other listens – and not listen solely for the purpose of responding. When it comes to Christianity, especially Protestantism, our worship revolves around the Bible. This is precisely what “authority of Scripture” even means: that it is binding for our lives as we follow God. Native traditions involve something much more intimate, much more communal, and much more heart-driven (rather than doctrine-driven).

Celebration of diversity.

And the mention of doctrines leads to the third, but certainly not the final point: Western Christianity, being a product of Western culture, is inherently hegemonic. Western culture sees itself as inherently superior to all other cultures. In the wars that the U.S. has fought in the Middle East, part of the narrative was that we were spreading the gospel of democracy – as if our country did not experience comparable problems to those of the Middle East (they may have ISIS and Boko Haram, but we have Neo-Nazis and the KKK; there isn’t much of a difference). Western Christianity follows a similar path. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of denominations in Christianity and most of which were formed because someone somewhere disagreed with someone else and started their own church. But in Native traditions, diverse ways of understanding the world are actually expected. So something like creation narratives are going to differ – not unlike the two creation stories in Genesis.

Take all of this as you will, but over the last five or six years, Western Christianity has really exhausted my faith because of all these issues. Some church worship services are little different than concerts. Some discussions about the Bible only serve the purpose of proving someone else wrong. And some communities are so uniform both theologically and demographically speaking that I oftentimes do not feel welcomed simply by having brown skin and believing the Bible to be imperfect. In a way, this exploration into the other half of my heritage has saved and healed the half I grew up with.

So in a way, this seminary exploration is not at all what I had intended, but precisely what I needed.


[1] George Tinker joked about this word during his talk. He said, “When someone says ‘postcolonial,’ Natives say ‘When did it end?’”

[2] Powwows are worth mentioning here simply because they have the appearance of being material-based. But they really aren’t, at least not in the way Western culture is. Everything that Natives wear and use in Powwows is made from Natives themselves; not store bought from somewhere else. It is either that or they are handed down from generation to generation, which doesn’t really happen much in Western culture. But I have only been to one Powwow, so there are certainly other voices who could speak more accurately to how they function.

[3] Both Robert Miller and George Tinker shared with us that all U.S. laws pertaining to property rights are based upon the Doctrine of Discovery, which is the ridiculous belief that Europeans “discovered” the continents of North and South America before the Natives did (and thereby set the precedent for whoever “discovers” and then occupies a land gets to keep that land). Even right now, there are tribes that are still fighting both the U.S. government and the Canadian government for land disputes.

Rocking the Boat: Random Thoughts on Faith, Church, and the Bible…

It has been months since I last blogged and since I am still near the beginning of the semester, I figured I could spare a few words here before my life becomes almost utter chaos (between my thesis research, internship, and three part-time jobs [TA, writing consultant, student life leader], I will be hard-pressed to find any free time).

It is my last year of seminary. I’ve said that several times and it still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I guess I’m not sure it’s really supposed to until I graduate, right? It’s like in the movie Amazing Grace where William Wilberforce asks William Pitt after they’ve raced through Wilberforce’s garden, “Why is it when you stop running you always feel the splinters?” and Pitt replies, “It’s a lesson: we must keep going.” The reality of seminary ending will not likely hit until I have stopped writing the papers and reading the books.

But more on that later.

What has come to mind lately has been where I was when I started this journey. And no, it is not when I began seminary, actually. It goes much farther back than that.

When I met with my internship supervisor (Brian Doak at the Newberg campus of George Fox) right before the first Hebrew class, we talked a bit about where things had begun for me. He had asked me who my professor had been at U of O and I said it was Daniel Falk (now at Penn State). And then I told him how I even got started into Falk’s classes: by way of frustration with my Math 112 class.

Only the Lord knows how I even passed Math 111 when I failed the final (I think I received roughly a 56%), but somehow I found myself two weeks into Math 112 drawing countless circles that weren’t doodles, but instead serious attempts at calculations. Unlike any other math class that I had taken up to that point, I had even met with the professor in her office hours twice in the first week. And by the Thursday of the second week, I was ready to call it quits.

But I needed something to replace it; financial aid would not allow me to take 8 credits at the undergraduate level since “full time” was considered 12. So, at around 3 am (so technically Friday), I started browsing the course catalogues and stumbled upon the Religious Studies section. I knew at least one of my friends was in an Intro to the Bible class, so I thought I’d check it out.

