Sunday, March 30, 2008

the mission

This is an amazing movie. You should see it. I think it's from the '80s, with Robert Deniro and Liam Neeson. Here are a few preliminary thoughts.

Jesuit monks journeyed to a jungle village in South America in colonial days (I believe it said 1750) and began a Christian mission among the indigenous people. The first monk to travel there was killed, so Father Gabriel returned there and gained the confidence of this tribe. He later brought with him two other monks and a novice, Rodrigo Mendoza (Deniro), a former slave trader who killed his brother and became a monk as penance. A cardinal named Altamirano is sent to assess the situation of the Spanish missions as the land on which the missions are placed is handed over to the Portuguese. In order to save the Jesuit order, Altamirano orders the monks to leave their missions and withdraws the protection of the Spanish. It is legal in Portugal, but not Spain, to capture and sell slaves, so the Portuguese will come into the area with the goal of capturing slaves. Knowing this, the monks refuse to leave their mission and the people who have trusted them and believed in their God of love. Father Gabriel refuses to fight, believing God calls Christians to the higher road of nonviolence. The other monks help the tribal men prepare to defend themselves from the gun-toting Portuguese, believing this cause to be just enough that they renounce their vows of nonviolence. Although the tribe puts up a worthy fight (violently speaking) and many tribe members, led by Father Gabriel, stand nonviolently before their church with Christian symbols everywhere, the Portuguese win and wipe out all but a few of the villagers (who hide and then leave to make a new life deeper in the jungle). The Portuguese Christian soldiers show that their conscience is pricking them when they hear the villagers singing “Ave Maria,” but they follow orders anyway. Altamirano knows that this act was evil and its brutality unnecessary, but he sees no alternative when he must live in a world humans have made to be this way. In his mind, he must sacrifice these monks and villagers who are faithful to the God he professes, for the greater good.

Some of the questions and themes addressed: What's worth living for? What's worth dying for? At what point is it necessary to sacrifice one's principles and live realistically? How do we live as Christians in a fallen world?

This movie puts the four Christian responses to war (pacifism, just war, realism, holy war) together and compares and contrasts their motives and effects. It basically concludes that although living a principled life that follows Christ's call to peacemaking or just defense of the innocent is noble, it is not realistic and in the end can lead only to noble tragedy. Altamirano is shown as the real hero, who, although he shows remorse for the choice he had to make, has chosen the only realistic alternative. Those who engaged in holy war (the Portuguese soldiers who believed this act was one of loyalty for their country and therefore for God) were also shown in a favorable light, for although their consciences bothered them they sucked it up and followed orders--so any wrongdoing was not their own, it was their superiors'.

There was an enormous amount of religious symbolism in this movie. I was struck by the symbolism of Rodrigo dragging a load of heavy metal armor up the mountain as his penance for killing his brother: he didn't do this penance because he had to, but because he chose to hold on to the guilt. He was freed from this guilt by a community that welcomed him in, understood him without words, and gave him something to live for—and to die for.

There were many holy moments, but here are a few: When Father Gabriel said, “If might makes right—and maybe so, maybe so—then love has no place in this world. And I can't live in a world like that.” I feel this same way, and hope and pray that I would respond thus in a similar situation. In the face of injustice there is still hope in obedience to perfect love. The culminating scene, where the villagers walked into the massacre singing “Ave Maria” was incredibly powerful. It was difficult to watch and I hated it, but it juxtaposed the way the church should be in the world with the way it often is in a way that could scarcely have been done in a more effective way. The native man picking up the gilded Catholic cross after Father Gabriel fell was also a holy moment. The native people singing in Latin, holding the symbols of the Latin church, being slaughtered at the behest of the Latin hierarchy—amazing symbolism. The moment of Rodrigo's release from holding onto the sin of his brother's murder was also a holy moment, but I already talked about that. Altamirano's discussion with the slave traders at the end was holy in that it made one choose between the way of the world—living in the world and trying to succeed in it—or living more closely to the example of Christ and suffering the consequences. The Portuguese trader said, ““We must live in the world, and the world is thus.” Altamarino responded, “No, seigneur, thus we have made the world,” and yet he continued to live by the evil structures of the world, compromising his principles for the sake of “the church.” The scene forces a choice of a similar nature for the viewer (although I think its dichotomy of “realist” versus “ineffective idealist” is a false one).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

whale rider

I realized yesterday that I haven't been posting my thoughts about the movies we've watched weekly for my "Faith & Film with Young Adults" class, so I thought I'd catch us up for the next few days, unless something else strikes me as more important to write about. So here are my thoughts on "Whale Rider":

