Forget basketball, soccer, softball, and those Olympic sports we all pretend to like every four years. Mixed martial arts (MMA) should be feminists’ favorite sport. Derived from a blending of martial arts such as karate, wrestling, kickboxing, and jiu-jitsu, MMA is unique in placing its female fighters and champions on equal footing with their male counterparts. Feminists should love MMA.
The chief example of this is UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. It was not long ago that UFC President Dana White promised we’d never see women in the Octagon. What changed?
Dana met Ronda Rousey.
Since coming onto the scene, Ronda has rapidly become one of the UFC’s biggest stars, commanding a crossover appeal (doing commercials, late-night TV, and movies) without parallel among her male peers. And she’s not just a pretty face. The former Olympic judoka has defended her title multiple times, improving her performance with each outing despite a staggeringly demanding schedule. Also, she got it honest: her mother was an world-class judoka who later earned a PhD. Talk about a family of accomplished women!
Compare this to other major sports leagues, where women hardly get the same platform that men do. The WNBA cannot boast of anyone who rivals the star power of Lebron James; most other major sports don’t have a league for female athletes that even comes close to the WNBA’s exposure or popularity (which isn’t saying much).
Contrast that to MMA, where, in the UFC and other organizations, female fighters headline cards and draw pay-per-view buyers and serious sponsors. Moreover, Rousey and her main rival, Miesha Tate, coached a season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) where they coached men and women. How many other sports can boast that, in their first 20 years in existence, women coach men at the highest level? Building on the success of Rousey and the bantamweight division she spearheads, the new season of TUF features an exclusively female cast introducing the 115-pound women’s division.
So in my view women, and those who care about the advancement of women (in a society that still too often treats them as second-class citizens), should be among the most vocal advocates for MMA. In no other sport have female athletes come to occupy such a prominent position, equal to and even surpassing many of the male stars, in so short a time frame.
If you want to be in the business of rewarding activities that empower women and treat them equally, then MMA is for you.
Perhaps this is more well known than I imagined, but I found this fascinating. The word ‘chaplain’ comes from 8th-century pre-battle liturgical practices:
Cappellani [chaplains] originally came from the cappa [cloak] of blessed Martin; the Frankish kings commonly took it with them in battle because it helped them to victory; because they carried it and cared for it with other saints’ relics, clerics began to be called chaplains.
This means that chaplaincy has a decidedly military origin: both in St. Martin, himself a former soldier turned Bishop, and in the use of his half-cloak, venerated as a relic by medieval kings. Today, chaplains in many contexts still care in the name of Christ at the service of soldiers, doctors, prisons, and ultimately, the church.
Thank God for them.
Source: Andrew Totten, “Moral Soldiering and Soldiers’ Morale,” in Military Chaplaincy in Contention (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), 22.
“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”
People are not animals; we have conscience and consciousness, a level of self-awareness and self-agency that gives us greater ability to be both more glorious and diabolical than other living things. In an increasingly secular age, however, the modern West’s materialism – which recognizes nothing particularly important about the spiritual realm, if at all acknowledged – lends itself to a “blurring of the lines” (pun intended, see below) in regards to the differences between humans and animals. This has struck me recently for two reasons.
First, we define ourselves as animals with impulses that we cannot and need not control. I do not get angry at my dog for barking at the UPS man because she’s doing what a protective breed of dog (the boxer) is supposed to do. Animals have nothing to go on but instinct. As Chris Rock once said of the unnecessary shock that was expressed when Siegfried and Roy were attacked by one of their tigers, “That tiger didn’t go crazy – that tiger went tiger!” But a new Maroon 5 song suggests not merely that people are animals, but that predatory behavior should be expected and even glorified:
Baby I’m preying on you tonight
Hunt you down eat you alive
Just like animals
When Johnny Cash sang about “The Beast in Me,” he at least knew to cage the beast, not celebrate it. While Adam Levine has received criticism for the song and the uber-creepy video – in which his own wife is quite literally likened to a piece of meat – not everyone has been so concerned. PETA suggested Levine’s “art” did not go far enough, and that, since we’re all “animals,” we should be compassionate animals and be vegan. All in all, it is quite a feat for a song to make Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” sound like a sweet croon.
