An interview with progressive Methodist minister Roger Wolsey

I had recently the immense privilege to interview Roger Wolsey who is a fascinating man in many respects.

Hi Roger, thank you very much for having accepted my invitation. Could you please tell us what your background is?
Sure. It’s an honor. I’m a 46 year old “Gen X” American. I was born and raised in Minnesota. I’m a Christian and grew up in the United Methodist Church. I originally thought I’d pursue a career either in politics or in conflict resolution/mediation – yet felt a call from God to become a pastor 2 years after I graduated from college. I earned a Masters of Divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO and am an ordained United Methodist pastor. I currently serve as the director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I am an advocate for progressive Christianity and have written a book called “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity” – which is an introduction to progressive Christianity. I also blog for Pathos, Elephant Journal, and The Huffington Post.
a typo up there, should be Patheos.
Alright! And you owe your own existence to this methodist congregation, am I correct? ;-)
Indeed. In fact, my parents met each other when they were grad students at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. : )
I was born in 1968, the year that the UMC became a new denomination – and was likely one of the first people baptized in that new denomination. (along with my twin sister)

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That’s truly a cute tale :-) You obviously believe one can honor God by being a passionate trumpet player, don’t you?
Well, yes. For me, playing my trumpet is one of the ways that I pray and commune with God. Music inspires others in ways that spoken word can’t always do.
Do you identify yourself as a progressive or as an emergent Christian?
Progressive. I understand progressive Christianity as being the post-modern influenced evolution of mainline liberal Christianity.
What’s the main difference between progressive and liberal Christianity?
Well, there are several. Progressive Christianity is less colonial and less patriarchal. And, while progressive Christianity fully embraces the insights of contemporary science, including the theory of evolution, it is less overly enamored with science and less willing to cede everything to science. It’s less needing to find scientific explanations of various miracle stories in the Biblical text, and more willing to simply receive the text as it is – as story. Progressive Christianity is less modern and more post-modern – willing to accept that God’s fully at work in all other world religions. Finally, progressive Christianity has more consensus that homosexuality isn’t a sin.
Re: science, progressive Christianity is more willing to embrace paradox and mystery than liberal Christianity was.
Finally, it’s more passionate than liberal Christianity and more embracing of poetry and the arts. Oh, it’s also more eclectic and willing to draw insights, prayers, and practices from the entirety of the Christian – and even non-Christian- traditions.
I wholeheartedly agree with the bit about homosexuality. Theologian Roger Olson once defined liberal Christianity as the rejection of anything supernatural (at least in our world). Do you think it’s a good summary?
Answer: Perhaps. That certainly rings true for me. However, another progressive Christian writer, Roger Lee Ray, also fully rejects the supernatural. He and I disagree on that. That said, I embrace panentheism instead of supernatural theism. However, for me, there really is some portion of God that is transcendent and “relatable as a person.” I don’t pray to myself.
I pray to God.
That’s truly fascinating. Could you (shortly) explain what you mean by this panentheistic personhood?
It’s a bit hard to do justice to that question in a Skype interview. I describe that in full in the chapter about God in my book Kissing Fish. However, in the panentheist view, God is fully immanent within all of Creation – and – fully transcendent from the Created order. Both aspects are ways for various people to connect and relate to God. Some can commune with God simply by being in nature, others do so in a more private inner prayer life that can take place just as readily in an ornate gothic cathedral as in a plastic booth at McDonalds. That’s the more transcendent aspect IMO. Though — as with a circle, if you go far enough in either direction – you reach the same point. Paradox.
That said, as a Christian, I believe that the qualities and characteristics of God are well conveyed in the person of Jesus – including God’s passions and emotions. However, I don’t pray to Jesus, I pray to the God that Jesus prayed to.
Okay, thanks..
For most (albeit not all) Conservative Evangelicals, the Gospel might be summarized as follows:
1) God created Adam and Eve in a state of moral perfection
2) they ate the wrong fruit
3) consequently God cursed their billions of descendants with a sinful nature
4) everyone deserves an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber due to an imperfection the Almighty Himself made inevitable
5) Therefore people can only avoid this fate by believing in Jesus
6) All people dying as non-Christian will agonize during billions, billions and billions of years…
Can one call this a “good new”?


I suppose that view may work for some. But it’s clearly circular reasoning, clearly triumphalisitic and exlusiveistic, and clearly dysfunctional.
Those premises and ways of viewing the faith don’t work for many people today. Hence, the rise of progressive and emerging Christianity.
That view, to my mind, isn’t truly a robust faith in God, but instead, merely “fire insurance” — believing because you have to. : P
Would you be able to put your own view of the Gospel in a nutshell?
Hmm. Let me give a crack at it.
God created the world and the people in it. Life has the potential for real joy and beauty, but due to our free will, humans have a tendency to not act wisely or in our truest best interest. We abuse our free will and oppress and limit ourselves and others. Through the life, teachings, and example of Jesus, God has provided a way for humans to transform from a more reptilian – fear based – way of living, toward a more trusting, just, and compassionate way of relating to ourselves and others. To the extent that we follow the Way of Jesus, we can know and experience salvation/wholeness. And the good new is that we don’t do it all on our own. God’s grace provides when our efforts can’t — but again to the extent that we allow and receive it.
I’d also say that the good news is that each day is a new day, a fresh start, and we aren’t defined by or limited by our past.
Thanks :-) You obviously don’t believe in inerrancy. Is there a sense in which one can say that the Bible is inspired?
True, I don’t believe that the Bible is without fault. That said, I’d contend that everything that I just stated is amply supported by the Biblical texts. I’d say that everything that humans create is in some way inspired by God. Part of how we are created “in God’s image” is our creativity. We’re co-creators with God. I believe that some of our creations are more blessed and condoned by God than others, and that those things that are truly blessed and condoned by God are especially inspired. Many poets, artists, musicians, song-writers, etc. tap in to “the muse” – which is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit – and the people who wrote the texts in the Bible were especially seeking to tap into God’s inspiration and co-create with God. To the extent that they got it right – it’s notable. As are the glaring instances when they were off the mark.
Amen to that! What’s your take on how to approach social justice issues?
Well, again, I devote a chapter to that in my book. Here’s a link to a sermon that I wrote that explains it pretty well. “Band-aids aren’t enough” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2012/08/band-aids-arent-enough-progressive-christian-social-justice
Essentially, I’d say that as a prophet, Jesus and his message were as political as they are spiritual. The top two subjects that Jesus spoke about were politics (proclaiming and describing the kingdom/empire of God which is subversive to worldly powers) and economics – money and our relationship to it.
Authentic Christianity comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It soothes our souls and lights a fire under our butts to effect social change.
To your mind, why are so many American Christians convinced that they ought to be Republicans in order to follow Christ?
I think that’s less the case than it used to be. That notion arose in about 1980 with the wedding of the election of Ronald Reagan with the creation of the so-called “Moral Majority” – which essentially turned the Grand Old Party into “God’s Own Party.” That was the same time that the Southern Baptist Convention was hijacked by fundamentalists. Since they are the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., that set the tone for popular American Christianity for many years. Thankfully, that era is waning and more and more younger American evangelicals are overtly seeking to distance themselves from the Republican party. Indeed, more and more Americans are “coming out” as Christian Liberals. Check out the massive growth of “The Christian Left” Facebook page!