A young girl is born into a Moari community in New Zealand that is struggling to hold onto its traditions and values while adapting to modern life. Her grandfather, the chief, believes ardently that a prophet-savior will come to help their people, and he expects it to be his grandson, but his grandson dies at birth, while his granddaughter lives and is named Paikea—the name reserved for male chiefs after their first ancestor, the Whale Rider, who brought their people to New Zealand. Paikea is that prophet-savior but her grandfather will not see it until she rides a whale, almost dies, and is returns to life, taking on the role of the next chief. Major themes include: how to combine tradition and present culture, the role of women, ideas of “destiny,” and struggles for love and acceptance by one's family and community.

I noticed this movie has some very “Christian” themes (Messiah-type savior, death and resurrection, a misunderstood savior who must be sacrificed for the good of the community but who will return and reign, signs for those who have ears to hear, etc.) although I don't think they were meant to be Christian. It is about reinterpreting tradition to fit the modern context.

I love the sweet spirit of the girl who plays Paikea. I love that in the midst of a situation of repression against women and of her grandfather trying to destroy her dreams, she holds strong and believes in herself. Her grandmother has a huge part in this, supporting her unobtrusively but strongly. I liked that the community, gradually at first and then with more momentum, took on the hope and the prophetic spirit of this young girl. It's not very realistic, perhaps, but having that hope is important.

For the class we're supposed to note which scenes we thought were holy moments: When the grandfather broke the rope he was using to explain the interconnectedness and strength of the community, and then Paikea tied it together and started the motor. Of course the moments where she could hear the whales were literally holy to her, and when she rode the whale her character was involved in an overtly mystical experience. When she spoke in front of the community at her school concert, in honor of her grandfather. When her grandfather's cane, the symbol of his leadership, floated away into the ocean. The ending, the hope of new life and a re-meaning of the community and its traditions.

Although it's hard to see cultures and traditions changing, I think it's great when cultures can adapt and grow, gaining perspectives that were lacking in their history (such as respect for women and allowing women to hold official leadership roles). This is a painful process, and I know that it's incredibly difficult to know where to draw the line on changing, and which traditions are so important for the self-identity of the community that they cannot be changed. I pray for the ability to be flexible as I encourage changes, and as I get set in my ways and want to keep things from changing.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

no country for old men

For my Faith & Film with Young Adults class we have to watch movies (what a chore!) and write stuff about them. For most of them we just have to write a short reflection, some of which I've posted on here, though not recently--I should do that for you all. Anyway, we also have to write two "sequence analyses," where we choose a scene from some movie and analyze it in various categories. I chose to watch "No Country for Old Men," since it's by the Coen brothers and won best picture of 2008 so I figured it had better have some good scene in it somewhere! It's an excellent movie, although very violent...but really, what's Hollywood without violence? So here's what I came up with about Chapter 14, "Overmatched":

In this scene, Tommy Lee Jones' character Ed Tom Bell visits his friend Ellis. Bell has recently decided to retire from the police force, and is questioning what life is all about. Ellis is a retired deputy who was shot in the line of duty years ago, losing the use of his legs.

The whole movie deals with the presence of evil in the world, the randomness of it, the inability to explain it or to stop it with rational argument. The questions it brings up are ones that many young adults (at least middle and upper class American ones) are faced with as they move from a space of childhood innocence to a place where they begin to recognize the depth of evil in the world, as they begin to attempt to change it, and as they are forced to admit that they are powerless to change anything. (People not in such a sheltered environment might come to these conclusions earlier in life, but that's another point for another time.) This scene could bring those themes into sharp relief for young adults: is it true that there is no hope? Is everything just bad, and even the good must succumb to death eventually without changing anything? This scene functions as a cultural hermeneutic, seeing more clearly something the culture tells them often and something they themselves are probably wrestling with without thinking about it. It also functions as a glimpse of the holy: by facing into the fact that we are powerless to change anything for good, we come face to face with God—or not. Is there a God? Is there hope? Is it enough to just put a tourniquet on and wait for our pie in the sky by and by?