If one consequence of the blurred line between human and animal is treating others like beasts to be preyed upon, another is treating ourselves like animals to be put down. A young woman in Oregon is receiving a lot of attention for her public plan to die with the assistance of state-approved drugs on November 1st. Brittany Maynard’s story is certainly moving; she essentially has the worst form of brain cancer possible, and wants to choose the time and place of her death rather than endure the extreme suffering that her disease will inevitably entail.
As a pastor, I’ve sat with dying and suffering people more than most. And we should have compassion for folks who must face such a terrible prognosis. But I find it difficult to see assisted suicide as it is touted: as a choice for dignity. It says much about our society, so riven by moral chaos, that the only thing on which we can agree as a moral good is greater and increasing choice – even if that choice is to treat ourselves like animals.
But animals we are not. We are humans, made in the image of God, flesh and spirit, sinew and soul. That some Westerners are beginning to take the logic of denying our particular nature and calling to its conclusion is troubling, though not surprising. But we are humans, and we all should resist the normalization of language and practices that treat us more as animals than people. This is especially true for Christians, who confess that humans are created “just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5) in the image of our Creator, with a special vocation to care for creation, including one another, as God’s precious gift.
We are not prey to be hunted or sick dogs to be put down. We are humans, uniquely equipped to know the good and to do it. The fastest path away from both of those, however, is to deny who, what, and Whose we are.
In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community. There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston. Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son. And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends. Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.
Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances. Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)
I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage. But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone. Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel. We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them. Willimon goes on to say,
The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus. The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people. The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)
I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths. But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself. If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love. How does that apply to Christian discipleship?
You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride. He never intended that to be an option.
[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]
In the world of combat sports, someone who pads their record by defeating unskilled opponents is said to be fighting “tomato cans.” This is essentially what the crotchety trainer Mick says to Rocky in Rocky III: you’ve been fighting easy fights, and you’re not ready for Clubber Lang:
Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses. Mickey: That was easy. Rocky: What you mean, “easy”? Mickey: They was hand-picked! Rocky: Setups? Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!
When our opponents are hand-picked to make us look good, there isn’t much glory in victory. The academic parallel to picking easy fights is the logical fallacy known as a straw man. When you engage in a straw man attack, you are misrepresenting an interlocutor’s position, offering a counter-argument to that misidentified position, and summarily declaring victory. But in reality, you have dodged your opponent, and you become what Clubber Lang called a “paper champion.”
The following are two examples of the straw man fallacy at its strawiest.
In a recent series of blogs, a few people have suggested closing the floor to all but delegates, bishops, and essential personnel at the UMC General Conference in 2016. There have been many helpful critiques, corrections, and questions about these proposals along the way, and for those I am appreciative. But not all of them have been so thoughtful.
Jeremy Smith over at Hack[ing] Christianity dismissed many of the critics to his analysis by pointing to their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. In a follow-up, he essentially declared victory on the grounds that his only pushback was from straight white men who were less enlightened than he, as a straight white man 2.0 (note that, as far as Adam West’s Batman is removed from Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, so is Smith removed from all straight, WASP-y men who might dare to question his insights):
There was significant online critique from straight white menwho felt strongly thatpointing to their common social location was unfair–and it was quite confrontational!
The problem is that this was a straw man, because he did indeed get feedback from people who were not SWM, which he ignored. Comments at David Watson’s blog included well-reasoned perspectives from women and African-American men. This part of the former comment especially (but not strangely) warmed my heart, since I was one of the people “hacked” by Rev. Smith:
All three people you “engaged” in your post, who come from very different places theologically, reacted to your post by insisting that you distorted what they themselves thought was at stake. This is intellectual vice. You also, despite their diversity of theological perspectives, lumped them in together and acted as if they were all the same because of their race, gender, and marital status.
While Jeremy responded to several folks on that thread, he did not respond to either of the comments above, perhaps because they did not fit the narrative around which he had built his straw man argument.
Another recent post by former Methodist seminary president Philip Amerson similarly jams together all of those who’ve suggested closing the GC2016 floor with this epic straw man:
Recently, some traditionalists have suggested that our General Conference should become a closed-door meeting that would allow only delegates to participate.