It was completely full.

Yet I knew that the end of Friday was the latest anyone could drop classes and receive a 90% refund. And since I had just eaten an entire box of those Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies, which are loaded with sugar, I figured I’d be up awhile. My math homework was certainly not getting done. So I sat there hitting “Refresh” for maybe ten minutes when, lo and behold, the Red Sea parted and the Intro to the Bible class had an opening!

To this day, it was the fastest I had ever signed up for any class.


And that was when this whole journey began. I took that class, then the subsequent Jesus and the Gospels in the following fall. And during my fifth year (or as I call it, the Victory Lap year), I took two more classes from Professor Falk because why not? It was during those final classes that I realized that while my major had been English literature, my true passion was studying the Bible. And I believed that my time studying the Bible beyond the normal weekly Bible study was not done.

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, the two afternoon coffees certainly help, but mostly because within the past two days, I have been reminded twice of a church experience that is difficult to relive. Sunday night I received an email asking about this post, which is my honest thoughts about the closure of Calvary Fellowship, my home church in Eugene for 5 of the 7 years I had lived there. And just yesterday afternoon, a fellow classmate and I chatted about Calvary Chapel and why Calvary Fellowship had split off from it (he had heard about it down in California). And like any break within a church denomination, it boiled down to a difference of opinion regarding key beliefs. This time, the two key beliefs were the doctrines of pre-tribulation (rapture) and inerrancy, the latter of which was the major one that I had experienced while at Calvary Fellowship.

Without going too far into the details of what happened that led to Calvary Fellowship’s final closure (honestly, some terminology that is used around “major doctrines” like these is triggering for me), it is enough to say that Danny believed the Bible to be God’s inspired word – the divine revelation that pointed to Jesus. Furthermore, any critique of the doctrine of inerrancy that Danny had had was not for the purpose of “bringing down inerrancy,” as he once stated in a sermon (by the way, that sermon was the one and only time Danny had addressed personal attacks on him and his family that were based off of his beliefs – I mean honestly, who should have to justify why they follow Jesus to fellow Christians?). Even in the final days of the church, we had plenty of members who disagreed with him on this belief, but loved the community that we had all helped to create.

Little did I know that, when I was listening to Danny defend himself to his own church based off of countless rumors spread about him, I would have a difficult time attending any church.

A year after we had said goodbye to Danny, who moved back down to California to take up a job that would provide for his family, I started gathering with other former members of Calvary Fellowship. I think it was only because of their presence that I was even able to sit comfortably in a church (without feeling like I didn’t belong). I haven’t been able to do so since.

In my one normal class, which is all about hermeneutics (“the art of interpretation”), we’re reading this book by Michal J. Gorman who describes the interpretation process as a spiral – we begin in one spot, circle by critique and deconstruction, and ascend upwards as we construct a new way of understanding the Biblical text. As I read those words I pictured a spiral staircase that essentially gets designed as it is being built (something akin to the staircases at Hogwarts). But I didn’t that it was an apt description of how it feels to strive toward a better understanding of the text as you both deconstruct and reconstruct along the way.

As I found out with Calvary Fellowship, deconstructing to reconstruct can feel like chaos. In fact, it can feel like a shipwreck – like a church closing its doors because a pastor dared to challenge a dominant view of the Bible, but do so in a way that was conducive to a healthy faith and spirituality. Interpreting the Bible often feels like sailing on a boat; sometimes it will be smooth and easy, but others it will be terrifyingly rough and it will feel like the boat is about to capsize.

This imagery of a ship at sea is deliberate: almost two years prior to Calvary’s closure I had written a post about why I had chosen to stay with Calvary Fellowship; because my little individualistic faith had become grafted in with the other members. Or as I had put it then, my little rowboat and been broken apart and pieced back together with the much larger ship of Calvary. So when Calvary was no longer a church, I had to reinterpret what my faith even looked like, let alone where I saw myself in the church.

Where my seminary comes into play is how it has provided a place where I can ask questions and not be afraid of not finding an answer. I can mull over things without feeling the pressure to produce a nicely-packaged response (but of course, there is always the pressure one feels right before a paper is due, but that’s a little different). The interpretive methodologies that I have learned thus far have helped redeem a text so wrapped up in religiosity (a word I often heard at Calvary; not even sure if it’s a real word). I feel more comfortable in exploring a text, especially after having learned its original languages.