This scene comes directly after the climactic scene where the presumed hero has just been shot and Tommy Lee Jones fails to find the killer or the money. If this was a normal movie (i.e. not by the Coen brothers), a) the protagonist would not have died all of a sudden, and b) at least Tommy Lee Jones would have chased down the psycho-killer and given him “what's coming.” But this is not a normal movie. Although this movie is by no means realistic in most senses of the word, it forces us nice, happy Americans to face into the fact that life doesn't have happy endings. It's more like a Greek tragedy, where everyone dies, except usually in an ancient tragedy, at least the bad guy/gal dies, too. What this scene is really about is the fact that “there's nothing new under the sun,” people have always been bad, and it's not up to us to change them—“that's vanity.”

The story is told by an unobtrusive camera presence—no voiceovers, told in a linear fashion, no acknowledgement of it being a film. In this scene as in most of this movie there is no music, only the background noises one would expect in that setting—namely, in this scene, cats meowing and various nature noises as well as the creaking of an old house. There is a good deal of space between sections of dialogue, highlighting the quietness of the setting. The house is cluttered but everything is dusty. The color of the scene is dust brown, the brown of withdrawal, out into the “desert.” Ellis plays the role of the desert father with wisdom due to his ascetic life (all alone far from civilization, week-old coffee), his physical suffering (he's in a wheelchair), and his ability to perceive what others don't and to reveal it enigmatically (that it's Bell because he heard his truck, and he knew it was his truck because it was Bell who came in the house). His wisdom is both straightforward and as a parable. He is realistic, but also offers the only hope he can: that it's not up to Bell to rid the world of evil, that Bell doesn't know what God thinks of him. Ellis looks directly at Bell (perceiving), and we see him front-on, while Bell looks out the window, and most of the time we see his profile. Tommy Lee Jones looks old. His wrinkles show clearly and his whole body exudes tiredness.

Bell feels “overmatched,” so he's retiring from law enforcement. He says, “I always figured, when I got older, that God would sort of come into my life. He didn't. I don't blame him. If I was him I'd have the same opinion of me as he does.” Ellis tells a story about their uncle, who died in his doorway after he was shot by some outlaws for no apparent reason, and Ellis draws the conclusion, “What you got ain't nothin' new. This country's hard on people. Cain't stop what's comin'. 'Tain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity.” Ellis has long since come to terms with life and the evil in the world. Instead of looking for revenge or trying to make up for the fact that he can no longer use his legs, he realized that the longer he tries to get it all back, the more time he will lose. He seems at peace, but it's a peace of loneliness and resignation. These scene addresses many religious issues including eschatology, the power of good and evil, and whether life is ultimately purposeful or chaotic.

I liked this movie because it made me face into the fact that I felt it was my right to have a happy ending, and when it wasn't happy it made me think. For me, a good movie makes me think, opens up a well of new concepts and ways of looking at life that bubble below the surface, of which I can only catch glimpses at first. It's like the idea of an image being both presence and absence concurrently, that we talked about in class this week: once I grasp something it only becomes a dead thing, something of the past, and there is always the “something more” dangling before me, just out of reach. I think this film addresses that very point: is there something more? Is there life, or only the death that is so easy to grasp? Is there purpose? Do we keep fighting for good, or give up, or withdraw, “eat, drink and be merry,” and die tomorrow? This sequence subtly brought all these questions together, and somehow, even through the overarching meaninglessness, there was hope.

I saw evidence of God in Jesus Christ in the movie in that, in the face of what can only be described as senseless evil, it was the evil character himself whose choices were shown to be meaningless. The other characters came to terms with life, grasped life even though it meant choosing death, were willing to risk and sacrifice for good and recognized evil for what it was. The scene directly after this one, where Karla Jean meets the killer, is a Christ-like scene to me. She refuses to succumb to the idea of randomness: she won't choose the side of the coin. Knowing she'll die anyway, knowing she'd have a chance of saving herself if she chose correctly, it is more important for her to live and die in the truth, than to live or die admitting that the world is all a series of arbitrary actions. The killer is shown up for what he truly is: one who lives by “rational” choice, but who does not really live at all—one who is more clearly dead than any of those he has killed.

