Wednesday, October 23, 2013

There's Something about Mary

... the Theotokos, I mean. The mother of our Lord.

A friend of mine suggested that without the virgin birth, it'd be difficult for him to believe in the incarnation. I'm cool with that, though I think virginity is a matter of hyperbole rather than strict necessity. In the doctrine, I mean. All the doctrine demands is the absence of human insemination. Virginity isn't logically necessary, though it has bonus probative value over against the assertion of divine insemination of an otherwise-sexually-active woman.

However, even if the reality wasn't exactly as Matthew or Luke attests, I do think Mary's innocence was a practical necessity, as pregnancy without attestation by the betrothed (or other responsible party, to therefore responsibly protect the mother and child) equals public shaming and the risk of violent death. The gospel communities were well aware of that—but for that reason they were not deeply concerned with proving Mary's virginity as a front-line defense. It was Joseph who solved that problem, and it was God who persuaded him—rather than any pseudo-forensic examination of Mary's body. Only the Christian tradition, in some of its parts, was obsessed with elaborating upon Mary's membranous integrity and its hypothetical and sometimes magical persistence. And that excess of trust in flesh is our problem to own.

Down the line, another friend suggested that the immaculate conception of Mary was a problem. And he's right, though not in the way suggested. We Protestants do poorly with scholasticism outside of our own debates, and that's inevitably the example. Touch it, and the problem sticks to you: how do you get a pure human nature for Christ, one free of sin? But that's our problem, a genuinely Christian problem that has to do with systematically rationalizing doctrines back into scripture. Nobody in the Bible is interested in plumbing the depths of the ontology of Christ's humanity. Genealogy, now that's a different matter. The logic behind the incarnation, the reason it was done, sure. The ontology of Christ's divinity is also a reasonably popular NT question. But the brute fact of his humanity is exactly that.

And in the end, Mary is a pawn in this game. They knew about his humanity, and wondered about his divinity, and therefore instrumentalized God in the process far more than they ever did Mary, who gets to bow out after the opening cut scenes, with occasional cameos thereafter. Mary, for the writers of scripture who care about her, gets to be a genuine human being, Joseph's wife and Jesus' mother (and James', of course—and how many other children is not attested with any precision, but there were others).

We, on the other hand, know about his divinity (we presume), and wonder about his humanity. We have therefore made Mary an instrument, an object of our speculation about how God could become human. We have put her on the examining table in ways scripture never did. We have built doctrinal edifices upon her virginity, her purity, in order to protect someone who needs no protection. What has Christ to fear from his mother, whose nature he shares? What have we to fear from Christ sharing our nature, being exactly as we are?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Paul's "Missionary Appeal" (Romans 1:1-17)

Finally, we can start reading the text now! And we're going to start at the beginning, so that we pick up where Paul's audience in Rome is expected to pick up. But first, just a smidgen of recap:

If you're following me so far, you already know that we're reading Paul's "letter" as what performance criticism suggests it was: a speech delivered by someone acting on behalf of Paul. In this case, Phoebe, his benefactor in Corinth, who is herself the pastor and leader of a congregation of the faithful in the eastern port district. This speech, Paul's formal introduction to Rome, is composed using a style of persuasive rhetoric we call "diatribe," which was a common mode for teaching. Paul/Phoebe is essentially going to draw the Roman audience into a series of arguments that will be presented before them. The goal is to persuade them over the course of the speech that, while many things they believe are true and good, some things they believe are false, and that other things, which Paul believes and they should also believe, are true in their place.

This involves, as I have said, telling the divided Roman audience their own common falsehoods, lies they believe about themselves and one another, as well as about God. The audience will see this as Paul agreeing with them, and will of course agree with him. And in every case Paul will then topple the lies and set up the truth in such a way that the audience is persuaded to follow him. They will learn, and so will we, to differentiate falsehood and truth, and to become better people for it.

Ah, but not right off. First, we need introductions. We need to introduce "Paul the Missionary" to the Roman audience—and in the process, we get to introduce them to themselves.