Okay, thanks for this summary. What are you up to now?
I’m going to be taking a sabbatical the first half of 2015 in order to write a new book – and collaborate with two other writers on another book yet.
The working title for my upcoming book is “Orange Duct Tape Jesus.” Stay tuned for developments!
That will most likely be truly stunning! ;-) I thank you very much for all the time you granted me.

Do Gay weddings introduce sin into the law for the first time in history?

I found a pretty worrisome article I want to respond to.

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Gay ‘marriage’ a ‘sign of the apocalypse’: Russian Patriarch

MOSCOW, July 22, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In his Sunday sermon this weekend in Kazan Cathedral in Moscow, Patriarch Kirill, Primate, of the Russian Orthodox Church, warned against the extraordinary rise in many western countries of the homosexualist movement. Kirill said that the trend of legalizing “gay marriage” is “a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse.”

It “means people are choosing a path of self-destruction,” he said. He said he supports the recently passed national ban on homosexualist propaganda that has prohibited the Gay Pride festivities that have become a prominent feature of national life elsewhere. 

“Lately, we have enormous temptations, when a number of countries opting for sin is approved and justified by the law, and those who, acting in good conscience, are struggling with such laws imposed by a minority, being repressed,” Kirill said. 

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He added that everything must be done to prevent the approval of sin “on the spaces of Holy Russia.” Otherwise, “the people are embarking on the path of self-destruction”. 

The sermon came the Sunday following the passage in Britain of the Cameron government’s so-called “equal marriage” bill. Religious leaders and democracy campaigners both strenuously warned the government that its passage would seriously threaten foundational democratic freedoms. 

Colossal forces have set out “to convince us all that the only value is the freedom of choice,” said the patriarch, “and no one has the right to infringe on that value, even when a person chooses evil, even when a person chooses a socially dangerous behavior.” 

Even the most perfect laws, however, cannot eradicate corruption, lies, evil and confrontation, he said: “These can be eradicated only by the person who has made a free choice in favor of the good.” 

In recent months, Kirill’s has emerged as the strongest and most uncompromising religious voice in Europe against the apparently unstoppable political juggernaut of the international homosexualist movement. His comments yesterday follow his warning at a meeting in Moscow in May this year with Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, where he said, “Today we have a very dangerous development, the laws regarding same-sex marriages and adoption of their children which go against the moral nature of man.” 

“If people choose this lifestyle,” the Polish news service Interfax quoted him saying, “it is their right, but the responsibility of the Church is to say that it is a sin before God”. 

What the Russian Orthodox Church is concerned about, Kirill said, “is not the fact of the existence of this sin – it has always existed. But we are deeply concerned that for the first time in the history of the human race sin is being justified by law. This opens up the prospect of a dangerous development, which will contribute to the moral degradation of society.”

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I don’t feel any hatred towards patriarch Kirill. However I do believe that his utterances reflect an extraordinary ignorance which should put to shame the Russian orthodox Church.

In my last post, I explained why we’ve strong grounds for doubting that homosexuality is sinful. In other words, I fail to see how to commit oneself to a loving same-sex relationship is to “choose evil”. But that isn’t what shocked me in this article.

I was dumbstruck by the sentence: “But we are deeply concerned that for the first time in the history of the human race sin is being justified by law. “.

It’s so obviously wrong that no educated priest should ever make such a mistake. I just can’t understand how a patriarch could state this.

This assertion implies that:

- laws about racial segregation weren’t sinful

- laws discriminating Christians in Islamist countries aren’t sinful

-  laws of Nazi Germany against Jews weren’t sinful

- laws of Russian communists against religious people weren’t sinful

and so on and so forth.

That’s crazy talk.

I feel the duty to say I am in no position to judge Patriarch Kirill as a moral person. I don’t know him and there might be many domains where he outshines me.There is no way I can say I’m a better man than he is.

But I think he’s intellectually and probably also morally completely wrong on that particular issue.

He’s worryingly reflecting a strong trend within modern American Evangelicalism, namely that of focusing on sexual ethics while ignoring or often even upholding injustices in other areas.

I’d  say that unlike laws about gay marriage, laws protecting much more the rights of billionaires than those of poor children  and old people suffering from illnesses are unequivocally wicked and sinful.

Actually, there are many Conservative Evangelicals outside America who agree and strive for social justice as well besides their activism against what they see as sexual perversions.

Still in the US they tend to focus the greatest part of their moral indignation on gay people and abortion and much less on the ordeals real children outside their mother’s womb are going trough.