As you might guess, I’m pretty excited about this hermeneutics class – not only because I might learn some new methodologies for interpretation, but also because it continues the journey that I began in a night of frustration with a college math class my freshman year. Learning more about the Biblical text is all that I really wanted to do in the first place. But now I can do so without feeling inadequate simply because I have a different method of approach or don’t have the “right” method (which is all that inerrancy really is: a method).

Because it’s okay to rock the boat.

Faith, then, seems to be a byproduct of how well we trust God when we don’t feel like we can trust anything else, like the Bible or the church. God is above and beyond all of that. In fact, no amount of prepositions accurately depicts where, when, how, or why God even is (I know, such an English major thing to say, right? Ugh.). God just is. And sometimes when we come to the Bible, that’s all we have to go on.

And that’s okay.

God bless.

Because of Jesus…

Some may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging as much lately. I wish I could blame it all on the workload of being a full-time seminarian mixed with a couple of part-time jobs, but the reality is all of that busy-ness actually makes me want to blog more. Of course, it doesn’t suddenly create the time to do so, but nevertheless the desire to blog isn’t the reason I haven’t blogged.

Honestly, my lack of blogging is due more to the fact that there are heavier things to blog about. For example, this summer I took American Church History with one Professor Randy Woodley and while we would read speeches from Martin Luther King Jr., a news story would break about how another black individual (or nine individuals at a Bible study) was killed at the hands of white men (usually police officers). Or when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages must be recognized in every state, how quickly many Christians responded with messages of mourning and lament even though the founders of many of the conservative institutions fought for equality of all. In those situations, my words would not do much to improve any situation or to lessen the pain within these communities. All anyone who is not directly involved can do is draw attention to the voices who are directly involved.

And basically that’s what I have been doing: re-tweeting and sharing the voices who have been speaking against injustice in these arenas as well as others. But sometimes that doesn’t seem to be enough. Sometimes it seems as though my friends on Facebook or Twitter won’t pay any attention to what I share because they don’t believe racism exists or they believe a “biblical marriage” has a simple, straight-forward definition contrary to what the Supreme Court thinks. What does it take for these perspectives not to be changed entirely, but to be challenged a little and given the space to think or process for themselves? What is needed in order for the voices of the slain black men, women, and children at the hands of police to be heard? What is it going to take to value each other’s life equally?

I will not even begin to pretend to have the answers, but I have a few hopes. One hope is that we would de-politicize these issues so that we might have a little more room to talk. Both Republicans and Democrats can be (and often are) seen as the enemy – as the group that is trying to ruin the country. Our political atmosphere has long been removed from the realm of equal dialogue and sharing of perspectives because it has become so fused with the need to beat one’s opponent that we’re reluctant to admit where we have agreements – or even worse, where our political parties are actually wrong. Removing the politics from the discussion enables for voices to be heard.

Which leads to my second hope: that we would de-politicize these issues so that we might have room to listen. This is by far the most important aspect of removing the political labels because in either political party the people who are less likely to be heard are the underprivileged black, Latino/a, Native, LGBTQ, and female voices. So the opposite of these categories – the cisgender, heterosexual, white male – is primarily the one who desperately needs to listen. But the same challenge can extend to others who are not this category and yet retain some aspect of privilege. For example, I’m not white, but I am a cisgender, heterosexual male, so in conversations revolving around sexuality or how women are treated, I desperately need to shut my mouth and listen. It doesn’t mean I can’t ask questions, but it does mean that I better spend more time listening than asking.

And this leads to my third hope: that we would sweat it out as we listen. Randy Woodley challenged the class with this idea in an (unpublished?) article he wrote, but the idea is basically that when it comes to “sitting at the conversation table,” we must remain seated as our privileges are exposed. And yes, we may even be guilty of abusing these privileges, in which case it is even more imperative that we remain seated and sweat it out. If we are seeking to be true allies and help those who are underprivileged, then we can’t say that we’ll listen and get up from the table after five minutes because we got too uncomfortable or we found the words directed at us to be offensive. Here’s the thing: if we are privileged, then we are not in the right to be “offended” when this privilege is called out. We’re merely experiencing what happens when our privileges are removed. So if you’re white and hearing about “white privilege” for the first time, remember that it is not racism to call out the dominant race for the systems their ancestors put in place that subordinate other races. Like John Metta talks about, race is a difficult topic because it is almost always centered around white feelings. We must sweat it out when our privileges are called out.