On an outlet featuring almost exclusively progressive voices like UMC Lead, the casual label “traditionalist” is more than enough to have an argument dismissed with no further adieu. Sadly, it mirrors almost exactly an experience about which Stephen Rankin recently wrote. Even worse, had Amerson done a bare minimum of homework, he would have known that at least 2 out of 3 of the folks he labelled “traditionalists” are anything but – including yours truly! – and spend as much of their time critiquing the UMC right as they do the UMC left. Instead, he lumps all of us in with the far right of the church (with whom I would not identify Watson) and delves into deep psychoanalysis to suggest this proposal is really offered “out of a need control the outcome.”
This neglects two very important points: 1) The proposals have not been targeted at any particular groups, but at anyone who is not a delegate, bishop, or necessary personnel; 2) Don’t those who want the floor to be open actually want to “control the outcome” by interfering with the process we have?
Amerson has also set up a straw man, in naming all of those who are interested in this particular proposal control-mad traditionalists and assuming within them the worst possible motives. Like Smith, his critique is really little more than shadow-boxing, because the boogeyman he’s fighting simply doesn’t exist.
The Judges’ Decision
The Straw Man Fighting Championship will not move us toward any desirable outcome as a church. I am well aware that I’ve never written anything that is above critique, and I truly enjoy all kinds of healthy dialogue and pushback. I have thick skin. I was a Just War advocate at Duke Divinity School, for Augustine’s sake! (For those unfamiliar with my alma mater, it would be like walking across the OSU campus in a Michigan sweatshirt.)
I love a good argument. But I can’t stand being misrepresented, and then watching others claim trophies for defeating a phantasm. I can’t say this emphatically enough: we must do better.
As David Watson has suggested in the piece I mentioned above,
How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter.
A good argument can accomplish much. But lazy, fallacious, dismissive, and surface-level arguments like we’ve been having will not take us anywhere we want to be.
The choice is ours, church.
P.S. For the sake of consistency, I fully expect progressive UMC critics of the proposal in question to begin a letter-writing campaign to their elected officials to ensure that the floor of Congress is opened to the Tea Party, Code Pink, the KKK, the Nation of Islam, and any other group who might feel a need to be heard in that venue.
Healthy discourse is hard to come by, especially in contemporary forms of media in which the best way to get attention is through insult, rant, and hyperbole. We all say we hate sensationalism, but the ugly truth is we are far less likely to read something that doesn’t make a shocking or outrageous claim. Much of the Christian blogosphere, as reliant as it is on idol-worship and idol-busting, is rife with this sort of madness.
After all, it is much easier to dismiss an interlocutor with insinuation, ad-hominem, or labeling than to actually engage ideas with which we disagree. That is because, in our infinite capacity for self-deception, we easily keep exclusively to the self-licking ice cream cone of our own ideological outhouses. We too often succumb to the temptation of intellectual comfort by surrounding ourselves with those who agree with us, who confirm all our biases, and then proceed to shout down in the most dishonest and uncharitable fashion possible any criticism we receive.
Welcome to the internet. Welcome to our polarized society and church.
But there are some different voices, and they are worth highlighting because change will only occur if we reward people for writing with sense and sensitivity, with passion and restraint. Here are three examples, all with similar stories to tell, and all people of intellectual rigor and genuine caritas.
David Watson from United Theological Seminary reminds us that how we argue is as important, if not more so, than the truth for which we argue. Ends and means both matter.
Stephen Rankin from Southern Methodist University tells a personal story about how his own sincere, bridge-building effort to move a difficult conversation forward was dismissed out of hand with a simple label. A sad, all too common story.
Evan Rohrs-Dodge, a UM pastor and fellow curator over at Via Media Methodists, uses Aragorn to remind us how important it is to actually listen to one another. Listening is harder, but the only way to actually get anywhere.
As Chesterton asserted, it is easier to quarrel than to argue. A quality argument can do much to bring needed change to couples, families, churches, and whole societies. But petty tempter-tantrums and name-calling will only dissolve our bonds and harm whatever efforts there are to produce genuine conversation.