(I’d personally not say that ALL conservatives act in this way but this picture illustrates rather well the positions many of them hold.)
It goes without saying I must write that with fear and trembling because I’m really far from being perfect myself. And I also think it’s vital to resist the tendency of numerous progressive Christians to treat harshly any opponent to gay marriage.
My goal here is not to judge them as moral persons but to call them to reconsider their sense of priorities. And I’d like a greater number of them to imagine the unnecessary pain a sick child of unemployed parents might feel.

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The day America will become a true civilization

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I shall add that universal healthcare should be viewed as a no-brainer as well.

In a modern technological and wealthy civilization worthy of that name, birth contingencies should play no role whatsoever in the way a sick child receives the appropriate treatment.

In that respect, the USA are really akin to primitive, reactionary and callous states having not yet reached enlightenment.

To my mind, this egregious injustice is far more preoccupying than the prevalence of Young Earth Creationism there.

That many Christians summon the name of Christ to justify these ignoble barbarisms is truly beyond me.

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The ordeal of progressive Christianity in America

I recently had the immense privilege to interview the fantastic progressive Christian blogger Michelle Morr Krabill, author of the blog WordOfaWoman.

She confessed me she also has a chaotic mind so that our mutual dialog won’t necessarily be always well structured :-)

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Hi Michelle, thank you so much for having joined me! Could you please tell us more about your background?
Good afternoon! Thanks for inviting me. I have a long and interesting background but I will try to give you the shortened version. When I was a very young girl my family was involved in the Methodist church. However when I was about 5 my parents became involved with The Way International. After I got married, my husband and I left the Way and kind of were on our own, occasionally meeting with other people who had left that ministry. After a few years we began attending a non-denominational evangelical church. About 5 years ago we started our own community, Novitas Church.
There is really so much more to the story.
Did you start your journey with Conservative views regarding the Bible?

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Yes and no. The Way had very diverse views, on the one hand they believed in the inerrancy of the Scriptures and on the other they were non-trinitarian, believed in the gifts of the spirit, the concept of soul sleep and the law of believing. However, as an adult I became an evangelical and bought into most of the standard doctrines and practices of the evangelical church.
My views have definitely evolved over the years.
That is to say there was a time where you held fast to the Chicago statement on inerrancy, according to which everything a Biblical writer intended to convey is true, right?
Yes. I was definitely taught that the Bible in its original state was without error and was “the Word and Will of God”.
What called this conviction into question?
As with so many things it is a build up I think of many things over many years, but I think the turning point for me personally was a book called The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight.
What is this book about?
Blue Parakeet is a book about how we read and relate to the Bible. It talks about how the Bible is actually more of a library of books that contain the stories of how people throughout time have related to God.
But Scot himself holds fast on inerrancy, doesn’t he?
It suggests that we should flip the book over as it were and picture Jesus as the spine and read both the Old and New Testaments through the lens of Jesus’ life.
You know, I am not 100% sure where Scot stands on inerrancy.
I just know that for me, looking at the Scriptures in a new way, does not detract from them at all but rather it allows me to reinterpret them in light of the life of Jesus.
Where people related to God as judgmental and honestly a little genocidal in the old testament, we see through the life of Jesus, that that was simply the way the people of that time understood God.
Frank Schaeffer was just here with us last weekend and he puts it in a really great way…
He likes to say that Jesus came to edit our views about who God is. In fact the way Jesus dealt with the Torah (the only Scriptures he had access to) was to question it at every turn. He would often say, it says this but I say this in direct contradiction to the law.
My own journey has led me to view Scriptures as people reporting their own experience with God in the same way many of them did outside the Protestant Canon. I, for example, don’t view the author of Hebrews as necessarily more inspired than C.S. Lewis. But I do believe that both men have had terrific experiences with the Almighty.
Is it something you might be sympathetic to?
I wholeheartedly agree. I believe God spoke through the scriptures but he is still speaking today and I can learn just as much from you as I can from Paul. Blasphemy, I know. :)
(I return you the blasphemous compliment :-) )
I think that historical critical scholarship makes it extremely hard to maintain the notion that God speaks through a limited set of ancient books.
I do as well and I think that everyday life bears this out as well.
And, as I said before, I think Jesus himself proves this to be true.
He was decidedly not a “man of the book” in the sense that he was constantly running afoul of Levitical rules.
Touching the leper
Touching dead bodies
Letting a bleeding woman touch him
Calling the women out of the kitchen to come and talk to him
Talking to the Samaritan woman
Working on the Sabbath
Not picking up a stone to kill the woman caught in adultery.

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What is your response to Conservative Evangelicals saying that Jesus DID believe these laws to be inerrant BUT also temporarily limited?
So you say. Were you there to ask him?
How do you know?
We have no evidence, written or otherwise that would indicate that.
In my opinion they find that kind of freedom unnerving.
Yeah, but they might say we have no evidence either that he did not approve of these laws.
It is much harder to control people if my way is correct.
Actually we do, his own words and actions.
To my mind, it’s clear that Christ viewed these laws as a hindrance against charity.
Jesus had but one law. The law of love.
He said EVERYTHING depended on it
Precisely! This is the very basis of my argument for Gay marriage. All things forbidden are forbidden because they run against Love and are harmful.
Agreed.
But homosexuality isn’t harmful and doesn’t go against Love therefore Gay marriage should not be forbidden
I did a whole series on the so called “clobber passages” the verses used to condemn homosexuality.
Many of these verses are far more ambiguous than many people think, even if one accepts inerrancy.
People can find the series here.
Thanks!
I think people are often surprised when they learn how few verses actually talk about the subject in the scriptures and how misinterpreted they often are. The link is for the conclusion post but has links to all the previous posts in the series.
It is also stunning that “sodomy” can be better interpreted as gluttony and lack of charity according to several Biblical writers
Indeed!
Is it fair to say that caring for the poor is in the Bible (as far as the volume is concerned) 2000 more important than same-sex relationships?
Not sure how many times exactly, but for sure far far more verses on caring for the poor and yet most of the western Christians I know are more concerned with stopping gay marriage than they are with feeding the poor, especially if the government has anything to do about it. The gospel of Jesus is all too often replaced with the gospel of Ayn Rand and the Christian Coalition.
What is the Gospel of the Christian Coalition?