When all of the above is implemented, then comes one more hope: that the privileged do not suddenly become the leaders/experts in the issues of the underprivileged. An example comes from male feminists or white guys in the Black Lives Matter movement: they read a book by a feminist woman or hear a sermon from a black preacher about police brutality and think they ought to take up the leadership of those causes. This is not how systemic oppression changes. It is merely the reincarnation of the same systemic oppressions with new masks of equality. So when a man points out his own feminist leanings and proceeds to take over a conversation, that man then undermines his feminist values (because feminism seeks the equality of all specifically by focusing on the inequality of women). So yes, this means that I cannot take over the discussion about women’s equality; we must empower the underprivileged to have equal footing as the privileged.

Some may not find any of this to be in accordance with Christian values, but the truth is that it has been my faith in Christ that has led me to all of these issues (and for what it’s worth, treating them only as “issues” is a privilege in and of itself). It was Jesus who led me to feminism and womanism. It was Jesus who led me to accept the marriages of the LGBTQ community as God ordained. It was the suffering and lynching of Jesus that led me to lament the suffering and lynches of the black community (yes, when a black child is shot dead for playing with a toy gun, that is a lynching). It was Jesus who taught me that every person was made in the image of God. All that I have been challenged with is really expanding my definition of what God looks like.

Even with this brief outline of why these things matter to me, I am drained. Why? Because it is quite likely that as I have written these words, someone in the U.S. has been killed because they’re black, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, Native, Mexican, Muslim, a woman, or some combination of these. Or some prominent Christian leader has said another racist thing about people he does not understand or care that much about to begin with (*cough, cough* Franklin Graham *cough, cough*). With as much as I could write about these issues, change still seems incredibly far off. But that does not mean that I can not hope in God who has poured the Spirit into us through Jesus of Nazareth.

May we all find the courage to follow where the Spirit leads and end oppression.

God bless.

Discovering Nuances in the Greek: An Evaluation of Eph. 5:21-25…

As mentioned in my last post, Greek has been reviving my interest in the Biblical text. Learning all the different features of how the grammar works provides a whole new sense of understanding the text. And again during class on Monday, another passage came into a whole new light. But this time, it has left me carefully considering the kinds of study Bibles I spend my time reading.

Ephesians 5:22-24 is a controversial passage for it appears to be giving a complementarian view of marriage (where the husband is the head of the marriage while the wife submits to the husband). But this word “submit” is actually becomes a little more interesting when one takes a look at the Greek (with my literal translation after):

αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ, ὅτι ἀνήρ ἐστιν κεφαλὴ τῆς γυναικὸς ὡς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς κεφαλὴ τῆς ἐκκλησίας, αὐτὸς σωτὴρ τοῦ σώματος ἀλλὰ ὡς ἡ ἐκκλησίας ὑποτάσσεται τῷ Χριστῷ, οὕτως καὶ αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἀνδράσιν ἐν παντί.

“the wives to their own husbands as to the Lord, because a husband is head of a wife and as Christ (is) head of the church, he savior of the body but as the church is being submitted to Christ, and so the wives to husbands in all.”

What’s odd about this passage? If one takes a look at the beginning of the passage, it appears that there is something missing, no? Here is how the ESV Bible has translated it:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

Notice the difference? In my literal translation of the Greek, any form of the word “submit” only appears once, but yet, in the same amount of verses, the ESV has it listed three times. What is even more problematic is how the first usage of “submit” appears: “Wives, submit to your own husbands…” It is an imperative (a command). Yet if one looks in the Greek, one not only does not see the imperative form of “submit” (which would be ὑποτάγητε, for the second person, plural; Cf. James 4:7), but one does not see any form of “submit” anywhere, certainly not in v. 22. Where is it coming from then?

