Saturday, October 04, 2008

romans 14

In this chapter, Paul frames the issue of acceptance in terms of our appetites, focusing on meat and vegetables.

I've heard that the issue here is that the meat had been offered as a sacrifice to idols, and now was being sold in the market for people to eat. (I seem to recall that the Greek word translated as "unclean" in the latter half of chapter 14 is different from the Greek word used elsewhere with regards to kosher law, but I won't swear to it, and my concordance is buried somewhere right now, out of reach.)

Some Christians regarded the meat as spiritually polluted, tainted from its association with pagan deities. Others saw it quite sensibly as meat that they could buy more cheaply than the best cuts the supermarket offered. (I may be conflating this with 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul also talks about such matters.)

There are plenty of parallels I can think of in contemporary Christian circles today: music, movies, TV, liturgical and worship styles, and just about everything else. I've heard Christians wax eloquent about the spiritual taint of secular worship (or rock music), of secular movies and programs, and of church services that remind them negatively of churches they used to attend.

Getting personal, to this day, organ music at church kills any interest I have in the service. Acoustic guitar ramps me right up, although electric guitars kill it off again because of the volume and the shrill tone.

What I find interesting is that while most preachers I've heard have indicated that the people who wouldn't eat the meat were the ones with "weak faith," Paul never says so. Maybe those who refused to eat meat had weak faith because they feared defiling themselves with meat sacrificed to idols; but maybe those who ate the meat had weak faith, because they took too much license and supported a pagan temple system.

Paul frames the issue of weakness and strength in terms of appetites, specifically an appetite for food. Food is one of those basic drives in all of us, more fundamental than enjoyment of beauty, more primal than the sex drive. Leave a person without food and she becomes grumpy and irritable, but once you give her something to eat, it's amazing how high those gustatory sensations can take you.

Food is one of the basic identifying things of a culture, along with dress and language. American food is high in meats and starches; Mexican food is high on peppers, corn and beans. We'll eat foods that feel relatively familiar to us, such as Chinese or Italian foods; but if it gets too unfamiliar, we want nothing to do with it. Food is one of the ways we can judge who is "in" and who is "out."

And Paul is saying that whatever you think about your food, be firmly convinced in your own mind, but give a break to your neighbor who just doesn't get it as well as you do. Eat their meat to avoid causing them to stumble; don't eat your meat so that you don't offend them needlessly. (And don't you love that he prefaces this whole weak-and-strong-faith discussion with the counsel to love one another?)

I'm also struck by the placement he gives this along with the Sabbath, and the issue of holy days. Whether it's your base appetite, or the loftier matters of holy days and religious observance, his message is the same: Work with one another, and don't be quick to beat your breast and wail over your brother's sinfulness in not getting it as well as you do, since Christ has accepted each of you.

That would, conceivably, mean breaking one of your religious rules -- or following one of somebody else's -- to avoid causing difficulty for them.

I believe C.S. Lewis wrote about this in "The Screwtape Letters," about how, but for careful work and planning, the Church of England might have become a hotbed of charity, goodwill, and understanding.

Applications.

Applications.

Applications.

I remember a brief conversation a couple months ago, where the Bible study leader asked us what made us disinclined to like another person, and it played into the issue of clean and unclean. Paul is making the same argument here, or at least a rather related one, that we have no right to shrink away or look down on other people because of those little things that seem so important to us. (Tattoos, preferring Pete Seeger to Tammy Trent, or actually enjoying listening to Jerry Decker on the Christian radio.)

Another example is one of dress. I remember hearing criticism when I was younger about the way "young people" dressed so inappropriately. Paul essentially would be saying here, "Don't sweat it so much. It's not a case of what is inappropriate to you must also be considered inappropriate for her. Each age group has its own standards of modesty and propriety."

In my experience, this sort of thing often has been central to discussions of  how to tell if someone is "really" a Christian. There are behaviors and attitudes people exhibit that cause others to suspect that they are only culturally or nominally a Christian, and not as committed or as legitimate a follower as those observing the behavior.