The Christian Coalition, is a group started by Pat Robertson to give Christians a voice in government. Their website says: The Coalition is a political organization, made up of pro-family Americans who care deeply about ensuring that government serves to strengthen and preserve, rather than threaten, our families and our values. To that end, we work continuously to identify, educate and mobilize Christians for effective political action.
You can find their agenda here.
It includes, defunding Obamacare, Defending the second amendment, defending traditional marriage, outlawing abortion, defending gun rights, standing with Israel, posing Liberal judicial nominees etc.
yada yada yada
And what about the poorest members of American society?
To hell with them. Sorry. I know that seems a little harsh, but for the most part when it comes to government programs to aid the poor there is little to no compassion to be found.
People often state they think taking care of the poor is the church’s job not the government’s.
But comparisons with Continental Europe aren’t very flattering, right?
The problem with that is if you do a little digging, most churches spend about 3% of their budget on benevolence.
No, in my opinion, they are not very flattering.
I did a piece on this a while back as well. It can be found here.
Is it STILL the case that, in highly modern America, poor children are receiving a terrible and inhumane healthcare?

Children await treatment at a free clinic as part of Operation Lone Star August 4, 2008 in Laredo, Texas. The two-week medical operation, run by the Texas military forces and the Human Services Commission, aims to treat more than 10,000 people along the Texas border with Mexico. Many of the patients are either uninsured or underinsured and cannot afford medical and dental care on their own. Healthcare has become an important issue in this year's U.S. presidential campaign.
It is! Obamacare has actually done a lot to mitigate the problem but there is still a long way to go.
For example, in states like mine (I live in Texas) Governor Perry has refuse to take much of the federal money available for helathcare.
Most Conservatives I know are no moral monsters. But they say that it’s not the job of the STATE to care for poor children, this should be the concern of their family, relatives, communities, Churches and so on.
I totally agree. Most conservatives I know are kind and loving people. But there is this huge disconnect when it comes to the government helping the poor.
What are the shortcomings of their solutions?
There just isn’t enough money in the church coffers to get the job done.
Even if we spent 100% of the money in the church budget.
I outline all of it in the article I posted.
Of course. But what about FREE donations of rich people?
There are a lot of numbers. You would be surprised.
I actually have a huge problem with the whole way we have the church structured. From the pastoral/priest system to the way we do church with big buildings and big congregations, to the seminary system. It seems set up to create Pharisees.
And often cults of personality.
Like that about Mark Driscoll?
Exactly like Mark Driscoll.
Mark is just a man like any other man and the system is set up to elevate men like him to a position they should never be expected to fill. It is set up to become a Machiavellian nightmare.
Make no mistake, he is responsible for his own actions, but they system is set up to feed it.
Could you sum up what you view as his worst sins?
People will go to a church with thousands and a huge light show and a rock climbing wall and a gym over a small church that meets in a bar. Often they choose a show over a community.
I don’t know that rehashing Mark’s sins by me is profitable at this point. He is a sinner in need of grace just like me. However I do think the need for repentance is real and as of yet that seems to be non-existent.
Oh yeah I completely agree we should never see ourselves as morally superior to our enemies but I do think we must sometimes talk about bad things they did…both for their victims and the health of their own soul.
I meant his bullying concerning Gays and women.
I think this needs to be clearly exposed for avoiding history to repeat itself.
Agreed.
Even if Mark might have been disfavored by a bad psychological background, so it’s not about judging ourselves as superior to him.
Mark’s bullying and misogyny are well documented and evil for sure.
Could you perhaps give examples of him or anyone else bullying people in this manner?
I think we begin to heal from this sort of thing when we recognize that often as people we want someone like Mark to tell us what to do. Many people gravitate to a person who will control them because it makes them feel safe. If you tell me what God wants from me and then I do it I can feel like I know that I am okay with God. In my opinion we should never allow anyone the voice or opportunity to decide for us who God is or who is “in” or “out”. When we give people that kind of power we should not be surprised that they abuse that power.
Amen!
The examples of Mark’s bullying and misogyny are all over the internet.
There is a great article about this by John Shore. As he says, you can’t allow people to pee in your pool. lol
There is a growing number of people in America who leave the Church and become resentful anti-theists.
What’s your take on this?
Here is a quote from the post which sums it up quite well for me:
“The idea of letting other people tell me, or in any way decide for me, who God is, or what the nature of God is, is … repelling to me. I mean, I get why eventually any sane person would just go, “Something’s wrong here. Christianity appears to be a solid FAIL. I gave it my all. But enough is enough. I’m out.”
But, for me, screw that. If people keep peeing in my pool, I don’t abandon the pool. I refresh the water, and then build a fence to keep people the freak out. I stop letting strangers in my … pool area. (Um … to be clear: I’m not advocating keeping people away from Christianity–as if anyone in this culture could, given that, you know, it’s everywhere. What I mean is that I have no interest in … letting, well, pee-ers—by which I mean toxic people whom I don’t know or don’t respect—to … sully my waters, pee in my pool, get into my yard, define for me my Christianity–which, for the record, is unimpeachably rational and militantly non-invasive.)”
My faith is my faith no one else’s. It is my responsibility to continuously choose love over judgment, to welcome everyone in the name of Jesus, to choose freedom over bondage.
Amen!
For me the day I trade my doubts and freedom for the certainty of three songs and one man who has “all the answers” is the day I begin to lose my soul.
The irony is, since I have begun to embrace my doubts and the paradox of life, I have never felt closer to God.
I feel delighted for you :-) But time is beginning to fly by. Could you, to conclude, talk about the World Vision catastrophe? You know, this Evangelical welfare organization who ended up stopping discriminating Gay people among their employees. Consequently, most Conservative supporters retracted their help. Could you please put this in a nut shell?
It was tragic. I thought their initial decision was good but then when everyone jumped ship and abandoned the kids which was so upsetting. I know they backpedaled because of that. In the end the children were the ones who got hurt. It was just awful. I find it appalling that people would abandon children over the issue of loving all people.
I entirely share your feelings. But in Europe, Conservative Evangelicals are much less focused on homosexuality than in the States. What could one do for fostering the evolution of mentalities in this country of yours?
I think it is currently evolving and at a rather quick pace. The millennials in particular are much more inclusive than previous generations.
But, I think that attunes are changing across all generations. We are in the process of becoming a much more inclusive people and that makes me very happy
As always I think it is a matter of empathy.
:-) :-)
So I thank you very much for this interview. You’ve been truly wonderful.
Of course! It was my pleasure. I really enjoyed it.