For our translation assignment last week, we were asked to translate Eph. 5:21-25 to get a full sense of what is going on here. Here is what the full passage looks like in Greek:

Ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ, αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ, ὅτι ἀνήρ ἐστιν κεφαλὴ τῆς γυναικὸς ὡς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς κεφαλὴ τῆς ἐκκλησίας, αὐτὸς σωτὴρ τοῦ σώματος ἀλλὰ ὡς ἡ ἐκκλησία ὑποτάσσεται τῷ Χριστῷ, οὕτως καὶ αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἀνδράσιν ἐν παντί.

Οἱ ἄνδρες, ἀγαπᾶτε τὰς γυναῖκας, καθὼς καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάπησεν τὴν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ ἑαυτὸν παρέδωκεν ὑπὲρ αὐτῆς…

“Submitting to one another in reverence of Christ, the wives to their own husbands as to the Lord, because a husband is head of a wife and as Christ head of the church, he savior of the body, but as the church is being submitted to Christ, and thus the wives to husbands in all.

Husbands, love the wives, even as Christ loved the church and delivered of himself over on behalf of her…”

What is particularly significant about this passage is that the “submit” command that the ESV implements in v. 22 (which is nowhere in the Greek v. 22), comes from a participle and not an imperative (Ὑποτασσόμενοι). Instead of suggesting a command, Paul is reshaping (though not dramatically) what is known as the “household code.” This is proven true by the only imperative in or near this particular passage: ἀγαπᾶτε, which is a direct command to the ἄνδρες, the “husbands.” In a culture where men mostly married to produce heirs rather than for love, this is a huge statement and not quite as demeaning to women as the ESV (NIV and NASB as well) has it. What is even more deceptive on the part of these popular translations is that little subheader placed in between v. 21 and v. 22; “Wives and Husbands” for both ESV and NIV and “Marriage Like Christ and the Church” in the NASB.[1] With that direct (and theologically driven) break in the text, one would not at all see the discrepancy.

However, there are two translations I have recently picked up that actually give interesting renderings here – renderings that are much closer to the sense of the Greek. The first is the Common English Bible (CEB), which came out two years ago. Here is its rendering of the passage:

“… and submit to each other out of respect for Christ. For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord. A husband is the head of his wife like Christ is head of the church, that is, the savior of the body. So wives submit to their husbands in everything like the church submits to Christ. As for husbands, love your wives just like Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.” – Eph. 5:21-25.

While it still inserts “wives should submit” (again, not quite present in the Greek), they have at least placed the header “Be filled with the Spirit” all the way back right before v. 15 and keep the entire passage as one paragraph (all the way to the end of the chapter). And when the Greek is considered, this is precisely the sense conveyed (note also the “For example”; this comes closer to presenting the “wives submitting to husbands” as an example of what reverence in Christ looks like, but still avoids the participial sense by inserting “should”).

The second translation is the Inclusive Bible, which is an explicitly egalitarian Bible:

“Defer to one another out of reverence for Christ. Those of you who are in committed relationships should yield to each other as if to Christ, because you are inseparable from each other, just as Christ is inseparable from the body – the church – as well as being its Savior. As the church yields to Christ, so you should yield to your partner in everything. Love one another as Christ loved the church. He gave himself up for it…” – Eph. 5:21-25.

While they have steered slightly away from a literal translation of the Greek, it is crucial to note the language used in place of husbands being the heads of wives: “because you are inseparable from each other, just as Christ is inseparable from the body.” Does this not convey the sense of Gal. 3:28 precisely: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (CEB, emphasis mine)? Of course, it is worth noting that Ephesians is a “partially disputed” letter of Paul (term Dr. Gupta introduced to us last night in our NT class); this means that it is possible that Paul did not actually write Ephesians. While I am on the fence about that, the Greek (at least to me, a novice) in this passage does not drift too far from Paul’s profound statement in Gal. 3:28.

As my Greek class plunges on through controversial passages of Paul’s letters, it is becoming overwhelmingly clearer and clearer that there is a massive amount of patriarchal language that must be unraveled – not necessarily patriarchal language from Paul himself, per se, but certainly from the more modern translations. The ESV and NASB footnotes pertaining this passage were terribly geared toward a patriarchal lens of the text, which, in my view, is exceedingly dangerous as it enables all sorts of manipulation and abuse of power and goes directly against Jesus’ teaching of not lording one’s power over another (cf. Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-44; Luke 22:24-27).

So, yes, studying Greek this year (although it may kill me), has proven to be one of the wisest decisions I have ever made.

God bless.