In the last scene, Bell tells his wife about his dreams of his father. He sees his father ride by on a horse, and knows his father goes to prepare a place for him, and will meet him when he gets there. He has come to a sense of peace with life, and although he knows he does not understand everything, and although he's not happy about that fact, he has a sense of hope, irrational as it may be. This, it seems to me, is the Christian vocation: we see evil in the world, we feel overmatched and we certainly are, we see the “rational” explanations leading to nowhere, and yet we feel an intense hope and joy and purpose that is beyond all rational explanation. No matter where we live, if we fight evil face-on, if we wait for it to come to us, if we intentionally withdraw from it, no matter what we all have to face the fact that evil exists and that it sucks the life out of everything. We have to come to terms with the fact that there are unexplainable and unspeakable acts of evil done by humans and by nature every day. We know that life shouldn't be that way, and that very knowing gives us hope, but it is never easy.

Monday, March 17, 2008

on ordination and recording

Not all yearly meetings have the practice of "recording" ministers anymore, although I think it goes back to the eighteenth century or so--I'm not sure when it started. Maybe it started with people who wanted to go as traveling ministers and so they asked for a minute from their meeting (which we still do in a different way, as a traveling minute) saying that person was trusted by their meeting to speak truth, and should be received warmly. Anyway, my yearly meeting does "record" ministers, and some say this is the Quaker version of ordination--but today in one of my classes I realized that when we record ministers in the Friends tradition we are doing something very different from "ordaining" them. Now, I knew this before sort of, but it really hit home today.

What many denominations do is that when someone decides to go into the ministry they go to seminary and start jumping through the hoops required to be ordained. Many of my colleagues are working on exams and meeting with their various ordination boards right now, since my class that I came in with is graduating this May. They have to pass exams on knowledge of the Bible and various theologians, and they have to have a sponsoring group that starts the ordination process for them, and they have to pass a mental health exam, and so forth. If they pass all this they receive a "call" from their denomination into the ministry, and then they look around for churches in which they can work (or they are appointed to them in some denominations). So basically, ordination is a calling from the church, hopefully based on a calling that the individual has received from God.

By contrast, recording a Friend as a minister is the community saying, "We've noticed the Spirit working through you in public ministry, and we want to make a note of that for your encouragement, and for the encouragement of future generations." This is not something that happens only after passing certain written or oral exams, this is not something that has to happen in order to become a released minister in a Friends meeting, and this is not something limited to those who are in a paid leadership position in the worshiping community. Rather, it is open to any and all Friends, and it happens when a group sees God working in the life of that individual in public ways. Anyone can be a Friends pastor without any training as long as the community feels led to release them in that way (this has its positives and negatives!), and some who work as released ministers are never recorded.

I guess it just hit home recently how much I appreciate this practice over that of ordination. I appreciate so much that as Friends, anyone can be a minister, no matter what their education level. Anyone can speak in meetings for worship or business. It's a wonderful thing that we can just let the Spirit speak through people without limiting God by the things we think a person "should" do in order to be qualified to receive the Spirit.

Of course, this all has its limitations, as I'm sure we've all experienced--random people coming in off the street and speaking something totally not Spirit-led in worship, or people who speak often in worship about things that do not point the community toward God, and in programmed Friends circles there are sometimes the random people who decide to become "Friends" pastors because they can't get ordained in any other denomination. This practice of not ordaining people has its vulnerable side, but I think this is one of its strengths: I think it's really hard to meet the Spirit unless we're at least a little vulnerable. Sometimes the Spirit speaks through such surprising vessels that if we did not have this practice we would miss out on that gift altogether.