 

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Reform your faith

I was greatly honored to have received a wonderful text from progressive Christian Chuck Shingledecker. He encouraged me to reproduce it here which I did.

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Reform your faith
There is an important holiday celebrated on October 31st that has nothing to do with candy and carved pumpkins. It’s a commemoration of the day when a young Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It is Reformation Day.
Luther spent many years trying to follow all of the right disciplines of the church. He went to confession, prayed, fasted, served liturgy. But something inside of him was dissatisfied, tormented by what he held dear as the kingdom of God corrupted by the trappings of an oppressive secular power. Luther began to question what he’d been taught and all that he believed, first privately but then publicly by nailing a letter of 95 complaints about the church’s practices onto the doors of the Castle Church. Western Christianity has never been the same since.
Yet how many of us dare to do as Luther did? Sometimes we may talk about the need for reform in our church. But how many of us contemplate reforming our own faith? It turns out that a lot of us do.
Televangelists will tell us to look to Jesus for all our answers. To trust in God. To pray, fast, light candles, and do all of the feel-good things that give others, and ourselves, the illusion that we are changing on the inside. But that’s not real reform. At least not the sort that matters.
I’m talking about confronting our own faith in such a way that, perhaps for the first time in our lives, we dare to look at Christianity and all we hold dear and question it through the eyes of a skeptic. Let yourself be the troubled, hurting Christian who wants to believe but also to know the real truth. It’s what John Loftus calls the “outsider test for faith.”
That’s what Luther did on that late October day in 1517, at least when it came to the only faith he’d ever known. He certainly didn’t go as far as some of us in the modern world do. But it was a remarkable step, given his time, culture, and place. He questioned important aspects of the faith he loved and served.
I know how hard it must have been for him, because, though I’m certainly no Luther, I’ve done it, too. For many years I was tormented by my faith. I put on a good public display about it all, pretending to believe all of the right things and performing all of the right rituals. But my heart wasn’t always in it, must as it wanted to be. My mind wouldn’t allow it. I’d constantly ask myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here? Do I believe any of it?”
The only answer I could give was that I was supposed to be there, supposed to believe the right things. My faith was dead, or at least dying. Until I did what no one good Christian is supposed to do, embrace the doubts and ideas that only “backsliding” Christians accept. Everything became subject to question: the Bible, the doctrines and authority of the church, and even whether or not I truly believed in God.
Yes, those are all forbidden things to question for many Christians. But so were Luther’s questions in his time. And just like the Reformation of the church, my own spiritual reformation hasn’t always been an easy thing for me. It has led to turmoil, both internal and interpersonal. I’ve lost some friends. And my faith is not what it once was.
It’s a faith that some would call incomplete or thin, no faith at all. And you know what? Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes I have no faith. Sometimes I, like the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby who recently said, “There are moments, sure, when you think, ‘Is there a God?’‘Where is God?’” (bbc.com/news/uk-29255318), I’m unsure of whether or not God exists.
Sometimes I believe in God but not the Trinity. Sometimes I believe Jesus was simply a Jewish prophet whom Gentiles co-opted and made into a gentile savior. Other times I’m not sure what it is I believe. But that’s okay. Let me say that again. It’s okay.
I don’t say that to make myself feel better. I say that because I understand what torment it is to Charles Shingledecker – Reform Your Faith.
1 think it isn’t okay. And if you are tormented by your doubts about your faith, I want to say that you are not alone! There are tens of thousands—probably millions—in this country alone who feel just as you do. And if you’ve decided to slowly embrace those doubts, despite how scary it can be, then congratulations. You’ve nailed your own 95 theses to the door of your heart. It won’t always be an easy journey. But in the long run, it will be liberating, because you will no longer be afraid of doubt.

St. teresa of avila quote
A dear friend once told me to not fear my doubts. That was the first step on a long, continuing journey that I’m still on. Do not fear your doubts. Do not fear questioning authority, that of the church or even of God. We are not God’s slaves, but his children. And we are all in need of reform.
This is the lesson I take away from Reformation Day. Luther was far from perfect. At times,
especially later in life, he could be a bigoted and authoritarian asshat. But he did what few others in the history of the church ever would: He challenged its self-proclaimed authority, its long-standing practices, and he brought about reform. Not only of the church, but of his own faith. If he can do it, you can too.
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Chuck’s book Freedom to Doubt is available for the Amazon Kindle and in trade paperback. See FreedomToDoubt.com for excerpts and links. From October 30 to November 3, the Kindle version is being offered at a discounted price of just $0.99.

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I do hope this text will help some of my readers. Otherwise you might also appreciate my own advice for a struggling Christian.

 

 

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Out of Eden: are we approaching a Golden Era?

Filmmaker Kevin Miller (whom I interviewed here) wrote an interesting new post on Patheos for progressive Christians.

We didn’t fall from Eden–we are slowly but surely crawling out of hell

US-ENERGY-OIL-KEYSTONE-PROTEST“A loathing of modernity is one of the great constants of contemporary social criticism.” So says Steven Pinker in the closing pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker, and many others, see such angst underlying many contemporary movements, including environmentalism, religious fundamentalism, aboriginal rights initiatives, and even zombie apocalypse fantasies. Though they look different on the surface, these trends all share one feature in common: a fall from Eden narrative. Supposedly, in some far-off, pre-modern age, we practiced ecological sustainability, family values, religious purity, economic equality or some other virtue. But technology destroyed all of that. Now we are picking our way through the rubble of the “downside of progress” with nothing but alienation, ennui, environmental despoliation, social pathology, fiscal rapacity and reality television to keep us warm at night.

the-fall-of-man-1570Interestingly, even the original Eden narrative can be interpreted along these lines as a “fall” from a pure hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian/urban existence. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam is expelled from the Garden and cursed to work the land: “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).