I have a few friends who are staunchly conservative. One in particular talks about Patriarchy Done Right, the way God wants it; he supports the government's use of torture as an interrogation technique; and regularly talks about culture wars, and how God has chosen to bless the Republican Party because it has a culture of life. He also has no problem with the government's rescue plan giving $700 billion to wealthy corporations and their heads, because "that's how the world works."

Meanwhile, I see patriarchy as fundamentally at odds with the Kingdom of God, believe that anyone who tortures another person for any reason effectively is torturing Christ, believe the Republican Party's policies often are at odds with Scripture and the priorities of God. Also, giving tax breaks to the wealthy and powerful is an act of oppression to the weak and powerless.

I'm sure we both regularly shake our heads in disbelief at each other. That in no way render the faith either of us professes as illegitimate.

There's also the issue of the Tyranny of the Easily Offended. I'm sure you're familiar with it; it's the sort of thing that makes it difficult to say even "damn" or "hell" in a room of adults, because of a misapplication of Ephesians 5:4; or the discomfort that ensues when grown men have long hair or earrings; or when respectable people have piercings or tattoos.

For that matter, there's also the issue of how this affects how we approach sharing our faith. What parts of our lives should we be willing to adjust in order to include others outside of our faith. What is not negotiable? I'd say issues of justice, but that's about it.

My best friend of 20 years is transgendered. His parents have disowned him, his mother claiming a spiritual obligation to do so; and his wife has pushed him out of the house and done a lot to cut him out of her life, to the point that she didn't want to do anything with him for her birthday, but went out with his parents. Earlier, she and his sister planned an entire family visit without telling him about it or involving him at all.

I don't fault my friend's wife, entirely. It's a difficult situation she's in, and very painful for her. But there's more moralizing and judgment going on here than an attempt to embrace him as he is and seek a solution together. It's more of a parting of the ways, breaking into two camps and disavowing the legitimacy of the other, and failing to seek a resolution that is not in line with her (and her mother- and sister-in-law's) understanding of what proper Christian behavior from him should entail.

I had a friend in college who on principle wouldn't congratulate someone on having a baby out of wedlock, because they had been sinning. I didn't even think about it. I congratulated this person at once. I also read the names of AIDS victims when the AIDS quilt came to town, because people had died, leaving holes in the communities where they had lived, and it made sense to grieve with them that grieve. Same reaction when a friend was decloseted to her parents before she was ready, and her life became a living hell while they all reeled at her perceived immorality.

Justice, we can't be silent on. "Justice, justice you shall pursue," the rabbis conclude is the message of the Torah, and it makes sense to me. Writing a column for the newspaper, you get a feel after a while for what makes people stand up and take notice. I discovered that you can talk frankly about your faith, and people will react in a positive way if you're saying something meaningful. You can even talk about the True Meaning of Christmas and call people to repentance, and people not only listen, they'll respect what you have to say.

To an extent, though, how much does this matter in our church? It's like a sermon series I heard on the book of Galatians two years ago. I don't recall seeing that much of a works theology at work in our church, nor such rampant legalism. I'm not cognizant of any real dissonance over doctrine, not like I saw back in college, where every little thing is a matter of Absolute Truth. Or maybe I'm just projecting, because it doesn't matter to me for the most part, so I don't notice when it matters to others until they make it matter to me.

And I'm sufficiently disengaged from evangelical culture to know if doctrinal matters like eternal security, glossolalia, prelapsarianism, and dispensational theology really command people's attention like they did when I was in college and people considered me unteachable and unspiritual because I rejected hardline Calvinist thinking. At least I never hear people talking about these things after the service. (Maybe they do in other settings,)

The closest I've come is finding some people uncomfortable over my views on biblical inspiration and literalism because they're not properly evangelical, and far as that goes, Matt Nolan got a kick out of seeing how much he and I agreed on such issues.

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