Rapture fever is back, as a new iteration of the Left Behind film franchise prepares to slither onto screens, this time sans Kirk Cameron. (How desperate is Nic Cage getting, anyway?) Now is as good a time as any to kick Left Behind in the behind and reiterate that the rapture, quite simply, is a lie.
Leave aside the fact that the word “rapture” never once occurs in Scripture. Forget that the concept is part of a system not invented until the 19th century. Don’t even mention the observation that the rapture would mean a kind of two-stage return of Christ, which the Biblical text does not support. Focus, instead, on this: the one text that rapture preachers can (kind of) point to has nothing to do with a rapture. As Mickey Efird writes,
“Since Jesus has conquered death, so those who are united to God share in this great victory. Therefore, those who have already died, rather than being in a secondary position with regard to the final victory of God, are in a primary position. The reason for this is that they are already with the Lord. They are in a real sense already experiencing the joys of the final consummation. This seems to be what Paul means by the expression ‘The dead in Christ will rise first.'” (Mickey Efird, Left Behind?[Macon: Smith & Helwys 2005], 40.)
If that doesn’t suit you, NT Wright has another reading of this infamous passage, stressing Roman imperial imagery in Paul’s language. The point is simple enough: the Darbyist rendering of this pericope is only one of many which are plausible, and is far from the dominant reading throughout the history of the church and among top contemporary scholars of the Bible. At minimum, the dispensational rendering is hardly enough of a home-run around which to build an entire eschatology.
Of course, dispensationalists will point to other passages to prove the rapture, including Jesus’ fuzzy parables (“one will be left in the field!”) and arguments from silence (after chapter 3 in Revelation, the word church is not found again until the end!). All of these are specious, though, and nothing carries the weight of the aforementioned Thessalonians passage.
I have referred to rapture theology in the pulpit as, “escape hatch religion.” This is why it matters that Christians do not buy into this popular but horrific doctrine: it turns the ministry of the church into gnostic bunker-huddling. The rapture reverses the logic of the incarnation, actually. On the Darbyist scheme, Christ was incarnate of the Spirit and the Virgin Mary so that he could one day rescue the church out of a world going to hell. So much for, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Abraham’s mission, fulfilled and intensified by the faithfulness of the Messiah, has been mutated from blessing the world through the elect into saving the elect and letting the world go to pot.
So give the rapture a good swift kick in behind. It’s not just un-biblical, it’s not just bad theology, it is a pernicious lie. The good news is that God loves His creation and His creatures. Jesus came to renew both, not save one at the expense of the other. Thanks be to God.
“…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:13, NRSV)
As I write this, the BBC and other outlets are projecting that Scotland will remain, as it has for three centuries, part of the United Kingdom. The St. Andrew’s Cross will stay within the Union Jack. Though long and sometimes bitter, the fight is over and the Scots chose union over division. Can the UMC do the same?
There are parallels. A union of different regions, dialects, and ideologies attempting to hold together despite serious differences; a disconnect between the resources provided by certain regions and their influence in the rest of the body politic; a variety of promises made by those pushing for independence, the veracity of whose claims is spurious at best. On the whole, the question is essentially the same: can a bunch of different kinds of people learn to live well together, or will they choose the easy option: autonomy?
Like the United Kingdom, the United Methodist Church is “better together.” Yes, there are grave challenges that must be faced. Much akin to the situation of the Scots, there exists a variety of groups within the big tent of the UMC whose particular values and languages make independence a tempting case. But the easy thing and the right thing are rarely the same.
The Scots have voted to keep the ‘united’ in United Kingdom. Hopefully the time and effort put in to pursuing independence will lead to conversation and reforms that will aid the Scottish residents in feeling more valued by their countrymen and more respected as a cultural and political body. The hard choice may well pay off.
Back to the church: schism is not hard, it’s easy – whether it is of the “amicable” variety or not. There is nothing particularly interesting or remarkable in entropy, destruction, and tearing down. It’s as easy as gravity.
But unity, despite the odds and genuine differences, despite the barriers in language, history, culture? That’s an adventure. That’s “advanced citizenship,” as Michael Douglas’ President Shepherd once put it. That’s unity-as-gift, gratefully received and hard fought to keep. But the juice is worth the squeeze.
That’s the path the Scottish people have chosen. Will we be so wise as 2016 approaches?