[1] I cannot give the NRSV a full pass either, but the Catholic Edition I have at least places the header “The Christian Household” above v. 21.

Ὁ βασιλεύς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; “The King of the Jews”…

There comes a point in studying Greek where one begins to wonder the purpose of it all. What does it matter that the verb Paul uses here is in the imperative mood rather than the indicative? Why do I need to know the difference between the active and passive voices? Jesus didn’t speak in Greek, so why should I?! These are all questions that come to mind late at night when the my mind can no longer handle participles, subjunctives, accusative nouns, and so on and so forth. But yesterday’s in-class quiz provided a moment where, even though I was (and still am) extremely fatigued, I saw exactly why studying Greek is crucial.

John 19:21-22 was the short passage we were asked to parse and translate. Being two-thirds of the way through the second semester of Greek, almost everyone in the class is at a point where we can begin translating as we read. But writing out the parses of every word helps us not to mistranslate by reading into the text a meaning that is not inherent to the text (a process called “eisegesis”). As I began writing out the English words, I started remembering the particular passage we were translating. Resisting the urge to put down the English words I had committed to memory, I kept going until I had a full translation. From the outset, nothing was really noticeably different. But when we were asked to make an observation of textual features, several things stood out.

But first, here’s the Greek with my own translation:

ἔλεγον οὖν τῷ Πιλάτῳ οἱ ἀρκιερεῖς τῶν Ἰουδαίων μὴ γράφε ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ἀλλ᾽ὅτι ἐκεῖνος εἶπεν βασιλεύς εἰμι τῶν Ἰουδαίων. ἀπεκρίθη ὁ Πιλᾶτος ὃ γέγραφα, γέγραφα.

“Then the rulers of the Jews were saying to Pilate, ‘Do not write “The King of the Jews,” but that “That[1] one said, I am a king of the Jews.”’ Pilate answered, ‘Whatever I have written, I have written.’”

Several observations are as follows:

  1. ἔλεγον (lit. “they were saying”) begins the sentence rather than follow its subject (“The rulers of the Jews”). Not only does this place an emphasis on the conversation between the rulers of the Jews and Pilate, but it speaks to the frequency with which these rulers were speaking to Pilate about this issue (calling Jesus “The King of the Jews”). With this word being in the imperfect tense (“were saying”), it is suggesting two things: 1. It is on-going and 2. It is in the foreground, “in your face” as we might say. In the English translations, we picture this scene as happening once and only once, but the Greek indicates it was a repeated action from the Jews – to pester Pilate about what he had written on the sign above Jesus. But a second observation works with this one.
  2. μὴ γράφε (lit. “do not write”) is one among several styles of prohibitions. Whenever there is μὴ plus a present imperative (which is what γράφε is), there is a sense that it is a prohibition against an action currently in progress or a continuous action.[2] In either case, there is a sense of interruption – that the Jews were interrupting Pilate in his continuous action of having the sign made up or stopping it after it had started. This is all setting the stage for what Pilate winds up saying.
  3. ὁ βασιλεὺς (lit. “the king”) is in the nominative case, which means it is the main subject of “the King of the Jews.” What is significant is that it is coming from Pilate, a Roman governor. Rather than letting Jesus hang from the cross like any other criminal, Pilate goes out of the way to make an example of Jesus – “Here is the king of the Jewish people, hanging on one of our Roman crosses.” Pilate is inflicting a deep sense of humiliation and shame – not unlike the exilic experiences of old. But notice the difference between this and observation #5 below.
  4. ἐκεῖνος εἶπεν (lit. “that one said”), as noted in the footnotes, gets translated as “this man” or “this one,” but neither translation speaks to the degree of insult this word carries. For one thing, it removes Jesus’ name. For another, it distances the Jewish leadership from Jesus in essence saying “That one there is not one of us.” Here the Jewish leadership was seeking to qualify the statement in order to preserve some sense of Jewish integrity. Combining this with rest of what the Jews had told (not asked) Pilate to write, one gains a fuller sense of the insult against Jesus.
  5. βασιλεύς εἰμι τῶν Ἰουδαίων (lit. “a king am I of the Jews”) – not “the King,” but “a king.” Nothing about what the Jewish leaders told Pilate to write says that they saw him as their king. It almost seems as if they were attempting to make Jesus out to be a lunatic – as if he had made a ridiculous claim about himself. What is most important from this text, though, is that Jesus never made such a claim. In fact, when questioned by Pilate in the Synoptics, Jesus replies, “You say so.”[3]
  6. ὃ γέγραφα, γέγραφα (lit. “whatever I have written, I have written.”) – What is interesting about Pilate’s response is that he uses the perfect tense (“I have”). In this tense, there is a sense of finality to the action, but with on-going effect. Pilate definitively named Jesus the Jewish King, so that all Jews would be humiliated by Jesus’ death on the cross.