The only thing I would do differently is that I would record all kinds of ministry, not just public/vocal ministry. I might have said this before in a post about recording, but I think it would be so great to have a group set up at all times to record ministers of every form. It would be so great for everyone to have a mentor who listened to where the Spirit was working in their life, to read spiritual/Quaker books with them in that area, and to recommend them for recording to their local meeting. Then at Yearly Meeting sessions a bunch of these things could be shared with the gathered community for mutual edification and for encouraging those who felt led to more unusual ministries. It would be a great way to help people feel supported, as well as to encourage everyone that their ministry is important and welcomed by the community. Maybe it would become too much of a logistical headache, but I think it would be great to remind ourselves that it isn't just the people who are called to "up front" or "out loud" ministry that have the Spirit in a special way. We are all called, we all have the ability to listen to and follow the Spirit, and it's encouraging to hear about various ministries that are going on in our communities.

Friday, March 14, 2008


The other day in meeting for worship I was thinking about the role of prophecy, and felt led to speak about it, so here (in a nutshell) is what I said, and then some more thoughts about it.

"Who among us is a prophet? Is prophecy just a vocation for a few who God calls to speak out in unusual ways?

"I think prophecy is simply speaking the truth, and living with obedience and faithfulness to the leadings we hear from God.

"In the Hebrew Scriptures the prophets speak out about following the ways of God rather than the rules and laws that have grown up and made a religion out of the truth. "Sacrifices and offerings I do not desire," says God, "but I desire that you seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with me" (Micah 6:6-8).

"We are all called to this life of faithfulness and obedience, to act justly and mercifully, to walk in God's ways and in God's presence. The world sees this as prophecy, because this way of living breaks the norm of the world, but it should be nothing extraordinary for those of us following God.

"The thing is, not many of us have the strength to be prophets on our least I don't. I want to live a life of faithfulness and obedience to the truth I know, but we need each other, we need community. Hopefully Friends can be a community of prophets again."

I don't know about you, but I don't often feel like a prophet. At least, I don't feel like a true one--sometimes I feel like a false one. I talk a lot but what am I actually doing that's abnormal to American mediocrity and pompous comfortability? Not much. It's hard to even know where to start--what issue to focus on.

I wish Friends would get together and decide on one issue that we're really going to tackle together, and that we're really going to put our money and our energy where our mouth is. Maybe we mostly agree that "War is not the answer." Good, fine. But why are we still paying taxes that go to war (FCNL says 43% of our taxes go to war this year). Why are we still driving around in cars that take oil which causes war? Why are we still buying stuff made or grown in other countries where people are being paid money that is not a fair wage, leading to strife and conflict because of lack of ability to feed their families? We talk a lot about war, but what are we doing? (I include myself in this criticism!)

What could we do like the nineteenth century Friends who wore undyed clothes so they didn't have to support slavery? We might have to look different, we might have to take a stand that people would notice. We might get thrown in jail or made fun of or any number of persecutions. But wouldn't it be worth it for standing up against injustice, for making sure the "widows and the orphans" had food on the table, and didn't have to be afraid of being shot or bombed anytime soon? Why do we think it's OK to provide for "me and mine" and then, if I have any energy left over, to help others a little? Sure, we have to take care of ourselves, but I think we get so tied up in taking care of ourselves that we never actually help those who REALLY need it. I'm not talking doing volunteer work at church/meeting, because although that's all well and good, most of those people don't really NEED anything (except maybe sleep and love). But stepping outside our comfort zones and really addressing needs of those who truly need something, that's a lot harder and a lot scarier. Or maybe it's just me...

I didn't say all that in meeting, luckily, but I wonder what the role of a prophet really is in our time. Is it to sit in a comfortable home complaining about the state of the world? Or could we all work together and DO something to change things, like our spiritual forebears did?

Friday, March 07, 2008

the original revolution

We're reading this book, "The Original Revolution," by John Howard Yoder, for my War & Christian Conscience class. It's an excellent collection of early Yoder essays (first published in 1971). The title essay is the one I wanted to focus on today. Yoder outlines four ways that people generally deal the with problem of finding themselves in a world that is less than perfect. I think he assumes that most people want to change the way things are, and says the way people usually try to do that fits in these four categories, but that Jesus chose none of these strategies.

The four strategies are:

1. Realism: you recognize that an evil system is in place, so you work within the system to try to change it. The problem is, you usually get so caught up in the system (and you profit by it) that you are unable/unwilling to heed prophetic voices or to do anything to change the system once you have power within it. You will sacrifice the prophet in order to keep your profit. (Think Jerry Falwell, GW Bush, and in Jesus' time the Sadducees.)