God goes even further with Cain after Cain murders his brother Abel, saying not even the ground will yield a harvest for him. “Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:11-12). So Cain moves one step further away from the “purity” of a pre-agrarian lifestyle and founds a city, presumably to protect him and his family from his enemies.

The result of this descent from a pure existence in nature to one where humankind is enfolded by technology is a form of violence so ravenous that the only solution in the mind of the Creator is annihilation of virtually the entire human race. But not even that can solve the problem, because the moment humans are let loose on the planet again, they’re right back at it with their infernal technology, building the Tower of Babel in an attempt to unseat their Creator.

Tour_de_babelConcluding that “flooding an ideology out of existence” is futile, that even divine violence merely begets new and more complicated forms of violence, God attempts a different strategy with Abram, calling him away from human sacrifice and away from human civilization period. If Abram and his people are to encounter God, that can only happen in the wilderness. A return to Eden, if you will, which culminates with the wandering Israelites’ arrival in Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. However, it has been seized by those nefarious users of technology–the Hittites, the Amorites, the Cannanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. If the Israelites are to truly regain Eden, these techno-criminals have got to go.

I could go on with this interpretation, showing how the same anti-technology narrative might underlie the storming of Jericho, for example, which was done without weapons, or God’s warnings about not adopting a monarchial form of government, which would make the people subject not only to the king but also his machines of war. But that may be stretching things a little. My point is, if such an interpretation of even the original Fall narrative is at all correct, it would suggest that our pessimism about technology is nothing new. Perhaps a permanent aspect of the human psyche is a Janus-like tendency to walk backwards into the future, forever viewing the past through rose-colored glasses, because the reality of the future is simply too terrible to bear. Why is the future so terrible? Because that is where we will have to deal with the consequences of the mistakes we make in the present.

While I sympathize and often fall victim to this view, I see the “fall from Eden” narrative as one of the most prevalent and destructive myths afflicting our culture, because the minute we fall for it, the hunt for scapegoats begins. Who is responsible for our fall from grace? In previous generations, we tended to target witches, heretics, the Jews or even Satan, believing they had somehow “infected” our culture with their evil. If only these people/that enemy could  be eliminated, we could return to our original state of grace. The problem is, this so-called solution has never quite worked. Only in retrospect do we realize the futility of our efforts and the grievous consequences of our actions. And yet, we repeat them over and over again once a new enemy has been identified.

camThese days, for the most part our finger of accusation has shifted away from the perennial scapegoats of history to anything that’s big–big government, big pharma, big agriculture, big oil. In other words, the primary users–and abusers–of technology. They are the despoilers of the planet (never mind the fact they can’t survive without our complicity in terms of votes or dollars). If only we can find some way to stamp them out… You get the picture.

I see two forces at work beneath the fall from Eden narrative, particularly concerning our ambivalence toward technology. The first is our short cultural memory. If you read Pinker’s book or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, for instance, you will quickly realize that romantic ideas of better days gone by are nothing but a cruel illusion. The history of humanity prior to innovations like modern medicine, electricity, fossil fuel-powered transportation, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. is a history of war, famine, disease, misery, suffering and death. I’m talking about 99.9% of human history here. Maybe more. As Pinker puts it, our ancestors

were infested with lice and parasites and lived above cellars heaped with their own feces. Food was bland and monotonous, and intermittent. Health care consisted of the doctor’s saw and the dentist’s pliers. Both sexes [and children] labored from sunrise to sundown, whereupon they were plunged into darkness. Winter meant months of hunger, boredom, and gnawing loneliness in snowbound farmhouses.

But it was not just mundane physical comforts that our recent ancestors did without. It was also the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection.

Here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all. We know that native peoples, whose lives are romanticized in today’s children’s books, had rates of death from warfare that were greater than those of our world wars. The romantic visions of medieval Europe omit the exquisitely crafted instruments of torture and are innocent of the thirtyfold greater risk of murder in those times.

The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human rights almost incoherent. Genocide and war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture. We may have invented the term genocide in the 20th century–and more efficient technology by which to carry it out–but the genocides we committed (are committing) are far from historical aberrations. They are merely business as usual under a new name. And the fact is, we are committing fewer and fewer of them than we ever did before.

ZombiesThe second factor that gives life to the fall from Eden narrative is our tendency to locate evil “out there” rather than within ourselves. We do this, because it is the path of least resistance. Defeating evil out there is far easier than confronting our own heart of darkness, which requires courage, humility and self-sacrifice. When faced with such a high calling, it’s so much easier to point the finger and pull the trigger. No need to think, no need to feel, no need to fear. We think we can defeat evil the same way we defeat zombies–with a bullet to the brain–a cinematic metaphor for the futility of trying to bomb an ideology out of existence. No matter how many zombies we kill, they just keep coming. And when we have to confront living, breathing humans who are not part of our little group, that’s when everything really breaks down.

Such apocalyptic fantasies aside, to quote Ben J. Wattenberg, “The good news is the bad news is wrong.” Contrary to some of our deepest held convictions, we didn’t fall from Eden. Instead, we have slowly but inexorably been crawling out of the hell of history. Much of the world is still mired deep within that hell, and there’s no guarantee we won’t all plunge back into it again (another fear manifested by zombie apocalypse fantasies), but it won’t be technology that takes us there. Rather, it will be our own pessimism, even as people claim their quest for Eden is bringing us closer to heaven. In truth, technology is our only ticket out of this hell, because technology is nothing but a manifestation of human ingenuity in the face of difficulty.

1280px-Roulette_-_detailAs science writer Ronald Bailey says, “Wagering against human ingenuity has always been a bad bet.” Unfortunately, anyone mired in the fall from Eden myth is placing this bet every day. They think they’re putting their money on black, but no matter how many times we spin the wheel, it’s guaranteed to keep coming up red.”