What I find most interesting when all of these pieces are put together is the presence of a political opportunity for Pilate and a nationalist move by the Jewish leadership. Pilate seeks to obtain favor from Rome, so he declares Jesus “The King the Jews,” even though in his conversation with Jesus (as noted above), Jesus did not confirm Pilate’s question. With this sign for Jesus hanging above him as he hung on the cross, Jews passing by would be humiliated – their king has received the worst punishment Rome could deliver. One can see why the Jews were persistent about changing what Pilate had written.

Learning Greek and Hebrew have been difficult enterprises, no doubt. Yet such a discipline has allowed me to see that the Biblical text is so much more astonishing in its original languages. Literary allusions, puns (yes, even puns!), and connotations all become clearer, which gives a stronger sense of the various contextual environments, as shown above. So even as the semester reaches its peak with all its papers and projects coming due, I have a vivid reminder as to why all of it matters.

God bless.

[1] Both the ESV and NRSV translate ἐκεῖνος (which literally means “that” or “that one”) as “this man.” My focus here is to go as literal as possible because what is missed in English translations is how this was actually an insult against Jesus.

[2] William D. Mounce gives an explanation about the difference in his Basics of Biblical Greek, 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 314-317. Cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 485, 714-17.

[3] Cf. Matt. 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33-38a.

Politics: To Play or Not To Play…

If you have seen a few of my tweets or a couple Facebook statuses here and there, you would know that House of Cards has disrupted my focus. The devious Francis J. Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) puts the artist in “con artist”; craftily manipulating whomever he needs in order to exercise higher levels of power. If one were to stand in his way, Francis would then proceed to utterly obliterate their career in a heartbeat. Or he would utterly obliterate their heartbeat.

Those who have seen the first couple of seasons know just how true this is.

Yet there was an interesting moment during “Chapter 22” (Season 2, Episode 9), where a particular person who causes problems for both Francis and his wife, Claire. His name is Adam Galloway and is a world-famous photographer who was approached by rivals of Underwood seeking to ruin their political careers. Galloway complied and released a couple of photos of Claire that would raise questions within the public about her marriage with Francis. Even though what Galloway says regarding the photos is actually true – that the photos reveal exactly what they appear to reveal; an affair between him and Claire – Claire asks him to humiliate his own public standing so that the Underwood name is cleared. Galloway responds with, “I am not a part of this world.”

Another figure whom I worship and study on a daily basis has said a very similar claim in a very similar situation: “My kingdom is not from this world.”[1] While the political atmosphere within Jesus’ time was vastly different than what the modern atmosphere is now, it still operated in terms of power. Considering the tension between the Jewish leadership and the Roman government, Jesus was a trouble-maker on all fronts. He disrupted the religious system, which of course caused a problem for Pontius Pilate. As all four Gospels depict, the crowd was creating quite an uproar about crucifying Jesus – even suggesting to Pilate that he would be against the Emperor if he didn’t grant them their wish. The religious leaders wanted to exercise power over their own people; Pilate did not want his throne of power to be removed.

There is, then, a political connotation to Jesus’ words; he is quite literally saying that he does not play the same political games to attain or exercise power in this world. And yet, Jesus is saying something so much more; that the power he truly has was given to him and no one of earth can remove it from him.[2] Even if Jesus would want to have played the political game, he was well aware that the power given to him from God was greater than any on earth.