2. Righteous revolutionary violence: you attack the system from without using violence to achieve good ends. The problem here is that when you use violence to bring about a new system, you generally just end up replacing the people in power but using just as evil (or more evil) means to keep your power. (Not to mention all the innocent people who die by your bringing about this new system violently.) (Think Latin American revolutions, and in Jesus' time the Zealots.)

3. Separatism: completely separating your community from "the world" in order to create the Kingdom of God on earth. The problem here is a) you realize "the world" is still inside you (or at least everyone else in your community!), and b) it's becoming increasingly difficult in our world to find a place to do this. (Think Amish, and historical Mennonites, and in Jesus' time the Essenes.)

4. Legalism: you separate yourself from the world not with physical distance but with the rules you choose to follow that separate "us" from "them," providing ritual purity as long as you keep to your own religious sphere. From here you can criticize the world because you see it every day, but you can't really get involved because you have to remain separate from it. This is in the end siding with "the establishment" since you're doing nothing to change it. (Think contemporary Judaism to some degree, and all of us who complain about "the system" but don't do anything to change it, and historical Pharisees.)

Yoder says Jesus could have chosen any of these four paths, but they would not have been faithful. Instead he set up a new kind of community, the kind that God had been hinting at throughout the story of the Hebrew people. This was an intentional, voluntary community, made up of a mixed group of people of any race and gender and background, who lived a new way of life characterized by forgiveness, suffering rather than vengefulness, and sharing of resources and talents.

He says, "The church is God's people gathered as a unit, as a people, gathered to do business in [God's] name, to find what it means here and now to put into practice this different quality of life which is God's promise to them and tot he world and their promise to God and service the the world" (Yoder, 2003, p. 31). This is an interesting quote for Quakers--it's good for us to remember why we call our places of worship "meetinghouses," but to remember that we ARE the church, gathered to listen and do business but then to go out and act for the sake of the world.

The end of the essay is worth quoting at length:

And Now?

"The Kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the good news!" To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently. Protestantism, and perhaps especially evangelical Protestantism, in its concern for helping every individual to make his own authentic choice in full awareness and sincerity, is in constant danger of confusing the kingdom itself with the benefits of the kingdom. If anyone repents, if anyone turns around to follow Jesus in his new way of life, this will do something for the aimlessness of [her] life. It will do something for his loneliness by giving him fellowship. It will do something for [her] anxiety and guilt by giving [her] a good conscience. So the Bultmanns and the Grahams whose "evangelism" is to proclaim the offer of restored selfhood, liberation from anxiety and guilt, are not wrong. If anyone repents, it will do something for his intellectual confusion, by giving him doctrinal meat to digest, a heritage to appreciate, and a conscience about telling it all as it is: So "evangelicalism" with its concern for hallowed truth and reasoned communication is not wrong; it is right. If a [woman] repents it will do something for [her] moral weakness by giving [her] the focus for wholesome self-discipline, it will keep [her] from immorality and get [her] to work on time. So the Peales and the Robertses who promise that God cares about helping me squeeze through the tight spots of life are not wrong; they have their place. BUT ALL OF THIS IS NOT THE GOSPEL. This is just the bonus, the wrapping paper thrown in when you buy the meat, the "everything" which will be added, without our taking thought for it, if we seek first the kingdom of God and [God's] righteousness.

The good news of God's original revolution is not, as the Zealots of right or left would say, that violence is only wrong when the bad guys use it, or that enmity is only wrong when it is violent. It does not say, with the emigrant to the desert [Essenes], that you can cop out and do your own thing unmolested. It is not concerned with the inner-worldly emigration of the Pharisees, to refuse cooperation only at the point of personal complicity. It does not promise, with the Herodians and Sadducees, that if enough morally concerned people sign up to work for Dow, DuPont, and General Motors, we can beat the communists yet at feeding the world. All four of these classical strategies have in common that they dodge the duty of beginning now, first, with the creation of a new, voluntary, covenanting community in which the rejection of the Old is accredited by the reality of the New which has already begun.