My response follows.

This is a nice post, Kevin!

I recently reviewed a book on Genesis paralleling your analysis on agriculture and hunting-gathering.

Ironically enough, the myth of the “sinful nature” we allegedly received from God Himself CANNOT be found within the text of Genesis

Yeah, it truly has devastating consequences. For it turns the Almighty into the author of sin since he could have decided not to curse the innocent descendants of Adam and Eve.
It is utterly disgusting and revolting to say that God would eternally torture us for sins we were bound to commit BY HIMSELF.

That said, we must keep in mind that Pinker is far from being objective and often confounds very speculative ideas with objective facts, like many other scholars working in the “science” of Evolutionary Psychology.

His statement that socialism is an anti-enlightenment force is both outrageous and historically ridiculous.

The Myth of Progress he defends can be dangerous as well.

Whilst physical violence might be in decline, there is no evidence that verbal violence is decreasing as well and that people are getting less selfish.

Actually, Pinker recognized elsewhere that our society is getting increasingly psychopathic.

So I’m not sure we really have strong grounds for feeling optimistic.

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Kevin added this to his post as a response:

One might argue that the “Myth of Progress” can be just as destructive and can just as easily lead to a hunt for scapegoats–who is inhibiting our forward momentum? Eliminate them! I don’t deny this possibility. However, I can’t help but think that in the long run, an optimistic approach to life that encourages ingenuity and innovation and presumes the best of others will not only lead to a reduction in scapegoating, it will also take us further than an approach that is constantly tries to rein people in for fear of what they might do if they take hold of the unbridled freedom with which we have apparently been bestowed.

The golden era WP by realityDream

The problem is that I just don’t manage to get optimistic. Granted, there have been strong moral progresses in some areas in the Western World. But the contrary can be observed in others.

Wild capitalism is running amok.

In Germany, mentally handicapped children are now being almost systematically aborted like during the rule of the Nazis.

Bullying, selfishness and callous indifference are not diminishing in inter-human relationships.

Far from it.

But I guess this just shows I’m a thirty years old living fossil from an ancient age :-)

Maybe my mind needs to be reeducated in some manner. Is there anyone to help me?

 

 

Is there such a thing as “Biblical” marriage?

Rachel Ford recently published an article on the website of the “Friendly” Atheist arguing that the Bible is a morally consistent evil book presenting marriage coherently as a man possessing several wifes as objects to be used and maltreated.

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Biblical Marriage Isn’t About One Man and One Woman

Don’t fall out of your seat, but in an interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson (below) had even more to say about homosexuality, premarital sex, and the Bible.

Most of it is his usual schtick of sex gives you cooties unless you’re married (presumably to a 15- or 16-year old?) and I won’t bore you with the details. What I do want to draw your attention to, however, is the blatantly false assertion he makes about what “God says” about marriage:

God says, ‘One woman, one man,’ and everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s old hat, that’s that old Bible stuff,’” he said.

Robertson was kind enough to erase any doubt as to which “God” he might be referring to: naturally, the God of the Bible. And since that God doesn’t grant interviews, the Bible is our only source for what God (allegedly) said.

The problem is that the Bible never claims that God said marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

Christians often turn to the New Testament to justify that claim. Paul writes about marriage in a seemingly singular (and often decidedly disdainful) fashion, such as in 1 Corinthians 7, and Jesus refers to two people when discussing divorce in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 (which is to be expected, presuming a husband doesn’t divorce more than one wife at a time). Despite that, it’s worth noting that nowhere is a clear proscription against polygamy given — Jesus referred to — but did not “correct” — first covenant law, which clearly allowed polygamy. Corinthians — written in a time when Pagan culture had already introduced the concept of monogamy — might use singular language to describe spouses, but it doesn’t actually define marriage as being between one man and one woman. In fact, nowhere does the Bible declare, on behalf of God or anyone else, does it use that precise definition.

So Robertson gets his Bible wrong when he claims to know what “God says.” Even if he had meant to say “the Bible says” one man and one woman, he would have still been wrong.

But “wrong” is too generous. He, in fact, settles on the opposite of what the Bible tells us about marriage. The Bible is full of specific examples of marriage — some of them allegedly directly sanctioned by God — that contradict the fairytale version of marriage that Christians claim as “Biblical” nowadays.

What follows is a list of types of marriage defined in the Bible, often by God. I have purposely avoided examples or marriage in the Bible that were supposed to have ticked God off, so as not to misrepresent the joy that was true Biblical marriage:

  • Biblical marriage is a man arranging to buy a girl from her father for an agreed upon purchase price (Genesis 29:18)
  • Biblical marriage is a wife “giving” her servant to her husband as a “wife” for sex and procreation, regardless of her maid servant’s wishes (Genesis 16:2-3, Genesis 30:3, Genesis 30:9, etc.)
  • Biblical marriage is a raiding party murdering the fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters of a people but saving the young virgins because they want “wives” (i.e. women to capture and legally rape) (Judges 21:10-14)
  • Biblical marriage is a raiding party lying in wait to capture more women as “wives” (Judges 21:20-24)
  • Biblical marriage is God commanding the massacre of every male and non-virgin, and handing over the virgin women to his followers. Like the 32,000 women counted among the “spoils” in Numbers 31
  • Biblical marriage is a victim being forced to marry her rapist with no hope of divorce (but don’t worry — her father is suitably compensated in cash for the trouble, and this is only valid if the woman is not already another man’s property… so relax! No property rights are violated by this arrangement) (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
  • Biblical marriage is selling your daughter as a slave to be given to her owner or owner’s son for sexual exploitation as a “wife” (though denied even minimal protections) (Exodus 21:7-11)
  • Biblical marriage is one man taking multiple, even hundreds, of wives and concubines (see: David, Solomon, Jacob, Abraham, etc)
  • Biblical marriage is a woman as property whose own happiness is inconsequential, but whose property status is absolute (see: David and Michal)
  • Biblical marriage is for those who “cannot control themselves” and so must opt away from what is “good for them”: unmarried celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:1-9)
  • Biblical marriage is a woman marrying her dead husband’s brother (whether either party wishes it or not) so that she can have a kid in the dead husband’s name (Deuteronomy 25:5). Sometimes, it manifests as a woman seducing her former father-in-law in the guise of a prostitute in order to fulfill her God-ordained obligation (Genesis 38, Judah and Tamar). Sometimes, it manifests as a husband getting struck down by God, for refusing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife (Genesis 38, Onan and Tamar). Even according to the Bible, it doesn’t seem to have been a very happy implementation of the institution
  • Biblical marriage is neither partner being able to refrain from sex without the consent of the other (1 Corinthians 7:4-5)