We often speak of salvation as if it is only an event in the past. A robust, Biblical look at salvation reveals something much more wonderful, though. Tom Oden points this out in his massive systematic theology Classic Christianity:
“There are three tenses in the vocabulary of salvation: We have been saved from the penalty of sin for our justification. We are being saved from the power of sin for our sanctification. We will be saved from the remnants of sin for God’s glorification. Salvation includes the whole range of divine activity on behalf of humanity in past, present, and future history.” (Oden, 566.)
The Bible speaks of these tenses in many places, of course, but as Oden points out sometimes it speaks of all three at once. Note, for instance, all three tenses in Titus 2:11-13 (NRSV):
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly,while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior,Jesus Christ.”
Salvation is not only something that we once received at the altar years ago, or a hope we can only look forward to. Salvation is past, it is present, and it is yet to come. Thanks be to God.
“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” says a popular evangelical bumper sticker. My grandpappy in the faith, John Wesley, would disagree – as would many other Christians who think salvation is not less, but certainly more than, justification. But is the perfection that is a gift of God’s grace one address, or a street with many different addresses?
Wesley famously defended his unique (among Protestants of the time) doctrine in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. He quotes one of his brother Charles’ hymns to show that they had believed and taught perfection from the beginning of their ministry:
Safe in the way of life, above
Death, earth, and hell we rise;
We find, when perfected in love,
Our long-sought paradise.
O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Saviour, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin!
If we back-pedal many centuries, though, we find that what Wesley rediscovered for Protestants was something present quite early in the Christian tradition. John Cassian, a great influence on Benedict and his Rule, spends a chapter in his famous Conferences discussing perfection. He records the following from a conversation with Chaeremon, an Egyptian anchorite:
“Scripture summons our free will to different degrees of perfection, and this in proportion to the condition and the measure of the individual soul. It was not at all possible to propose to all together the same crown of perfection, since everyone does not have the same virtue, the same disposition of will, or the same zeal. Hence the Word of God lays down the different degrees and the different measures of perfection.”
He quotes a variety of Scriptures to back up this claim, including Psalms ascribing blessedness for a host of different virtues, and 1 Cor. 15:41-42, “Star differs from star in brightness. And so it is with the resurrection of the dead.” Chaeremon adds,
“So you see, then, that there are different grades of perfection and that from some high points the Lord summons us to go higher. Someone blessed and perfect in the fear of God will walk, as is written, ‘from virtue to virtue’ (Ps. 83:8), from perfection to some other perfection. That is, with eager spirit he will rise up from fear to hope, and then he will be invited to a holier state, that of love. He who was ‘the faithful and prudent servant’ (Mt. 24:25) will pass to the relationship of a friend and the adopted condition of sons.” (Conferences, 11.12)
In a sense, this is where Cassian and Wesley finally meet on Christian Perfection: love. Earlier in Conference 11, Chaeremon notes that three things keep us from sin: fear of punishment, hope of the Kingdom, and love. He then goes on to describe lesser and greater perfections in terms of this sequence: “We should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue.” (11.7)
For Wesley, the perfection that is possible for the Christian to attain, with God’s abiding presence and gracious gift, is always a perfection “in love.” It is not a complete freedom from temptation or fault, but a transformation of “tempers,” a habit of the soul which has been so marked by the Spirit that it is completely filled with love for God and neighbor.
Christian perfection, for John and the early Methodists, was only a possibility for a long-time saint, probably near death. Later Wesleyans would distort what he took to be a long process into an instantaneous gift, of course. But the early Fathers and Mothers would agree with Wesley that virtue and holiness are not quickly obtained.
So are there a variety of perfections open to the Christian, or just one? Cassian opens up the possibility that perfection is not merely a single destination, but several along the way to that final glorification for which we long – when we at last can behold the blessedness of God, not in a mirror, darkly but in full and magnificent splendor. Like John Climacus – and, much later, John Wesley – Cassian reminds us that complete salvation is not achieved in an instant, but given by the grace of God over a long, grace-imbued road.
None of this is to our credit (this is worth repeating at the end because we Wesleyans are often accused of Pelagianism), but rather as Charles Wesley reminds us again, our boast is in the goodness and mercy of God:
Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.