No, it is not a new thing to say that Jesus subverted the systems of power in his own day, nor is it a new thing to say that we should follow his lead. All that came to mind when watching House of Cards was that we are entering a new election year. The peak of this political season is still a year and a half out, but the campaigns have already begun. This means that those who play the game are already devising strategies to use the most people‘s votes to attain the various levels of power they seek. So now – yes, even now – is a critical time for the reminder of Jesus:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[3]

My hope with the upcoming political turmoil that our nation is about to endure is that I would not value people by whom they vote for, but because they are people. One of the biggest challenges to the church today is having a balanced relationship with modern political atmospheres – knowing when to challenge or reject political opinions and when to listen for whatever wisdom that might be gleaned from them. This is not to say that our favorite politicians either replace the teaching of Christ or never have anything of value to say at all. Rather, it is to say we must exercise wisdom when listening to them – to make sure that all their promises and plans operate under the commandment of neighborly love.

It is my hope and my challenge. Our political atmosphere does a great job of pitting those who care about how the country is run against each other – categorizing them into one camp or another with no concept of “both/and” thinking. Our world operates by polarized views, “us vs. them” rhetoric, and fusions of God with patriotism – that to vote for their particular political candidate is almost to vote for a representative of God.[4] If we are to follow Jesus at his word, then we are not to play the political games our country demands of us.

May we all seek to love our neighbor as ourselves – even if they are on the other “side” of the political spectrum.

God bless.

[1] John 18:36, NRSV. A more explicit resemblance comes from John 8:23; “You are of this world, I am not of this world.”

[2] Cf. John 5:36; 6:37, 39; 10:28-29; 12:49; etc.

[3] Mark 10:42-45.

[4] Roger Olson points out that “Deism quietly filtered into the fabric of North American religious and political life, and the God of Deism and natural religion became the ‘God’ of civil religion in the United States (‘In God We Trust’),” The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 532.

Spring Break Refreshment…

Spring Break, for many graduate students, is not much of a break. Even though the weekly assignments are somewhat put on hold or reduced to a moderate amount, there are still the semester papers, projects, and countless hours of course reading to catch up on. With this in mind, I took a quick trip to Eugene yesterday with my girlfriend – both for a mini-vacation and to show her where I spent seven years of my life.

We first parked on Agate St. just outside of Hayward Field. From there we walked up 15th, past the turf fields, through the dorm halls (passing my own Morton Hall of the Earl complex along the way) toward the EMU (now being rebuilt). After taking a quick stop inside the EMU, we walked down 13th, paused a bit in front of Fenton, and then wandered over to Deady, so she could see the first building built on the University of Oregon’s campus. We continued on to McKenzie, then crossed the street to the Duck Store. She was amazed by the enormity of a school bookstore and I was amazed by the renovations they had made (I used to work for the company and it did not look like that the last time I was there). We then stopped in Café Roma for a coffee with my former pastor, Tony. After a quick photo at the Starbucks next door (where I had met Jenna’s sister, Sierra, who introduced me to Jenna), we hung out at the Knight Library.

There is a song from the U of O’s acappella group, On the Rocks, called “Call Me a Duck” (a remake off of Maino’s “All the Above”). In that song, which is all about being a student at the university without a football focus, there is a portion of a line that goes “Picture you studying Greek…” At the time I first heard the song, I did not think much of it. But when I sat down at a window seat in the top floor of the Knight Library to do a little Greek homework, it was the first thing I could think of.

Top floor, far left corner from the stairs.
Taken after finished transcribing Col. 3:9-11, a passage about renewal.

It was a poetic moment that encapsulated the journey from the University of Oregon up to George Fox Evangelical Seminary, where I am now two years into a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) degree. At a point in the semester (and even in the degree pursuit altogether) when exhaustion is beginning to hit me, it was a refreshing reminder that there was a point when I did not imagine seminary. And as I am now beginning to plan what to write for my Master’s thesis as well as studying for the GRE to move on to a PhD program in a year and a half, it is a nice motto of what I hope to study and teach after I have left George Fox.

No, it is not as if Greek is my primary area of interest, but it certainly is a part of it. It certainly is a fascinating language all its own. It certainly has opened up my understanding of the Biblical text. And I certainly would not be studying it had I not gone to the U of O. As I plan for the upcoming academic year and prepare myself for what may (hopefully) follow, remembering where I have come from and all of the transformative processes I have gone through will be what drives me forward.

Even in seminary, God can seem a little distant. When that happens, one’s future looks a little blurry and confusing. But every now and then, God – on God’s own timing – sends little reminders that God is still there, refreshing you and your passions like rain to an Oregonian.

All that God wants in those moments is for us to simply soak it in.

God bless.