That’s what the Bible actually says about marriage. In fact, when it comes right down to it, Biblical marriage is almost always two or more men deciding between themselves what woman an individual will take as a wife — be it a father selling his daughter into sexual slavery, a husband-to-be arranging with a father an agreement suitable to both parties (irrespective of the wife-to-be’s wishes) on how to dispose of/acquire the female in question, a party of soldiers or raiders murdering a woman’s entire family in order to claim her (sometimes supposedly at the direct command of God), a rapist grabbing an unattached female and at the same time getting himself a new wife, etc.

Marriage according to the Bible isn’t love and romance and butterflies in the pit of your stomach. It’s very, very far from it. You have to wonder whether Robertson ever reads the book he holds in such high esteem.

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Fundamentalist assumptions

My answer follows.

http://theantitheistdotcom1.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/the_holy_bible1.jpg?w=700
How about this: the Bible does NOT speak with one voice but many conflicting ones?
Apparently anti-theists are utterly unable to grasp this basic result of historical critical scholarship as soon as ethical problems are addressed.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies, one of the psalmists taught us we should pray for the violent and atrocious death of their children .
No rational person can agree that both statements are consistent with each other.

The only ones who do this are Christian fundamentalists and English-speaking anti-theists, who interestingly enough most often turn out to be former fundies.

You’re light years away from a scientific study of religionS (which form an extraordinarily DIVERSE phenomenon).

What’s more I also strongly doubt it is meaningful to judge ancient texts according to our modern enlightened standards. After all, the fact that most writings of ancient Greek philosophers are full of scientific mistakes isn’t a reason to mock them, is it? So why should it be any different when morality is concerned?

Fortunately, the responses weren’t aggressive at all.

Someone retorted:

Two things. I think the anti-theists (as you call them) know that the Bible comes from many sources, but they argue as if it is one voice because Christian fundamentalists insist that the Bible is of one voice.
Second, it is Christian fundamentalists that insist that the Bible conveys immutable timeless moral laws. (I presume that some Muslims do the same with the Koran). So to pluck a Biblical moral lesson and to ask if it is still true, is to challenge the idea that the Bible provides these timeless immutable moral lessons.

To which I replied:

Thanks for your thoughtful answer, Rob.

As a progressive Christian, I also use this kind of arguments against fundies or generally Conservative Evangelicals. I certainly don’t believe that everything found in the Bible is “timeless and immutable”, although one can find such truths within its pages (like in other Wisdom Traditions).

But I find that most anti-theists present things as if showing that one book in the Bible contains wicked stuff attributed to God is sufficient for concluding that the entire Bible is hopelessly evil.
Worryingly enough, Nazi historians and scholars during the Third Reich used precisely the same tactic for showing that Judaism is irremediably wicked and egregious. They picked and chose the very worst passages in Jewish writings and interpreted them in the worst possible light.

For Reason’s sake , one has to be very careful. Going about this scientifically requires making a distinction between the incredibly diverse religious sects, movements and ideas out there and steering clear from overgeneralizations, binary thinking and prejudices.

I’d be delighted if anti-theists were to begin to act like that but they’d probably choose a new name pretty soon then :-)

In hindsight I realize I should have directly emphasized that the authors of the old Testament itself don’t agree with each others about women and love.

I consider it extremely hard (if not impossible) to seriously argue that the author of the erotic and romantic “Song of Songs” just saw women as camels to be exploited.

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine.” Song of Songs 1:2

“Take me away with you. Let us hurry. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will be glad and rejoice in you. We will praise your love more than wine! They are right to love you.” Song of Songs 1:4“Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you graze your flock, where you rest them at noon; For why should I be as one who is veiled beside the flocks of your companions?” Song of Songs 1:7“Behold, you are beautiful, my love. Behold, you are beautiful. Your eyes are doves.” Song of Songs 1:15“Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, yes, pleasant; and our couch is verdant. “Song of Songs 1:16

“As a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” Song of Songs 2:2

“He brought me to the banquet hall. His banner over me is love.” Song of Songs 2:4

“Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples; For I am faint with love. “Song of Songs 2:5

“My beloved spoke, and said to me, “Rise up, my love, my beautiful one, and come away. “Song of Songs 2:10

“The fig tree ripens her green figs. The vines are in blossom. They give forth their fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.” Song of Songs 2:13

“Behold, you are beautiful, my love. Behold, you are beautiful. Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is as a flock of goats, that descend from Mount Gilead. “Song of Songs 4:1

“You are all beautiful, my love. There is no spot in you. “Song of Songs 4:7

“How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine! The fragrance of your perfumes than all manner of spices!” Song of Songs 4:10

“I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride. I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, friends! Drink, yes, drink abundantly, beloved.” Song of Songs 5:1

“I was asleep, but my heart was awake. It is the voice of my beloved who knocks: “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, and my hair with the dampness of the night.” Song of Songs 5:2

“Let’s go early up to the vineyards. Let’s see whether the vine has budded, its blossom is open, and the pomegranates are in flower. There I will give you my love. “Song of Songs 7:12

“Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for love is strong as death. Jealousy is as cruel as Sheol. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a very flame of Yahweh. Many waters can’t quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man would give all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly scorned.” Song of Songs 8:6,7

The Song of Songs: A Photographer