The question for our time, in the world which awaits and aspires to revolution, is not whether the kingdom is coming, but what we will do about it. It continues to be possible, and in fact likely, that we may choose the strategies which Jesus rejected. We could find most respectable company in any of these four camps, as did our [parents]. Or we could, if we chose, accept in all its novelty and discover in all our creativity the kind of life together as fully human [people] among [people] which [God] came to live and to give, including the kind of death [Jesus] came to die. We could accept, if we would repent, that novelty in our ways of dealing with one another, with ethnic differences, with social hierarchy, with money, with offenses, with leadership and with power, for which "revolutionary" is the only adequate word. "The kingdom of God is within your grasp: repent and believe the good news!"
(Yoder, 2003, pp. 31-33, emphasis mine)

This is not only a calling for Mennonites (as Yoder was), but a call to Quakers and to all who would live a life in keeping with the only truly revolutionary path out there. The question is, then, how do we begin (or continue) this intentional community today?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Today I've been studying Thecla, the heroine of the apocryphal Acts of Paul & Thecla. This work was probably written down around 160-180CE, but is based on oral traditions surround the apostle Paul and the lesser-known Thecla. She is a saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, and she had a cult following for the several centuries after her death and especially in the 5th-9th centuries.

It's interesting to note that most of the apocryphal acts of the apostles feature key female figures...and most of the Christian books that made it into the Bible don't. There's usually a good reason for the apocryphal books not making it into the canon, but it's unfortunate that all the books featuring women were left out. Thecla's story is fairly fantastical, but so are the stories of Daniel in the lion's den, or Jesus walking on water.

Thecla is a young woman engaged to be married to the first man of the city of Iconium, but she hears Paul preaching and becomes enthralled with the teachings about Christ. She believes Paul that it is best for people to remain virgins so they can focus on God exclusively. She vows to remain a virgin, and her fiance and mother are upset. They have Paul arrested, but Thecla sneaks in to be with him and continue hearing about Christ. This makes them even angrier, so when Paul & Thecla go to trial, Paul is flogged and thrown out of the city, and Thecla--at her mother's request--is sentenced to be burned to death. God saves her from the fire and she escapes and follows Paul, but is again captured by the authorities (and ignored by Paul) so that she is put in the arena with wild animals twice. A woman of Antioch, Queen Tryphaena, takes her in and makes sure her virginity is kept pure before she goes to the arena. Tryphaena faints at the sight of Thecla in danger, but Thecla is not in true danger because the animals will do her no harm--or if they try, the fierce lioness keeps the other animals away from her. Thecla, thinking she will die, baptizes herself in the arena, but she is released because it becomes clear that God is keeping her safe. She speaks the gospel to those watching in the arena. She finds Paul again and asks to go with him but he won't let her because it's too dangerous for a woman to travel on the open road. So she goes home to Iconium and preaches and makes many converts there, healing many, and is translated to heaven when she is ninety.

Now, perhaps we wouldn't exactly want this story in the canon, because it explicitly reveres celibacy and asceticism, but at the same time, it also shows a strong female character who baptizes, preaches and heals. She refuses to let anyone keep her from preaching and doing what God wants her to do, even the apostle Paul. In some ways she is a stereotypical heroine that an ascetic community would champion, but we have to keep in mind that in her culture, she had two options, both of which defined her by her sexual status: she could be wife and mother, or she could be a celibate saint. This is not to say that she could not follow God as a wife and mother, but she would have had far less freedom in her culture as a wife and mother than she could as a single woman known for her healing powers, physical salvation from wild beasts, and voice that could speak the truth of God.

Apparently women in the second century were using Thecla's story to legitimate women baptizing, teaching and preaching, because Tertullian wrote against this story, saying that it was not true, and even if it was it shouldn't be used to allow women to minister publicly. We may not have much witness to women's leadership in the centuries following the time of the apostles, but that is a witness (if only from the curtailment of it) that women were practicing ministers in some congregations.

Ascetics and monastics for centuries took encouragement from Thecla's story, and I do too. I'm glad I don't have to choose between the two options she had, but in her situation I would probably have chosen similarly.

Here are some links about Thecla:

Full text of Acts of Paul & Thecla (it's not very long)

The Acts of Thecla: A Pauline Tradition Linked to Women article by Nancy A Carter